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Living With the Aftermath of the BP Oil Spill

In Review: The Great Invisible (Documentary)

During a congressional hearing with oil industry honchos following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Exxon Mobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson made a startling — and hair-raising — candid admission: “When these things happen we are not well equipped to handle them… There will be impacts.”

These “impacts” (one of the most Orwellian euphemisms since the Pentagon came up with “collateral damage”) include the spilling of an estimated 176 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico for 57 days after the April 20, 2010 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil-drilling rig operated by BP that killed 11 crewmen and devastated the Gulf’s ecosystem. While many of the aftereffects of the epic, apocalyptic blowout may be invisible to the naked eye, the fireball it caused was visible from 35 miles away.

smoke plumes in the water during the Deepwater Horizon disasterPhoto courtesy of RADiUS-TWC The Great Invisible reveals how the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has affected the lives of rig workers, oystermen, fishermen and shrimpers of Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi.

Using artfully intercut news clips, archival footage, amateur video, and original interviews, award-winning filmmaker Margaret Brown — who is originally from the Gulf Coast — weaves a terrifying tapestry in The Great Invisible, which reveals how the catastrophe has affected the lives of rig workers, oystermen, fishermen and shrimpers of Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi. The film also details the petroleum industry’s response (or lack of) to the calamity and its aftermath. The Great Invisible’s executive producers are Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann of Participant Media, who also produced An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 climate change documentary featuring Al Gore that scored Academy Awards, a Grammy and the Nobel Peace Prize.

The 92-minute documentary’s most harrowing on camera interviews are with survivors of the big blast — roustabout Stephen Stone, who reportedly suffers from PTSD, and the rig’s chief engineer Douglas Harold Brown, who had accompanied the ship to the Gulf from South Korea, where it was built in 2001.

Regretting that he was a loyal cog in the oil industry’s wheel for so long, Brown — who attempted to commit suicide following the debacle — admits “I feel guilty because I played along.” While Stone — who has been deeply traumatized by the blast and subsequent shabby treatment by the industry -- testifies  before Congress, even though he is heavily …more

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Efforts to Curb Destructive Palm Oil Plantations Brings Together Strange Bedfellows

Will corporations and activists join forces to end deforestation in Indonesia?

September brought good news for the world’s forests with the unveiling of the New York Declaration on Forests at the UN Climate Summit. The Declaration, which pledges to end global deforestation by 2030, was signed by 130 governments, including the US, Germany, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps most significantly, it was also backed by commitments from 40 major food corporations to eliminate palm oil grown on deforested land from their supply chains.

Deforestation in IndonesiaPhoto by Rainforest Action Network An estimated 80 percent of forest destruction in Indonesia between 2000 and 2012 was illegal. Palm plantations were responsible for three-quarters of this illegal deforestation.

That’s a big deal, given that palm oil has been the single largest driver of tropical deforestation in recent years. When the medical establishment deemed trans-fats heart-unhealthy in the mid-1990s, demand for the supposedly more benign palm oil soared, increasing nearly six-fold since the year 2000. Palm oil is now used in nearly half of all foods on supermarket shelves, added to everything from breakfast cereals to margarine to potato chips. It is also an ingredient in shampoo, soaps, cosmetics, toothpaste, and laundry detergents, and is used as a feedstock for biofuels.

Palm oil is cheap. It is the highest yielding oil crop in the world, and the most abundant. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that every hour, an area of rainforest the size of 300 football fields is cleared to make way for new palm oil production — mainly in Indonesia, the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

At this breakneck and still accelerating pace, 98 percent of the Indonesian rainforest will be gone by 2022, and along with it one of the greatest remaining biodiversity treasure troves on Earth. The palm oil boom has been a disaster for the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, the clouded leopard, the pigmy elephant, and countless lesser known endangered species whose homelands are rapidly being converted to large-scale plantations.

It has also been catastrophic for the climate. Indonesia is currently the third largest carbon polluting country in the world, trailing only China and the US. Over 85 percent of the nation’s emissions come from forest destruction, which releases carbon stored in trees and ancient peatland swamps into the atmosphere. …more

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Pesticide Exposure Linked to Depression Among Ag Workers, Says Report

It is not clear if farmer suicides are linked to pesticide use, says coauthor of study that’s being cited in news reports connecting the two

Is routine exposure to pesticides responsible for the global outbreak of suicides on farms? One might think so after reading a recent report that was published in several popular science and environment magazines and websites that suggested researchers have linked pesticide exposure with farmer suicides.

The pesticide-suicide meme gained currency on in early October with the publication of the article, “Pesticide use by farmers linked to high rates of depression, suicide,” in the online magazine Environmental Health News. The article noted that “recent research has linked long-term use of pesticides to higher rates of depression and suicide.” Versions of the article were published by the Scientific American and other publications. But a closer look into the issue reveals that so far, no direct link has been established between pesticide exposure and farmer suicides.

Man on a small tractor, spraying pesticidePhoto courtesy Oregon Department of AgricultureThat pesticides are linked to depression among farmers and agricultural workers is a serious matter in itself and it deserves more attention.

It’s true that suicides on farms are occurring with alarming frequency, not only in developing countries like India and China, but also in the United States, France, England, Canada, and Australia. Prolonged drought, failed crops, mounting debt, and poor economics on the farm have been offered as possible reasons, in addition to depression caused by pesticide exposures. (According to an investigation published in 2012 in the medical journal The Lancet, a person living in a rural area is twice as likely to commit suicide as a person in an urban area.)  But, as Dr Freya Kamel, a senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health says, there’s no evidence that exposure to pesticides is a direct cause of farmer suicides.

Kamel is one of the eight co-authors of a study cited by in the media reports as evidence of the link between pesticides and suicides. The study, “Pesticide Exposure and Depression among Male Private Pesticide Applicators in the Agricultural Health Study,” was published in the September 2014 issue of the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). Kamel says that while research shows that pesticide exposure does affect mental health, some people are misreading the study as evidence of a pesticide-suicide connection.

“Everybody who has been talking to me about our recent publication has wanted to conflate the two things,” she told …more

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Top PR Firm Advises TransCanada to Target Greens Opposed to Its Latest Pipeline Project

Leaked documents indicate that the Canadian oil transport company is desperate to build public support for its alternative to Keystone XL

As supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline scrambled yesterday get that one last Democratic Senator on board to pass a bill authorizing the controversial project today, a set of leaked documents revealed that TransCanada, the company behind the proposed oil pipeline, is already hard at work trying figure out how to gain public support for an alternative pipeline that would run only through Canada and could make the Keystone XL proposal redundant.

green pipes for the Keystone XL piplinePhoto by shannonpatrick17/FlickrThe $10.64 billion Energy East Pipeline, the largest tar sands pipeline proposed yet, has been described by some as an “oil route around Obama." (Pictured above: a 2009 image of pipes being laid out for the Keystone XL pipleline in Nebraska.)

Internal documents from the PR giant Edelman, obtained by Greenpeace and in the possession of Earth Island Journal, reveal that the world’s largest public relations firm is advising TransCanada on how to build support for this new pipeline plan — called the Energy East Pipeline — by, among other things, discrediting environmental groups opposed to it and creating an Astroturf campaign touting the new pipeline’s so-called environmental benefits.

The $10.64 billion Energy East Pipeline, the largest tar sands pipeline proposed yet, would stretch west to east across Canada, starting from the tar sands mines in Alberta and traversing 2,858 miles across the country to a refinery in New Brunswick on the Atlantic coast. The company filed an application on October 30, seeking permission to build the pipeline that would carry more than 1 million barrels of tar sands crude per day across six Canadian provinces and four time zones.

The proposal has been described by some as an “oil route around Obama.” Given the President’s Friday critique of Keystone XL — as a project that “doesn’t have an impact on US gas prices” — it’s expected he will veto the Keystone bill even if the Senate passes it today. Seen in that context, a domestic pipeline makes sense for TransCanada even though it might be more than two times the length of Keystone XL. (The Energy East Pipeline will also be able to transport one-third times more crude per day than Keystone XL)

The alternative pipeline idea isn’t all that new. Given the prolonged wrangling over Keystone XL, Canadian oil producers and transporters have more

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No Time to Spare

In Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

The first thing to say about Naomi’s Klein’s latest book is that its title makes a grand promise, This Changes Everything – and that’s before you even get to the subtitle, which sets up a face-off between capitalism on one side and the climate on the other. The second thing to say is that no single book could ever meet such a promise. Klein, with careful aplomb, does not attempt to do so. Rather, she offers a tour of the horizon upon which we will meet our fates. Or, rather, the horizon upon which we will attempt to change them.

book cover thumbnailIn the face of such huge topics, Klein’s strategy is a practical one. She defers the problem of capitalism-in-itself (as German philosophers used to call it) and focuses instead on our era’s particular type of capitalism – the neoliberal capitalism of boundless privatization and deregulation, of markets-über-alles ideology and oligarchic billionaires. Her central argument is not (as some have insisted) that capitalism has to go before we can begin to save ourselves, but rather that we’re going to have to get past neoliberalism if we want to face the greater challenges. Klein writes:

Some say there is no time for this transformation; the crisis is too pressing and the clock is ticking. I agree that it would be reckless to claim that the only solution to this crisis is to revolutionize our economy and revamp our worldview from the bottom up – and anything short of that is not worth doing. There are all kinds of measures that would lower emissions substantively that could and should be done right now. But we aren’t taking those measures, are we?

At the outset Klein asks the obvious question: Why haven’t we, in the face of existential danger, mobilized to lower emissions? There are lots of reasons, but one stands above all others. We have not mobilized because “market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.” In other words the climate crisis came with spectacularly “bad timing.” The severity of the danger became clear at the very time when “there-is-no-alternative” capitalism was rising to ideological triumph, foreclosing the exact remedies (long-term planning, stricter government regulation, collective …more

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Net Gain: Fighting Ocean Pollution

Three American entrepreneurs fight ocean plastic pollution by upcycling discarded fishing nets into skateboards

Ben Kneppers paused as he strolled around a music festival in Santiago, Chile. In front of him was a booth where local kids could repair damaged skateboards, making them ride-able again rather than throwing them away. Kneppers, an environmental consultant originally from Massachusetts, was impressed by the project. And as an avid boarder himself, he admired the kids gliding and kick-turning along a stretch of pavement with their refurbished boards.

Then he got an idea.

He and two friends had been talking for months about finding a way to address the issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans by starting a business making products out of that trash. “I thought, ‘Wow, maybe skateboards could be our product,’” he says. “It would be a great tool for educating the younger generation on this issue.”

photo of discarded plasticphoto by Kevin AhearnDiscarded fishing nets on the Chilean coastline

Fast-forward 18 months, Kneppers and his business partners, Dave Stover and Kevin Ahearn, have started a skateboard company they named Bureo, which means "the waves" in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche, the native people of Chile. They recently shipped their first batch of skateboards, the Bureo Minnow Cruiser, to select shops in California, Chicago, and New York.

What makes the Minnow different from dozens of other skateboards is the fact that it’s built from trash. The board’s 25-inch skatedeck is made out of recycled plastic fishing nets. What makes Bureo different from most companies is that it’s just as focused on its recycling mission as it is on selling its product. Kneppers, Stover, and Ahearn – who grew up near beaches in the United States – formed the company with a mission to do something positive to address the growing problem of ocean plastic pollution. 

“As surfers who have spent our lives around the ocean, we have a deep connection with the ocean,” Stover said. “We needed a product that would support our idea for a sustainable collection and recycling program and make a skateboard fit our mission to address this problem in a positive way.”

The group decided to focus on recycling fishing nets because 10 percent of the ocean’s plastic waste comes from fishing gear and because the nets can harm marine life: dolphins, sea turtles, and seals can get tangled in them and often die.  Chilean fishers typically …more

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Plastic Bag Industry Campaigning to Overturn California’s Plastic Bag Ban

Big Plastic, which stands to lose big profits, wants to get a referendum on the November 2016 ballot

Governor Gerry Brown made history in September when he signed SB 270, making California the first state in the nation to ban plastic shopping bags. Unsurprisingly, the plastic bag industry isn’t going quietly into the night. Instead, it is trying to get a referendum on the November 2016 ballot that would overturn the ban. The American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), a group of American plastic bag manufacturers, is leading the referendum charge, working to collect the required 504,000-plus signatures by December 29 of this year.

Plastic Bag Ban RallyPhoto by Heal the BayA man covered in plastic bags at a 2012 plastic bag ban rally in Los Angeles.

If the APBA fails to gather the necessary signatures, SB 270 implementation will begin in July 2015 with a ban on plastic bags in large grocery stores. Customers will also be charged 10 cents for a paper bag. And beginning in January 2016, plastic bags will be banned in convenience stores and pharmacies as well. The bill exempts low-income Californians using California’s food assistance program from the paper bag charge. Trying to ease the transition for bag manufacturers, the law also provides $2 million in loans to California-based bag manufacturers making the change to reusable bags.

If Big Plastic succeeds in placing a referendum on the ballot, implementation of SB 270 will automatically be delayed until 2017.

Californian’s Against Waste, a nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction, estimates that the plastic bag lobby has already spent $1 million on the referendum effort, primarily on paid signature collectors, and may end up spending as much as $3 to 5 million. The group has also received reports that paid signature collectors are misleading voters about the referendum. Job postings on Craigslist support this charge. One posting in Sonoma County, for example, offers $1.50 per signature, and reads: “I have a state referendum for voting on the plastic bag ban. It is basically to reverse the ban, but the way you pitch is to vote on it whether you want it or not.”

The APBA has also gone so far as to argue that plastic bags are the best environmental option, referring to plastic bags on its website as the “environmentally-friendly choice.”

"Senator Padilla’s bill was never legislation about the environment. It was a back room deal between the grocers and …more

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