IBI Watch 6/2/13

2 06 2013

Happy-Talk or Sustainability? //

The future world will be the result of our choices as individuals, but also as societies. I think about that when I hear the growing chorus of well-meaning people who have a “solution” to the mounting crisis of bee die-off. They prescribe a laudable individual choice – plant more flowers, particularly native varieties. You can glean plenty of that good advice in this recent Star Tribune article, and also this NPR interview with scientist Marla Spivak.

It’s hard to argue with advice such as planting less grass and more flowers. After all, our chemically nurtured lawns are a big part of the problem – grass is nothing like a natural habitat for insects, and the fertilizers and weed killers create all manner of environmental problems. But this is clearly a case where individual virtue can make us feel good, but will go only so far in solving the serious environmental problem.

Articles about bee decline, or colony collapse disorder, carry a common theme. It could have multiple causes, we are told – fungus, landscape changes, mites, etc. Neonicotinoid pesticides are mentioned, but sometimes as an afterthought. Minnesota author William Souder – who recently wrote an acclaimed biography of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson – sees a Silent Spring connection. And look at this piece from MPR featuring beekeeper Steve Ellis. Make sure you watch the imbedded two-minute video.

Since research shows the pesticides affect bees’ navigation and orientation, and that is exactly what beekeepers are observing, a sensible approach would be to ban the stuff – particularly considering what is at stake. Our friends in Europe have seen enough. To us environmentalists, that sure looks like a prudent choice, considering the evidence and the risk. But here in the US, we are no nervous nellies, by God.

I fear this controversy is devolving into another policy-paralyzing stalemate – like the granddaddy of those standoffs, climate change. Powerful moneyed interests insist there is no danger, or insufficient proof, or the cost of fixing the problem is too high – as the situation warrants. Pick your business-as-usual-preserving argument, and go for it. It’s a winning formula. Just ask ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, back in the news this week with some creative new magical thinking.

Though the issue of bee decline is not as much in the public eye – for now – as climate change, I see the cause of “controversy” and resultant policy paralysis as one and the same – corporate control of the system. (How is that last article for a laugh?) The cure is the same as well – getting corporate money out of politics.

If we don’t get smart, we will push pollinators, the climate and who knows what else beyond the point of recovery before we finally set about creating sustainable, common-good policies that serve us all in the long run. In the meantime, let’s plant lots of pretty native flowers. They provide some beauty as we rearrange the deck chairs. And let’s play some fiddle music while we watch the fires. Worked well for Nero.

Climate Change Awareness and Action

Despite the almost daily recent weather events with varying levels of connection to climate change – the repeated pounding of the Plains by tornadoes and armadas of slow-moving storms, the freakish late-spring snowstorm in the Adirondacks, the fast-melt flood destruction of a small Alaska village to name just a few, a significant portion of the American public has still not connected with reality. Part of this refusal to respect scientific facts – carbon dioxide at about 400 parts per million is radically changing weather patterns – can be traced to the propaganda of Tillerson and company. But not all of it. Remember that accepting manmade climate change as real will require change and sacrifice, especially from us in the comfortably rich West. That’s inconvenient, and we just wanna be happy.

But prominent activists are keeping up the pressure. Former Vice President Al Gore’s latest message compares our treatment of the atmosphere to dumping waste in a sewer. Dr. Paul Ehrlich – he of The Population Bomb fame – writes about planetary limits. And Organizing for Action is raising a ruckus within the Obama Administration – trying to get the president to take a stance worthy of his campaign positions on climate change issues – mainly the Keystone XL pipeline.

This blog post offers suggestions for our mission – should we choose to accept. That would be – talking to ideological conservatives about climate change. The prime directive – awaken a critical mass of the public so we can build climate-friendly policies and clean energy before it is too late. The single biggest step, I believe, would be a carbon fee, along the lines of the system suggested by activist and former NASA meteorologist James Hansen. And an essential interim step is halting the madness of tar sands oil, by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline – a main cause of longtime climate activist Bill McKibben.

Ceding Land to Nature

For environmentalists, it’s an inviting prospect – returning certain lands to something like a wild state. Watch this short video by George Monbiot (author of Heat) to get an idea of what this is about. If this sounds a bit romantic, quixotic, that’s because it is. While Monbiot points out that an area the size of Poland will be abandoned by agriculture in the next several decades, it is hard to imagine burgeoning humanity purposefully returning vast swathes of land to wildness. And yet, our technological blunders and wars have set up some dramatic, if little-realized, examples of just that.

Take Chernobyl’s neighborhood. Various accounts – including this one – have described Mother Nature’s rebound in the devastated area deemed too radioactive for human habitation. And further to the east – the standoff between the Kim dynasty in North Korea and its southern adversary has brought an endless hair-trigger drama to the peninsula. But the DMZ that divides the countries is something of a natural paradise – with no nuclear disaster either. Both areas, and so many others, are explored in a book I can’t recommend strongly enough – The World Without Us. Forget the movie by the same name, but I can guarantee that Alan Waisman’s book will get you thinking in new ways about the relationship between the natural world and humankind’s stamp upon it.

If Korea’s dictators named Kim finally come to their senses, and when Chernobyl’s curies finally diminish to tolerable levels for humans, it is hard to imagine wise leaders setting such prime real estate aside for nature. But still, groups dream and – more important – act.  The DMZ Ecology Research Institute’s work is featured in this post. There appears to be no group specifically working to preserve the Chernobyl exclusion zone, but you can learn more here from Voice of America’s bureau chief in Moscow.

Closer to home, and actually all over, this group works to connect wild areas, even in the midst of ribbons of freeways. That is exactly the message that emerges from another of my oft-recommended sources, David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo.

Own a Little Less; Share a Little More

I am a lifelong advocate for and user of public transit. I started out riding to high school via the Q1 bus and the E train in Queens NY. Nowadays, I live in a southeast suburb of St. Paul MN. I still find ways to use transit whenever possible – I rarely drive to work for instance. But many people resist public transit because they “need” a car. And indeed, transit does not go everywhere. But several encouraging trends are sidelining more autos – and the beneficiaries are many. First, check this NPR story on bicycle sharing systems. It’s well produced and tells a very positive story. And car sharing is also on the rise. Here is an overview, with a cover quote from, of all people, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company. Young people are just not as enamored with the car as my generation, and that is a good thing for this crowded planet of ours.

Dingbats Stifled

There are two losses to report this week.

When the passing of Jean Stapleton was announced yesterday, I felt I had lost a member of my family. Her most famous character, All in the Family’s Edith, was the wise, kind foil to her husband, the irascible bigot Archie Bunker. OK, so my mom is not much like Edith. My dad on the other hand, had much in common philosophically with the immortal Arch. I reminded him of this so frequently that for the last few years of his life, he called me Meathead at least as often as I called him Arch. Of course, Stapleton was a fine actress who had other roles, including a portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt. RIP, Jean Stapleton. Those were indeed the days.

The other passing is not a death at all, but a departure nonetheless. If you can watch the eight-minute farewell video, you have more patience than me. (For a shorter, comical version try this.) But scroll down for the amazing, facts-be-damned quote collection. What politician has provided more entertainment than our own Michele Bachmann? I am indeed sad to report this departure. And cartoonists are in mourning all over. But let’s give credit where it is due. The lady did win four congressional elections – no small achievement. And she also set herself up as a weighty scientific voice. Aye, we will miss ye dearly, Congresswoman Bachmann.

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

― Albert Einstein

 

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

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