IBI Watch 12/8/13

8 12 2013

Inequality and Apathy //

Income Inequality in America continues to grow, but how many of us are really paying attention? George W Bush scaled new heights of cluelessness with his apparently earnest celebration of an audience member who had three jobs. But that problem has not disappeared. Far from it. Try this Weekend Edition Saturday story about a certain class of people who are hiring valets for their one-year-old(!) progeny while hordes of that three-job class struggle for the scraps of income that tinkle down from on high. And of course former Labor Secretary Robert Reich campaigns on this crucial issue – his latest work being a highly-regarded documentary that I just have to see. Here’s the trailer, and a brand-new and worthy review from Canada.com.

What really got me thinking again about income inequality and economic justice this week was an opinion piece that I read in the Star Tribune. On its surface, Virginia Postrel’s Bloomberg News article is not even about income inequality.  Rather, it’s really more of an extended homage to the fun most of us – even the three-job crowd – are experiencing as a result of the entertainment technology revolution. That revolution has indeed bestowed a remarkable basket of benefits. Postrel’s argument – that the happiness bonus earned from lives enriched by wider entertainment options is not included in measures of well-being has some merit. But let’s look a little deeper. If her premise is correct – that all the entertainment whiz bang overrides the economic troubles that low-wage workers suffer – then the US, the home of the go-go economy and still the richest country in the world should be the happiest, or one of the very few happiest in the world. Sorry, not so. And when you look at measures of human health, there is an even more shocking lag.

Of course I benefit mightily from the entertainment tech revolution. While I am not a big gamer, the pleasures of playing word games online with friends around the world, carrying radio podcasts around with me on a device smaller than a matchbox, schlepping a whole universe of data on a smart phone smaller than a deck of cards, all of this is not lost on me. But entertainment tech is today’s opium. How else to understand how we have let the kind of gulf that Reich decries happen? How can we not pay attention to a system that allows all of this?

A significant part of the answer is exactly what Postrel celebrates – most of us, even the three-job crowd, even the middle class who are getting mugged in the name of austerity, are well entertained, i.e. anaesthetized against seeing what is really happening. And what is really happening is corporate control of our government system. Since Citizens’ United, that power has grown. (If you need a ghastly laugh at corporate rule, count on Jon Stewart!) Until we figure out a way to stop it, we will stay on the same dangerous path – recreating the Gilded Age, even a modern feudal system, where a tiny elite holds more and more power and wealth while all others shrivel. But hey, at least we are entertained!

There must be a better way. I like this Bernie Sanders petition and the wealth of information included in the bargain. Please join me in signing.

The Dangers of Abruptness

No, this is not about rude, curt communication but something much more consequential. Because our unrelenting and accelerating production of greenhouse gases has pushed the world’s climate into completely uncharted (in human time) territory, scientists tell us we must expect the unexpected. Here is the latest on what they are teasing out, and what we should do to comprehend and cope. (Be sure to catch the exit line from the NPR story, about how a certain party wants to handle the costs of crucial research.)

And of course it is not just risk of future change. It is already here – in the form of sea level rise that is already loaded in the system, a variety of costs that we are already paying, and persistent heat waves that are already scorching food crops. Though heat waves and climate change in general seem an odd topic to some in the north right now as we shiver, we really have to consider the big picture. Got 14 seconds for an animation? And of course the picture might be even bigger and darker, as proponents of the theory of near-term extinction are quick to point out. While noting that those pessimists have much evidence for their views, I say we should keep it from becoming the most awful of self-fulfilling prophesies.

So what are we doing? Some are pushing clean energy, others conservation – both parts of the mix. But in the long run we get nowhere without slaying that corporate power dragon. Here’s a start. Here’s another.

Look Beyond that Frozen Nose

This NPR piece is a refreshing big-picture antidote to the inevitable pignorant chorus about how the current American Arctic cold wave casts doubt on climate science. These things really are at stake, and the trends are sad.

Raw Deals for Women

Here are two stories that don’t seem directly related, until you think just a bit. First, a brief video expose of the beauty game, and an articulate video plea by scientist Emily Graslie, with a simple request – respect for her knowledge and research. Made me want to check out her science blog. I love her enthusiasm. Look out, Bill Nye!

Two Nearby States, a World Apart

This story is for residents of Wisconsin and Minnesota, but it has messages for all Americans really. I am certainly glad for which side of the divide I live on, though I have not an ounce of Scandinavian blood running in these veins. And as MPR rightly points out, but for the grace of 8000 votes, there went us in 2010. Oy, was that close! This also got me thinking big picture, and right back to a story I heard recently about the foundations of American liberalism and conservatism. I found this Tom Paine/Edmund Burke comparison fascinating, and I bet you will as well. I think I will have to read Yuval Levin’s book, The Great Debate. And keep voting.

Remember to Save the Bees

Here in December’s frozen northland, it is a bit difficult to think about pollinators at the moment. But think and act we must, because time is growing short. As you no doubt know from reading this blog and other sources of science, a variety of factors, led by a class of “miracle” pesticides, have been decimating populations of bees and other pollinators worldwide. Here are some updates. First, the European Union – those namby-pamby risk-averse wimps, have dared to ban these miracles of modern science for a few years and see what happens. That’s not exactly news, but this new update sheds more light an article by Robert Krulwich (whose RadioLab show you really have to check out). And if that dot-connecting piece inspires you to do something, you could always struggle against the empire.

Celebrating the Voice of Freedom

The airways are rightly full of tributes right now to a giant of the 20th century. Here is an entire library of material for you to sample, courtesy of PRI’s The World. While Nelson Mandela is lionized as a champion of freedom and justice, to me the most amazing and enduring example he set was forgiveness. A lesson we all need to learn.

“A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”
– Nelson Mandela

Contributed links or content to this posting –Allyson Harper, Mike Nevala, Lucinda Plaisance

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 11/24/13

24 11 2013

Information, Please  //

When it comes to food, full disclosure is the only rational policy. And yet, thanks to the immense political power of the food industry, progress on information access is a grinding battle. Take meat for instance. This change in federal regulations is a big deal. Of course, cost is the main reason a change like this does not go down easy. The change happened only to keep the United States in compliance with international trade agreements. But this detailed accounting of origin is really only one step to full information access. Some say that people don’t care about the footprint, or impact, or production consequences, of consumer goods. But I say we have not really tried to put that information front and center.

In the case of mass-produced meat, what if the suppliers were required also to include the consequences of factory meat farming practices – such as inhumane treatment of animals, the misguided overuse of antibiotics on factory farms, and maybe most important of all, the impact of meat production on the climate crisis? Think about it – when the average person goes to the average supermarket, all those neat plastic meat packages are stacked up, their sale supported by discounts in the store’s advertising flyer. Where is all that impact information? That is why the origin labeling is a good thing, but really only a baby step toward what needs disclosing.

It’s a similar situation with genetically modified organism crops, though precious little progress has happened. Debates continue about the long-term health effects, but GMO crops are implicated directly in the destruction of family farms (though you will see some progress at that link!) and indirectly in the decline of pollinators worldwide. Not to mention that they are the key to the growth in power of the evil empire of agriculture, Monsanto. Research continues on the immediate and long-term human health consequences of consuming GMOs. A rational approach would be to fully inform, and let consumers decide. Another bit of progress at the previous link.

And then there a huge, hidden information crisis. Walk through your average grocery store, and you will find this product right there on the label of countless baked goods, snack foods, personal care items and other products. It’s a “miracle” modern product, palm oil. This ubiquitous substance clearly meets many needs, and will no doubt receive yet another boost in popularity now that we are finally eliminating those heart-surgery-promoting trans fats (the change due at least in part to labeling requirements). But there is one problem.

Palm oil production is a blight on a particular corner of the world, and is pushing an amazing creature toward extinction. As you saw in the former of those past two links, sustainable practices are having a slight impact – something like a bandage on a gushing artery. And then there is the biggest picture, the climate change connection.

It’s one thing to read “palm oil” on a label of a cracker box or a bar of soap. But what if some of that information on environmental destruction were required to be available? Would people just ignore the messages, and go ahead and buy? We don’t really know.

And for another look at the big picture, the story not told on consumer product labels, there is the inherent irrationality. As Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz tells us in this New York Times piece, our agriculture system not only rewards excess production, it perpetuates and exacerbates wealth inequality.

What if the consequences of all our purchases were readily available? That is the idea behind an entire school of thought – life cycle assessment. For all of us on the end of the product chain, this information can help us assess the impact of any product before we buy it. The GoodGuide site, brainchild of Dana O’Rourke, is a tremendous resource. What if all of us committed to taking a look at this site instead of just the advertising before buying products?  The truth can set us free, and maybe help save the world – if we let it.

Warsaw’s Two Camps

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, those two paired ideas – camps and Warsaw – evoke memories of the great East-West standoff. But today of course it is two different camps. And just as with the old matchup, the world’s fate hangs in the balance. This time, it is not the immediate extermination of life through a nuclear war, but the slow-moving (but accelerating) climate crisis. The division is familiar to anyone who follows the issue – it’s between the developed and developing worlds. And the current climate talks in Warsaw, predictably and sadly, show little sign of a planet-saving agreement in the offing.

The main battle now is over who is responsible – and should assist – in cleaning up the mess that the first century-plus of industrialization has created, and who should help poorer countries adapt and develop sustainably. Look at this chart to see who holds the biggest tab right now. Surprised? Me neither. And when you think about how we in the richer countries – especially the US – have externalized so much industrial production these past few decades, we are actually responsible for an additional large share of the developing world’s greenhouse emissions. Cheap is expensive.

Democracy Now ran an interview with two men who are arguing for “loss and damage” – Martin Khor, executive director of South Centre, and Nitin Sethi, senior assistant editor at the Hindu. You will be saddened – but probably not surprised – to see the US reaction to this idea. But what is even sadder is the content of the leaked document detailing the US strategy – also from Democracy Now.

There are reports as I write of a compromise. But it sure looks like more of kicking this can down the road, fiddling while Rome burns, rearranging Titanic deck chairs, choose your comparison. For a real, science-based solution? Consume less. Much less.

Busted at Last

This is a real blow against the gridlock that has paralyzed the Senate since President Obama’s election. Considering the dramatic escalation of filibuster use since 2008, the only real question to ask is – what took so long?! There is, of course, some fallout. And freak-out.  But for some additional good news on this story, look to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me – where one of the celebrity panelists pointed out that you do not hear this talked about as the “Nookyalar Option.”

A New Tornado Season

Until last week, many were marveling about the relatively quiet tornado season the US enjoyed in 2013. But wait. It’s not over yet. How unusual? You be the judge.

The Myth of Choice: How Junk Food Marketing Targets Kids – Guest Post

Guest blogger Rolly Montpellier (of the Boomer Warrior site) posts a commentary linking to an excellent new short video by Anna Lappe on striking back against the junk food marketeers.

Health Follies

I will stick to my pledge last week about not writing more Affordable Care Act stories . . . sort of. Nothing substantive here, mind you. But all you can do is stand aside and marvel at the gyrations we go through to preserve those corporate sacred cows, at the expense of, well, everything and everybody else. Here are a video, a cartoon and a timeless song for some bitterly funny entertainment.

50 Years on

Here is an observance on the JFK anniversary, from well-known blogger Tom Degan.

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.” – Ansel Adams

Contributed links or content to this posting – Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 11/3/13

3 11 2013

The Utility of Futility //

Call it a war among friends. This is an argument about climate change that is getting louder in recent days. It’s not the dreary battle between those who respect climate science and those who deny, facts be damned. No, this one is about whether it’s already too late to slow and ultimately reverse the manmade climate change juggernaut. And while this may seem like inside baseball – the debate rages in particular in chat groups among highly engaged activists – it has consequences for all of us and for the planet.

Evidence mounts daily for the futile position. For a few of the latest examples, consider this article about projections that we will burn through the world’s “carbon budget” in just 20 years. (The carbon budget is the estimated limit to total fossil fuel use before triggering climate change feedbacks that push world temperatures beyond the “safe” 2o C. rise that most experts say is already pretty much a done deal.)  Or maybe a look at the level of Arctic warming tells the story better. Then there are new IPCC projections of climate change cutting into food supplies, while the human population continues to expand. Then there is the debt we owe to the ocean, which has been absorbing the largest part of our emissions, and turning acid as a result. That debt will be repaid with interest. (Check the imbedded NOAA video.)

In my mind the most important battle is still that between climate scientists and their supporters on the one hand and denialists on the other. Why? Because the denialist crowd (I refuse to call them “skeptics,” because that implies openness to persuasion) still has the upper hand when it comes to policy. In other words, that battle is far from won, particularly in the pivotal country known as the US of A.

But the battle within the climate science activist community is vital as well. Why? If a significant share of those who trust the science say it’s too late to save this place known as Earth, this is fuel for the very profitable fires of the fossil fuel oligarchs, particularly these guys. If anyone knows how to capitalize (i.e., build lots more capital) on policy inertia that is helped by public futility, it is the Koch Brothers (whom I like to call “oiligarchs.”).

Think of it this way. We are on a ship, moving at full speed. The ship seems to have sprung a leak. One crowd – the one that holds sway, at least in America – says “Don’t worry about it, we are still moving at speed, and anyway, when we reach our destination, there will be a miracle fix that will bail out all the water and fix the hull, the whole works. So just shut up now and enjoy the ride.” Another crowd acknowledges the leak, and some are fighting to persuade the captain to slow down the ship and dedicate all energy to plug that leak, which by the way is growing, slowly but steadily. But part of that latter, fact-aware, crowd does complex calculations to prove that the leak is growing too quickly, there is already too much water on board, and of course that distant port is too far off for that magical fix. The result – full steam ahead, pay no attention to that hull problem, if it even exists.

I say, let’s pull together and fix the damned leak. Right about now.

Prescription: Scientific Revolt

One of the things I keep promising myself I will do on this blog site is post a list of my most recommended books. A pillar of that collection will be Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Klein brilliantly documents how powerful industrialists have continued to profit from crises, and, insidiously, foment crisis where one does not already exists – in order to privatize profits and socialize losses. Klein has weighed in several times on the climate crisis, so when she spoke out recently on climate science and activism, it was worth noting.

Here is Klein’s complete article, in which she rightly calls out the godfather of scientific activism, James Hansen. She also notes the work of Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, both of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Commuting Lessons from Orangutans?

Most stories these days about these amazing, endangered apes from Indonesia and its surroundings are on the sad and futile side – like this and this. That may be why I found this NPR story oddly entertaining and inspiring. The author, Richard Harris, used it as a chance to speculate on the possibilities of leaner, meaner modes of commuting.

While we are on the subject of commuting, the New York Times recently ran a Jane Body piece on something I have believed for many years. That is, commuting by car – something I avoid in every possible way – puts a big hit on human health in so many ways. Chris Tackett at the TreeHugger site wrote a commentary, with an imbedded link to the Brody piece. My favorite mode of commuting is the humble bicycle. I understand that many are not physically fit enough to share my passion. That is why inventions like this could be a big boost to two-wheeled culture.

Facts, Please

Stories like the one I link to here darkly amuse me. Why? Because it focuses on Antarctica, the “cleanup hitter” in the lineup of manmade climate change effects waiting to mow us down. The author looks into ancient climate conditions, which of course is valuable. But what about the documented changes in climate patterns? They include drier, colder temperatures in parts of Antarctica, plus heavier snow in other parts (which some denialists use as evidence debunking manmade climate change). This story about Antarctic glaciers melting from below, due to warmer ocean currents, is far more relevant.  Likewise this one from Bloomberg – based on updated IPCC projections.

Star Tribune commentator Bonnie Blodgett had a similar concern with a widely read New York Times article. The “unmentionable” in this case was the underlying assumption that continued growth is the only way. Here are Blodgett’s column  and the NYT piece.

Food Critic, Bee Booster

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, well-known Twin Cities food writer, got the story on pollinator decline just about right in an appearance on Minnesota Public Radio this week. Her prognosis was a bit too bright, in my view. It strayed close to that deluded notion that if we just plant our gardens right, all will be well again. But she covered the issues well, except for one – corporate control of agriculture (and everything else!). Read more at my recent post, the cover story – Blame it on Mother.

This is Your Chicken on Drugs

Another public radio story this week clarifies just how tough it will be to solve a growing problem – overuse of antibiotics on farms. This piece focused on the veterinarian’s perspective. You may be shocked, shocked, I say, to learn that money again is at the heart of the problem. I also covered this story in more depth, just last week. See An Unplanned War on Drugs.

Equipped for the Long Term

Buried deep in the debate about human longevity – the infamous NTE (near-term extinction) concept I alluded to earlier are current trends. Absent a major wake-up call, coupled with concerted, collective public action, we really are on course to make it mighty damned difficult for our descendants and maybe any critter larger than beagle to hang around this orb. But destroy the planet? Not a chance. Not with these guys to mind the store’s ruins.

Green in the Extreme

I can relate to most of these, except maybe for number 4. I like to think this weekly blog makes me less obnoxious. OK, maybe that is another form of self-delusion.


Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.”  ~Bill Vaughn


Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 10/6/13

6 10 2013

Blame It on Mother //


Look for this formula in media articles on science, and you usually will not be disappointed. Here is how it goes:

  • Identify the environmental problem or threat
  • Offer a summary of evidence
  • List the apparent causes, including both natural and man-made
  • Detail efforts to mitigate or cope with the natural causes
  • Ignore the man-made causes because they are just “business as usual.”
  • Bypass or downplay the interaction between man-made and natural causes

I was reminded of this formula when I listened to a recent Minnesota Public Radio story on efforts to propagate “clean” bees. That’s right, 50 million years of evolution produced an amazing little social creature, on which an incredible, complex network of life depends, but we in our infinite human wisdom know the real problem – the bees are not sufficiently “hygienic.” In other words, it is their own damned natural fault that they are bringing those nasty, natural varroa mites back home and instigating hive hari-kari.

To be fair, that MPR story does mention the biggest of several elements in the room – modern agricultural chemicals, particularly neonicotinoid pesticides. But the complexity of Colony Collapse Disorder makes it easy for media to latch onto the threads of apparent “feel-good” efforts like stories like that one about breeding better-behaved bees, or of simply planting the right flowers as somehow solving this massive problem.

But what about looking at the big picture, i.e. how we humans with all our wizardry and of course our endlessly expanding population have changed things? I have found no better example of looking at the big picture of bee decline than this TED Talk by Marla Spivak. Give her 17 minutes, and I guarantee you will have a deeper understanding of this complex problem, and a clearer idea of what you can do to help. If you’d rather cut to the chase (though you would be missing much valuable learning), tune into that video at 12:30, when Spivak summarizes all the factors, natural and man-made. I also like her counsel – suggesting that we learn from insect societies, that the sum total of our individual actions creates the world we all have to live in. So we need to choose wisely.

So our alteration of the natural world often enhances natural forces that we don’t like. Another good example is the fungal infection that is devastating US bat colonies. White-nose syndrome is the ailment that, on first glance, appears to be just an unfortunate natural consequence. Tough luck, you poor batties. Deal with it. But as soon as you read into the research, you see the human alteration. Though it is not 100 percent certain, it appears that spelunkers may have introduced this non-native disease into North American caves. We are watching the results play out.

When you apply that thinking, that is, looking at how we change the natural world in the name of progress, thus enabling natural-appearing collateral damage, you are moving straight into the territory of two authors whose work I heartily recommend.

First there is David Quammen, one of the finest science journalists. Get a copy of The Song of the Dodo and you will learn to see through all the fluffy science articles you find that follow the formula. It starts with myths many of us were taught in school and that are often perpetuated in well-meaning media stories. For instance, mosquitoes are well along in the process of decimating native Hawaiian songbirds. A nasty natural pest? Yes, but there is one problem with blaming Mother Nature for that one. Mosquitoes are not native to Hawaii, having been unintentionally introduced by Captain Cook in 1778. And that extinction of the “stupid, flightless bird” that gave the book its name? Well, you will just have to read the book.

The main point of Quammen’s work is this – island biogeography tells us that islands are natural evolutionary dead-ends. That is, creatures migrate to islands, diverge from their larger population, and, often, if the island is not large and diverse enough, eventually go extinct. We are creating man-made islands everywhere, where creatures just cannot survive. If you watched the complete Spivak video, this will ring true in terms of the lack of natural, bee-nourishing plants on vast tracts of our factory-farmed landscape. Once you understand this, you will know better in future (if we don’t change our ways) when a tsunami wipes out the last remaining wild orangutans in Indonesia, or a harsh winter kills off the last monarch butterflies, or a hot summer finishes off Minnesota moose.

And second, there is Alan Waisman, whose new book asks a vital question – what is Earth’s total human carrying capacity? I can’t wait to read Countdown, which follows several years after The World Without Us. NPR Science Friday interviewed the author, who hopes to wake us up to the idea that maybe, just maybe, a human population of 11 billion is something we might want to rethink – before Mother Nature imposes her own solution. That one involves a lot of collateral damage.

Waisman’s solution is far wiser. Educate women, the world over, and empower them to make family planning choices. He cites two shining examples – Italy and – surprise! – Iran.

Far wiser as well would be this choice – see through this covert blaming of natural forces for environmental problems we humans have caused or enabled. Wiser to would be supporting organizations that are working to deal with the problems:

World Wildlife Fund

World Conservation Society

United Nations Population Fund

Even wiser would be working to fight the real problem – lack of leadership by the United States on these issues, caused in largest measure by corporate control of our politics and media. These organizations deserve support in that regard:

Get Money Out

Move to Amend

Represent Us

The Age of Fighting Back, Upon Us

If Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell is right, climate scientists are, at long last, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. His recent commentary was dated just before release of the IPCC’s fifth Assessment Report, but was right on the money. Because money is what the lingering manufactured controversy is all about in the end. In a five-page broadside, Goodell calls out the biggest, deepest-pocketed denialists – the Koch brothers, Rex Tillerson, Craig Idso to name a few of the oiliest. He also names the world capital of anti-science, fossil-fueled denialism. Can you “name that country?!” Most important, he points out scientists and messengers who have found themselves in the crosshairs of denialist rage.

Atmospheric scientist Ben Santer reports death threats from ignoramuses and a home-delivered dead rat from a Hummer-driving “patriot.” And the attacks against “hockey-stick” proponent Michael Mann are already well known. But they are detailed in his recent book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Here are several other books by climate scientists from my own reading that I can recommend– James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren and Stephen Schneider’s Science as a Contact Sport and, best of all, The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery.

This fight against anti-science is not going away, and we need scientists to step up their speaking out to counter the chorus of well-paid pignorance (pretend ignorance) that threatens to drown out their world-critical message.

Climate Change – Culture, Magic and an Offer

Yes, strange headline, I know. But here are the connections.

First – one little-explored impact of runaway climate change is the effect on indigenous culture. Effects on livelihoods that depend on sea ice are obvious, but who ever thinks about the extinction of languages, surely a cultural tragedy of our modern era? Well, Greg Downey for one.

Second – Bonnie Blodgett wrote a fantastic column in the 9/29 Star Tribune pointing out the errors in our magical thinking. This piece deserves wide reading, for its insight and also for the way the columnist weaves in the thoughts of several recent books. I particularly cheer her take on this one.

Third – The offer. The Blodgett column in particular reminded me of how reluctant most of us are to engage with the reality of environmental problems, particularly climate change. I am a certified presenter for the Climate Reality Project. Any Twin Cities reader of this blog is invited to request a presentation from this blogger. Church group, social group, community group large or small does not matter. It is enlightening, not all gloom and doom, and even entertaining. I might even throw in a related song or two for the right interested group. Think about it.

Wolves Return; What Happens?

The answer – a cascade of surprises, as reported by science journalist George Monbiot on NPR.

Science Shut Down

The current partial federal shutdown has many victims. Unfortunately, that club does not include members of Congress. But it does include scientific knowledge and progress, in a variety of ways. Considering the Tea Party’s role in promoting pignorance, hey, maybe they are winning after all?

“We would be a lot safer if the government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms. Only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of the truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper, Jeff Syme


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 8/18/13

18 08 2013

Upside-Down, Unconscious Voyage //

Here is something that amazes me about the climate crisis. It is how quickly research and speculation morph into routine commentary on weird weather events and their cause. And then we continue on our journey of inaction.

First, the back story. Though 90-degree-plus heat is back in the near-term forecast for Minnesota, we have enjoyed weeks of slightly-below-average temperatures. This coincides with devastating heat waves in China and Europe, plus extraordinary warmth in Alaska. Until relatively recently, you hardly heard anything in the media about a specific scientific reason for these heat waves relatively far north. Then along came Rutgers University’s Jennifer Francis late in 2011 with surprising evidence. Here is an update.

Now –from just this week – a blog post from Minnesota’s Paul Huttner matter-of-factly noting the Arctic connection with a weird, lingering upside-down situation – Alaska much warmer than Minnesota. Don’t misunderstand – Huttner deserves much credit for his work, continually including climate change with his MPR commentaries. This post in particular includes a concise overview of climate change history going all the way back to Arrhenius in 1896! (Forget the denialists’ lie about scientists supposedly pushing “global cooling” in the 1970s.) But I find several things amazing here: how this science can slip into the mainstream virtually unnoticed; how so few people make this crucial connection; how we are doing so little to raise awareness and prepare for the inevitable sea rise and who knows what climate changes coming down the pike.

I have written before about Arctic amplification and its cause – melting Arctic ice. So – here is the multi-billion dollar question – with warming currently at approximately 0.8 degrees C., and at least two full degrees already inevitable, what sorts of climate disruptions will befall us as that warmth builds to that level and beyond? (Oh and by the way, ask not where all the warmth is currently going – we are mixing up a warm acid bath known as the future oceans.) Of course there will be winners – shipping over the melted Arctic will bring us all lower, lower prices – until a rusty ship capsizes or breaks apart. But hey, why worry about that?! Instead, let’s dream of the likely permanent weather changes laid out in this Climate Progress post. Is it just me, or do I see mostly losers in that crystal ball?

If we are sensible – bad bet, I know – we will recognize that we have destroyed our stable climate system with our greenhouse gases. Paul Beckwith lays that case out here, concisely and logically. Then, we will take action to halt this out-of-control experiment in atmospheric warping. I don’t expect too many will heed the call from this wild-eyed tree hugger. Instead, I suggest we follow the advice of three formerly powerful members of a nearly extinct species – environmentally responsible Republicans.


Feeding on Itself

A favorite tactic of climate change denial-liars is to harp on the technically true fact that it is awfully hard to pin a particular weather anomaly – say a supersized storm, a chronic drought, an off-the-charts heat wave – on manmade climate change. “Random variation” is the favored explanation. But now here comes a study that connects the two in a self-perpetuating cycle. That is, an extreme weather event itself leads to more climate change, just as climate change makes outside-the-norm weather events more likely.


Hand Out or Hand Up

Most of us have seen catalogs from a charitable organization called Heifer International. If you visit the site, you will see that the organization does lots of targeted good work – helping people in poor countries by giving them a chance to help themselves. I got to thinking on this group as I listened to the 8/16 This American Life. In that episode, David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein made a surprisingly strong case against such well-meaning charities, and in favor of another model – simply giving money, no strings attached, to poor villagers. Here is the charity featured in the story. (It focuses on Kenya.)

This got me thinking on a news story from this week that looked at another aspect of giving – with global implications. This story – Ecuador’s decision to drill for oil in the Amazon – represents a failure of an innovative experiment. A deal had been worked out whereby the world’s richer countries would make donations to Ecuador to preserve the Yasuni national park in the Amazon, thus protecting an area with astounding biodiversity. A great idea, undone by a single, simple problem. Despite generous donations from certain famous people, contributions from the wealthier countries were skimpy or nonexistent. Surprised? Just one more stop on the road to ecological destruction, I guess.


ALEC from the Inside

They assumed Chris Taylor was one of them. And she was prepared to tell the truth. All they had to do was ask. But no one did. So we got an inside view of the right-wing cabal that has been working steadily to build a permanent American corporatocracy, damn the public will, likewise the common good. Moyers and Company also picked up on Taylor’s unlikely investigative report on the American Legislative Exchange Council. (Learn more here). Here is hoping that Taylor – a representative in the Wisconsin state legislature – continues her courageous search for the truth.


Chemical Weapons Against Our Friends

The plight of pollinators – mainly honeybees and bumblebees – has been very much in the public eye of late. And the pace, sadly, seems to be quickening. Not necessarily in public policy debates at a level where something will be done – yet – but more people are aware of colony collapse disorder. Neonicotinoid pesticides have been fingered as the main culprit, but there is news this week that is not good. Even people who are trying to do the right thing have stumbled. This petition might help. Also, if you are not represented by a corporatocratic robot congressman (I resemble that remark), you might support this bill (not recommended by ALEC).   And here is at least a tiny bit of good news – though the author at least calls out the tentative nature of this apparently new “ban” on certain pesticides.


Fear, Inc.

War has long been big business. Think of Country Joe McDonald’s lyrics from the Vietnam era – “Come on Wall Street, don’t be slow, Why man, this is war au-go-go, There’s plenty good money to be made, By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade,” – or the fortunes made from President W’s war of choice in Iraq – this being just the biggest of many examples.

In more recent times, though, terror about terrorism has become possibly even a bigger bonanza. I was prompted to write this little piece by two recent events. First – I recently missed the first inning of a game at Fenway Park by long, slow security lines. They were frisking people in the “express” lane. Understandable – maybe – considering the still-fresh memory of the Boston Marathon bombing last spring.

The second was a brief conversation with a neighbor about security measures. She said she had heard that the NFL was considering airport-style “porno” scanners to go with their new, unfriendly (except to plastic purveyors) transparent-bag policy. The scanner bit seems to be speculation, but these days you never know.

I mentioned that a certain former Department of Homeland Security head had earned piles of cash through government contracts for those privacy-shredding scanners. She was not aware of that example of the infamous revolving door. So I wondered how many readers might also be unaware. And then I opened my favorite muckraking site, AlterNet. It’s worse than you think.


The Sustainable Sun

How about something hopeful? Would you believe hydrogen fuel generated by solar energy? Fascinating.


Random Acts of Writing

This campaign is a project of my friend and Climate Reality Project colleague, Mary Colborn. Pass it on.


“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” ~Frank Lloyd Wright


Contributed links to this posting – Mary Colborn, Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 7/21/13

21 07 2013

Playing Dumb //

A certain formula pervades so many media stories on extreme weather. Take this one about the current heat wave for example. Just consider that headline about how the heat wave is “somehow stuck in reverse.” Somehow. We just can’t figure it out, we are told in such stories. And, true to formula, we dutifully find some expert with a title, in this case the National Weather Service’s Jon Gottschalk, to discount any possible connection to the ongoing out-of-control experiment known as manmade climate change. This particular example of the formula is especially discouraging because its author, Seth Borenstein, is a top-level journalist who writes many well-informed science journalism columns.

But let’s consider Gottschalk’s calming “there, there, folks” comment. A retrograde-motion heat wave that takes that backwards turn without warning? It could not possibly be related to this phenomenon, increasingly common and well described by Rutgers University’s Jennifer Francis, now, could it? No, of course not. And those jet stream perturbations, recorded and analyzed, well, let’s just throw up our hands, folks. We just can’t figure those out. They could not possibly be connected to this, now could they? No, it’s just a bunch of research-money-lusting scientists making that stuff up. But wait, what about all that warming up in the Arctic? A mysterious, unsolved natural phenomenon?

And all of this warming, and melting, and acidifying the oceans, and the extreme weather, all of that? Could it possibly be connected to the 90 million tons of carbon dioxide that our industry, transport and agriculture pump into the sky every single day? Didn’t think so.

Any day now, we will discover the real cause of the increased floods, droughts, heat waves, out-or-season weather events – all of this climate weirding. This will play out in much the same way that the young-earthers will prove that all those fossils are a beguiling trick, Monsanto will discover the real cause of colony collapse disorder, and OJ, as soon as he gets out of prison, will discover the real killer of his ex-wife.

My point here – we can keep up the pignorance (pretend ignorance), aided by oily media, or we can get serious about solving this monstrous and growing crisis. And the hour is getting late.


Would-be Bee Savers

First, some good news. Bees in small numbers have been visiting our native gardens lately. Nothing like usual, mind you, but an improvement over the virtual boycott we have seen this summer. (Still no butterflies, however.) And here is a story about recovery of a particular bumblebee species.

Just as that story mentioned a large loss of bees in Oregon recently, so I wrote about a needless extermination of bees in downtown St. Paul (and a local resident who took a decidedly more hopeful approach). And here is another would-be helpful approach, if only authorities would explore something other than fear-driven punch-outs in cases of bee swarms. Tess Galati is a St. Paul-based beekeeper who wrote this for IBI Watch:

“Beekeepers around here lost about a third of their colonies due to extraordinary spring weather in California, Georgia and Minnesota. Climate destabilization, dontcha know. And the insecticides, of course. And starvation now that Round-Up and chemical fertilizers have replaced clover between the rows. True to form, I lost one if my three colonies despite huge efforts. I would have given my eye teeth to gather the swarm that landed in the trees in our inhospitable St Paul. I could have gotten to the site with empty box in hand in less than five minutes.

Here’s what people fearing stings need to know: Bees sting to protect their hive–their home. When they are swarming, they’re looking for a home, so they have nothing to protect. They don’t sting when they are swarming. No. Not. Nada. So there’s nothing to fear.

Contact me if you see a swarm I can reach. It will save me the heartache of an empty hive in my yard. And if you want to explore a beehive, I’d be happy to share that experience with you. I have enough protective gear to accommodate two bee guests at a time, and it’s great fun!”

Well said. Twin Cities IBI Watch readers – check with me for Tess’s phone number.


Google’s Destructive “Balance”

Can’t Google come up with better ways to spend its millions? I am not the only activist alarmed to see that, in the interest of being unbiased, this supposedly forward-looking organization decided to oil the machines of the prince of pignorance. Makes me want to drop my gmail account.


Captive Cetaceans: Two Views

A new documentary, Blackfish, covers the tragic killing of a trainer by a captive orca. Based on the trailer and an interview by NPR, this one has hit my viewing list. How about yours? This one reminds me of a terrific documentary that travels similar waters, The Cove. I have seen that one, and highly recommend it, though it is not for the squeamish. With the feel of the best Mission Impossible episodes, it details the work of Ric O’Barry, (former trainer of Flipper) and his team, who went undercover in Japan to document an atrocious practice – the annual herding of hundreds of dolphins, of which a few are captured for the world’s performance pools, and most are slaughtered for Japan’s seafood markets. It’s a good time to check in on the work of activists struggling to stop the practice.


Stand Your Ground, says ALEC

Except in the most extreme right-wing circles, President Obama garnered much praise for his comments on race in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal in the Trayvon Martin killing. I was especially gratified to hear both him and Attorney General Eric Holder make the Stand Your Ground connection. These laws, in Florida and states across the country, make it easier for someone who feels threatened to use deadly force rather than de-escalate or flee. These laws, among others, have been promoted in state legislatures across the country by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. If you care about democracy, and do not know about ALEC, you really need to educate yourself about its wide influence and its “model legislation.”  Meanwhile, could this be a sign of a long-overdue wake-up call? We can only hope.


Embrace the Apocalypse

Robert Jensen’s new book is a clarion call for a return to rationality. Once upon a time, that is what I thought conservatives stood for – reasons, facts. But ever since we embraced corporatist propaganda as the currency of the land – along about the “morning in American” era of 1980, we seem less and less interested in talking about what really matters, i.e. the carrying capacity of the planet we call home. Jensen so rightly points out that even those of us who “get it,” who understand that what we are doing in our technology- and perpetual-growth-driven society is unsustainable, are unwilling to talk about it.

He points out three dodges – the sociopathic explanation (“species come and go, so who cares”), technological fundamentalism (technological innovation will save our sorry keisters) and the third one – which I can really relate to – that “people just can’t take the news.” I agree with the author that it is high time we wake up and deal with the planet emergency. Read more about the book, and watch a fine presentation by the author.

We could make this a better place, seems to me, if we really were “all apocalyptic now.”


Do They Make it in Green?

The punch line never arrived when I read this piece. Did I miss something?


“To change our laws and culture, the green movement must attract and include the majority of all people, not just the majority of affluent people.” – Van Jones


Contributed links or content to this posting – Tess Galati, Allyson Harper, Julie Johnston (who blogs at greenhearted.org)


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 7/14/13

14 07 2013

Preserve or Destroy? //ibiwatchnaturebanner1.jpg

Here are two recent Minnesota-based “inconvenient nature” situations that differ only in scale. But the contrary outcomes can teach us much, if only we are willing to learn.

These are bee stories. Regular readers of this blog and almost any newspaper or environmental site know that our buzzing, pollinating partners are in deep trouble. A variety of factors have conspired to dramatically reduce populations of wild and commercial bees. Read more about the decline – called colony collapse disorder. The chemical elephant in the room of course is the “magic” neonicotinoid pesticides, but that is not the main point here. That would be this – regardless of cause, bees, essential pollinators for the world’s food supply, are in deep distress, possibly a death spiral. You would think we would be taking special steps to preserve the remaining bees. You would think.

When a swarm of bees took over two oak trees in downtown St. Paul the other day, the St. Paul Fire Department had just the right fear-driven response – kill the little buggers, all 30,000 of them. Flame retardant foam does a fine job of exterminating, apparently. Can you think of a more human-centric way to handle such a situation?

Fortunately, it is not just a raving tree hugger like me who thinks there has to be a better way. Though I think the Green Girls are being entirely too “Minnesota Nice” about this, you can see the alternative in this short piece – call in the beekeepers.

But I did mention two bee stories. Fortunately for the troubled bee population, St. Michael resident and IBI Watch reader Mario Ruberto had a better idea. When a swarm commandeered a bush on his property on June 17, he naturally first thought of the safety of his young children.

Bee Swarm 1

The idea of an exterminator did cross his mind – as it did for his neighbor – but then he remembered the plight of the honeybees. He dug for resources (google-seaching “beekeepers” and his ZIP code), and found the Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Association. This group works closely with the University of Minnesota, and manages the beehive at the State Fair.

Bee Swarm 2

Beekeeper Jerome Rossi – shown here – came to Mario’s house free of charge (compared to the typical exterminator charge of about $350). He collected the bees in a box, and took them away to thrive in more suitable surroundings.

Bee Swarm 3

Not a drop of flame retardant foam, or a dead bee, in sight.

Hats off to Mario Ruberto, who kept his kids safe while doing his part to preserve not just endangered nature, but a hugely valuable resource. It’s easy to see these two situations as isolated incidents and in the grand scheme of things, a hive or two will not make a huge difference. But considering the rapid, documented decline of bees, it is clear that every beekeeper’s rescue – vs. a fire department’s extermination – will help build our future. Preserve or destroy? The choice should be easy.

Waiting for Godot’s Butterflies

At my house, we continue to note the virtual absence of honeybees, bumblebees and butterflies in our native gardens this year. In fact, we have seen a single monarch (despite our dozens of milkweed plants), and not one swallowtail. And note – our place is ordinarily a riot of these critters.

Bees’ value to agriculture is widely recognized, and concern apparent (though not yet enough to do something about it), but what about the butterflies? Is this just an esthetic worry that we nature buffs should just forget about and shut up? I think not. First, butterflies do their part in pollination as well. Also, monarchs, with their remarkable annual migration, are seen by naturalists as a “marker” species, measuring the health of ecosystems.

That’s one of the points made in this MPR story that I found both sad and infuriating. Sad because the subject, Dave Kust – obviously a well-informed and well-intentioned fellow – is flummoxed by the complete lack of monarchs on his property. Hard to educate about them – as Kust has enjoyed doing for many years – when they are completely absent. Infuriating because, as you probably guessed, there is nary a mention of the chemical-induced crisis here, and precious little mention of the huge factor in the monarch’s decline. That would be the familiar one-two punch of habitat destruction (in Mexico’s wintering mountains) and the increasingly unstable climate. We can speculate all we want about droughts on the migration path if that helps us pretend that this is a natural dip and recovery is just around the corner. But what is needed is facing and dealing with the real problems, before it is too late.

Climate Foolishness and Facts

Let’s start with a little pignorant (pretend-ignorant) entertainment. The message of this Motley Fool blog post is simple – climate change is not a problem, and if it is a problem, it is not caused by the 90 million tons of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere every single day. So, let’s go on investing in those fossil fuels, boys and girls!

And now, back to reality. Pick your angle. Massive Antarctic icebergs melting? Check. Carbon dioxide turning oceans into acid baths? Certainly. Marshall Islands soon to be former islands? Naturally, or maybe not so naturally. Megafires? Sure.

This would make any fool, motley or otherwise, want to invest in more fossil fuel energy. For everyone else, there are other options. Of course, it’s hard to see it happening without carbon paying its fair share.

Deliberate Inequality

It’s tempting to think that the booming prosperity for those at the very top is somehow an unintended consequence of sweeping change, like globalization. Tempting, but wrong, says Robert Reich – here in a clever cartoon essay.

The Jobs Picture

It’s one thing to look at numbers – how many jobs in different fields, earnings comparisons, etc. But the old saw about a picture trumping words comes into play here. A very interesting graphic from NPR’s Planet Money plots job gains and losses and wage levels. Some of the comparisons may surprise.

Grow Your Own

Good ideas here, for maximizing the harvest from minimal space.

Justice Not Served

The Zimmerman acquittal in Florida is sadly not very surprising. Florida after all is the state that gave us the tainted presidency of George W Bush, and that, more recently, has led the charge on ALEC-driven “stand your ground” laws – basically “stay out of jail free” cards for vigilantes. I will leave more detailed comments and context to “Rant” blogger Tom Degan. And a closing comment from moviemaker Michael Moore: “Had a gun-toting Trayvon Martin stalked an unarmed George Zimmerman, and then shot him to death… DO I EVEN NEED TO COMPLETE THIS SENTENCE?

“Saving the world requires saving democracy. That requires well-informed citizens. Conservation, environment, poverty, community, education, family, health, economy- these combine to make one quest: liberty and justice for all. Whether one’s special emphasis is global warming or child welfare, the cause is the same cause. And justice comes from the same place being human comes from: compassion.” – Carl Safina

Contributed links or media to this posting – Glenn Gilbert, Allyson Harper, Mario Ruberto

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN