Monday, May 31, 2010


Via Daily Dish

Neatorama reviews Joel Sartore’s Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species:

The first thought that ran across my mind when I read Joel Sartore’s book...was it’s a gorgeous book. Joel, a National Geographic photographer, has been on a 20-year personal mission to photograph examples of the world’s most endangered species, so you’d kinda expect that out of him.
There are currently about 1,500 known species in the world that are endangered – Joel presents 68 of them in his book, ranging from wolves to wolverines, pitcher plant to pineapple cactus; all exquisitely photographed.....The second thought that ran across my mind was that it’s a rather sad book. One of the last two Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits in the world died a few months after Joel took its photograph...
Heaps of beautiful still images here and here.

(Hat tip: 3QD)

Saturday, May 29, 2010


At last count, over 3,000 websites have posted this PBS NEWSHOUR counter and live videostream.

Live from the Ocean Floor: New Oil Leak Widget Features 'Spillcam'

BP's live video stream of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is simultaneously tragic and hypnotic. With each passing second, more gallons of crude oil and natural gas escape into the ocean.

Until Thursday, BP and NOAA had stood by their early estimate -- produced April 29, a week after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank -- that about 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) were leaking per day from the damaged well, although they had acknowledged that the estimate was not precise.

And after the world first witnessed the 30-second video clip that BP released on May 12, scientists began to wonder more loudly how the estimate could be that low.

Now, thanks in part to congressional pressure, we have a way to watch the environmental crisis unfold in real time via a live video feed. We modified our original Gulf Leak Meter because the video takes our sliding scale out of the abstract and into reality.

Our first oil widget, which we released May 9 and continue to update, allows readers to choose scenarios based on the best guesses (because that is truly what they were) of the spill's size. On May 14, we spoke with some outside experts for more perspectives on how much oil might be flowing from the leak. And on May 17, we factored in that BP was reporting some success in siphoning 2,000 barrels of oil per day out of the leaking well.

Here's a look at some of the other numbers that form the basis of our oil leak range, including our update on May 21 about reports of a new estimate on the way:
A new "flow rate technical team" comprised of outside experts and multiple government agencies is beginning work on a new estimate of the leak's magnitude, which could come as early as this weekend. We'll update both our widgets until the leak is stopped.


I put this post up last night before I had read Andrew Revkin's Complexity and Its Discontents at Dot Earth. I urge you to read the post which discusses the dilemmas of citizens facing complex problems like off-shore drilling or climate change. It asserts that perhaps we need to go to "risk school." I immediately saw Chris Jordan's work as part of the remedy to the problem and wrote about it as follows:


I don't think that we need risk school as much as we need feeling school. Part of the problem is that our information system is so driven by calculating detached specialists -- industrialists, journalists, scientists, whatever-ists -- that we end up only with a bunch of competing agendas rather than the needed deep sense of reality.

Look at the article in today's Times about the oil plumes. They are brand new phenomena. No one knows what they will bring. How are we supposed to assess the risks of something no one has ever thought about? Must we wait months until the tentative speculations of scientists start to trickle in? Will we have to wait for a cumulative body of peer-reviewed literature? Or might we just watch the live stream of gushing gunk to somehow know that the result ain't gonna be good? This direct way of feeling the facts seems more important to me than a stack of risk analysis.

As a philosophical aside it might be time to revisit the Descartes - Spinoza argument. Descartes was abstract. He said, "I think, therefore I am." Spinoza went more with the senses and, in effect, said, "I feel, therefore I am." OK, there's the test -- one that can be performed personally. Just say the two maxims to yourself about your own life and gauge the results personally. Andy, the science and complexity and risk analysis that is being discussed in the posed links are Cartesian. But translating knowledge into action depends on the urgency of feeling.

A few days ago I blogged that I hoped that Obama would be forced to take charge of the gusher not because the government could do anything technically that was not being done by BP but because I wanted the President to have to feel the consequences of off-shore drilling. So far Obama is again evidencing command of the facts and a short-fall of feelings which is precisely the op-ed conclusion of Charles Blow, again in today's times. This is the dilemma of TS Eliot's Prufrock, the Victorian gentleman who didn't know how to act on his feelings. This is Obama's challenge.

Our educational systems separate the arts and science and hold science as higher. But the traditional view was that science addressed the "why" and art addressed the "how" and that both were equally necessary. To see the power of putting art back into the communication equation, please look at the extraordinary artwork of Chris Jordan:

I know Andy that you have blogged about the need for art in communication but the examples are sorta of the graphics of metrics. That's not what Chris Jordan is doing. He is trying to put the feelings of anger and outrage back into the equation. Just watch what happens when he employs a pause of pregnant silence. Feel the impact on the audience. The feelings are palpable but hardly expressible.

I am not advocating some touchie-feelie rejection of science. I am saying that action results only when thought and feeling or mind and body or metrics and meanings become aligned. One of the greatest problems facing an increasingly urban world population is its separation from nature -- from feeling it. The "art" of a live-stream gusher a mile below the surface of the Gulf is more valuable in bridging the gap than risk school might ever be.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus – a mathematician, philosopher, and former mayor Bogotá – has seen a surge in popularity in the Colombia Presidential election. What sets him apart, he tells the Monitor, is his 'decency.'

By Sibylla Brodzinsky to The Christian Science Monitor

[UPDATE: Go to the Anatanas Mockus Google Image collection to get a sense of his incredible theatrics. Noteworthy, is the fact that he is one of the few reform candidates to NOT be represented with an Obama-like cutout poster. He simply is what he is.]

Santa Marta, Colombia

The airport security guard's wand squealed when it passed over the pocket of presidential candidate Antanas Mockus's trousers as he prepared to embark on a recent campaign trip.

Puzzled, Mr. Mockus reached in and pulled out a No. 2 pencil with a metallic band around the eraser.

"They discovered my weapon," he says, recalling the incident with an impish smile. The pencil is one of the symbols of his campaign, which emphasizes education as a tool to transform society.

A few months ago, no one thought Mockus – a mathematician, philosopher, and former mayor of Colombia's capital, Bogotá – had much of a chance in the elections, but his unorthodox campaign style has turned Col­ombia's race for the presidency on its head.

Rising from a distant 3 percent in opinion polls in March, Mockus has surged over 30 percent, placing him in a dead heat with former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, considered the heir to the legacy of the famously popular president, Álvaro Uribe.

The latest Ipsos-Napoleon Franco poll gives Mr. Santos 34 percent of the vote in the first round, compared with 32 percent for Mockus. But if neither candidate secures the 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright in the first round, Mockus would win a run-off with 45 percent to Santos’ 40 percent on June 20, according to the May 23 poll.

'Super Citizen' antics

Mockus's political career has been marked by his steadfast refusal to participate in traditional party politics. As mayor of Bogotá, he made a name for himself with his wacky antics, such as dressing up in spandex tights as "Super Citizen." But he is also recognized for his uncompromising honesty and zero tolerance for corruption.

It is that quality that appears to have captured the imagination of a nation that has tired of corruption, vote buying, and an "anything goes" attitude.

"Mockus represents a new way of doing politics," says analyst Ricardo Garcia, "and he has managed to act as a catalyst for the desire of voters to do away with the political favors and short cuts" that have historically plagued politics in Colombia.

That has allowed him to win over followers from both the pro-Uribe camp and the opposition. "Some Uribistas see him as a good follow-up to Uribe, and the opposition sees him as a much-needed change," Mr. Garcia says.

Francisco Sanchez, a business consultant, says that he sees many similarities in the proposals from Mr. Santos and Mockus; the difference is the way that the two men do politics.

"The big thing at stake here is a change in the political culture," says Mr. Sanchez, who plans to vote for Mockus. "We have a chance to radically change the paradigm that politics has been built on, which is political favors and patronage."

Primary appeal is 'decency'

In an interview while speeding through the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta in a bullet-proof SUV, Mockus explains his own meteoric rise in the simplest of terms:

"Colombians see in me someone who's good," he says, adding that he represents, above anything else, the desire for "decency."

Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, can shift quickly from a distant philosophical air to a playful, eccentric demeanor. At rallies his often lofty platitudes are lost on some followers.

But his wingmen, Luis Eduardo Garzón and Enrique Peñalosa (also both former Bogotá mayors who are essential to his team), and his running mate, Sergio Fajardo (a former mayor of Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín), have the magnetism to rouse the crowds with thundering speeches.

And his followers have been inspired to take the initiative in his campaign.

"Mockusians" design and print campaign posters on their own computers. Young voters organize flash mobs where they freeze in a certain position in any public area until enough passers-by express interest, then reveal their green Mockus T-shirts and chant his slogans.

Much of the political organizing happens on Facebook and Twitter, new elements in Colombian electoral politics, elements that Mockus has dominated.

Still, for many people in the countryside, where rebels and militias roam free, security is a top issue and many people there know little about Mockus, Facebook, or philosophy. Opponent Santos is expected to carry many of the rural areas in the election.

"We could still see a lot of surprises May 30," says Jaime Duarte, a political analyst at Bogotá's Universidad Externado.


Thursday, May 27, 2010


Tonight, there's a full moon circle in Takilma, Oregon for our dear friend Linda. Everyone is bringing a bead for her but that's a bit hard for me far away in this virtual realm. So I'm sending some joyous full moon Santo Daime music from Brazil along with a big bundle of hugs and blessings for her.

Here's a pic of our sweetheart...


Here's a rough translation of the hymn.


My Mother who art Queen
Silvery tonight
Send us your messages
Enlighten our road

Continuing at Your side
It is a less hard journey
My Mother I salute you
I greet you beloved Mother
My mother is telling me
That life is like that

I'll be looking for perfect
Can not go haphazardly
But if I trip today
And do not reach the perfection

I have a fresh start
And this mission will follow
The moon casts on the earth
Her grace and patience

The Moon will be exhaling
For us the essence
I'll drink from this source
This nourishing supper is for me
Tonight is a celebration
With the Queen of the Full Moon

Sung during the 2009 birthday party at Reino do Sol in São Paulo, Brazil

[Note: I changed the youtube video from an earlier pop/funky concert tune because this one fit so much better.]


It's Canada.Elizabeth Kolbert reports in the New Yorker magazine:

While the point of “peak oil” may or may not have been reached, what Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, has dubbed the Age of Tough Oil has clearly begun. This year, the United States’ largest single source of imported oil is expected to be the Canadian tar sands. Oil from the tar sands comes in what is essentially a solid form: it has to be either strip-mined, a process that leaves behind a devastated landscape, or melted out of the earth using vast quantities of natural gas.

Read more

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Sir Ken Robinson's humorous presentation at TED seems as a marvelously lighthearted follow-up to the serious challenges of the themes that have been presented here by Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Oren Lyons and Severn Suzuki.

No, it is no longer about reforms aimed at making things incrementally better. Yes, it really is about the dreams of children and, therefore, the future of all of us. And this requires a revolutionary break from the developmental themes of the past -- the ones that most of our politicians still take for granted. A better life is NOT an improved version of the old ways.

[UPDATE: For an example of how difficult it is to break free of conventional ways of thinking about problems that demand a revolutionary new approach check out Senator Kerry describing why off-shore oil drilling is not going to halt. The pollution is not only in the Gulf of Mexico. It is in the mindset that expects a continuation of the Industrial Age that we have taken for granted. It will continue, of course, but only within a much larger revolutionary transformation which commands that it play a much less dominant and dominating role.]


In another incredibly present flash-from-the-past, here is Severn Suzuki at the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment in Rio.

Too bad that today we have so many MORE examples of the truth of her words.

It used to give me comfort to think that, if fate determined that we must fall, that we could nevertheless choose whether to fall on a pillow or on a rock. But recent history has not been encouraging (was it ever?). Nor, is it as so many have said, "a question of values." It is about finding the will to bring actions and aspirations together.

Oren Lyons  is the traditional Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Iroquois Confederacy. I discovered and posted this older youtube clip two years ago. His prophesy grows more relevant every day.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


This has to get my vote for this year's most profound twist of phrase. It comes from one of the masters of outrage, Andrew Sullivan, and is eliciting plenty of poignant responses from the readers of The Daily Dish.

Increasingly, my own view is that Obama is appearing more and more as a political Prufrock. Here are the relevant lines from the great T.S. Eliot poem:

I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.


No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

The judgment is harsh. But that's what happens when one feels betrayed. I can only issue an equally audacious hope that something might happen to change my view.

(You can read the full T.S. Eliot poem here.)

Monday, May 24, 2010



In the midst of all the finger-pointing accusations and expert analysis of options, Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth calls a spade a spade -- "If ‘Top Kill’ Fails, Obama Must Take Reins."

Money quote:

"...there’s no doubt, at least in the language of relevant federal law; President Obama not only has the authority, but the obligation — however politically risky that might be — to take ownership of efforts to stanch the flow.

And the time is nigh to do so, given that BP has demonstrated, through delays in the release of information and repeated statements downplaying the gravity of the situation, that it cannot be trusted to carry out operations with the public interest at the fore."

However, CNN previously reported:

"officials of oil giant BP, while acknowledging their failure so far to stop the leak, say no one -- not even the U.S. government -- can match their company's know-how and technology in such a crisis. Administration officials also have said they lack the technology -- such as unmanned submarines that can work at such ocean depths -- that has been deployed by BP."

So why have the government take over? Because it is not the technology that caused the disaster. It is our life-style that caused it and our energy policy that made our life-style possible. That energy policy comes from the government and Obama is head of the government. Responsibility is arriving on his watch. It's that simple.

AND, there's a "teaching moment" involved -- for the Obama Administration or any other government (think of Brazil for example) that is foolish enough to still be looking for sources of cheap energy. As Wendell Berry and others have warned repeatedly, the problem with cheap energy is that it is precisely cheap energy that permits the plunder of the earth's resources, the devaluation of human beings and their labor, and the destruction of nature on a global scale. While our addiction to cheap energy has been and continues to be the problem we avoid it by the search for the right expertise or technology.

Here's how Michael Pollan put it:

"For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.

"Thirty years ago, Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and writer, put forward a blunt analysis of precisely this mentality. He argued that the environmental crisis of the 1970s — an era innocent of climate change; what we would give to have back that environmental crisis! — was at its heart a crisis of character and would have to be addressed first at that level: at home, as it were. He was impatient with people who wrote checks to environmental organizations while thoughtlessly squandering fossil fuel in their everyday lives — the 1970s equivalent of people buying carbon offsets to atone for their Tahoes and Durangos. Nothing was likely to change until we healed the “split between what we think and what we do.” For Berry, the “why bother” question came down to a moral imperative: “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”

"For Berry, the deep problem standing behind all the other problems of industrial civilization is “specialization,” which he regards as the “disease of the modern character.” Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: we’re producers (of one thing) at work, consumers of a great many other things the rest of the time, and then once a year or so we vote as citizens. Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician

".... Cheap fossil fuel allows us to pay distant others to process our food for us, to entertain us and to (try to) solve our problems, with the result that there is very little we know how to accomplish for ourselves. Think for a moment of all the things you suddenly need to do for yourself when the power goes out — up to and including entertaining yourself. Think, too, about how a power failure causes your neighbors — your community — to suddenly loom so much larger in your life. Cheap energy allowed us to leapfrog community by making it possible to sell our specialty over great distances as well as summon into our lives the specialties of countless distant others.

"Here’s the point: Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult. Specialists ourselves, we can no longer imagine anyone but an expert, or anything but a new technology or law, solving our problems. Al Gore asks us to change the light bulbs because he probably can’t imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, growing some portion of our own food. We can’t imagine it, either, which is probably why we prefer to cross our fingers and talk about the promise of ethanol and nuclear power — new liquids and electrons to power the same old cars and houses and lives.

"The “cheap-energy mind,” as Wendell Berry called it, is the mind that asks, “Why bother?” because it is helpless to imagine — much less attempt — a different sort of life, one less divided, less reliant. Since the cheap-energy mind translates everything into money, its proxy, it prefers to put its faith in market-based solutions — carbon taxes and pollution-trading schemes. If we could just get the incentives right, it believes, the economy will properly value everything that matters and nudge our self-interest down the proper channels."

As Obama is drawn into the center stage where there may not be any quick fix or eventually desirable outcome, many are wondering which way he will attempt to "nudge" things. Maybe the wake-up call will be severe enough that he will actually have to lead. Let's see.


Via The Daily Dish and TED

In this rare clip from 1972, legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl delivers a powerful message about the human search for meaning -- and the most important gift we can give others.

As we enter the holocaust of change -- ecological, economic and personal -- the writings of Viktor Frankl may well be our best and most inspiring guide. Check out his "Man's Search For Meaning." Only $6.99 from Amazon. Such a deal! And what a gift!

Sunday, May 23, 2010


That's been the mission of Michael Mish's award-winning work for years.

Michael and I first crossed trails at John Denver's Windstar Symposia and then later in Southern Oregon. Nowadays, our trails cross mostly on the Internet but Michael speaks of South American dreams. May his dreams be realized with as much joy as have my own.

Thanks for all the years of great work, Michael.


THEN: Harry Reasoner reporting in a CBS TV Documentary about the Grateful Dead and the growing hippie scene in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, circa 1967.

NOW: In March, 2010 TIME magazine listed among its "10 Ideas for the Next 10 Years -- A thinker's guide to the most important trends of the new decade:"

The Dropout Economy
By Reihan Salam

Middle-class kids are taught from an early age that they should work hard and finish school. Yet 3 out of 10 students dropped out of high school as recently as 2006, and less than a third of young people have finished college. Many economists attribute the sluggish wage growth in the U.S. to educational stagnation, which is one reason politicians of every stripe call for doubling or tripling the number of college graduates.

But what if the millions of so-called dropouts are onto something? As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won't exist, we're on the cusp of a dropout revolution, one that will spark an era of experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live.

It's important to keep in mind that behavior that seems irrational from a middle-class perspective is perfectly rational in the face of straitened circumstances. People who feel obsolete in today's information economy will be joined by millions more in the emerging post-information economy, in which routine professional work and even some high-end services will be more cheaply performed overseas or by machines. This doesn't mean that work will vanish. It does mean, however, that it will take a new and unfamiliar form.

Look at the projections of fiscal doom emanating from the federal government, and consider the possibility that things could prove both worse and better. Worse because the jobless recovery we all expect could be severe enough to starve the New Deal social programs on which we base our life plans. Better because the millennial generation could prove to be more resilient and creative than its predecessors, abandoning old, familiar and broken institutions in favor of new, strange and flourishing ones.

Imagine a future in which millions of families live off the grid, powering their homes and vehicles with dirt-cheap portable fuel cells. As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.

It all makes you wonder about where such strange ideas might have originated? For me personally, I just feel incredibly privileged to have lived and experienced across this extraordinary span of time. I have no idea as to where it might all be leading except that somehow I have discovered what I want to be when I grow up -- YOUNGER, so I can keep traveling this incredible process in body, mind and spirit!

Saturday, May 22, 2010


(Hat tip: Avi)

What really matters department:

I know the gulf is a disaster, the old-growth forests of Alaska are still falling and the ocean temperatures are still rising with perilous consequences. But when NIKE corp posted the above commercial a few days ago, it immediately started going viral already with more than 3 million views. Maybe it's not about what matters most (some would think it is) but it sure makes for better viewing.

As May, 2010 draws to a close in Brazil it is not the annual Feasts of June that are bringing the greatest anticipation but the World Cup soccer competition that will take place in South Africa (without the samba-stepping Ronaldinho). Quadrennial Copa do Mundo Futebol fever is already racing across Brazil. The first signs are that Brazil starts to turn yellow and green, not as a sickness but as a symptom of a magnificent madness that occurs only once every four years. This year Brazil will be running, kicking and playing the beautiful game vying for an unprecedented sixth world championship.

Below is a photo set that I assembled around this time 4 years ago in Brasilia:


Andrew Revkin's recent post at Dot Earth reports that the independent scientists who are reviewing the newly released video footage of the underwater gusher say, "…Our assessments suggest that BP’s stated worst-case estimate of 60,000 barrels [a day] has been occurring all along."

Here is Revkin's Dot Earth post in full:

In a column on The Times Op-Ed page, four scientists from a team of specialists independently assessing the volume of oil gushing from BP’s destroyed seabed well provide more evidence that  the company cannot be trusted to put the public interest ahead of its corporate interests as this disaster continues to unfold. Here’s the researchers’ bottom line, followed by the full list of those involved in this effort, all of whom said they endorse today’s column:

…Our assessments suggest that BP’s stated worst-case estimate of 60,000 barrels [a day] has been occurring all along.
What matters most is that we take the steps to find out if it has. Starting now, BP and the government must begin using the best possible means to measure this spill, while preserving all records of events. On the ocean floor, we recommend acoustic velocimeters, high-rate video cameras and imaging sonar. For the underwater oil, sonobuoys could detect layers of oil, and undersea gliders could follow them autonomously. On the surface, military drone aircraft could find and track patches of oil headed for shore as well as conduct surveillance over this now gigantic spill. Like the methods we have used, these are all readily available solutions.
No surgeon in an operating room would neglect an unvarnished assessment of a bleeding patient. In this disaster, an accurate measurement of the oil spill is no less important.
- John Amos, president of

- Timothy Crone, research scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

- Oscar Garcia-Pineda, assistant scholar-scientist, Florida State University

- Norman Guinasso Jr, director, Geochemical and Environmental Research Group, Texas A&M University

- Samantha Joye, professor of marine science, University of Georgia, Athens

- Ian R. MacDonald, Professor of biological oceanography, Florida State University

- Paul Ruscher, associate professor, meteorology, Florida State University

- Steve Wereley, professor of mechanical engineering, Purdue University


John Rudolf reports,

"This video, released in 1991 and financed by the Western Fuels Association, a coal supplier, insisted that the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels would be a great thing, ushering in an epoch of bountiful plant growth and soaring grain yields."

The Bullshit video series continues here for the 2nd part and here for the final. The assertion is that laboratory studies are suggesting that CO2 is nothing less than the panacea that the world has been waiting for to grow more food and more forests and incidentally remove any possible excess of this central greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. These videos are amazing, actually promising that increasing CO2 levels may increase forest growth as much as six-fold.

However, the gathering research is revealing a massive world-wide forest die-off and the record-breaking 2005 Amazon killing drought, which if reoccurring in greater frequency may result in the loss of 50% of the greatest forest on earth, has been shown to have been driven by the warming of ocean waters in the tropical North Atlantic.

Of course, one can continue to counter denialist crap science forever but the industry folks really have the budgets for creating and spreading their tall tales. To see it in action just watch the videos linked above. From the propaganda point-of-view the content is amazingly effective, well worth watching in order to understand what kind of communication power can be arrayed against the earth.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Colobus monkeys have delevoped a novel way of healing themselves by using the man-made environment around them to it's full potential and stealing charcoal. Amazing wildlife film from BBC Worldwide.

Fuel, soil enhancement, water filtration, stomach medicine, carbon sequestration -- what else does carbon do?

Monday, May 17, 2010


Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull - May 1st and 2nd, 2010 from Sean Stiegemeier on Vimeo.

The stunning video of a natural event above is a perfect introduction to the Dark Mountain Project that focuses instead on human events and is stimulating lots of discussion and debate among environmentalists. Amanda Reed offers the following report from WorldChanging...

On Monday, George Monbiot wrote this article in The Guardian: I Share Their Despair, But I'm Not Quite Ready to Climb the Dark Mountain (sub-title: To sit back and wait for the collapse of industrial civilisation is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens value). Today, The Guaardian posted a response from Simon Lewis: Yes, We Can Change Society Before Global Crises Overwhelm Us (sub-title: We should be neither too pessimistic nor complacent about environmental collapse). Taken together these two articles are an interesting read on environmental destruction and appropriate responses.
Monbiot opens his article by showing that "wealth wrecks the environment":and that the path to a sustainable future should not be put in economic growth, where rich countries are expected to protect the environment, since they can "afford" it. Using the recent oil spill disaster and global comparisons of deforestation as examples, Monbiot illustrates that rich countries (i.e. the United States and the United Kingdom) are the ones plundering their own resources and others the fastest. How then should "we" - those of us in rich countries - respond? The Dark Mountain Project is one response, whose ideas, Monbiat says, are spreading rapidly through the environmental movement:

It contends that "capitalism has absorbed the greens". Instead of seeking to protect the natural world from the impact of humans, the project claims that environmentalists now work on "sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world's rich people – us – feel is their right". Today's greens, it charges, seek to sustain the culture that knackers the planet, demanding only that we replace old, polluting technologies with new ones – wind farms, solar arrays, wave machines – that wreck even more of the world's wild places. They have lost their feelings for nature, reducing the problem to an engineering challenge. They've forgotten that they are supposed to be defending the biosphere: instead they are trying to save industrial civilisation.
That task, Paul Kingsnorth – a co-founder of Dark Mountain – believes, is futile: "The civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it." Nor can we bargain with it, as "the economic system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon … growth in order to function". Instead of trying to reduce the impacts of our civilisation, we should "start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse … Our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can, whilst creating new myths which put humanity in its proper place".

Ultimately, Monbiat agrees with Dark Mountain's premise that many environmentalists and activists have forgotten the love of nature that originally inspired their passion and work for the planet, but he criticizes Dark Mountain's approach to change, which, as he sees it, misses the resiliency of industrial society, and perhaps worse, advocates for a withdrawal from society, an action that itself "conspires in the destruction" of civilization. Lewis, a scientist, challenges both Monbiat and Dark Mountain's fundamental premises of industrial and environmental collapse:

Is the end of the world as we know it imminent? George Monbiot asserts that industrial civilisation, while ravaging the biosphere, will continue for at least a century or two, and criticises the Dark Mountain project group for stating that collapse is upon us. As a scientist analysing the available data, coupled as it must be with some critical assumptions about future human behaviour, I believe both analyses are incorrect. The core problem is that the current modus operandi of global society is the production of goods and services sold for profit, with these profits subsequently reinvested in further production. Such limitless expansion, on a planet of finite material that can be transformed into usable resources, alongside limits to the processing of waste materials, is clearly impossible in the long term.

Lewis continues in a somewhat positive vein:
...there is relatively little scientific evidence that biophysical environmental limits have already been breached to an extent that societal collapse is inevitable. Recently scientists proposed a "safe operating space for humanity", analysing nine possible limits, three of which have perhaps been breached (climate change, biodiversity loss, interference with the nitrogen cycle). However, none were in the "too late" category. The Dark Mountain group are wrong. In 2010, humanity is still largely in control of its destiny.

But also cautions against complacent acceptance of future collapse, and warns that hard work is ahead:
...Monbiot's belief that collapse will be a 22nd-century concern is complacent. Certainly, capitalism is both resilient and dynamic. Dogmatic opposition to political intervention in the economy did, for example, rapidly transform into multibillion-pound bank bailouts. However, globally interconnected economic crises, pervasive poverty, increasingly cheap long-distance transport and instantaneous global communications, coupled with rapid environmental changes and geopolitical tensions over access to resources, is a recipe for mass migration, civil unrest and armed conflict. It is not far-fetched to envisage chronic simultaneous crises, with deteriorating environmental conditions at the core, overwhelming political systems in multiple countries this century.
Hard science and the even harder political choices (including critical global equity questions, as Monbiot rightly identifies) will be at the core of managing the Anthropocene Earth to allow large numbers of people to thrive.
Neither Monbiat or Lewis claims to know the final answer on how best to respond to complex climate issues, but their conversation is worth a read and offers some interesting insights into the complexity of the problems humanity is facing.



After a two month campaign against Nestle for its use of palm oil linked to rainforest destruction spearheaded by Greenpeace, the food giant has given in to activists' demands.The Swiss-based company announced today in Malaysia that it will partner with the Forest Trust, an international non-profit organization, to rid its supply chain of any sources involved in the destruction of rainforests.

Nestle also pledged today that ridding its supply chains of any link to deforestation will not end with palm oil, but the company, one of the 50 biggest in the world, plans to move on to its pulp and paper sources next.

"For the first time ever, a global company is saying that it doesn’t want its products to have a deforestation footprint, and it is taking action to live up to its word," Poynton concludes. "This is the whole push behind [the Forest Trust’s] model—to get one end of the supply chain to take responsibility for what happens at the other end."

Read more about it at Mongabay.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Marina Silva

Here is the full report from Reuters

(Reuters) - Former rubber tapper turned environmentalist Marina Silva joined Brazil's presidential race as candidate for the small Green Party on Sunday, pledging clean government and sustainable development.

The soft-spoken former environment minister trails the two front-running candidates by a wide margin and most analysts say her chances of winning the presidency in October are slim.

But as a world-renowned champion of the Amazon, she is likely to get the limelight she seeks to push the environment higher up on the campaign agenda.

At a party convention on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Silva on Sunday pledged to promote sustainable economic development and to combat social injustice and corruption.

"We already have many of the technical answers for food, education and housing problems -- what's missing is an ethical commitment," the 52-year-old Silva said.

Proposing bicycle paths, water treatment plants and greener farming technologies, Silva said she was as motivated as she was several decades ago when she worked alongside legendary environmental activist Chico Mendes.

Silva, who stepped down as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's environment minister in May 2008, pledged to maintain economic policies that have given Brazil economic growth and stability in recent years, such as inflation control, a floating currency and fiscal discipline to reduce public debt.


Poverty eradication and investments in social welfare were only possible with economic stability and inflation control, she said, announcing that her vice-presidential running mate will be wealthy businessman Guilherme Leal, owner of the big cosmetics company Natura.

"We won't embark on any adventures" in economic policy, she was quoted saying in O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper interview on Sunday.

She also proposed a constituent assembly to help Brazil overcome "paralysis" on issues such tax and pension reforms.

Born into a family of rubber tappers, Silva only learned to read and write when she was 16 years old and worked as a maid to pay the bills.

Currently a senator for the northwestern Amazon state Acre, Silva has only 8-12 percent of voter support in opinion polls. That is 25-30 points behind former Sao Paulo state governor Jose Serra of the centrist PSDB party and Dilma Rousseff of the ruling Workers' Party.

Rousseff has been closing the gap with Serra and passed him in one poll. Many analysts consider her the favorite as she has the support of the hugely popular Lula, who hand-picked her.

Silva had became increasingly isolated inside Lula's team over issues ranging from the government's support for biofuels to genetically modified crops and nuclear power.

The Green Party, long a fringe party in Brazil with little clout, made headlines in 2008 when its candidate, Deputy Fernando Gabeira, nearly won the mayorship of Rio de Janeiro.

Still, the Green party lacks financial muscle to compete with Serra's and Rousseff's alliances of larger parties.

"It will be difficult for Silva to boost her current ratings much," said Ricardo Ribeiro, political analyst for MCM consultancy. "Will she run a single-note campaign on the environment or be competitive on several issues?"

(Reporting by Raymond Colitt, editing by Anthony Boadle)

Friday, May 14, 2010

LIFE 2.0?

One version might look like this...

Life 2.0

Another version might be ALIENS...

An OP-ED from the NY Times...

The Aliens Among Us
Published: May 13, 2010

FOR centuries, speculation about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe was the preserve of philosophers and theologians. Then, 50 years ago last month, the question entered the scientific sphere when a young American astronomer named Frank Drake began sweeping the skies with a radio telescope in hopes of picking up a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization. Initially, his quest was considered somewhat eccentric. But now the pendulum of scientific opinion has swung to the point where even a scientist of the stature of Stephen Hawking is speculating that aliens exist in other parts of our galaxy.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is predicated on the assumption, widely held today, that life would emerge readily on Earth-like planets. Given that there could be upward of a billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, this assumption suggests that the universe should be teeming with life.

But the notion of life as a cosmic imperative is not backed up by hard evidence. In fact, the mechanism of life’s origin remains shrouded in mystery. So how can we test the idea that the transition from nonlife to life is simple enough to happen repeatedly? The most obvious and straightforward way is to search for a second form of life on Earth. No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself, so if the path to life is easy, then life should have started up many times over right here.

Searching for alternative life on Earth might seem misconceived, because there is excellent evidence that every kind of life so far studied evolved from a common ancestor that lived billions of years ago. Yet most of the life that exists on Earth has never been properly classified. The vast majority of species are microbes, invisible to the naked eye, and scientists have analyzed only a tiny fraction of them. For all we know, there could be microbes with other ancestral origins living literally under our noses — or even inside our noses — constituting a sort of shadow biosphere, containing life, but not as we know it.

The denizens of the hidden “alien” biosphere — let’s call them Life 2.0 — might employ radically different biochemical processes than the life we know and love. Microbiologists could easily have overlooked their existence, because their methods are focused on the biochemistry of standard life. Obviously, if you go looking for A, you will find A and not B.

One way to go about tracking down Life 2.0 is to make educated guesses about what its biochemistry might be like. Alternative microbes might, for example, have different chemical elements. One shrewd suggestion, made by Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the United States Geological Survey, is that phosphorus — crucial to life as we know it — could be replaced by arsenic. She and her colleague Ron Oremland are dredging bugs from arsenic-contaminated Mono Lake in California in search of arsenic life.

Other researchers are focusing on the handedness of molecules. In standard life, the key amino acids are always left-handed, and the sugars are right-handed. Scientists are not sure why standard life has made this particular choice; nonliving chemical mixtures tend to contain equal amounts of both left- and right-handed molecules.

If life started again, perhaps it would select different handedness for its key molecules. Should a shadow biosphere of “mirror microbes” exist, the organisms could be identified by culturing microbial samples in “mirror soup” — a cocktail of nutrients with the handedness reversed, available from commercial suppliers. Standard life would find the soup unpalatable, but mirror life would thrive on it. Some experiments along these lines are being carried out at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville. Ala.

Life 2.0 would be easier to identify if it inhabited distinct niches beyond the reach of regular life. Microbes are known to dwell in the superheated water around volcanic vents in the deep ocean, for example. Others survive extremes of cold, salinity, acidity or radiation. Yet all these so-called extremophiles that have been investigated to date are the same life as you and me. Regular life is clearly very hardy and adaptable, and can tolerate amazingly harsh conditions. Nevertheless, there will be limits. If Life 2.0 has a different chemical constitution, it may lurk in pockets at even more extreme temperatures or higher levels of radiation.

An argument often given for why Earth couldn’t host another form of life is that once the life we know became established, it would have eliminated any competition through natural selection. But if another form of life were confined to its own niche, there would be little direct competition with regular life. And, in any case, natural selection doesn’t always mean winner-takes-all. Some years ago it was discovered that simple microbes actually belong to two very distinct domains — bacteria and archaea. Genetically, these groups differ from each other as much as they differ from humans. Yet they have peacefully co-existed in overlapping habitats for billions of years.

If my theory turns out to be correct, it will have sweeping consequences. Should we find a second form of life right here on our doorstep, we could be confident that life is a truly cosmic phenomenon. If so, there may well be sentient beings somewhere in the galaxy wondering, as do we, if they are not alone in the universe.

Paul Davies, the director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, is the author of “The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence.”


chief arvol looking horse

A Great Urgency
To All World Religious and Spiritual Leaders

My Relatives,

Time has come to speak to the hearts of our Nations and their Leaders. I ask you this from the bottom of my heart, to come together from the Spirit of your Nations in prayer. We, from the heart of Turtle Island, have a great mess age for the World; we are guided to speak from all the White Animals showing their sacred color, which have been signs for us to pray for the sacred life of all things. As I am sending this message to you, many Animal Nations are being threatened, those that swim, those that crawl, those that fly, and the plant Nations, eventually all will be affect from the oil disaster in the Gulf.

The dangers we are faced with at this time are not of spirit. The catastrophe that has happened with the oil spill, which looks like the bleeding of Grandmother Earth, is made by human mistakes, mistakes that we cannot afford to continue to make.

I asked, as Spiritual Leaders, that we join together, united in prayer with the whole of our Global Communities. My concern is these serious issues will continue to worsen, as a domino effect that our Ancestors have warned us of in their Prophecies.

I know in my heart there are millions of people that feel our united prayers for the sake of our Grandmother Earth are long overdue. I believe we as Spiritual people must gather ourselves and focus our thoughts and prayers to allow the healing of the many wounds that have been inflicted on the Earth. As we honor the Cycle of Life, let us call for Prayer circles globally to assist in healing Grandmother Earth (our Unc'l Maka).

We ask for prayers that the oil spill, this bleeding, will stop. That the winds stay calm to assist in the work. Pray for the people to be guided in repairing this mistake, and that we may also seek to live in harmony, as we make the choice to change the destructive path we are on.

As we pray, we will fully understand that we are all connected. And that what we create can have lasting effects on all life.

So let us unite spiritually, All Nations, All Faiths, One Prayer. Along with this immediate effort, I also ask to please remember June 21st, World Peace and Prayer Day/Honoring Sacred Sites day. Whether it is a natural site, a temple, a church, a synagogue or just your own sacred space, let us make a prayer for all life, for good decision making by our Nations, for our children¹s future and well-being, and the generations to come.

Onipikte (that we shall live),

Chief Arvol Looking Horse
19th generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe
Wolakota Foundation

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Yup, I know that this is in the "we told you so" department but the point needs to be hammered over and over again. In October, 2008 Greenpeace posted on YouTube the above infomercial which has turned out to be most prescient. Congress and President Obama clearly were not listening. Did Greenpeace have a crystal ball of prophesy? Certainly not! One does not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that feeding our fossil fuel addiction by drilling miles under the ocean is a disaster waiting to happen -- not often, of course, but of catastrophic impact when it does.

The problem is not limited to off-shore oil drilling...

Where is the change that we have been waiting for?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill


–Riki Ott, PhD, has written two books on the Exxon Valdez oil spill impacts on people, communities, and wildlife, including the recently released Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. 

Reposted from Reuters, May 1, 2010

I remember the words, “We’ve had the Big One,” with chilling clarity, spoken just over 21 years ago when a fellow fisherman arrived at my door in the early morning and announced that the Exxon Valdez had run aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and was gushing oil.

For the small fishing community of Cordova, Alaska, where I lived and worked as a commercial fisherma’am, it was our worst nightmare.

That nightmare is reoccurring now with BP’s deadly rig blowout off the Gulf Coast – with haunting parallels to the Exxon Valdez.

I was not at all surprised when officials reported zero spillage, then projected modest spillage, and then reported spill amounts five times higher than their earlier estimates.

As the spill continues, I imagine that even the newly reported amounts will continue to vastly underestimate the actual spillage.

 Underreporting of spill volumes is common, even though lying about self-reported spill volume is illegal – and a breach of public trust.

Still, penalties are based on spill volume: Exxon likely saved itself several billion dollars by sticking with its low-end estimate of 11 million gallons and scuttling its high-end estimate of 38 million gallons, later validated by independent surveyors.

Sadly, it’s a foregone conclusion that BP’s promise to “do everything we can” to minimize the spill’s impact and stop the oil still hemorrhaging from the well nearly one mile under the sea off Louisiana’s coast will fade as its attention turns to minimizing its liability, including damaged public relations.
BP will likely leverage the billions of dollars it will spend on the cleanup to reduce its fines and lawsuit expenses, despite later recouping a large portion of the cleanup cost from insurers or writing it off as a business expense as Exxon did.

Such tactics saved Exxon billions of dollars in the civil settlement for damages to public lands and wildlife (in which damages were estimated at up to $8 billion; but for which Exxon paid just $900 million) and in the class action lawsuit filed by those whose livelihoods were curtailed by the spill (for which the original jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages; but which Exxon fought for 20 years until the Supreme Court lessened its burden to just $507 million).

That Supreme Court decision strictly limited corporate liability and essentially removed the ability of future oil spill victims to hold corporations accountable to the people and the law.

A friend in New Orleans is concerned about the oil fumes now engulfing the southern part of town. He says it “smells pretty strong–stronger than standing in a busy mechanics shop, but not as bad as the bus station in Tijuana.”

State health officials are warning people who are sensitive to reduced air quality to stay indoors, but anyone who experiences the classic symptoms of crude oil overexposure–nausea, vomiting, headaches, or cold or flu-like symptoms–should seek medical help.

This is serious: Oil spill cleanups are regulated as hazardous waste cleanups because oil is, in fact, hazardous to health. Breathing oil fumes is extremely harmful.

After the 2002 Prestige oil spill off Galicia, Spain, and the 2007 Hebei Spirit oil spill in South Korea, medical doctors found fishermen and cleanup workers suffered from respiratory problems, central nervous system problems (headaches, nausea, dizziness, etc.), and even genetic damage (South Korea). I have attended two international conferences the past two years to share information with these doctors.

During the Exxon Valdez spill, health problems among cleanup workers became so widespread, so fast, that medical doctors, among others, sounded warnings. Dr. Robert Rigg, former Alaska medical director for Standard Alaska (BP), warned, “It is a known fact that neurologic changes (brain damage), skin disorders (including cancer), liver and kidney damage, cancer of other organ systems, and medical complications–secondary to exposure to working unprotected in (or inadequately protected)–can and will occur to workers exposed to crude oil and other petrochemical by-products. While short-term complaints, i.e., skin irritation, nausea, dizziness, pulmonary symptoms, etc., may be the initial signs of exposure and toxicity, the more serious long-term effects must be prevented.”[1]

Unfortunately, Exxon called the short-term symptoms, “the Valdez Crud,” and dismissed 6,722 cases of respiratory claims from cleanup workers as “colds or flu” using an exemption under OSHA’s hazardous waste cleanup reporting requirements.[2]

Sadly,  sick Exxon cleanup workers were left to suffer and pay their own medical expenses. I know of many who have been disabled by their illnesses – or have died.

I have repeatedly warned Congress in letters and in person to strike that loophole because it exempts the very work-related injuries–chemical induced illnesses–that OSHA is supposedly designed to protect workers from.

Remember the “Katrina Crud” and the “911 Crud?” Standby for the “Gulf Crud” because our federal laws do not adequately protect worker safety or public health from the very real threat of breathing oil vapors, including low levels typically found in our industrial ports, our highways during rush hour traffic, and our urban cities.

Oil is not only harmful to people, it is deadly to wildlife. I am sickened to think of the short-term destruction and long-term devastation that will happen along America’s biologically rich coastal wetlands – a national treasure and a regional source of income.

In Alaska, the killing did not stop in 1989. Twenty-one years later,  buried oil is still contaminating wildlife and Prince William Sound has not returned to pre-spill conditions – nor, honestly, will it. The remnant population of once-plentiful herring no longer supports commercial fisheries and barely sustains the ecosystem.

While local efforts to boom Louisiana’s fragile coasts to keep the oil out will help people feel productive and empowered (and this is important), it is an unfortunate truth that the booms have limited utility and effectiveness. In even mild sea conditions, oil will wash over and under boom. Further, underneath the visible oil slick, there is an invisible cloud of toxic oil dissolved into the water column and this dissolved oil is deadly to shrimp and fish eggs and marine life.

Still, the Gulf spill has one advantage over the Alaska spill – hot weather and the relatively warm ocean will speed the work of bacteria to degrade the Louisiana crude. Even so, the initial toxic hit is likely to harm generations of wildlife, similar to what happened in Prince William Sound.

The oil industry has had over 40 years – since the 1967 Torrey Canyon tanker spill in England – to make good on its promise to cleanup future oil spills. This latest spill highlights the harsh truth that the industry has failed to live up to its promise. It is time for Americans to demand of our leaders accountability and closure of fossil fuel industries – as we transition to new energies.

[1] City of Cordova Fact Sheet, 1989 1[29]: Robert Rigg, MD, Letter to Cordova District Fishermen United, 13 May 1989.

[2] U.S. Dept. of Labor, OSHA 29 CFR Part 1904.5(b)(2)(viii): “Colds and flu will not be considered work-related.”

Monday, May 10, 2010


Via Mongabay

A joint report released today by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP) finds that our natural support systems are on the verge of collapsing unless radical changes are made to preserve the world's biodiversity. Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Ahmed Djoghlaf, called the bleak report "a wake-up call for humanity."
...the report warns that several ecosystems are heading toward tipping points from which they may never recover. Due to a combination of climate change, deforestation, and fires, the Amazon rainforest may change irrevocably; while coral reefs are being pounded by overfishing, warmer waters, and ocean acidification; finally freshwater ecosystems like lakes and rivers are losing biodiversity and abundance due to nutrient runoff.

"Business as usual is no longer an option if we are to avoid irreversible damage to the life-support systems of our planet..."

In spite of the report, business continues as usual worldwide with, for example, New Zealand attempting to push through a plan to allow mining in protected areas; US congress proposing to give 85,000 acres of old-growth temperate rainforest to a logging company in Alaska; Brazil moving ahead on its controversial Belo Monte dam that would flood 500 square miles of rainforest; and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) failing to protect a single marine species in its most recent meeting.

"Humanity has fabricated the illusion that somehow we can get by without biodiversity or that it is somehow peripheral to our contemporary world: the truth is we need it more than ever on a planet of six billion heading to over nine billion people by 2050..."


I guess that my "conservation bible" quote on this question comes from the American naturalist Aldo Leopold who held that
We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.
But one of my Brazilian friends keeps accusing me of asking that the poor of Brazil sacrifice their economic development for the benefit of the rich. Basically he argues that my North American capitalist view causes me to put the environment first. Generally, this triggers a vigorous but truly tedious and exhausting dialectical debate between us in which I end up hoping only for some expression that might transcend the old-school ideological over-simplifications. I believe it comes from activist, politician and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai:

Wangari Maathai

About a year ago, she was interviewed by Sarah Kuck and Julia Levitt of Worldchanging:

Julia Levitt: In The Challenge for Africa, you argue that of all of the UN Millennium Development Goals for 2015, it's the seventh -- environmental sustainability -- that is most important. How is a healthy environment the keystone for all of these economic and social goals?

Wangari Maathai: The way I look at it, we tend to put the environment last because we think the first thing we have to do is eliminate poverty and send children to school and provide health. But how are you going to do that? In Kenya, one of our biggest exports is coffee. Where do you grow coffee? You grow coffee in the land. To be able to grow coffee you need rain, you need special kinds of soils that are found on hillsides, and that means you have to protect that land from soil erosion so you don't lose the soil. You also want to make sure that when the rains come you're going to be able to hold that water and have it go into the ground so that the streams and the rivers keep flowing and the ground is relatively humid for these plants. For the rains and the rivers you need forests and you need to make sure these your forests are all protected, that there is no logging, that there is no charcoal burning and all the activities that destroy the forest. All this really needs to be done so that you can be able to grow good coffee, so that you can have an income, so that you can send your children to school, so that you can buy medicine, so that you can take them to hospitals, so that you can care for the women, especially mothers.

We see that the environment is something to exploit, because we see the environment in terms of minerals for example, or forests, or even raw materials that we produce on our land, or even land itself. We see it in terms of what we can exploit rather than the medium in which all of these activities have to take place. But you can’t reduce poverty in a vacuum. You are doing it in an environment.

JL: In your book, you argue that it's most important for African people to develop solutions for their own needs instead of relying on aid from abroad. How do you envision a healthy exchange between Global North and Global South?

WM: I hope that it doesn't come out in the book that I’m saying that Africans don't need any help. What I am trying to say is that they need to learn to rely on themselves and to learn from other people, and when you learn something from other people, then you keep moving onward for yourself.

For example, they have land. The government of Qatar wants to lease the Tana River delta, which is in Kenya, from the Kenyan government, so that they can produce food there. People in Kenya need food. We have people who have studied agriculture. Why is it that if we really need food, we cannot go into the delta and develop our own food? Why do we have to have people come from afar to come and grow food for us, or to grow food to sell to us? It is partly because we are almost becoming used to people doing things for us. Like somebody else is going to solve that problem for us. And that to me is very disempowering system. And that system eventually can make you destroy yourself completely, because you are so dependent on others. Nobody in the world is completely dependent on another person, but we are all interdependent.

I was particularly talking with respect to aid, because that to me is one area that can make people so dependent, and unfortunately, that dependency starts with the government. It goes to local authorities and even to members of Parliament so that individual citizens almost become people who want to sit and wait for their member of Parliament to come and solve the problem. Now that won't take you anywhere. And if you follow it, you will see that it feeds corruption in the country.

JL: You write that African nations are being left behind in the global trend toward renewable energy. Do you have a vision for how African people and governments can work to bring renewable energy industries to African nations?

WM: We have been trying to follow the same development, often that we have learned from the industrialized world. Yet now the industrialized world is moving away from fossil fuels and moving towards renewable sources of energy. And because we have not invested so much into education, we don’t have the technology and sometimes we don't even have the capital to buy this technology. But obviously the world is moving away from high carbon energy to low carbon energy, and eventually moving away toward renewable energy. So it is in the interest of Africa to move towards that, because that's where the world is moving.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe she’s ready to shift -- and she needs to shift. So she needs to get the technology and she can only get that technology from the developed world. So the developed world should be willing to help her and support her and make this energy affordable. Because if Africa is left behind, she is going to continue pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, especially carbon. She’s going to continue logging the forests, she’s going to continue burning charcoal, she is going to continue practicing agricultural activities that destroy the environment, and sooner or later Africa's problem will become a global problem.

That is why it is in the interest of the developed world to help her, and it is one of the reasons why I say we all need to work together to save the Congo forest, because if we don’t save the Congo forest, the Amazon forest and the southeast Asia forest, if those forests release the carbon they are trapping at the moment, much of what you will be doing in the North will be negated by the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. So this issue of carbon is one area where we really need to work together and if people don’t have the technology they need, that technology needs to be made available and affordable.

Sarah Kuck: In the documentary Taking Root, you said that after you went to America for university, it was very hard to re-adjust to the level of women’s rights in Kenya. Can you talk about how things have changed for African women since the ’60s and what struggles women are still encountering?

WM: Things have changed tremendously. Most parents want to send their children to school, including girls, and usually poverty is the big blockade that makes them not do that. Human rights have also greatly improved. There are laws that allow women to own property, to buy property and to inherit equally as men. But the problem that we have seen since that time is that tradition sometimes excludes the girl child from inheriting; or single women may not want to be perceived as pursuing too much property. The law has come a long way in favor of the woman, but it is the tradition, the attitudes, that we often have to fight.

SK: What kind of things are happening that are changing peoples opinion about traditional women's rights and women's roles?

WM: I have seen a lot of men, for example, who will make a will and include their daughters whether they are married or not. And perhaps the greatest change of attitude is that today, at least in Kenya, if you don’t send your child to school -- unless it's a matter of poverty or religion, and it is not that there no schools -- then people wonder, "why the hell don’t you send your children to school?" Now that's a very big jump from when I was going to school and educating girls was an exception to the rule.

People are dynamic. They change, and soon as there are enough of you, things change [for a whole society]. Education of course is a very empowering experience, so many people who went to school also managed to improve their quality of life much faster because they could get a job, they could get money, and with money you could buy things that you cannot buy if you don’t have money. So once people see that you improve you life if you are educated, then education becomes a valuable tool and people want it.

SK: Powerful corporations and individuals would like to come into Africa and help with food and farming initiatives. Do you see these as positive, or are they hurting local farmers?

WM: At the moment, both private companies and governments have proposed to come and lease land in Africa. For example, the government of Qatar, as I mentioned, has proposed to come and lease Kenya's Tana River delta in order to farm there. What I am not sure of is, has an environmental impact assessment been made to ensure that exploiting this delta for agricultural activities is the best way we can use the delta?

We must be concerned about the long-term impact of agricultural activities in the delta. That question I feel is very important when you consider, for example, what America did in the Gulf, and a lot of that coastal exploitation, at a time where we did not know enough about how to manage these seaside land masses.

Today the American government has spent a lot of money trying to reclaim, for example, the Everglades, and to allow the natural vegetation at the coastal areas to be restored because that was part of the vegetation that actually protected the hinterlands. After Hurricane Katrina, many people said that the levees were not as effective as the natural vegetation that had been removed at the coast. So that means as we develop these seaside land masses, we need to have enough knowledge to not regret in the future. We know that the US government is literally buying these lands back to allow them to be rehabilitated. Why would anyone want to repeat the same mistake in Kenya at this time? And I’m not quite sure that the government of Qatar is ignorant about that and I’m not quite sure that the Kenyan government is ignorant about that, but between the two of them, unless they are going to be questioned, they are interested in making profits now.

I’m sure the government of Qatar is not coming in to grow food for the people of Kenya; it's coming to grow food to sell. If it can also sell to the people of Kenya, well, then good. I think that the moves can be helpful, but I think that the history that Africa knows, as I say in my book, has been a history of exploitation.

There are certain areas where foreign investors can help the local people to generate wealth, and improve their quality of life. Some companies, for example, Del Monte, which produces pineapples in Kenya, pay a huge amount of taxes, I am sure, to the Kenyan government, and they do create jobs for thousands of locals. But there has to be an understanding that you can’t just go there to exploit, and governments need to be interested in protecting their people from such exploitation. An individual citizen cannot protect himself from the powers of large corporations or external governments. It is the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens.

SK: Do you feel that it is an appropriate solution for farming in Africa to start using genetically modified crops that might produce a larger quantity of food?

WM: Maybe instead of answering that question directly, because there are so many pros and cons of genetically engineered food, let me use an example.

Nile perch is a fish that was introduced into Lake Victoria. The reason that fish was introduced into Lake Victoria was because it was decided that the people living near the lake needed more proteins than they were getting. Now, the people around the lake were used to eating a very small fish that was prolific in the lake, and they would fish with very simple nets and very simple boats. Now when Nile perch was introduced, I don’t think enough research was done; maybe it was done, maybe it was not. But Nile perch is a huge fish. So it ate all the little fish, and it grew into a monster which the local people could not fish with their little boats and their little nets.

So now we have allowed people to come, not local people, with these huge boats which can catch this fish, process them, put the meat in freezers and directly export them to Europe or other parts of the world. And the bones are processed by the same boats into chicken feed, which is then sold to the multi-national corporations that produce chicken in large number. So the question I would ask then is, where were the local people helped?

I think some of these solutions are prepared in an office without a full understanding of the local situation...Or maybe there was never the intention to help the people anyway. So GMOs, who knows? Maybe GMOs will come, they will get maize that produces double. But who knows what else may happen to the maize?

As a scientist I cannot say we don’t want to hear anything about GMOs, because these are advances in science. But I think its also important, especially when you are dealing with food, to be cautious, and I think this is one area where the is a need for legal regulations to make sure that companies -- because at the moment, companies are the ones that have this technology -- will not use this technology in a way that could adversely affect the people.

SK: Are there ways that African farmers can work with international corporations for mutual benefit, or do you think that exploitation is always the end result?

WM: First of all, farmers should work with universities and research institutions in the country, and hopefully with the government. One of the reasons why I’ve written The Challenge for Africa is to save it. Surely there are so many problems we can solve in Africa, but first and foremost, we need a government that feels responsible to protect their own people from the exploitations, from the misuse, from the mistreatment that they can easily get. There is no reason why a company like Monsanto, for example, that is pushing GMOs, cannot go to Kenya, partner with the university, partner with the research institutions, and try to promote – in a responsible way — advanced techniques to help farmers. But this should be done in such a way that the farmers’ livelihoods are not undermined because the government is irresponsible or careless, or because it is compromised.

Monsanto will not come empty-handed. Monsanto will come with a big bag of money. And because these governments are poor, when they are shown money for their research institutions, for their universities, for their professors, they are very quick to say yes, and I can tell you that when Monsanto came to Kenya, they were able to be given permission to do research in one of our research institutions, and yet there was not a single law to control such research. They said laws will be created. Why would you want to start the research before laws are created? One should be creating laws so that those scientists are regulated, they are controlled, they are guided by a legal mechanism that will ensure that they remain responsible and accountable to the people for whom they are doing research. I think maybe as we speak, the rules have now been drafted. But it has been more than three years now since that research was started. Those are the kind of steps that make me a little bit nervous because it’s so easy to twist the arms of the government with money.

SK: For the African people whom you know, does the desire and the need for quality and quantity of food supply trump things like environmental safety or longevity for the soil?

WM: Quite often when you help poor people, they don't think about the environment. They think about survival. One of the reasons why we started the Green Belt Movement is to work with these ordinary peasant farmers so as to educate them that, despite the fact that they are poor, it is in their interest to protect the soil that they have, to protect the forest they have, to protect the land that they have, because if they don't do it, things can be only worse tomorrow for them for them and for their children.

Photo credit: Sean Conroe.