Changing Climates, Changing Minds

Environmental correspondent Judith Lewis points out that over on the right, Reason magazine’s science reporter Ronald Bailey’s "obdurate" see-no-global-warming, hear-no-global-warming, speak-no-global-warming stance is beginning to crack…while on the left, The Guardian‘s science reporter, Robin McKie, opens discussion of a innovative scheme to bury carbon dioxide emissions from English power plants, instead of releasing them into the air.

Under the scheme, carbon dioxide from power stations – instead of being vented into the atmosphere – would be liquefied, pumped back out to the North Sea via a disused gas pipeline and into the Miller field. Five million tonnes a year could be stored there for more then 10,000 years, say researchers.

BP would gain because the carbon dioxide pumped into the depleted field would help to flush out its last reserves of oil, while Britain would be provided with a sink for its fossil fuel emissions.

This "carbon sequestration" idea was brought forward by the Scientific American in l998. Subsequently other researchers have suggested more farfetched ideas to shield our planet from the sun, which were amusingly mocked in an issue of Sierra a while back. (Sorry, I can’t find the piece.) But few meaningful steps have been taken towards solutions of any sort in this country; societal, technological, you name it. What’s interesting is that publications on opposite ends of the political spectrum now show signs of an openness to a broader discussion of the issue than has been possible in recent years.

Given the flood of first-rate pieces recently from The New Yorker, Mother Jones, National Geographic, and even a fairly strong editorial from USA Today, is it possible that minds are opening to a real discussion of this crucial issue, despite a total lack of leadership from the White House?

Learning How to See

Here’s an excellent speech, which was given by Rick Ridgeway at the well-attended Earth Day festivities on Friday at Patagonia in Ventura. Ridgeway connects a lot of divergent strands: the enormous changes our landscape has seen, the cruciality of the individual, and the vitality of hope. But in the end, it’s all about one thing — learning how to see.

One of the most difficult challenges we all face, even though most of us don’t realize it, is learning how to see.

Learning to see the real impact we humans have had on our planet is a particularly difficult challenge.  We’re here for 70, 80, for a lucky few 90 or a 100 years.  The changes in our environment, the degradation -­ even though, as we all know, accelerating quickly, still takes place over
decades, over centuries, over millennia.  The challenge we now face has been likened to the parable of the frog that stays in the frying pan too long as the temperature is slowly raised:  most frogs remain unaware of what’s happening until it’s too late.

They fail to take action, and what I want to talk about today is how action by individuals -­ activism by activists ­- is the most effective course of change, and consequently the greatest hope we have for reversing the degradation of our environment. 

But before we get into that, let’s go
back to this idea of learning how to see.

Let’s pause and go back and try to see in our mind’s eye what it was like here in the Ventura River estuary not a hundred years ago, or five hundred years ago, or a thousand -­ but let’s go back 11,000 years to the period just
before human beings arrived in any significant numbers. 

What was it like?  If any of you have been lucky to visit the wild parklands of East Africa, you’ll have a better chance of imagining the Ventura River bottom because there were three species of elephants, large herds of stripped
horses that looked very much like zebras, tigers, three kinds of bears, huge packs of wolves, cheetahs, lions­yes, maned lions that looked just like lions in Africa, only they Leo Americanas was 30% larger.

Then we arrived, and within 400 years 80% of all the large mammals were extinct.  Disease?  Most of the small mammals survived, and other than 2 of the 11 species of vultures that used to fill the sky over Ventura, so did the birds.  Climate change?  We’ve seen today, with the first affects of global warming, that the amphibians are the most susceptible order of animals that start to lose species. 

Yet 11,000 years ago not a single reptile went extinct, and the only insects that didn’t make it were the
dung beetles that depended on the feces of the large mammals to complete their birth-and-life cycles.

The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s weighted conclusively towards us as the guilty party.  Through hunting with the powerful spear throwers we had when we arrived, and especially with the knowledge of how to burn down the landscape, we killed them off. 

Now let’s go forward a few millennia to when the first Spaniards sailed along the coast of Southern California, to
1602 when Sebastian Vizcaino sailed right by the Ventura River here and then a little further north when he saw on the beach the gargantuan carcass of a dead whale with some kind of strange black dots all over it.  Looking
through his spyglass revealed the mystery:  the black dots were dozens of huge grizzly bears ripping great hunks of blubber out of the beached carcass.

Just after the mission was built here in Ventura, in 1787, a Spaniard left from close to where we now stand to walk to Matilija Canyon, just above Ojai.  He covered the distance in one day, and in that single day, on the game trails paralleling the Ventura River, he counted approximately 100
grizzly bears.  The grizzlies in California were the largest south of Alaska, the Sespe backcountry was one of their richest habitats, and the Ventura River was their corridor to the beach where they came to forage for
clams, and also to catch the steelhead on their annual runs up the river.  Even as late as 1887 another Spaniard still spotted six grizzlies in Matilija in a single sweep of the eye.  In 1922 the last wild grizzly in California was shot.

But the salmon were still here­maybe even more, without the bears.

Some of you have probably seen the old black and white photos in the history archives of Ventura, of the men fishing from Main Street bridge just behind us here, holding long strings of large salmon.  And then the Matilija dam and Lake Casitas and the diversion of water — water increasingly polluted by sewage — and in our little history of this area we now move forward to the early 1970’s, and the Ventura city council is meeting to discuss the further channeling of the Ventura River to make room to protect further development.  It was going to affect one of the best surf breaks in town.

Yvon [Chouinard] and his friends went to the meeting to hear the proposal.  All the city engineers got up and talked about how it was an ecologically dead
river, and this channeling wouldn’t affect anything.  Once they had finished, a 19 year old got up and did a slide show of all the living plants and animals in and along the banks of the river.  This was the Ventura River that he knew.  The last slide he showed was of a small steelhead smolt and it just brought the house down.  This one guy had a huge impact.  Patagonia gave him a desk and a mailbox, and that was the beginning of Friends of the Ventura River.

At Patagonia we learned two important lessons from this experience.  The first is the wisdom of localism- of knowing what’s going on in your backyard, and speaking up to protect it.  The second is the power of direct
Action — of being an activist, of the idea that YOU have the power the make change.  We have a program here at Patagonia where we take 1% of our revenue — not our profits, our revenue — and give it back.  We call it our
Earth Tax because the money goes mostly to grassroots groups of individuals who realize the power they have, groups that in the majority are Davids fighting Goliaths to save their backyard rivers and forests and mountains
and beaches.

Let me tell you about one small group called Nevada Wilderness Coalition.  We’re particularly proud of them because the group started with a small coalition of employees at our warehouse in Reno who decided they’d
had enough of urban sprawl in Las Vegas and Reno, of mining and nuclear waste dumping, and they decided to do something about it.  We gave them a small amount of money, and they started a lobbying effort to protect Nevada wildlands by winning Wilderness Designation.  The results?  Since 1999,
just under two million acres have received permanent protection as wilderness areas.

"Never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world, Margaret Meade said.  ”Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."

And what does this have to do with you?  How can you make a difference?

By exercising the power you have as individuals.  By speaking up at those city council meetings, by writing your legislators, your Congress men and women. Those letters make a difference.  By supporting the small grassroots
groups fighting the fight to save our wildlands, to clean up our beaches, to keep the thousand-plus species on the Endangered Species List from being removed because they’ve been removed from existence.  By exercising your
right to vote, and voting for candidates who have voting records that support environmental legislation -­ and if you want to know how to do that we can show you.

Democrats, Republicans, Independents, more and more candidates of all political stripes are realizing this issue crosses political boundaries because at the root of it is whether or not you have a healthy planet to
bequeath to your kids and to their kids; liberals are realizing that when you push through the symptoms of nearly every social ill you get down to the core cause, and it’s environmental degradation; conservatives are remembering that the root of the word conservative is conserve, that it was their own patriarch Teddy Roosevelt who built the National Park system we have today, that it’s time for them to reclaim and champion the cause they started.

So go home today with an image in your mind of how this Ventura estuary has changed in the last 11,000 years.  In geological time, that’s nothing.  But when you build those images in your mind, resist the tendency to feel
despair.  Remember, YOU have the power to change it.

Remember what the outdoor writer David Quammon has to say about despair, that in addition to being useless, it’s not nearly as satisfying as hope.  Thank you.

And thanks to Paul Jenkin at Surfrider for sending it along.


Happy Birthday, Johnnie

Contemplating the lace-like fabric of streams outspread over the mountains, we are reminded that everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks both in solution and in the form of mud particles, sand, pebbles, and boulders. Rocks flow from volcanoes like water from springs, and animals flock together and flow in currents modified by stepping, leaping, gliding, flying, swimming, etc. While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood globules in Nature’s warm heart.

John Muir

As the World Turns, Memories Blur

Absolutely no connection can be found between climate change and the disappearance of big fish in the oceans off our shores, as far as I know, but the vanishing of the fish does bring to light one of the underlying issues when it comes to awakening the public to the dangers of long-term climate change: the shortness of our memory.

It is one of the dirty little secrets about fishing off Southern California: The great fish — the ones you have seen in vintage photos, the ones capable of pushing man and gear to the breaking point — are largely gone from our shores.

Most people in the saltwater angling community know this secret. Skippers whisper it out of earshot of customers. Biologists have documented collapsed fisheries. The government passes regulations to check the decline.

Already our world is changing, and we as humans are oblivious, because despite our alleged ability to think we’re focused on what happened yesterday, or what happened fifteen minutes ago, or our date tomorrow. (Is there a word for this stuck-in-the-present factor?)

Here’s another example of what should be obvious to us, but isn’t. According to government surveys compiled in the May issue of the the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, this is what adult Americans used to weigh, and what we weigh now:

In l963-l965, adult women from twenty to seventy-four years old weighed an average of 138 pounds.

In l999-2002, women of the same age range weighed an average of 164 pounds.

In l963-l965, adult men weighed an average of 165 pounds.

In l999-2002, an adult American man weighed an average of l90 pounds.

So an average woman today weighs as much as an average man did back in the early sixties.

Who would’ve thunk? Or, perhaps I should say, who noticed?

And if no one notices changes in our recent past, how will we motivate people to prepare for, or avert, changes coming in our near future?


Looking for a “Crying Indian”

Interesting Q&A from Mother Jones magazine on a group of documentarians (working on a film called "Melting Planet") wrestling with the question of how to bring the issue of global warming home. No one has yet found a simple but effective image to tell the story  (though plenty are looking).

The crucial quote:

On a sort of parallel track we’ve also talked to people about finding the “crying Indian” for global warming–the “crying Indian” being a TV advertisement about littering where a Native American dressed in native garb was standing by the side of a highway with cars speeding by and a bag of garbage gets tossed out, lands at his feet, and the camera pans up to show this tear coming down his cheek. It was a very effective thing, so part of our fascination with the messaging about global warming is the inability for anybody to have really come up with a “crying Indian” yet.

The Cowboy Environmentalist

One of the charms of California’s central coast, at least if you ask yours truly, is that residents in places like Ventura County cannot be counted on to be either left-wing or right-wing; often, they turn out to be neither, or both, or some combination thereof.

One such Ventura County resident is a local hero named Joel Woolf, who has worked in Ventura County as a diesel mechanic for years, and considers himself a cowboy, but has become — to his own surprise — a person most folks would consider to be an environmentalist.

Woolf turned out to be the most colorful of speakers at a open forum for environmental solutions put on by the Green Party at a meeting room Wednesday night at Ventura’s library. He described how a few years ago he happened to read that the inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolph Diesel, designed it to run…on peanut oil.

"A great big lightbulb went off in my head," Woolf recounted. He ran a test on an engine he was working on and discovered that with vegetable oil, "It didn’t just run, it ran great."

"There’s nothing wrong with the diesel engine," Woolf adds. "It’s what we’re putting in it!"

Three years later, Woolf has a business going in Upper Ojai that specializes in converting diesel engines to run on vegetable fuel — essentially, by adding a secondary fuel system. (He’s not a fan of biodiesel, believing that the chemical processes required to produce the fuel — especially lye — produces pollutants that outweigh its environmental pluses.)

"I’m not an activist, I’m not green, I’m just a cowboy who’s found something that works," adds Woolf.

Dang, wish I had a diesel engine to convert. If you do, give Woolf a call at Veg Powered Systems in Upper Ojai, 525-4515.

Global Warming: The White House Position

Hard-working science reporter Chris Mooney points out that President Bush’s chief science advisor, John Marburger, is talking about climate change and the need to take action. Specifically, in a speech in Boulder, Colorado in February of this year, Marburger said:

There simply isn’t any way to do it. You have got to change things very dramatically. We have a very big job ahead of us. Every country is going to have to use new technology, either to remove the Co2 from emissions from hydrocarbon burning power plants or to use some other way, some alternate method, of energy generation. So, this is what we have got to do and I think that we should get on with it and not get hung up over the Kyoto Protocol.

On the other — right — hand, is the White House chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, James Connaughton, who claims ”We are still working on the issue of causation, the extent to which humans are a factor" in global warming. Connaughton’s council went on to rewrite an EPA paper on climate change to reflect this view, which is not the consensus in the scientific community — to put it politely.

Will we ever find out where the President and his administration stand on this issue? If the matter is left up to White Press corps, evidently not. In the presidential election last fall, exactly one question (to my knowledge) was asked on the subject of the President, and it was asked not by a reporter but an ordinary citizen in the townhall-style debate.

LA Times vs. General Motors: Round Two

According to a story from Editor & Publisher, General Motors’ decision to pull corporate advertising from The Los Angeles Times will cost the newspaper ten million dollars a year — or maybe twenty. (That’s the estimate from the Prudential Equity Group.)

If this is how General Motors treats outsiders who criticize its policies, one can easily imagine how it treats insiders who dare to suggest that perhaps the carmarker might want to consider new approaches — such as gas/electric hybrid cars.

Duke Energy Proposes “Carbon Tax”

Duke Energy, which produces electricity primarily by burning coal, has proposed a tax on carbon. 

"As a major coal-burning utility, some might expect us to duck this issue," said James Rogers,  president and chief executive. "But avoiding the debate over global climate change and failing to understand its consequences are not options for us."

Interesting choice of words: some might call this a dig at the current administration.

Paul Anderson, chairman of the firm, added at a lunch for businesspeople in Charlotte that he didn’t expect any such reforms to be passed under the Bush administration.

Will George Listen?

Thomas Friedman, a moderate columnist for The New York Times, has gone from supporting the Bush administration’s effort in Iraq…to criticizing the Bush administration for a misguided energy policy.

Once Friedman was said to be so influential in Washington that even the Bush Administration tracked his columns. But in the last few weeks he’s been calling for a "geo-green" strategy of hybrid cars, gax taxes, and other measures to reduce fossil-fuel consumption. It’s a startling change, but Friedman insists in a recent Q&A with Grist magazine that his readers support it. He goes on to call drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge an example of "brain-dead" politics over policy.

Will George listen?