Powershift, Earth Day, and what it all means to me.

Wow, it has been an amazing week to put an end to an equally amazing semester.

I have seen passion, pain, and hope in every case we have covered this semester culminating in my experience with Powershift 2011 (April 15-18) and the Eco-Club Earth Day event (April 22). If there is one thing I have learned from my work in the environmental movement (so far!), and ALL the cases we have studied in Global Environmental Problems, it is the significance of human hands in shaping our environments problems and solutions.

The idea of human hands as a significant factor of change was present both figuratively and literally at Powershift 2011. In the keynote speeches Friday and Saturday, speakers like Al Gore, Bill McKibbon, Van Jones, Timothy DeChristopher, and Lisa Jackson stressed the importance of “young people” becoming and remaining active participants in the political system that controls our world. DeChristopher encouraged attendees to get their hands dirty in radical action, saying, “we hold the power right here to create our vision of a healthy and just world, if we are willing to make the sacrifices to make it happen.”

Tim DeChristopher at POWERSHIFT 2011 (photo by Josh Lopez)

Throughout the whole weekend, all the VA trainers began each organizing session with an “all hands in” cheer, standing in a circle and shouting “ooooooh SHIFT!” to break. Instead of clapping, we used a “solidarity snap” to show our agreement or enthusiasm without overpowering the speaker.

oooooooh SHIFT! (photo by Abbie Rogers

Solidarity snaps at the rally Monday morning (photo by Sam Corron)

It’s impossible for me to describe the connection, energy, and passion I felt at PowerShift last weekend. But I know that I was surrounded by people who WILL change the world one day, including some of our classmates: Abbie Rogers, Sam Corron, and Emily Montgomery.  This video articulates what I’m trying to say a little better than my emotionally charged brain. This is just the beginning:

As Bill McKibbon said in the video, “It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be up to us.” This semester, we’ve seen countless examples of deforestation, wetland destruction, human caused climate change and more destroying ecosystems, communities and families. This destruction has been the result of human choices. Of human hands.

But we’ve also seen hope in innovation, community involvement, and the power of the people. There is no holding back at this point.

Human hands have created near irreversible problems, but now they can be the solution too.

Thanks for a wonderful semester, everyone!

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Protect the Gray Wolf!

When Dr. S mentioned the current situation with congress and the gray wolf, I was immediately intrigued. I decided to do a little research and discovered that this has actually been an on-going saga between conservationists, farmers and a mislead congress.

Since at least last December, wolves have been unjustly blamed for livestock deaths, but further research shows that they aren’t even among the leading causes of losses. Weather, disease and even dogs kill far more livestock than wolves do.

Wolves have also been unjustly blamed for killing elk in the western U.S. The numbers, however, don’t support this. In Montana, Idaho and Wyoming elk numbers have actually increased 18 percent since wolf reintroduction.

Congress has included language that would delist gray wolves in the Northern Rockies as a rider to the budget bill that has to be voted on this week!

The fate of the gray wolf and the Endangered Species Act should not be bargained away and attached as a rider to an irrelevant funding bill. Species-specific decisions should be based on sound science, not politics.

It is not the role of Congress to decide which species should receive protection and which shouldn’t. In fact, Congress has never successfully legislated a species-specific decision under the ESA. Wolves should not be the first!

The ESA is one of our most cherished and respected environmental laws. Its power lies in the independent, scientific consultation at its heart.

The decision to list or de-list a species on the Endangered Species Act should be made by independent science. Legislating such a decision would weaken the Act and set a dangerous precedent that could lead to more native fish, wildlife, and plants being wrongly stripped of necessary scientific protection.

You can help protect the gray wolf and the integrity of the ESA! Write your representatives now and tell them to keep the Endangered Species Act intact.

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Making Fishing Sustainable

After all our talk of fisheries this week, I was once again feeling a little bit discouraged by the way our system encourages the degradation of our environment. So, for my blog post, I decided to look up innovative ways to make fishing more sustainable. Because, obviously, new catch limits are critical for sustainability — without them, fish stocks would collapse, and then nobody has a job, plus a protein source vital for the planet’s expanding population is wiped out. But they force fishermen to catch fewer fish, which means less money.

New programs and techniques are addressing the money issue, allowing fishermen to make “more cash even as they bring in less catch.” Here are two of my favorites:

You’ve heard of energy audits for your home. Well, now Steve Eayrs, a research scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, is conducting them on fishing boats, reports Heather Goldstone on WGBH’s Climatide. The results have taught fishermen to save fuel by slowing down and use new kinds of nets with less drag. The Nature conservancy is also helping them test new gear that lowers the amount of unwanted “bycatch” they would normally grab, and get their fish to market in better shape.

Fishermen are even adapting innovative programs that were originally designed for land farming, including community-supported fishery programs (the fish-version of community supported agriculture or CSA). CSF members would get a selection of fresh seafood every week, to go with their box of veggies from their CSA. Niche markets are also opening up, such as bringing back live cod for the fishtanks of Asian restaurants, where diners want to pick the freshest fish possible.

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Short Answer? Being vegan just makes you better than most people.

Before you freak out, the title of this post is actually a quote from the movie Scott Pilgram vs. the World. In the movie, the main character has to battle a boy who has been given super powers for maintaining a vegan diet. It’s a really funny play on the typical “vegan snob” character, but I wanted to talk a little bit about the actual merits of eating vegan of vegetarian.

Throughout the past two weeks, we’ve discussed many environmental issues associated with food production and consumption, and the way our system works. After reading Diamond’s chapter on “feeding 8 billion people well,” and especially after watching Food Inc., I don’t understand how anyone could still willingly eat meat.

According to Food Inc., the average American consumes 200 pounds of meat per year, and Diamond points out that even a modest reduction in meat consumption could save 30 billion gallons of water every year!

In addition to avoiding the water and air pollution from raising animals in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and the social problems associated with industrial slaughterhouses, eating vegetarian or vegan could help reduce effects of climate change!

Elke Stehfest of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency recently presented evidence that a vegetarian diet, or one at least that radically reduces meat consumption, can have massive climate change mitigation benefits.

Stehfest says that if people reduced their current level of meat consumption in Europe and the US and switched instead to a diet based on plant protein, an area the size of Russia and Canada combined could be freed from use as pasture or cropland used to grow animal feed.

If Stehfest’s transition of dietary norms was started in 2010 and completed by 2030, and that pasture and cropland was allowed to regrow as forest, it would soak up such large amounts of CO2 that, in combination with the resultant reduction of methane emissions due to the animals themselves, the costs of climate change mitigation would drop by 70% by 2050, as compared to a ‘diet-as-usual’ scenario.

Stehfest says that even if large numbers of people stopped eating beef and meat from other ruminant animals and the resultant land freed up to regrow as forest, or even converted to production of biofuels, then climate change mitigation costs would drop by 50%.

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Celebrating World Water Day!

March 22nd was World Water Day, a day set aside every year to celebrate water resources and encourage water conservation practices. In observance of this year’s theme, “Water for the World’s Cities” Friends of the Rappahannock put on a killer event down at Hurkamp park displaying urban water conservation initiatives including bioretention ponds, rain gardens and rain barrels. Part of the event was a rain barrel design contest; art departments from schools all over the region had taken rain barrels, which collect and store rain water from house gutters for future use in residential irrigation, and painted designs to be judged by World Water Day attendees.

The rain barrels will go “on tour” for the rest of the semester, allowing schools to run educational programs on water use and conservation measures. Then, the barrels will be auctioned off during next year’s Riverfest!

FOR also had a rain barrel-building workshop for residents, and had an on-site rain barrel that we painted as the day went on! Our theme was “Clean energy Fredericksburg…it definitely wouldn’t have stood a chance in a competition against the high schoolers’, but we did have a lot of fun.

Since we’ve been so focused on food and agriculture in class lately, I thought it would be interesting to look at how certain foods relate to the issues I learned about at World Water Day. The Nature Conservancy released the “30 days of H2O,” with fun facts about how much water certain things require, from cars and plastic to cheeseburgers and coffee. Here are some of the more shocking food-related facts I liked:

  • It takes 37 gallons of water to make a cup of coffee.
  • It takes 72 gallons of water to grow two eggs — 22 gallons for cereal with milk.
  • It takes 634 gallons of water to make a hamburger.
  • It takes 2,847 gallons of water to make a serving of chocolate!

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This is what climate change looks like.

March 11 tsunami leads to an explosion at Chiba Works, an industrial (chemical, steel, etc.) facility in Ichihara, Japan

The estimated death toll from Japan’s disasters climbed past 10,000 Sunday as authorities raced to combat the threat of multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns and hundreds of thousands of people struggled to find food and water. The prime minister said it was the nation’s worst crisis since World War II.

So far, Friday’s tsunami has mainly affected Japan, but future tsunamis could strike the U.S. and virtually any other coastal area of the world with equal or greater force, say scientists. In a warning issued at a 2009 conference on the subject, experts outlined explanations of how climate change could already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic activity.

A 2009 paper by Bill McGuire, professor at University College London, says “observations suggest that the ongoing rise in global average temperatures may already be eliciting a hazardous response from the geosphere.”

“When the ice is lost, the earth’s crust bounces back up again and that triggers earthquakes, which trigger submarine landslides, which cause tsunamis.”

McGuire’s 2009 paper notes that such effects will be much more pronounced in areas with significant ice cover, in other words, at higher latitudes.

Melting ice masses change the pressures on the underlying earth, which can lead to earthquakes and tsunamis, but that’s just the beginning. Rising seas also change the balance of mass across earth’s surface, putting new strain on old earthquake faults.

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Offshore Oil in Virginia? No thanks.

I know I am joining a lot of my classmates in writing about last night’s Sierra Club lecture on offshore energy, “Oil Rigs or Wind Turbines?” (because we had so much UMW support, what? What?!). I’d like to share some of my favorite “fun facts” from Ivy Main and Susan Stillman’s stellar presentation.

Things I learned about offshore oil drilling:

  • Seismic testing, an exploration technique used by oil and gas companies, is necessary tolocate oil and gas sediments. In order to measure these sediments, large ships fire high-intensity air guns deep into the ocean. These “air cannons” produce a high intensity, low frequency noise and are dragged behind boats for thousands of miles in a systematic procedure to map an entire area. Air cannons are designed to be extremely loud – reaching up to 270 decibels (for reference, a nuclear explosion can be about 300-310 decibels underwater) and have been recorded by scientists from locations over 1,800 miles away. Any sound over 180 decibels is believed to be harmful to marine life. It’s been reported that t dead baby dolphins are washing up on the Gulf shores by the dozens…it’s apparent that we need to do all we can to protect marine wildlife.
  • Even if ALL the potential oil off Virginia’s coasts were extracted, it would only provide enough oil to supply the United State’s current consumption for about 7 days.
  • Though we typically focus on the negative effects of oil and gas, there are actually many other pollutants released in oil drilling operations! It’s been recorded that drilling generates: 50 tons of NOx, 13 tons of Carbon Monoxide, and 6 tons of volatile organic hydrocarbons each year. That’s BEFORE it goes into our cars/homes to be burned for fuel!
  • The BP oil spill in the gulf killed 11 oil rig workers and released 205.8 million gallons of oil into the gulf.


Things I learned about WIND energy:

  • When talking about offshore wind farms, the “visual horizon” refers to the distance the average human eye can see from the coast. Twelve miles is the typical visual horizon for wind turbines on a VERY clear day. Most Virginia sites would be at least 20 miles out, so they wouldn’t impair any of the “day to day” visual stimulation/activities of Virginia beach goers.
  • Virginia is one of only ten states in the country that can support our FULL energy needs with wind energy.

Last week, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network delivered more than 5,000 comments against offshore oil drilling to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. 2,500 of those comments were from college students who stand with Power Vote.

The federal government recently unveiled a plan for rapid development of offshore wind energy, including high priority Wind Energy Areas off the coast of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. Opening these areas to wind energy development will be a great step in our transition to clean, renewable energy.

Want to learn more? http://va4wind.com

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Maybe no one cares about climate change because we’re wired for extinction

This week, we’ve been talking all about climate change: the causes, effects, implications, possible solutions…but I’m still feeling stumped in my attempt to figure out why Americans aren’t more alarmed about the climate crisis.

I found an interesting article yesterday promoting an intriguing idea introduced by a psychologist named Andrew Shatté.

Shatté is best known for his work on resilience — the ability of humans to deal with adversity. His thesis on climate change, in a nutshell, is that we are all hardwired for extinction. He compares humans to the Irish elk, which went extinct about 11,000 years ago.

The male of Irish Elk evolved to grow big antlers –scratch that, HUGE antlers “up to 12 feet wide, designed for the usual reasons of aggression, defense, and sexual display,” says George Black of Grist.  Over time, the antlers got so big that the elk couldn’t consume enough calories to sustain their growth, so instead the antlers began to on the calcium in the animals’ bones. “If galloping osteoporosis didn’t kill them, they got their antlers impossibly tangled up in the overhead branches and starved to death.”

According to Shatte, humans are like the Irish Elk in that we share a problem of the brain. He thinks that our evolutionary development has “not yet caught up with the change in our circumstances.” More specifically, Shatte believes the problem is our brain’s fear triggers.  He says, our instincts are still paleolithic; our fear reflexes respond to all the wrong things. They lie dormant in the face of climate change, no matter how ominously scientists predict its probable consequences. But we’re programmed to pump adrenalin at the sight of spiders, snakes, and other mortal threats slithering into our caves. We still run a mile from snakes, although they only kill about five or six Americans a year. The most recent figure for annual fatalities from lightning strikes is 58 per year, but none of us would go anywhere near a golf course in a storm.

For the past year or so, where climate is concerned, our human fear triggers seem to have become even more anesthetized. Some of the reasons seem obvious. The global economic crisis has shunted many other fears into the background, and the climate deniers have done a scarily effective job with all their manufactured “scandals” about the integrity of science.

I don’t know if I completely agree with Shatte’s theory. If he’s right about evolution, why are some people so much less fazed by climate change than the rest of the world? Isn’t evolution supposed to be a uniform process in a species?

I guess to me, the take away from all this is that the human brain is a fascinating concept. Education in alleviating fears is always a necessity. And male displays of power are never a good sign.


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Don’t Want to see 6˚warming? Come to POWERSHIFT 2011!

FRIENDS of the Earth!

As we’ve been learning all week, our world is in the midst of a severe climate crisis. As succinctly put by Dr. S this morning, “we are staring in the face of a potential massive collapse.”

This spring, over 10,000 students will converge on Washington, DC to make sure that collapse doesn’t happen, and to fight for our future. At Power Shift 2011, we’ll stand together to reclaim our democracy from big corporations and push our nation to move beyond dirty energy sources that are harming the health of people and the planet.

Sound rad? It definitely IS! Powershift 2011 is in DC from April 15-18th, and we want YOU to be part of it!

Early Registration for the conference ends this Sunday, February 27th, so if you’re interested, register here: http://powershift2011.org/register!

Like we said in class, the $50 registration fee covers sweet speakers, performers, the conference space, and activities and will GO UP to $65 after Sunday. So if you’re interested, now’s the time to register! We have transportation and housing once we get there, so you won’t be asked to spend much more money than the one-time fee and your own food funds, and Ecology Club has already begun some INTENSE fundraising, so if you want to help us, we’ll help you 😉

Comment below or email me (a.toriwong@gmail.com) if you have ANY QUESTIONS!

It was made perfectly clear from looking at our stabilization wedges in class this morning: we are ready to lead our country to a clean energy future. Powershift is where it starts. Please join us!

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When have we done “enough”?

You may have noticed that I wasn’t in class Thursday; it’s because I was 30,000 feet in the air on my way to Alaska. Coincidentally enough, I could have written and posted this blog entry from the air because there was free in-flight wifi! Look back to my “concerned citizen solutions” post about technological adaptations to global environmental problems, and I’m certainly beginning to look like a pretty big tech-lover.

But don’t get me wrong: yes, I think there are plenty of uses for technology, but no, I don’t think it alone can save us…especially when we look at specific examples of ecological services found that naturally do a better job than their technological counterparts. For example, last week we learned that swamps clean groundwater better than a $5 million treatment facility. Relying solely on one idea or solution (in this case, that the human mind is the ultimate resource to produce technology to save us when our natural resources run out) has never and will never get us anywhere.

I’d like to take that concept and think about environmental action. What’s the first thing people think of when they hear “going green?” (ps. “going green?” not a phrase I’m not overly fond of to begin with). Up until very recently (and obviously the students in this class are more aware than the “average” person), “going green” has been tied to recycling. I love recycling. Recyclemania 2011 started 2 weeks ago, and I am ALL for it. I even pretended to be a nerd (yes, I have to PRETEND to be a nerd) in this video to promote recycling on campus:

But you can’t recycle an aluminum can and call yourself an environmentalist. In this class, we have learned that there is SO much more to global environmental problems than we ever could have guessed. In one of the videos on the Aral sea, a volunteer noted, “it’s amazing what human hands can do,” referring both to the human annihilation of the Aral sea and its slow reconstruction through tree-plantings. Human hands have caused most of our global environmental problems, and it’s up to human hands to fix them through whatever means possible: technological advancement, tree plantings, Bay clean-ups, recycling…

We can’t afford to choose just one solution. Everything has to work together.


Ps. Speaking of technological advances, this Watson character makes me very very anxious.

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