Saturday, July 31, 2010


We've previously reported here and here that rainforest conservation can be fun with the use of condoms from the Chico Mendes Reserve in Acre, Brazil.

Now there are condoms for cleaning up the Gulf. "Great for containing your gusher and protecting your junk shot!"

According to GRIST:

The best thing about these Oil Spill Condoms by Practice Safe Policy -- besides the brilliant wordplay and the benefits of limiting a population blowout -- is that for every time you drill in one of these, 20% of the profits will be donated to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund through the Greater New Orleans Foundation. At $30 per package of ten, there's a potential flow of funds we hope won't be capped.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


RB Binho Frei Heitor 6jul10
Governador do Acre, Binho Marques, awarding the Order of the Star of Acre to Frei Heitor Turini.

Amidst fanfare and award, our dear friend Frei Heitor ("I AM PART OF THE TREE") Turini has departed his beloved Acre for his Italian land of birth. Foster Brown, rainforest ecologist and Federal University of Acre professor, wrote a homage to the friar's unique personality and devoted service to the people and trees of Acre.

Innocence in Brazil
July 2010
Foster Brown

Friar Heitor Turrini teaches the mathematics of hope

(7 July 2010)

Exponential growth is the monster under the bed of most environmentalists. We don’t think much about it until we reflect what a 10% growth rate would do to energy demand (doubling it in 7 years, quadrupling it in 14 years). My philosopher- friend, Reginaldo Castelo, recently reminded me of the monster when he sent me a link to Albert Bartlett’s excellent lecture on exponential growth.

The classic example portrays lily pads that double their size each day and cover a pond, killing the fish in 30 days1. The question is when do the lily pads cover half the pond? The answer is on the 29th day. With such examples, exponential growth seems like a fungal disease to be avoided. Then I listened to one of Friar Heitor Turrini’s informal sermons. The Friar is an Italian missionary who had come to Brazil in 1950 and yesterday said good-bye to Acre, returning to Italy due to his fragile health. As always, he gave me hope, but this time with a calculation.

Imagine, he said, that he and Father Andre, another Italian missionary, convinced each other how to live in harmony with the earth and with each other. On the next day, Friar Heitor and Father Andre convinced two others. On the third day the four of them convinced four more, and so on for subsequent days. How many days would it take to convince the world’s population to live in harmony? Friar Heitor worked out this calculation during a canoe trip up the Acre River in April.

When I posed this question to colleagues, they came up with months to years, but the Friar showed that it would take only 33 days. “Thirty-three days!” He exclaimed, banging his fist on my knee. “We can change the world, in a month, if we want to!”

Friar Heitor doesn’t believe that he will return to to Acre. During his stay, his systolic blood pressure dropped briefly to 50 mm. The doctor said that if it had slipped to 40 mm, he would have gone to Paradise much sooner than anticipated.

Once I had thought that the Friar was going back to Italy to die; but he soon corrected me. “Italy,” he said, “is in the midst of a moral crisis with abortions and violence.” He feels that he has much to do and awaits Vera’s and my visit to Bologna. And if we don’t make it, then “we will meet in Paradise and figure out how to spend several billion years together.” The Friar always thinks large.

His departure motivated the Governador do Acre, Binho Marques, to award him the Order of the Star of Acre. In his speech at the ceremony, the evening of Friar Heitor’s departure, Binho said that his theory of why Acre is special has much to do with the arrival 60 years ago of a group of Italian missionaries that have made such a difference. Friar Heitor replied that of the nine that arrived, only four are still alive.

RB convento Freis Andre Heitor Foster Paolino 2jun10
Freis Andre, Heitor, Paolino and Foster Brown

A key person in this award was Eufran do Amaral, Secretary of the Environment. The link is long between them; Friar Heitor baptized Eufran in Sena Madureira.

Both Friar Heitor and his fellow missionary Padre Paolino Baldassarri have served as a conscience for the region. Whenever I visited the Friar I would receive a lecture and a question, “When will the U.S. stop its wars in Iraq and Afganistan. When will it stop the killing?” My lack of response spoke to me as well.

[editor's note: Frei Heitor's "knee-banging" style expressively leaves little doubt, as revealed in the following video.]

Both Friar Heitor and Padre Paolino do not support sustainable development the way that they see it in Acre. They find that the logging permitted for sustainable management isn’t sustainable. As Padre Paolino said to me, in the past they protested against their enemies, now they protest against their friends.

Friar Hector’s final words at the ceremony accentuated what we need to do: let the forest live; help the poor; and find alternative sources of energy to preserve the planet.


Post script. Friar Heitor has a joie-de-vivre that has served him well. Besides telling me about his experiences of celebrating a Mass in Communist China in 1970 and having survived several crash landings as an Amazonian bush pilot, he once tried to show me a pair of old water skis at the Sena Madureira Convent. I had forgotten about them until I saw the picture below, of the Friar skiing on one of Acre’s rivers when he was in his mid-sixties.

Sena Frei Heitor esquiando jul10


Friday, July 23, 2010



Marina Silva's visionary departure from the business-as-usual politics that has been determining Amazonian policy is rocking the campaign boat of Lula's chosen successor Dilma Rousseff. Here is a report on how the presidential campaign is shaping up:

Lula-Like Candidate May Push Brazil Race Into Second Round on Environment

By Fabiola Moura and Maria Luiza Rabello
Bloomberg - Jul 22, 2010

In the race to succeed Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, only one candidate can match the former union leader’s up-by-the-bootstraps biography: his former Environmental Minister Marina Silva.

Silva, 52, who spent her childhood tapping rubber trees in the Amazon rain forest and worked as a maid before entering politics, had 10 percent backing in an Ibope poll published July 3. Lula’s former cabinet chief and chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, had the support of 39 percent, tied with opposition candidate Jose Serra, in the survey of 2,002 adults that had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Silva, who resigned from Lula’s cabinet in 2008 after losing environmental battles to business interests, may be drawing support away from both frontrunners, said David Fleischer, a political analyst at the University of Brasilia. She promises to maintain her former mentor’s poverty-fighting policies and programs for luring investment while ushering in an era of corruption-free politics and concern for the environment.

“What is right, in the past 16 years, both in economic policy and in social policy, we will keep,” Silva said in a phone interview from Sao Paulo ahead of meetings this week in New York with investors.

“The mistakes we will correct, as we face new challenges, especially promoting sustainable growth.”Silva said in an interview today that if elected she would improve upon Lula’s policies and leave her own “trademark.”

By contrast Rousseff seeks simply to emulate the current president and Serra would stake out opposition positions just for the sake of being different than Lula, Silva said.

Second Round

If support for her Green Party candidacy holds, Silva may push the Oct. 3 election for the next leader of Latin America’s largest economy into a second round, said Christopher Garman, the Eurasia Group’s director for Latin America. A candidate needs 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

Lula, who left school at age 11 to support his family and lost a pinky finger operating a machine press on an assembly line, is preparing to step down with a record approval rating of 85 percent, according to Ibope.

Silva says her campaign will benefit from new technologies to reach out to voters, such as the Internet and Twitter Inc.’s social networking site, following the example of President Barack Obama. Silva predicted today she would advance to the second round of voting.

All three candidates vow to maintain the decade-old economic pillars that won Brazil its first ever investment-grade rating in 2008: limiting the budget deficit, stemming inflation and allowing a free-floating exchange rate. Since Lula took office in 2003, the benchmark Bovespa index has surged five-fold while the real strengthened 99 percent against the U.S. dollar.

Youngest Senator

Silva, who joined Lula’s Workers Party in 1985 and was elected Brazil’s youngest-ever senator at the age of 36 in 1994, said she’s the best qualified to build on the president’s legacy for reducing poverty by 30 million people. A video on her campaign website touts their shared surname, which is common among poorer Brazilians. The two aren’t related.

Even while praising Lula as a politician, Silva is critical of some of his policies, especially those affecting the environment.

“The biggest risk we run today is complacency,” Silva told investors, including Citigroup Inc.’s former senior vice chairman William Rhodes, in New York today at an event sponsored by Sao Paulo’s BM&F Bovespa SA.

“The growth rhythm we are experiencing today reflects the effects of a cyclical recovery,” Silva said, adding that government spending cuts and other reforms are needed to achieve sustainable growth.

Environment Job

As environment minister, Silva fought for tighter controls on a 656 billion-real ($368.4 billion) infrastructure drive between 2007 and 2010 headed by Rousseff, said Claudio Langone, who worked alongside her at the environment ministry for four years.

Silva quit when Lula passed her over when seeking someone to head the government’s Amazon taskforce, Langone said. Silva entered politics fighting deforestation in the Amazon alongside Chico Mendes, who was assassinated in 1988.

Among Silva’s targets in the campaign is the $11 billion Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which would be the world’s third- biggest hydropower plant when it’s completed and would require the flooding of a Chicago-sized swathe of Amazon rainforest.

Only two groups, both led by units of state-controlled utility Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras in Rio de Janeiro, bid for the project in April after private-led consortiums dropped out. Brazil’s state development bank known as BNDES said in April it will finance as much as 80 percent of Belo Monte.

Avatar, Religion

“If I were in the government, I would have suspended the auction,” said Silva, who in a blog posting wrote that she identifies with the lean, forest-dwelling humanoids depicted in Belo Monte opponent James Cameron’s sci-fi film “Avatar.”

While Silva, a born-again Christian who prays daily on the campaign trail, said she’ll show “zero tolerance” with the corruption practiced by Brazil’s two main political parties, she isn’t positioning herself as a protest vote against the status quo, according to Garman.

For her vice presidential running mate she chose Guilherme Leal, founder and former co-chairman of Cajamar-based Natura Cosmeticos SA, Brazil’s biggest cosmetics maker. Her main economic adviser is Eduardo Giannetti, who criticized excessive government spending and lack of policy coordination with the central bank in an interview last month with Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo newspaper.

Silva’s stable 10 percent polling level makes it difficult to know which candidate she will steal more votes from, or who she would support in an eventual second round, said University of Brasilia’s Fleischer.

“She has considerable problems with Dilma, because she was her main adversary in Lula’s cabinet,” said Fleischer. “Whether she would come around and support her in a second round we are not sure.”

Go to original article.

Thursday, July 22, 2010



The last year and a half has produced endless versions of a proposed climate bill. Senate Democrats had already scaled back their plans to pursue limits on greenhouse gas emissions, like those in a bill approved by the House last year. Instead, they had said they would seek a cap on carbon emissions only for power plants. But even that proved overly ambitious.

“We know where we are,” Senate Majority Leader Reid said. “We don’t have the votes.”

[UPDATE: Dave Roberts at GRIST angrily assesses the situation: "What's happened is total and complete surrender. There's no silver lining in this cloud.... It's a sad, corrupt state of affairs this country finds itself in. I wish I had some hopeful words to offer. But at this point, American government appears to be broken. And our children and grandchildren will suffer for it."]

Andrew Revkin lists the things that President Obama might have done but did not do to help move the bill forward and then speculates:

Could it be that the White House has concluded what some political analysts have quietly told me — that only a Republican president could muster the Senate votes to pass a meaningful climate bill? That sounds strange initially but isn’t so strange when you consider the history of major environmental legislation and note that a moderate Republican could bring his or her base and lure many Democrats, while a Democrat is unlikely ever to lure sufficient Republican support to get 60 votes on a climate bill.

Someday, perhaps, Obama or a successor will discard convention and take the lead on this challenge, despite its sweep and complexity.

Of course, one can hope but it's going to take action and will more than audacious speeches.


Eric Stoner celebrates the incredible beauty and diversity of Brazil.

Gilbert Gil, Brazil's world musician and tropicalista ex-minister of culture, has referred to Brazil as the ultimate center of miscegention and the evolutionary cauldron where both a new planetary citizen and a global culture are being born.

Despite its many problems, to be in Brazil is to walk amidst ever-evolving beauties.
TOXIC GULF (Views from the bottom.)

Not from the bottom of the sea but from the real folks on the ground. Definitely five stars. (parts 2 and 3 are over the jump)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010



Ever since Henry Wickham committed the bio-piracy that led to the British Empire's more efficient rubber plantations in Southeast Asia and the consequent bursting of the rubber bubble in Amazônia, Brazilians have been especially suspicious of and susceptible to conspiracy stories about foreign attempts to steal the vast treasures of he Amazon Basin. So focused have they been on "foreign theft" that it would have been hard to anticipate a homegrown alliance between forces on the far left and far right to grab the land and forests. But that's exactly what happened when the Communist Party combined with the right-wing "ruralistas" and agri-businesses to revise Brazil's Forestry Code.

Johannes van de Ven elaborates on the far left-and-right conspiracy:

Although conceived more than 40 years ago, this landmark piece of legislation is a most progressive and modern, perhaps even the best in the world. In theory, the law requires landowners to preserve 80 percent of private properties in the Amazon basin, 35 percent in the savannas and 20 percent along its vast coastline. These are the so-called effective legal reserve requirements for rural properties. In practice, however, these reserve requirements have not been respected. The Forest Code has largely been a fiction, used and abused by small and big landowners, cattle ranchers and energy barons, landless peasants and multinationals. Law enforcement has been weak due to federal mismanagement, political omission and lack of financial resources and outright corruption.

On July 6, 2010, the Special Congressional Commission approved Aldo Rebelo’s reform bill, by a surprising 13 to 5 margin. In a typical scene of Brazilian federal politics, proponents of the projects commemorated the adoption by shouting “Brazil, Brazil, Brazil”, while opponents screamed “regression, regression, regression.” As if we were watching a bad movie about the last frontier on the Western front. The approval was only made possible due to rather an awkward agreement between the Communist Party and the right-wing ruralist bloc, which votes according to the interests of large landowners and the agribusiness lobby. This extraordinary coaltion was surprisingly backed by some members of the government coalition (PT/PMDB) and the major opposition party (PSDB/DEM). The only party that strongly opposed to Rebelo's bill was Marina Silva's Green Party.

The old Brazilian political standby of foreign CONSPIRACY played an important role in building support for the revised code:

In order to keep the momentum for passing the bill in the Congress, the awkward alliance of communists and the agribusiness lobby has been vocal. In a recent public debate, which I attended in the city of São Paulo, for example, Rebelo argued that environmental non-governmental organizations are in league with foreign governments in North America and Europe to undermine Brazilian sovereignty. For Rebelo and his communist party colleagues, the concept of forest protection or conservation is a conspiracy invented by the United States and the European Union to restrict Brazil’s economic development. This seems a rather bizarre accusation but is still omnipresent in domestic debates. The conspiracy theory is food for thought and resuscitated at regular intervals in newspaper columns, domestic television debates, especially now in a year of presidential campaigns.

Even Brazil’s agribusiness lobby is hiding itself behind the conspiracy theory of foreign interference in domestic affairs. A recent report of Washington, D.C.-based Avoided Deforestation Partners (ADP) has unintentionally reignited the conspiracy theory among communists and cattle ranchers in Brazil. Rebelo argues that the North American report “Farms Here, Forests There” is evidence that US lawmakers conceive stopping deforestation in the Amazon basin as a way to enhance multi-billion dollar markets for US agribusiness at the expense of Brazil. ADP argues that ending deforestation in Brazil through US and global climate incentives would net $190 to $270 billion by 2030 for US beef, soy timber and oil seed producers. In other words, by promoting forest preservation in Brazil, American farmers would be protected from rising competition from rising agribusiness power nation Brazil.

van der Ven points out that only ex-Minister of Environment and current presidential candidate Marina Siva has had the guts to take a unambiguous public stand against this nonsense:

The proposal is now on the table of the full Congress, where support is not guaranteed. With the presidential elections looming at the horizon later this year, the three main candidates are forced to justify their positions. Marina Silva of the Green Party has placed her opposition to Rebelo's bill at the very center of her presidential campaign. Her support base is growing, also driven by her campaign plea for “zero deforestation” from now onwards.

(continue to van der Ven's excellent in-depth analysis of what the future debate has in store.)

With due respect for and not to diminish the importance of Silva's courageous stand, it's necessary to point out that even zero deforestation will not be sufficient to avert the coming crisis as global GHG emissions cause the warming of North Atlantic tropical waters and bring more frequent devastating storms and more persistent drought to Amazônia. Indeed, the true conspiracy to end the Amazonian treasure trove is not found in foreign or domestic theft but in the joint refusal of China and the United States to reduce their outrageous levels of emissions (which are outrageous in the U.S. and rapidly rising in China) which are threatening to alter the climate and transform a large part of the Amazon basin from forest to savanna. 

Since much of the rainfall for Brazil's great agricultural zone is actually generated by Amazonian forest dynamics, loss of its moisture pumping role would be devastating to the interests of the ruralistas and agri-business as well. Just as China, the U.S. and the developed world must reduce the carbon emissions caused by their energy demand, Brazil must reduce emissions caused by deforestation. The communists, rualistas and agri-business interests would be better-advised to conspire to be part of the growing 21st Century awareness that global warming and deforestation affects everyone.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Can the Amazon Thrive in the 21st Century?"

The title is not mine. It belongs to Andrew Revkin's post at the NY Times blog DotEarth. The post was built around a rather rosy presentation that he facilitated at the Aspen Institute with Peter Seligman, the founder and head of Conservation International, and Fabio Scarano, a Brazilian ecologist and executive director of the organization’s Brazilian branch.

When I read Revkin's sanguine comments they seemed terribly uninformed and I was furious.

"I’m convinced that the system of rivers and forests is durable enough — not to mention expansive enough — to persist, and even thrive, as Brazil and its neighbors develop their economies. ... But there are enormous unresolved issues still that could lead to an acceleration of the slow-drip style of degradation that can cause great biological riches to vanish in plain sight."

I fired back a headline about a recent World Bank (hardly a hotbed of environmentalism) study:

"World Bank Amazon Dieback Study Predicts Greater Probability and Severity of Biome Collapse: Zero deforestation is an emergency requirement, although insufficient to avoid catastrophe."

[UPDATE: 25 July 2010 -- The latest science on the Amazonian rain forests and drought has been published online in a special report from the New Phytologist which concludes that, although mass die-off is not inevitable, "... when expected feedbacks between vegetation and climate are combined with fire incidence and land-use change scenarios, we conclude that Amazon rain forests are highly vulnerable to loss during the coming decades."]

But, as I read to the end of the DotEarth post, I saw that he had invited me to comment. So I calmed down and began writing. Here is an expanded, elaborated and linked version of what I wrote first as a DotEarth comment.

Andy, you ask that I chime in from my perch in Acre, Brazil. I'm not a scientist or an expert. I'm just a guy who loves forests and tries to speak for the trees. Here's how I used to perform my mission in the States. 

Here's what I see now:

The drama of the future of the Amazon basin is indeed playing out here in western Amazônia, in the tri-national region called by the acronym MAP -- Madre de Dios in Peru, Acre in Brazil and Pando in Bolivia -- where the biodiversity of nature's garden is connecting with human aspirations for economic development and a better life. This region used to be considered as the "end of the road" because it literally was. But with modernization and infrastructure development -- bridges, roads, rural electrification, Internet and more -- contact and globalization have set human and wild nature on an ugly collision course. While Acre has been able to make many initiatives toward sustainable development, across the border in much poorer Madre de Dios (Mother of God) it's an often violent confrontation over illegal logging of mahogany and/or "informal mining" in an out-of-control race to grab valuable resources that I covered in my post focusing on the gold rush in Peru.

The post doesn't mention the new road to the Pacific or the ethanol plant and sugarcane plantations; or the planned road from Cruzeiro do Sul, Brazil to Pulcallpa, Peru and the multiple big hydro-energy dam constructions it will support; or the new Peruvian oil leases in indigenous reserves; or the BR$35 million worth of oil exploration in the Juruá watershed in Acre; or the Madeira River complex of big hydroelectric projects in Rondonia near Bolivia. Basically, wherever I look I see that development -- including both its promises and problems -- is in the driver seat.

Apparently, much the same is happening across the Amazon basin in a rushed effort to provide an energy and transportation infrastructure that can keep pace with Brazil's spectacular economic growth. In brief, just as in other places such as China, economic growth is triggering an energy crisis. In Brazil, the immediate remedies for this very real need are seen in the massive number of unharnessed rivers of the Amazon basin and in oil deposits in the jungles of Western Amazônia (not to mention the vast deposits of deep-drilled oil located off-shore along the coast of Rio de Janeiro which is another story).

In the Aspen presentation Fabio Scarano appropriately mentioned the horribly misdirected intention of the Lula Administration to rush the much resisted Belo Monte Dam online. But he didn't mention that Brazil is also accelerating an investment of several hundred billions in the interior development plan PAC2 that includes the intention to complete 50 new hydroelectric projects in the next 4 years and, of course, more and better roads. Yes, there is the emerging Amazon Fund to stall deforestation AND there also are ten times that investment in infrastructure development.

Fabio also mentioned the effort to dilute Brazil's Forestry Code which unfortunately passed the committee stage by an overwhelming vote while you guys were in Aspen. It is headed toward almost certain passage in the full plenary session. Unfortunately, an NGO-inspired ad campaign targeting US farm support for REDD payments in the energy ("climate change") bill claimed that an end to tropical deforestation would mean more profits in the US. The ad stupidly said, "Farms Here, Forests There" and this was used in Brazil to mobilize support for WEAKENING the Forest code. Avoided Deforestation Partners scurried to produce a second report claiming that halting deforestation would also benefit Brazilian farmers but the damage was done.

Contradictions are everywhere, even in the statistics. Thus, figuring out a 21st Century prognosis for the Amazon forest is quite a challenge. The actual factual situation is quite confusing. The most hopeful statistics portray a recent large drop in deforestation which is prompting thoughts of carbon credit money transfers from the developed to the developing based on demonstrated emissions reductions, newly afforested carbon sequestration plus a promise from the Federal Government of Brazil that it will preserve or conserve most of the forest and its ecosystem services. Some large NGOs are even proposing that concessions for "sustainable logging" might be supported by carbon credits. But, it's a can of worms.

The problem is that no one really knows if the drop in deforestation was the result of the global economic downturn or the consequence of new enlightened policies of monitoring and law enforcement or an artifact of different satellite monitoring techniques or how much of what. Some early signs are now emerging, and some don't look promising. Satellite monitoring is showing mixed results -- new deforestation is advancing at a lower rate but fires are increasing to their old levels (fire is a traditional tool of deforestation). This suggests a possibility that the illegal loggers, land-grabbers and ranchers have found a workaround of selective logging and understory burning that leaves the canopy largely intact from a satellite view. Right now, no one knows for sure. The June data tend not to be reliable. We will know better in September. But, since the global economy has been recovering and Brazil's economy has been roaring, there is a reasonable chance that we will soon see deforestation data closer to the old levels.

[UPDATE: The London-based think tank Chatham House reports a significant worldwide drop in illegal logging but Fred Pearce explains that we're not out of the woods.]

While it is true that there has been much progress with the large producers of soy and beef products against being complicit with illegal deforestation, it is much more difficult to police the activities of the smaller landholder. For example, one study shows that in Rondonia State, the amount of forest remaining on farm land is already approaching 50% instead of the legally required 80% and the main driver of new deforestation there was the small land-holder.

The problem in large part is that the market for beef is stable and the value is high. Therefore, putting more cows on your land is like putting money in the bank. Cows generate a stable flow of income and, in an emergency, some can be sold to pay a medical bill or buy a new truck or send a kid to college. These are the legitimate aspirations of people living in a developing economy. One can write ambitious laws in Brasilia but it is not so easy to enforce them on the ground (especially if you are expecting local officials and politicians to impose unpopular regulations.)

Few Amazonia states are as progressive as Acre (Chico Mendes country) where there is a serious and well-funded effort to develop a culture, economy and a living practice of sustainability. Acre is hardly perfect but it is certainly on the global leading edge of the search for a sustainable balance between people and nature.

However, in other Brazilian Amazon regions the picture is truly dismal. State and local officials are often complicit with large-scale illegal deforestation. For example, there were recently massive arrests of high level Mato Grosso officials who were facilitating illegal logging. These arrests make great press but, if Brazilian politics run true to form, there's little chance that these characters will actually serve jail time or endure serious penalties. Changing the "wild west frontier take-the-law-in-your-hands" mentality is not an easy task. Bottom line: the issue of governance, of the reach of the Feds into the hinterland, has not been solved.

And there are two GREAT ironies. First, is that more effective governance can generate a backlash in the Brazilian Congress to weaken the Forestry Code and grant amnesty to those who have committed illegal logging. Second, is that as successful management increases the market value of commodities and land, the greater valuation also increases the incentives for illegal scams or for leakage into areas of weaker regulation and enforcement. Thus, shutting off the flow of illegal commerce in one place can cause it to erupt somewhere else.

I must caution readers not to think that loss of the primary Brazilian forest is somehow a result of unenlightened attitudes of Brazilians in comparison with North Americans. Here are the facts: Brazil has about 80% standing forest in the Amazon with about 30% with some level of fragmentation and 50% as relatively pristine. On the other hand, the U.S. has less than 10% of its historical primary forest standing and it still has not been able to pass a law ending the logging of old-growth trees. Actually, the comparable situation in Brazil is in the Atlantic Rainforest (near the economically developed population centers) which is also reduced to near 10%. In other words, development seems to have destroyed forests equally in BOTH places.

BUT -- get this! -- the current annual level of forest cover loss in both Canada and the U.S. is higher than in Brazil. My forestry friend Greg Nagle points out that losses in North America's industrial "forests" should not be compared losses of old-growth primary forest in Brazil but the important point is that development in the US has already destroyed 90% of its original primary forestland. This is an important reason why Brazilians do not receive kindly criticism from gringos which can easily be perceived as a conspiracy to deny Brazilians the benefits achieved among the already developed.

Americans don't want to give up what they've got and Brazilians don't want to give up the opportunity to get something like it. The result is what Andy refers to as "stasis" -- a fancy word that simply says that all people and institutions struggle first to maintain and enhance their existing behaviors. I'm growing skeptical that an ecologically meaningful political solution will emerge in Brazil, in the US, in China or globally. The internal contradictions of earth capital accumulation are simply too great to be maintained harmonized. The sociologist geographer David Harvey has a great analysis of why we are stuck. Economic development through endless growth without limit is an illusion, but it is one that is too powerful to break with mere politics or clever policy. I'm afraid that we will simply move from bubble to bubble until nature's justice kicks in.

So, while I understand the appeal of the new carbon-and-conservation market strategies, I distrust the consumption-and-profit consciousness that will undoubtedly motivate the players and politicians. There are a lot of nefarious characters in the banks and board rooms and in the backwoods waiting to capture the new wealth of a carbon economy worth trillions. We really must dig into and evaluate the faith that suggests that turning ecosystem services into marketable commodities can lead us away from the destructive consequences of the development and depletion of natural resources.

As is so often the case, the great naturalist and father of the American land ethic, Aldo Leopold, offers a deep insight:

"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."

Can we really keep marketing the land, its products and services? Can the market really be the final arbiter? What are its limits? Perhaps only catastrophe can show them to us? Perhaps Nature's justice will be the teacher? Perhaps we must face losses for the cheap energy binge and the adolescent consciousness of the Industrial Age to yield to the limited growth perception associated with maturity and mutuality?

Perhaps we must fall in order to learn?

It is said that if a fall is our destiny, we WILL fall, but we can choose a fate of falling on a pillow or a rock. The softer way is better but easier desired than done. Here's the prayer I shared on Solstice calling for guidance for traveling the more respectful and loving way. It's not going to be easy but perhaps we can do it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Mountaintop removal coal mining in Kentucky

Wendell Berry asks WHAT ELSE?
Go to original at Solutions Journal

For more than 100 years the coal-producing counties of eastern Kentucky have been dependent on the coal industry, which has dominated them politically and, submitting only to the limits of technology, has come near to ruining them. The legacy of the coal economy in the Kentucky mountains will be immense and lasting damage to the land and to the people. Much of the damage to the land and the streams, and to water quality downstream, will be irreparable within historical time. The lastingness of the damage to the people will, to a considerable extent, be determined by the people.

The future of the people will, in turn, be determined by the kind of economy that may come to supplement and finally to replace the economy of coal. Contrary to my own prejudice and sense of caution, I am going to yield here, briefly, to the temptation to talk about the future.

In talking about the future, wishes have a certain standing. My wish for eastern Kentucky, as for the rest of the state, is that the economies of the future might originate in the local use of local intelligence. The coal economy, by contrast, has been an imposed economy, coming in from the outside and also coming down from the high perches of wealth and power. It is the product of an abstracting industrial and mercenary intelligence, alien both to the nature of the land and to the minds and lives of the people. But as we humans seem always to have known, though we have often needed to be reminded, freedom is founded upon the land and upon the free use of local intelligence in husbanding the land. Disfranchisement approaches the absolute when powerful outsiders do your thinking for you. This can happen only when local intelligence is degraded and disvalued and when, as a consequence, political responsibility is sold out.

The local use of local intelligence must start with the local landscape. And so, as a necessary discipline for any wishing, we must ask what, besides coal, the landscape of eastern Kentucky offers to its people. The answer is that the other great natural resource of the region is its forest. Though the forest has a long history of abuse, and though huge parcels have been and are being destroyed outright by surface mining, forestry and the economy of forest products offer the greatest opportunities to local intelligence. And whereas the coal economy is an economy based upon the exhaustion of the resource, the forest, by good use, can be made sustainable.

The other important resource of the region is a significant, if limited, capacity for sustainable food production. The landscape is predominately steep and most of it is obviously best suited for forestry, but there are some bottomlands, gentler slopes, and ridges that can be used without damage as pastures or croplands or gardens. This is made thinkable as a prospect by the numerous people of the region who, as any observant traveler will notice, are excellent gardeners, who practice other arts of subsistence such as beekeeping, and who by such means have kept alive the spirit of self-sufficiency and independence.

I don’t know how many such people there are. Nor do I know the number of acres that might properly be used to produce food. I don’t know how near the region might come to feeding itself. But common sense and mere caution require that every region should become as self-sufficient as possible in food production, just as every community should sustain itself as far as possible by the good use of its land.

As in the rest of the state, the forestry and farming of eastern Kentucky have been wasteful, and the coal companies have made the topsoil and the forest as temporary as coal. But if the region is to replace, or survive, the coal economy, it must develop sustainable ways of using its forest ecosystems and productive soils.

We might like to suppose that it would be better for eastern Kentucky, and for the whole state, if university and government experts should ever become inclined to think about a coal-less future for the region. Maybe so. But we should be extremely uneasy about supposing so.

If these experts ever begin to dare to think beyond their long addiction to coal power, coal money, and such fantasies as “clean coal,” then we should expect and prepare for a noisy tumult of central planning, summoning of outside experts, grant-proposing, visions of high-tech development, souping up of technical education, economic incentives, tax breaks, “job creation,” and marketing of cheap labor. The result, in sum, would be yet another imposed economy for the region, making light (again) of the local economic potential of the local landscape, of local intelligence, local history, and local culture. Industrial intellectuals, as we know, do not hesitate to “apply” ideas and technologies to places they don’t live in and know nothing about. They are recognizable by their contempt for everything they regard as “provincial” and their inability to tolerate anything modest or local. They will run in headlong panic from whatever is small in scale, low in cost, or “old-fashioned.”

We are not confronting the question of whether or not another exploitive economy will try to fasten itself upon the region. That is happening already, most noticeably in the appearance of timber industries that operate, expectably, without regard for forest ecology. It is horrible to think that the coal economy might be replaced by an economy that would in effect mine, and thus destroy, the forest.

And so I wish that in the face of continuing industrial destruction, and despite the official sound and fury of “economic development,” the people of eastern Kentucky will recognize in their own minds and places the powers of economic, political, and ecological self-defense and local self-determination.

Help stop mountaintop mining in Appalachia and in India.


Gulf spill approaching loop current

First of all, we really don't know if the well will hold its integrity or spring new leaks under pressure. Nor do we know if the relief well drilling will succeed.

Second, The New Republic reports:

There's a lot of crude bobbing along in the Gulf right now: Scientists estimate that between 92 million and 182 million gallons have gushed out into the ocean since the Deepwater Horizon platform first blew up back in April. BP is still using dispersants to break up the oil and send it down to the sea floor, even though no one quite knows how the chemicals might affect marine life in the area. And note that oil's still washing ashore, and Bobby Jindal's artificial "barrier islands," which were supposed to protect Louisiana, are now crumbling.


The Envisat satellite image (above) shows the Straits of Florida, the area where the Loop Current flows eastward out of the Gulf of Mexico before joining the Gulf Stream and flowing along the eastern coastlines of the US and Newfoundland (not visible).

Scientists are monitoring this area closely as concerns emerge that winds could blow the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico (visible west of Florida) south toward the Loop Current or that the current could expand north towards the spill.

If oil from the spill were to enter the Loop Current, it could be carried to the Florida Keys (the curved archipelago of islands and associated coral reefs off the tip of Florida) and continue east into the Gulf Stream.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Says it all!

The music video above has emerged as an anthem for the struggles of indigenous peoples across India. Now, an email from our dear friend John Seed, relentless campaigner for the earth and her peoples, tells us of the Niyamgiri movement to stop the ecocide.

Niyamgiri is a sacred mountain in Orissa, India, that is inhabited by the Dongria Kondh, an indigenous tribe who worship this mountain as their god. Now it is threatened by Bauxite mining which will destroy the mountain along with the forest and its people. Please watch "MINE: story of a sacred mountain" and take some very simple action that could save this sacred place.

[UPDATE #1: I just found an embed code for the video which follows.]

Mountaintop removal, massive dams, oil drilling, air and water pollution are destroying local places around the globe. Amazônia, Appalachia, the Gulf of Mexico and the mountains of India all feed our appetites for energy and stuff. We are in this together. Now, with a few simple clicks of the mouse and the magic of cyber-connectivity we can act both globally and locally. So lets do it.

[UPDATE #2: The best way to link to the mountaintop removal issue playing out in the Appalachian region of the U.S. is via These are great activists, please check out the link.]

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Geographer David Harvey explains the internal contradictions of capital accumulation and why capitalism cannot accept a limit to growth.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010



Want to reinforce people's attachment to misinformation? Just give them the facts. And, not only is this especially true about political beliefs, it is more and more the case as the political thinking becomes more and more sophisticated. What about "fact checking?" Forget it! Somehow, I suspect that Sarah Palin knows all about this.

How facts backfire
Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains
By Joe Keohane
July 11, 2010

Go to original article.

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

“Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be,” read a recent Onion headline. Like the best satire, this nasty little gem elicits a laugh, which is then promptly muffled by the queasy feeling of recognition. The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

Studies by other researchers have observed similar phenomena when addressing education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and other issues that tend to attract strong partisan opinion. Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”

What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as “motivated reasoning.” Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.

New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or “facts” — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge. In 2005, amid the strident calls for better media fact-checking in the wake of the Iraq war, Michigan’s Nyhan and a colleague devised an experiment in which participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). Nyhan inserted a clear, direct correction after each piece of misinformation, and then measured the study participants to see if the correction took.

For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

It’s unclear what is driving the behavior — it could range from simple defensiveness, to people working harder to defend their initial beliefs — but as Nyhan dryly put it, “It’s hard to be optimistic about the effectiveness of fact-checking.”

It would be reassuring to think that political scientists and psychologists have come up with a way to counter this problem, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The persistence of political misperceptions remains a young field of inquiry. “It’s very much up in the air,” says Nyhan.

But researchers are working on it. One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

There are also some cases where directness works. Kuklinski’s welfare study suggested that people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. He asked one group of participants what percentage of its budget they believed the federal government spent on welfare, and what percentage they believed the government should spend. Another group was given the same questions, but the second group was immediately told the correct percentage the government spends on welfare (1 percent). They were then asked, with that in mind, what the government should spend. Regardless of how wrong they had been before receiving the information, the second group indeed adjusted their answer to reflect the correct fact.

Kuklinski’s study, however, involved people getting information directly from researchers in a highly interactive way. When Nyhan attempted to deliver the correction in a more real-world fashion, via a news article, it backfired. Even if people do accept the new information, it might not stick over the long term, or it may just have no effect on their opinions. In 2007 John Sides of George Washington University and Jack Citrin of the University of California at Berkeley studied whether providing misled people with correct information about the proportion of immigrants in the US population would affect their views on immigration. It did not.

And if you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts — inference, intuition, and so forth — to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.

Nyhan ultimately recommends a supply-side approach. Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, he suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the “reputational costs” of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. “So if you go on ‘Meet the Press’ and you get hammered for saying something misleading,” he says, “you’d think twice before you go and do it again.”

Unfortunately, this shame-based solution may be as implausible as it is sensible. Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery. Getting a politician or pundit to argue straight-faced that George W. Bush ordered 9/11, or that Barack Obama is the culmination of a five-decade plot by the government of Kenya to destroy the United States — that’s easy. Getting him to register shame? That isn’t.

Joe Keohane is a writer in New York.

Monday, July 12, 2010


To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake -- Auguries of Innocence

And more...

(Thanks to Avi)

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Baby Bonobo
Three-months old baby bonobo Nakarla is held by its mother Ukela on March 19, 2008 at the zoo 
in Frankfurt. By Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images

Christopher Ryan, writing in Physcology Today, finds it "amazing to see how eagerly the mainstream media trumpets any and all research findings that lend the slightest support to the narrative in which human warfare is an integral, ancient part of our primate past."

"It's not our fault," the thinking seems to go, "It's human nature. Look at chimps! They're our closest primate cousins!"

First off, chimps aren't "our closest primate cousin," though you'll need a sharp eye to find any mention of our other, equally intimately related cousin, the bonobo.... There are plenty of reasons self-respecting journalists might want to avoid talking about bonobos (their penchant for mutual masturbation, their unapologetic homosexuality and incest, a general sense of hippie-like shamelessness pervading bonobo social life), but the biggest inconvenience is the utter absence of any Viking-like behavior ever observed among bonobos. Bonobos never rape or pillage. No war. No murder. No infanticide.

Ever wonder what we'd be like if evolution had produced more of a human-bonobo mix?
That's precisely the speculative line pursued in Kelpie Wilson's graphic novel,
Primal Tears. Check it out.

(Original post concept and photo from The Daily Dish)

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Ancient Path by Charles Frizell

I've been meditating on this marvelous old guy painted by the visionary artist Charles Frizell. His website says, "The old wizard walks the lonesome path through the ancient oaks, the standing stones, and the moon phases. He is self contained and relies on his knowledge and power for his sustenance and his protection. Others have walked this path through the centuries, and, though often lonely, it is the ancient path of those who carry magic.