Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

IMG_8135.JPGIt can be tough to read news about the environment. With oil spills and ocean acidification and coral bleaching and mass extinctions and rising temperatures it can seem overwhelming, just easier to just put your head down, worry about yourself and ride the doomed Earth into oblivion.

But that is only half the story. The other half is awesome.

Like this: the California Academy of Sciences announced yesterday they are partnering with coral reef conservation group SECORE to plant millions of concrete, reef-attaching “seeding units” in damaged reefs to “restore dwindling reefs with sexually-produced corals on a meaningful scale,” according to a statement on their website.

The project is part of an $8.5 million investment Cal Academy is making in coral reef research and restoration. “We’re not losing any time in our continued fight to understand, protect, and restore these majestic ecosystems,” Bart Shepherd, director of the Academy’s aquarium said.

That’s in San Fransisco. And there’s more. An article published on the Atlantic Magazine’s website on Wednesday profiles an Australian scientist who has been studying coral reefs and discovered that many of the world’s reefs in better shape than might be expected have frequent human interaction.

Contrary to what you might think, the bright spots weren’t all remote reefs, where humans were absent or fishing was banned. Instead, most were home to lots of people, who rely heavily on the corals and who frequently fished. They weren’t leaving the corals and fish alone; instead, they had developed social norms and institutions that allowed them to manage the reefs responsibly.

The study offers the evidence that it is possible for humans and reefs to coexist without the inevitable destruction of the coral.

At is an unrelated video about a chance discovery that sped up the growth cycle of slow-growing corals in Florida. It may be possible, it seems, to restore not just fast-growing corals but slower-growing species as well. More reason for encouragement.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 1.24.48 PMThen there is the work of Jason DeCaires Taylor, a sculptor who creates stunning installations underwater out of coral-accepting cements. His beautiful creations sit on the sea floor and transform over time. They become an intermixing of human and natural creation. His sculptures turn into otherworldy attractions that highlight the plight of the oceans, while at the same time offering sealife a space to thrive.

Taylor talked about his work on the TED stage:

 

Lastly, there is Norton Point, the Massachusetts-based company tackling the problem of ocean microplastics with capitalism. They are turning trash from the sea into something useful: sunglasses.

For every product we sell, even those not made from ocean plastic, we are committing to you to clean-up one pound of plastic from the ocean. In addition, we have chosen to give back 5% of net profits to global clean-up, education, and mediation practices.

Their Kickstarter campaign has exceeded its $37,000 goal by more than $5,000 this week, and there are still 20 days left until it finishes. An excellent example of how the environment inspires defender/entrepreneurs.

So instead of getting discouraged, instead of losing hope for the future of the planet and the environment, look for the bright spots, the many examples of people and organizations pushing for positive change. Look at the amazing discoveries they are making, the incredible support they are finding. Inspiration builds upon inspiration, success from success. Maybe it’s even time to join.

 

Advertisements

Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

IMG_7896I love free pens.

As a reporter and someone who writes copiously in my free time, always scribbling in notebooks both for work or for myself, free pens are awesome. They’re like being sponsored—free equipment!

If I had a pen sponsor the company would have to be TD Bank. Their pens are basically my go-to: every time I pop in to deposit a check I grab one, maybe two. Green TD Bank pens are stashed in four different spots in my car, live in my computer bag, hide alongside my notebooks and ride shotgun all day in my front right pants pocket.

In exchange TD Bank gets lots advertisement out of me. The other day I was in line at the post office and a woman was looking around for a pen. I pulled one out of my pocket and handed it to her. “Keep it,” I said, “I get them for free.”

Cashiers and servers are often impressed when you pull your own pen out of your pocket to sign the slip. “TD Bank” — there it is again.

And there’s no feeling more satisfying than using a pen until it’s bled dry. When it scratches its way across a notepad, empty of its usual inky glide, I feel a sense of accomplishment: it’s proof I’ve dedicated a certain measurable amount of time to writing, that I’ve invested in my craft. Years ago I never used to run pens dry; I would lose them well before that was ever a risk. But these days I write enough that it occurs fairly regularly.

Lately, however, I’ve been looking askew at those stacks and stacks of pens. Every one I run dry makes me wince. I toss them in the trash after their last word and I hesitate: isn’t that a lot of waste?

Think about it: when I run a pen dry, it still works. The spring mechanism that clicks the point from retraction into action still operates perfectly. The plastic shell is intact. Even the ink cartridge remains. Everything about the pen is fine, still in perfect working order, it’s just out of ink.

But for my TD pens, this is the point they becomes useless. The only thing left to do is discard them, then swing by the bank to grab two more.

It’s a bit like driving a car until it runs out of gas and deciding to walk away: there’s no problem with the machine, but the liquid that makes it useful is spent. Fill up station? No, there are none of those.

When I just lost pens I never had to think about it—they disappeared without me ever considering their end. But when I’m running them dry, bleeding them to the point they have nothing more to give, I am forced to stare their untimely death in the face. And like I said, as a writer I find myself doing this a lot.

But then I go into my local TD Bank branch, where the bucket of pens is always full. From one perspective there is an endless supply; the cars will keep running out of gas, but there will always be another full one available. And apparently for free.

But really? Are these pens really “free”? I don’t mean in a monetary sense; I mean in the sense of consequences, in the sense of an endless supply. Plastic pens are not apples—they do not grow on trees. They are not the result of some miraculous act of nature that transforms sunlight and rainwater into ballpoint and ink. Pens are plastic, an oil-based technology. They require fossil fuel to make, and when they find their way into the garbage they do not decompose. They are offered up as free gifts, but the are only “free” in the banking sense of the word.

In the global sense, however, plastic is plastic, and it’s not going away. It is turning up everywhere: filling landfills, clogging up the oceans, killing wildlife. A new study found that microplastics—tiny shards of polymers now found throughout the world’s waterways—are stunting the growth of some young fish and killing others.

Some young fish have been found to prefer tiny particles of plastic to their natural food sources, effectively starving them before they can reproduce.

The growing problem of microplastics – tiny particles of polymer-type materials from modern industry – has been thought for several years to be a peril for fish, but the study published on Thursday is the first to prove the damage in trials.

Microplastics are near-indestructible in natural environments. They enter the oceans through litter, when waste such as plastic bags, packaging and other convenience materials are discarded. Vast amounts of these end up in the sea, through inadequate waste disposal systems and sewage outfall.

“Convenience materials.” That sounds like my pens. And my grocery bags (I have two fabric bags, but I don’t always remember them). And my food packaging. It sounds like so much and so many of the everyday things we buy: toothbrush packaging and the toothbrushes itself; sunscreen bottles; electronic accessories; a new windshield ice scraper. Kayaks. Car parts. Tupperware. Printers. Plastics. Plastics everywhere. They are literally everywhere.

IMG_1043What does “disposable” mean? Where does “disposable” go? These are questions we don’t really wrestle with. There is not time to wrestle with them. They are big and unwieldy and quite frankly depressing. They seem too big to tackle, a societal issue that will never get solved.

But it has real implications. In the Pacific Ocean there is a patch of floating garbage roughly the size of Texas. It is called the Pacific Trash Vortex, a place where discarded refuse goes to swim. And as most of it is plastic, it will swim forever.

Add that to climate change, to ocean acidification, to coral bleaching and glaciers melting. There is a Texas of trash out in the ocean. And the Texas estimate is a conservative guess.

But I get free pens. So it’s convenient at least.

This is not someone else’s problem. This is something that is happening because of my doing, my contribution. Like so many of us, I live in a world of convenience. Like so many of us, I recognize I’m contributing to a bleak outcome but have no idea how to approach it differently. How do you change a society? How do we change our reliance on ease, find our way back to an era when what we “threw away” had a shot at actually going away? Even more basic, how do I change myself, my habits that make up a small part of the whole? Can I even do that.

That is ours to wrestle with, and we better wrestle fast: Trash Texas is growing. If our habits remain unchanged it will eventually cover the Earth.

I read a book recently by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. In the final chapter he wrote:

I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct.

What’s more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed…

Watching another pen fall into the trash, I can’t help but hear his words echoing in my ears. I too wonder if we can outlast them unscathed.

 

Note: In researching this I found a place in California that recycles pens! Not enough to solve things, but hey, it’s a start. Also TD Bank recommends removing the internal mechanisms and recycling the plastic shell with other plastics. They were very quick in getting back to me:

IMG_7994

Plastics, the Environment and the Economy

Plastics, the Environment and the Economy

IMG_5458Sometimes the economy and the environment are at odds.

In recent weeks I’ve been reading a lot about plastic, and plastics in the ocean in particular.

It started in April with a stop at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Wandering the exhibits I came across a pair of displays in the Sant Ocean Hall that caught my attention: two piles of trash. One was pulled from the stomach of a seabird, the other from the stomach of a whale. In each pile were hundreds of scraps—pieces of bags, bottle caps and boat parts—almost all of them plastic. Both animals died as a result of their ingestion choices. Plastics look bright and shiny, similar enough to edible tidbits these creatures have eaten for generations to be deadly. So they gobble it up. The result is a belly full of trash.

That was the first thing that got me thinking about plastic. Then I stumbled upon a “say no to straws” campaign highlighting the amount of plastic used each day for the completely arbitrary task of getting our drinks out of our glasses and into our mouths. It seemed absurd: like there isn’t another way to drink a drink? Is that really what we are doing, filling our oceans with garbage in exchange for saving us the trouble of lifting our glasses?

After a bit more research and a few conversations with friends I learned about this initiative:

 

Apparently the answer is yes, that is exactly what we are doing. Plastic is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. In the ocean, ground up into little bits so small we can’t even see them, rolling among the waves.

That is plastic in the environment.

Then there is plastic in the economy. This morning a news piece from Marketplace.org called “The Next Global Glut: Plastics” popped up on my news feed. The gist is this: with crude oil prices at record lows production of oil-derived goods like plastic are going to increase.

Several new petrochemical plants are being developed, especially around Houston and Louisiana. Vafiadis said the high output from the natural gas industry in the U.S. makes it financially feasible for companies to spend billions of dollars in new plants. 

“There’s enough natural resources available to make the majority of the projects that are being considered today viable,” Vafiadis said. 

As new plants come online, global plastic output will swell. IHS expects that more than 24 million metric tons of new production capacity of polyethylene alone will be added to the market by 2020. About a third of that new capacity will come from the U.S. and will come online within the next few years.

Not mentioned in the story is with increased production comes increased disposal. The giant pile of trash already swirling in ocean will grow.

The environment and the economy—when it comes to plastics there seem to be two distinct conversations: one about growth, the other about impact. Watching these conversations unfold in tandem and without intersection is like watching someone with multiple personality disorder argue with themselves. It’s two halves of the brain unable to connect directly. There are questions of demand, but also of impact. Where is that, the complete conversation, supposed to live?

CDS column: Water, and the Power to Destroy

CDS column: Water, and the Power to Destroy

13246360_1490935164265897_2513155182757045179_oWater. In Fryeburg, Maine, it’s a big deal: 603,000 gallons a day, a multinational company, a legal battle, a state Supreme Court ruling. Water is a very big deal.

I remember when the Fryeburg Water Co. agreement with Nestle/Poland Spring first made headlines. It was the first time I’d seen liberals act like scared conservatives.

As a reporter you get used to hearing Republican fears — who is going to take their guns, their jobs, their money. It’s part of the modern conservative message: We have something to lose. We need to protect it.

Among liberals, however, the same fear-based rhetoric doesn’t sell. Issues like abortion and gay rights are pitched without resorting to demagoguery. Government, for Democrats, isn’t something to cower from; it’s something that can be controlled.

Republicans, meanwhile, want to starve the beast, kill it if they can.

But I remember that first meeting after the Nestle deal, the activist stances, the sharp words of trepidation that spilled out. I remember the petition campaigns, the heated elections of the Fryeburg Water District, neighbors shouting at neighbors, outside entities called in for logistical and activist support. Replace the word “government” with “corporation” and suddenly liberals become as fearful as conservatives.

But fear provokes knee-jerk reactions, and knee-jerk overreactions, regardless of party. Republicans fear for their guns to the point that they stymie common-sense gun regulations aimed at reducing school shootings and other tragedies. It’s foolish, but it’s impossible to reason with fear.

The same irrationality has been on display locally. But this time it’s a different crowd, a liberal crowd, raising the alarm: Corporations are evil! Our water is not for sale!

But corporations, just like governments, are not evil. These are not autonomous entities, Frankensteinian monsters wielding supreme power. They are run by people. They are governed by laws. They can be tamed.

But not through fear. The fear response Fryeburg Water activists employed was akin to blindfolded swings at a pinata — a lot of fury, but little meaningful contact. Water activists threw everything they had at the Nestle deal, took it to the highest court in Maine, but it is moving forward nonetheless. The fearful blows failed to land.

And why should they? The deal is legal, fitting neatly within the framework set up by the state of Maine. There was an administrative review, then a legal review. Beyond vocal objections, there was nothing to derail the project.

But here’s the thing: the Fryeburg Water activists had a point, and it was a good one. There are tremendous questions about resource extraction. It’s conversation not limited to water: When a resource buried beneath the earth is turned into a salable commodity, who should benefit? Whether water, oil or ore, what is owned by the individual, what is owned collectively, and what is free for the taking? Who owns what? What is the citizenry entitled to when extraction occurs? Should anyone be able to bottle a resource, cart away all they can and pocket the income? Or is something owed for this action?

This is not a new question, but it was also not the one Fryeburg Water activists were asking. Like gun activists thwarting the latest background check legislation, they were shouting in an all-or-nothing fight to stop the deal. They were not calmly looking to put in reasonable safeguards. And in all the shouting, they yelled themselves hoarse.

They had a point; they just failed to aim where it matters.

And where does it matter? In the Legislature, not the courts.

Water is a precious resource. It is a Maine resource, a Mainer’s resource, one currently open to extraction. To change that will require changing the law, which requires working within the bogeyman entity liberals are comfortable with: government.

Activists need to put down the picket signs and trade them for cell phones. They need to push lawmakers to create of a resource fund built on extraction revenues, something similar to Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which is funded through oil sales.

A small tax on water extraction — a half-cent per gallon, or even a quarter-cent — accrues quickly at 603,000 gallons a day. And it would serve as a bulwark against the risk that large scale extraction might someday deplete Fryeburg’s aquifer.

That is the middle road, threading the needle between government and corporations. And it works: In Alaska every resident gets a check, a payout every year, funded by the extraction industry. In 2015, that check was for $2,072 for every resident. The payout is a dividend — the fund itself has grown to more than $53 billion since it launched in 1977.

That money came from oil, not water, and required a change in the state constitution. But extraction is extraction, and bottled water sells at prices similar to gasoline.

Maine doesn’t have oil. Maine has water. It’s a resource, understandably, in which Mainers have a tremendous stake. Currently, the legal and legislative recognition of that stake is minimal, and nothing in the past few years has been done to change that. Activists opposed to Nestle went to battle with empty hands. Instead of looking to arm themselves, they wandered into the fields to get slaughtered. The Maine Supreme Court decision dispatched the last of their hopes.

But Mainers have power. It sits in the tremendous value of bottled water. Residents sit on a commodity, a valuable one. Shouting in the face of its being packaged into profits isn’t going to change things, but taxes do change things. It would be the middle way, accepting that businesses have a right to do business rather than an all out victory against an “evil” corporation. But it would create real value for Mainers rather than just noise.

And should the battle rise again, it would give activists an actual weapon. “The power to tax,” after all, “involves the power to destroy,” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall said nearly 200 years ago.

 

This column was featured in the Conway Daily Sun newspaper.

Cold December?

Cold December?

CMG-1020592I wonder if people are worried.

It’s December. Do you remember December? There may not always be snow on the ground, but before Christmas approaches things up high things grow white. The air cracks, dry and cold. The skies are grey, hard as flint, and flurries are common.

This, what we are having now, is not December.

I thought about this in October, when summer seemed unwilling to end, when the leaves held way past normal. And I thought about it again in November, when the “Indian Summer” stretched week after week. But it seemed my concern was maybe jumping the gun. Maybe, like last year, winter would rear itself forcefully and all my worrying would be for naught.

But now it’s December. Mid-December. But the sun still carries warmth. The nights seldom to dip to freezing. The mountains are looking like late October. Christmas is almost here, and “white” seems very unlikely. Some days smell distinctly of spring. Something feels off, way off, a long way from normal. I’m worried.

I hope it’s not just me.

Not that I’m complaining exactly. The warm days have been marvelous, and it’s nice to wear a T-shirt when the calendar recommends two fleeces and a puffy jacket. But this is bigger than personal comfort. When things get weird like this it starts to feel like maybe the Earth’s orbit is off-axis, like maybe the planet’s tilt is spinning aloof. What the heck is going on, when April and December switch?

There is politicized discussion/debate about global warming and the role we play in it. I’m not looking to wade into that. Or the equally politicized conversation about whether or not we should be taking steps to counteract it. Like so much today, those issues are too muddied to approach openly. Each side has its staked-out position, and every conversation devolves into a shouting match. Opponents lob rhetorical grenades across a divided no man’s land. I have no desire to walk headlong into that.

But this December feels weird. Like September, the hottest on record. And October, also the hottest. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release November numbers this week, at which point we’ll see if the trend holds for last month too. The December data won’t be out until January, at which point perhaps the hills will be white and the 55 degree days will seem like a distant memory but, no matter what the final numbers settle out to, something is askew with this month.

And regardless of the data, global temperature rise will remain a schism point, a political fracture. Here in New Hampshire it’s hard not to be pleased with reduced home heating bills, fewer mornings spent scraping the car windshield and a few extra days of tolerable temperatures.

But the Mount Washington Valley winter economy is built on Attitash, Wildcat, Cranmore, Black Mountain and King Pine. Bretton Woods and Great Glen. Bear Notch and Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring, snowmobile vacations and ice climbing trips. Snowshoers and winter hikers. Winter is the unique gift the North Conway area offers, and right now we can’t offer it to anyone. Without 32 degrees Fahrenheit and below, the driver that marks the fourth season sputters.

And it isn’t just the fourth season: Foliage is getting harder to predict, harder to plan around, as temperatures buck and weave. Replacing cold nights with strings of warm days takes a toll on the colors. Springtime warmth, which drives maple sap skyward, is also erratic of late. And rainless summers have an effect on river levels, meaning an excursion on the Saco can be more of a walk than a paddle. So much of what makes the Mount Washington Valley thrive is built upon its seasonal fluctuations, built on a consistency that has allowed entire industries to develop and thrive. What happens if the ski slopes are brown on Christmas week? Right now that doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

And that is the beginning. From there, what happens to the rest of the valley economy without the tourist crowds those recreation opportunities drive? What happens to the hotels and restaurants, to the ski shops and the outdoor stores, to the outlets that entertain non-skiing family members? They will suffer the same weather pinch.

And if those businesses suffer, how long will it take for the impact to be felt down the line, at the local doctor’s and dentist’s office, at the accountant’s? In this valley everyone’s livelihood is tied to tourism, and tourism is tied to the weather. Even the newspaper prays for snow.

This is not an abstraction; the ski industry has been wrestling with this problem for decades. Snowmaking, once a small part of mountain operations, became a focal point after winter storms proved insufficient to coat the trails by Christmas. Today almost every Northeastern mountain can paint the whole hill white with guns, but they need cold temperatures. What if those are gone too? What if December truly is the new autumn? I’m worried.

But in truth, there is no use in worrying. If that is the trajectory, if winter is truly on its way out, then it is a boulder bouncing downhill — there will be no turning it around quickly.

And if not, then I’ve just written an entire column for nothing.

But.

But the conversation about rising temperatures is not an abstract political argument about ice caps, polar bears and Polynesian islands. It is a conversation about this valley, about an economy built on seasons, a conversation about our jobs. If global warming is real it will hit us where it hurts. And this December it is feeling very real.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in December 2015.

My NPR

This story aired the other day, and I didn’t get around to posting it. A few minutes in there is a guy who is a lobbyist for the cement industry who talks about the tiny amounts of the pollutants released by burning hazardous wastes in cement kilns. He actually lives in New Hampshire, and that sound bite was my first ever work to appear on NPR. So that’s cool. It’s not a whole story, but I still posted a photo of the check when it came. Hopefully there are more of those in my future…

The whole series by the way, Poisoned Places, is really cool. I love it when broadcasters go investigative. The subtitle Toxic Air, Neglected Communities, made me think of covering Berlin. Few people want to dig into industrialization’s downside.

The Power of Wind, God, and Ideology

This is what I stumbled on today: a 145-foot long wind turbine blade on a trailer with ruptured brakes. Who even knew brakes could rupture?

It was a cool find, and I had a great time talking with the team transporting this thing to the North Country about it. It weighs five tons and is made out of balsa wood and fiberglass. To me it looks like an eel, a whale fin or a dinosaur part (think stegosaurus plate), but everyone who came up asked if it was an airplane wing. How unimaginative!

Last night I read this about the formation of Michele Bachmann’s political ideology, and tonight I finished Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power: The end of American Exceptionalism. What differing worlds: Bachmann’s view is founded in faith, while Bacevich argues our best days are behind us if we don’t start owning up to our difficulties.

The blade exemplifies their differences perfectly: to Bacevich it’s the future, to Bachmann it’s a farce. It’s amazing that they both are part of serious political dialog, considering how far apart they are. And it’s equally amazing that both of them can find legions of supporters.

I’m watching the Republican convention roll inexorably toward New Hampshire, and this trifecta got me that much more excited. Ideology is a crazy thing, particularly if deeply rooted. Washington already has too much of it oozing out every window. I’m not sure more is called for, but we’ll see how the voters turn.

I had to think, however, that God and ideology determine the division of our energy sector. For some people, though, there’s more power in the devine than can be harnessed from wind. I wonder what that worldview would do in the White House.

Parting shot: