Category Archives: sustainability

Are these apps changing our lives?

Hello! I’ve been writing a lot lately about how new apps and the proliferation of smart phones are changing our lives. Since I’ve neglected this blog for way too many months, I wanted to bring you up to date with some of these recent articles.

capbikeshareLast week, the Washington City Paper ran my cover story on the “sharing economy.” In a departure from my usual third-person style, I was able to call on couple of years of personal experiences as a “collaborative consumer” for this story. I also talked to other people using D.C.’s car and bike shares, Airbnb and eatFeastly hosts, and interviewed pundits who say the burgeoning “sharing economy” is ushering in big changes in the way we live.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Sharing enthusiasts see a future with less pollution, inefficiency, and injustice—not to mention fewer cars. But sharing services aren’t always green (you can, after all, share a private jet). They seem more likely—not less—to accentuate class differences and perpetuate the same bad behavior on commercial, labor, and environmental fronts that everything that came before them did. And while sharing depends on high-tech social media and smartphone apps, in many ways the collaborative world harkens back to the past: to barter systems; the hyper-localism of preautomobile societies; and the almost small-town importance of reputation, which will increasingly follow us around as “data exhaust” that could replace the credit rating. Still, the changes afoot are propelled by decidedly 21st century realities: population growth, booming cities, rising costs, and shrinking personal space.

READ THE STORY

Photo courtesy of Asthmapolis

Photo courtesy of Asthmapolis

Earlier in February, the Washington Post published my latest story on “geomedicine,” an emerging field in which doctors and other caregivers use mapping tools and “Big Data” to gain insights into their patients’ lives so they can offer better treatment and advice.

The story features Asthmapolis, a company that makes a new asthma inhaler that has a GIS sensor for mapping the patient’s every puff. Other experiments in “geomedicine” are using social medial platforms to share information, not just about illnesses, but about environmental exposures, as well as mapping farmers’ markets, healthy eateries, parks and other recreational outlets. It’s proponents say the geo-mapping can help us understand the environmental factors driving an individual’s health problems and then map out ways to address them.

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ItalyTrashScientific researchers are also using geographical information and mapping to delve more deeply into the precise origins of illnesses and how environmental factors play a role in health. Italian researchers, for instances, have linked skyrocketing cancer rates, birth defects and other illnesses in communities outside of Naples to mafia-related dumping of industrial waste in an area that has come to be known as “the triangle of death.”

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Will Congress bargain away the last of old growth forests?

Tongass National Forest by amanderson2. Creative Commons license

My latest story for Alternet examines how some of the country’s last remaining ancient forestland may be bargained away this year as a political favor to the campaign benefactors of one U.S. Senator.

READ THIS STORY

WWF faces new charges of corporate greenwashing

The story also discusses "The Pact with the Panda," another WWF exposé aired on Germany's WDR TV network.

from “The Pact with the Panda,” a German TV exposé on WWF

German magazine, DER SPIEGEL, has a new article examining whether one of the world’s largest and best known environmental groups, WWF, protects nature or “merely offer[s] the illusion of help?”

In a nutshell: The story concludes that WWF’s “business model,” which relies on funding from big companies, is better at corporate greenwashing than preserving nature and endangered species.

The magazine sent reporters to South America and Indonesia to investigate WWF’s agribusiness roundtable initiatives on how to reduce habitat destruction caused by large-scale soybean and palm oil plantations and other commodity crops. In the last dozen years or so, WWF has received accolades in some circles (and criticism in others) for bringing together agribusiness companies, international grain traders, and corporate-friendly nonprofit groups. The resulting “sustainable” soybeans and palm oil are finally starting to enter international commodities markets. But SPIEGEL found some troubling discrepancies between hype and reality:

In Brazil, an agricultural industry executive talked about the first shipload of sustainable soybeans, certified in accordance with WWF standards, to reach Rotterdam last year, amid a flurry of PR hype. The executive had to admit, however, that he wasn’t entirely sure where the shipment had come from. In Sumatra, members of a tribal group reported how troops hired by WWF partner Wilmar had destroyed their houses, because they had stood in the way of unfettered palm oil production.

For anyone interested in the growing backlash against corporate-sponsored environmental groups, the story is worth a read.

UPDATE: Another WWF corporate partner, Ikea, is accused of logging old growth forests. The 40-member Global Forestry Coalition has just issued a report charging the company’s Swedwood subsidiary with clearcutting a biodiverse Russian forest. The coalition maintains that  trees as old as 600 years are being felled to keep up with sales of Ikea’s popular home furnishings. The company has strongly denied the charges pointing to its lengthy environmental credentials. Besides its forest campaign with WWF,  it holds several Forest Stewardship Council certifications. In this article, Ikea defends its sustainability record and denies harvesting ancient trees. In fact, it says, the trees being cut down in Karelia, Russian, average 160-years-old.

Hmmmm … how long does the average Ikea dinner table last?

More coverage here and here.

Keeping tabs on corporate-funded environmentalism

When I wrote a book a few years ago examining how corporate donations influence the environmental movement, the research was a slog.

Hundreds of press releases, annual reports, tax returns, brochures, special reports, websites and subsidiary websites for both the companies and the nonprofit groups had to be perused. And keeping up with continuing developments? Daunting!

It occurred to me that there had to be a better way to keep tabs on the new deals and the scandals. So I brought the question with me to a hacker-meets-hack style event organized by the Washington Post and other news outlets a few weeks ago. The Post invited the UK-based ScraperWiki outfit to run the two day “data derby” — part competitive scrape, part skills building exercise.

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Is climate change causing more weather extremes?

Earlier this year I had an assignment investigating the links between climate change and weather. In the course of the reporting I talked to a Yale pollster who says last year’s extraordinary weather — dry and drought-like or rainy and flooded  in most places — has done more to convince people that the climate is indeed changing than any number of increasingly urgent reports like this one from the OECD.

For the story, I spoke with climate scientists too, and learned about efforts to better pinpoint when rising global temperatures play a role in a particular extreme of weather. It’s a still evolving area of science. Controversy rages.  Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has perhaps most riled his colleagues — not to mention climate change contrarians and non-believers — by suggesting that today global warming should be considered a factor in all weather.  Not all climate scientists agree — one even called it a “crap idea” in a major UK newspaper! But Trenberth hasn’t backed off. He elaborates on the idea in a new article due out this spring.

You can read all about this (and much more!) in my just published cover story in E Magazine. There’s also a sidebar on the impact to harvests and water supplies if the world remains on its current trajectory toward 10+ degrees Fahrenheit of warming.

If you still have time, check out my piece on Italy’s growing woes with the “ecomafia.”

2011: A year for the record books

When it comes to climate, 2011 isn’t just going down in the record books for all the freakishly extreme weather. In certain circles, it’ll also be remembered as the year scientists and other experts broke longstanding scientific taboo and started talking about how those individual weather events could be linked to global climate change.

“Extreme weather and associated societal impacts have increased in recent years. With our changing climate, the nation must be prepared for more extreme weather in the future,” National Weather Service director Jack Hayes said in a video posted on the service’s website along with a new report tallying 2011’s record breaking weather disasters. This year, 12 separate weather events cost the country $1 billion or more each to clean up, a significant increase over pasted years, according to the agency, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“In my weather career spanning four decades, I’ve never seen a year like 2011,” Hayes went on to say. “Sure, we’ve had years with extreme flooding, extreme hurricanes, extreme winter snowstorms and even extreme tornado outbreaks. But I can’t remember a year like this in which we experienced record-breaking extremes of nearly every conceivable type of weather.”

Meanwhile this year, climate extremes also unfurled across just about every other continent. Drought induced famine in Africa, dramatic floods in Bangkok, and extreme heat, forest fires and other “weather events” left people dead, damaged or displaced from their homes and livelihoods. The “freak weather” even made Time magazine’s list of the top ten U.S. news stories of 2011.

For years, science’s stock refrain has been that an individual weather event could not prove or disprove climate change. Scientists, traditionally, have taken a historian-like long view; While hotter temperatures and more extreme storms and droughts were consistent, generally speaking, with global warming, natural variations and other factors made them reluctant to connect the dots between individual events and a slow moving global trend.

Such reticence, however, has evaporated this year faster than Texas drinking water. A slew of reports on “climate extremes” published in the last few weeks have sounded alarms about the climate-weather connection, even as international negotiators have dithered over what to do to reign in runaway greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change.

Late last month, the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change issued a special report, its first ever, examining the connections between weather and climate. It concluded that global temperatures and sea levels have almost certainly risen, and increasingly intense droughts and storms are going to exact more and more harrowing tolls on humans, as well as “sectors with closer links to climate,” such as “water, agriculture and food security, forestry, health, and tourism.
The World Meteorological Organization and the International Energy Organization also issued warnings that we are standing at the precipice of irreversible changes. WMO’s provisional status report issued Nov. 29 concluded that 2011 was the 10th warmest year on record and might have been hotter if it hadn’t been for La Nina, a weather event known to cool global temperatures.

“Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached new highs. They are very rapidly approaching levels consistent with a 2-2.4 degree Centigrade rise in average global temperatures which scientists believe could trigger far reaching and irreversible changes in our Earth, biosphere and oceans,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a statement that accompanied the report.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Organization issued perhaps the most dire report of all last month when it warned the world was on track for a  6°C  (11°F) temperature increase. “[F]or every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

That’s a prospect that David Roberts railed against as “beyond any reasonable doubt, game over,” in a post in Grist earlier this week.
Despite the evidence supporting some serious carpe diem, the news out of Durban suggests we’ll get more of the same procrastination and paralysis  that dominated international climate talks for years.

The U.S. position, which has maintained its opposition to binding emission cuts over the passed few decades no matter if a Democrat or Republican in the White House, is particularly ironic considering the latest report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication that suggests that climate extremes are moving the U.S. public to believe in climate change in ways that the science has failed to do.

In perhaps the most interesting poll results since the climategate scandal broke two years ago, propelling climate denialism to new heights, the Yale report, published Dec. 7, found that while the percentage of people who understand global warming is happening has remained unchanged since last May, at 63 percent, slightly more people, 65 percent, told the pollsters that global warming is affecting weather in the United States. Belief that human activity is fueling the warming also edged up 3 points to 50 percent of those polled. Perhaps even more significantly, “A majority of Americans (57%) now disagree with the statement, “With the economy in such bad shape, the US can’t afford to reduce global warming” – an 8 point increase in disagreement since May 2011.”

The Climate Two Step

More caution needed on climate change, scientists say.

If news were like music that sets the tempo of public opinion, the latest spate of climate change headlines is tapping out something like a two-step. One step closer to certainty, then the music reels toward denialism; Inspiring, if brief, performances by grassroots activists, flanked by the chorus line of corporate sponsorships and murky backroom dealings.

Last week the world’s leading scientific authority on global warming, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued a report linking extreme weather to climate change and urged governments around the world to step up their efforts for dealing with “climate extremes.” The same day U.S. Congress  killed plans for a national climate agency.

Months of protesting the Keystone pipeline led to a postponement that could provide bureaucratic deathblow to the project. But it turns out that defeating the pipeline will not keep the Canadian tar sands from flowing to refineries via other routes, including the millions of miles of existing U.S. pipelines that already transport — and sometimes spill — the particularly gooey and toxic fossil fuel.

The Sierra Club‘s longtime leader Carl Pope has finally stepped down amid what the Los Angeles Times said was “discontent that the group founded by 19th century wilderness evangelist John Muir has compromised its core principles.” Pope’s replacement, Michael Brune, declared “done” the $1.3 million sponsorship deal Pope had championed with the makers of Clorox  bleach. Brune vowed to never again risk sullying the venerable institution’s reputation by shilling for another corporate polluter. Having been one of those who criticized the Sierra Club’s Clorox deal, it’s good to see the new leadership heeding concerns about greenwashing. But virtually all of the the country’s other flagship environmental groups are beholden to corporate “sponsors” and “partners” today, as the recent greenwashing scandals involving  World Wildlife Fund and the National Park Foundation and their corporate sponsor, the Coke-a-Cola Co, atest.

On Climate, Are we the 99% or more like the 1%?

Street protest in DC on Oct. 8

There’s such an upwelling of environmentalism flowing into the Occupy movement right now. My new piece on the Alternet.org site assesses what the Wall Street protests could mean to climate activism and other fights. Occupy Wall Street has not only inspired people around the world to protest against corporate corruption and income equality; It’s prompted reexamination of what “just” and “equitable” would look like when it comes to emissions cuts or the Keystone pipeline fight. Plenty of people are debating these subjects right now. I’ll just say that a sustainable economy predicated on a healthy planet seems like the kind of justice we need about now.

GMOs + CAFOs attemp a makeover

Photo by Graham Boyle

Check out the GMO corn-fish car built by members of Washington’s intrepid artist/activist collective DC51. These local talents supply the visuals for a wide variety of environmental and human rights marches here in the nation’s capital. Usually, they silkscreen posters, banners and the occasional limited edition T-shirt. This repurposed sedan takes art-for-the-revolution to a new level. But the car is not just cute; It’s meant call attention to concerns about farmed fish raised on GMO corn.  It’s also road worthy. The corn-fish navigated the interstate highway system last month to attend a New York City protest of genetically modified organisms such as lab-altered corn and soybeans used not just to feed the fishes but in so many of the foods we find in the supermarket.

My new blog post on the E Magazine site discusses current efforts to makeover GMOs and frankenfish, among other parts of our industrial food system. here’s an excerpt:

October is proving a busy month for the country’s old guard food industries. After a decade of books and documentaries exposing the more unsavory aspects of how our food is produced, Big Ag and consumer brand companies are striking back with campaigns aimed at quelling the country’s growing disaffection with CAFO-raised beef, fake “fruit” snacks and sugary cereals.

In Washington, D.C., in recent weeks, members of the food and advertising industries urged Congress to dump a planned update to federal nutritional guidelines on foods marketed to kids. The draft rules, announced last April
 by the Interagency Working Group, made up of representatives from the Food and drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are aimed at combating child obesity.

Read the rest of this post on the E site.

Climate Change: Are we also the 99%

The GreenAccord conference took place last week.

I got back late last night from the GreenAccord environmental conference in Italy, an annual gathering that brings together journalists from around the globe with some of the foremost experts on climate change and the many interconnected environmental problems threatening human – and planetary – health.
The conference has always emphasized environmental justice, a focus made even richer by the large contingent of reporters from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where some of the worst impacts of climate change are expected and have, indeed, begun. This year, however, the political dimensions of the climate debate were in even starker relief.  Several speakers suggested that the world’s elites are insulating themselves from the worst aspects of global warming. There were shades of the Occupy movement with its assertions that the world’s wealthiest 1 percent are ruining the world for the rest of us.

Resource economist William Rees argued that we’re already seeing the beginnings of “eco apartheid” as wealthy individuals, corporations and entire governments scramble to secure the best remaining cropland, water rights, mineral and fossil fuel deposits and other dwindling resources, while blocking climate responses that threaten their wealth. Robert Engelman, the new executive director at of the environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, expressed similar views. Meanwhile Brazilian philosopher Euclides Mance, of the World Social Forum, advocated dumping our corporate-dominated economy for one based on solidarity. He discussed experiments underway in Brazil and elsewhere to replace currency with a system of credits that would essentially allow people to barter for goods and services.

As soon as I shake off the jet lag, I must start writing an article that will discuss some of these ideas in more detail. Stay tuned!

While I was away, my story on the economy of food trucks posted to The Atlantic magazine’s “Cities” website. While off subject for those focused solely on environmental issues, it’s an interesting tale of how, even in a sputtering economy, agile entrepreneurs can find a path forward. Perhaps there is a more universal take-away there? You can find the story here.