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Film Review: A Fierce Green Fire

Rousing PBS documentary covering 50 years of environmentalism to honor Earth Day

Mark Kitchell’s 1990 Oscar nominated documentary Berkeley in the Sixties covered the campus activism that disrupted the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hearings, launched the Free Speech Movement, fought the police at People’s Park, and inspired student spokesman Mario Savio to declare: “There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part … You’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” Now Kitchell is back with another stand up and cheer nonfiction film about a different movement: Environmentalism and its eco-warriors who, as Savio put it, “indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

black and white photo of a crowd watching smoke and flames consuming a burning riverphoto courtesy A Fierce Green FireFrom the film: the Cuyahoga River on fire.

Like a classical Greek drama, Kitchell’s well-crafted and briskly paced A Fierce Green Fire has a five-act structure, as each segment focuses on different aspects and leaders of the environmental movement over the past half a century, with narration by a prominent artist or activist. The title is derived from a section in environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac in which he describes his ecological awakening after shooting a wolf while working as a US Forest Service Ranger: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”

The documentary – which will air Tuesday, Earth Day, on PBS stations nationwide – opens with a stirring montage of idyllic nature, followed by ecosystem despoliation and devastation, such as mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Scenes of global activism appear, including NASA scientist Jim Hansen getting busted at the White House for protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai declaring: “We will shed blood for land!” This riveting, rapidly cut sequence is set to the pulsating beat of the Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.”

Oscar-winning actor and activist Robert Redford – who is also a Natural Resources Defense Council trustee and honorary board member of the Mikhail Gorbachev-founded Green Cross – …more

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Oregon’s Klamath River Basin One Step Closer to Historic Dam Removal

Deal among Native Americans, farmers, ranchers and fishermen marks a triumph for cooperation.

Oregon’s Klamath River Basin has nearly completed an improbable, 15-year journey from community-wide hostility to a hesitant but tangible reconciliation. A decade ago, the river basin was known for being the epicenter of the nation’s most contentious fight over water rights, a place where farmers and ranchers faced off against Native Americans in a long-running, violence-tinged stand-off. Now the region is on the brink of winning approval for a three-part settlement that takes into account the water needs of all its constituencies– farmers, ranchers, Native Americans, commercial fishermen, and the severely damaged Klamath River itself.

Klamath Riverphoto by Joyce cory, on FlickrThe Klamath River

Representatives of all those groups – including environmental organizations professing to protect the river – support the package, whose final component was announced on March 5. That’s particularly stunning since south central Oregon, home to most of the basin’s farmers and ranchers, is Tea Party country, where many people think taking down a working dam is blasphemous. The settlement would set in motion the dismantling of four functioning, though obsolescent, hydroelectric dams that block the passage of salmon through the river. The dams’ demolition would constitute the world’s biggest dam removal project.

The settlement’s last remaining hurdle is formidable. The deal must get legislative approval – and new authorizations of roughly $250 million for river restoration and economic development – from a divided Congress. If that happens, the Klamath, instead of symbolizing enmity, could end up standing for the triumph of inclusiveness and cooperation, and the recognition that a river’s health can be something to unite around.

In the meantime, the river is a mess. Thanks to mining, logging, irrigation, and above all, the dams, some salmon species have disappeared, and all others are a fraction of their pre-European numbers. Each summer algae blooms turn water in the four reservoirs a fluorescent green, so toxic that human contact is forbidden, sometimes from the dams all the way downstream 190 miles to the river’s mouth.

The March 5 agreement reels in the last holdouts to a basin-wide pact, 400 or so upper basin ranchers whose 100,000 cattle feed largely on pasture irrigated by Klamath tributaries. The cattle damage the Klamath’s tributaries in numerous ways, from trampling the river banks where water-cooling, erosion-dampening vegetation would otherwise grow to promoting chemical-laden agricultural runoff …more

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California Game Commission to Consider Whether to Protect Gray Wolf

It is only a matter of time before wolves re-establish themselves in the Golden State

Gray wolves are no strangers to the Golden State. Their majestic howls echoed through our forests and rolled out into our Great Central Valley before European settlers pushed west. But, like in so many other areas throughout the West, as California’s human population grew, its wolf population shrunk drastically.

Wolves were driven from the lands they had called home for centuries – hunted, trapped and slaughtered, painted not as the great icons that they are, but as the vicious caricatures of folklore. Eventually, by 1925, gray wolves could no longer be heard anywhere in the state, and could be found only in small, scattered populations throughout the rest of the country.

Grey Wolf 223photo by Sakarri, on FlickrGrey wolf

Fortunately, people began to realize that America’s forests and canyonlands were missing wolves, that ecosystem health was declining in their absence, and that we were in danger of losing one of our country’s most iconic species.

In 1967, the federal government recognized wolves as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, wolf recovery has been an inspiring story of native species reintroduction and of the beauty and benefits that have come from the hard-won battle to see wolves return to the places where they once roamed freely.

Now, as the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to remove Endangered Species Act protection for wolves throughout much of the country, gray wolves are once again at risk. Delisting would short-circuit wolf recovery in the Pacific West and would effectively mean giving up on one of our country’s most important and iconic species.Fortunately, California has an opportunity to play a meaningful role in helping the gray wolf continue to recover in the coming years — if state officials can summon the political will to do so.

Today the California Fish and Game Commission will decide whether to establish state protection for gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). Such protection will be essential to wolf recovery in California, especially in the event of federal delisting.

While gray wolves certainly deserve to be listed as endangered under the CESA, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has recommended that the Fish and Game Commission not do so. Department staff bases their decision on the claim that currently there are no wolves in California. But …more

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Environmentalists Could Win the Keystone XL Battle and Still Lose the War

Will the KXL fight be environmentalists’ Vietnam?

The Vietnam War might seem irrelevant to the environmental movement’s five-year effort to stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that, if approved by President Obama, would bring tar sands oil from Alberta to the Texas coast for refining and shipment overseas. But the more I look at the situation, the more I see worrisome similarities. Both American war planners and environmental movement leaders made the same strategic mistake: conceptualizing transportation as a single fixed conduit that could be readily shut down with decisive consequences for the entire conflict.

photo of a tropical mountain scene, forest and trailphoto by Nathan Nelson on FlickrThe Central Highlands of Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

From 1965 to 1972 American civilian and military war managers launched a massive aerial bombardment campaign against North Vietnam’s transportation system. If the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” leading from North Vietnam into Laos and from there into South Vietnam could be severed, then Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army forces would run of supplies and replacement troops. For the American strategists, it was as if the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the Vietnamese equivalent of an interstate highway with complex entrances and exits, bridges, and other vulnerable choke points. Just as air strikes by jet fighter-bombers would surely cripple American highways and bring our economy to a halt, a few thousand bombing attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail would end the war. Or so the “thinking” went.

Although this image of the Ho Chi Minh trail resonated with American sensibilities, no single roadway by that name existed. Instead, a vast network of modest roads – some medium-sized, some small, some tiny – and many different river crossings, camouflaged fuel dumps, and truck parks comprised the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This network could not be bombed out of existence, not by a few thousand air strikes or even a few hundred thousand. By the end of 1967 the Central Intelligence Agency quit making recommendations on bombing targets, convinced that no level of attack against the transportation system could stop supplies moving south.

Like the Americans’ image of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a single superhighway, the environmental movement has conceptualized Keystone XL as the single path for Alberta tar sands oil, a 1,179-mile conduit capable of shipping 830,000 barrels a day. If Keystone can be stopped, then …more

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A Fresh Boost of Energy for Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaigns on US Campuses

At the 2014 Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence, students renewed their pledge to dig deep, link up, and take action

Last Thursday, anti-apartheid icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu came out with an article calling for an “apartheid-style boycott to save the planet.” Tutu says we can halt climate change if we use the tactics that worked in South Africa against the worst carbon emitters: fossil fuel companies. This was followed by news on Saturday that Pitzer College in Southern California had come up with a breakthrough climate action plan that included divesting its holdings from fossil fuels by the end of the year.

hand-written notes about an ideal world to aspire for Photo by Shadia Fayne WoodAnother world is possible!

It was colleges and universities that spearheaded divestment during the apartheid era. Today, in the face of catastrophic climate change, the tactic is once again being championed by colleges and universities. Over the past two years, students on hundreds of campuses have launched campaigns demanding that our endowments no longer be invested in the fossil fuel industry. The movement has garnered success at numerous institutions and has fostered collective planning and action between campuses.

Earlier this month, from April 4 to 6, more than 200 students from across the United States and Canada gathered at San Francisco State University (SFSU) for the 2014 Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence. It was a time for to us to dig deep, link up, and take action. These three threads were the core threads weaving through the fabric of our convergence. This gathering was second annual student-led Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence. The first took place at Swarthmore College early last year.

Coordinated by the Fossil Fuel Divestment Network — which was formed just over a year ago as a platform for building solidarity across campuses — and the California Student Sustainability Coalition (an Earth Island Institute project), the event was organized to cultivate youth organizing capacity and leadership on climate justice. The convergence featured diverse speakers and panels on social justice and environmental and new economy communities that helped guide us as climate organizers and showed us how to challenge prevailing assumptions about the fossil fuel divestment movement. Organized around “collective liberation” and economic transformation, the convergence was testament to a new kind of momentum in the climate movement, and to the radicalizing pull of the call to divest.

Day one began with cheerful …more

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A Way to Come Together on Public Lands Conservation

If Congress doesn’t like President Obama’s national monument designation, it should pass the dozens of pending wilderness bills

Late last month the House of Representatives passed a bill that would restrict the president’s ability to fulfill a key part of his stated agenda. No, this wasn’t the umpteenth vote to repeal Obamacare. Rather, the “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act” would severely constrain the president’s power to conserve wildlands via the Antiquities Act. As the bill’s sponsor, Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop, explains it: “The president ought to formally be required to consider the input of local communities and states prior to declaring new national monuments.”

Sleeping Bear Dunesphoto by Josh Kellogg, on FlickrSleeping Bear Dunes, on the shore of Lake Michigan

At first glance, the bill may appear like yet another predictable partisan fight over environmental protection, with Democrats demanding more conservation as Republicans fight for more resource extraction on public lands. But the story is more complicated – and more interesting – than that.

For generations there has existed a bi-partisan enthusiasm for protecting America’s unique wild places. Republicans, following in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, often celebrated the wilderness as a crucible of the nation’s pioneering character. Democrats, continuing on the path blazed by Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, praised the wild as a sacred place, a spiritual resource for personal renewal. In 1984, for example, Congress passed 20 wilderness bills protecting some 8 million acres; nearly every one had bi-partisan co-sponsors.

This history of collaboration might seem to be in shreds. The previous Congress, the 112th, was the first since 1964 not to designate any new wilderness areas. But when, last month, Congress finally got around to passing its first wilderness bill in five years – a measure to protect 32,500 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan – the accomplishment received praise from both sides of the aisle. Republican Congressman Dan Benishek of Michigan called the bill, which the House approved unanimously, a “huge win … for the citizens of Northern Michigan.” And remember that during last year’s government shutdown, Congressman Bishop’s home state of Utah rushed to pick up the tab to keep its national parks open.

As Congressmen Benishek and Bishop know, many of their constituents see real value in wilderness conservation – both the ineffable worth of wild places and wildlife, as …more

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Showtime Series Uses Star Power to Drive Home the Truth About Our Warming World

Can a 60 Minutes-meets-Ocean’s Eleven show on climate change lure viewers away from Don Draper?

A Sunday night primetime television show, a documentary series at that, on climate change — that’s kind of ambitious, wouldn’t you say?

actor Harrison Ford with an orangutanHarrison Ford stirred up quite a flutter during his reporting trip to Indonesia when he bore down upon the country's foreign minister, asking repeatedly nothing was being done to curb illegal logging.

But add in a star cast of Hollywood heroes — Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, and Matt Damon. Mix in some hotshot journalists — The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, CBS’ Lesley Stahl, and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. Have them travel around the country and different parts of the world to report on the causes of global warming, and talk with regular folks who are bearing the brunt of our rapidly changing biosphere— and well, you just might have the right recipe for a crowd-puller.

At least that’s what the producers of Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part series on climate change that kicks off this Sunday at 10 p.m., are hoping. As are most environmentalists (yours truly, included), who constantly struggle to find ways to communicate the grim fallouts of spewing invisible gases to our atmosphere to a public that’s exposed to a daily dose of climate denialism.

Conceptualized by former 60 Minutes journalists, Joel Bach and David Gelber, the executive producers of the series include Hollywood director James Cameron (of Avatar, Titanic fame), former California Gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger, producer Jerry Weintraub (Ocean’s Eleven), and clean tech guru Dan Abbasi. The reporting is informed by a crack team of climate scientists, including James Hansen, Michael Mann, Joe Romm, and Dr Heidi Cullen, who described the series as “60 Minutes-meets-Ocean’s Eleven.”  

Actor Dan Cheadle talks with Texans who are facing the brunt of the ongoing drought.Dan Cheadle meets with Texans who are bearing the brunt of the long drought.

The series consist of multiple stories on climate change that play out over the course of nine episodes. Each individual “correspondent” explores a specific impact of our warming world — from Superstorm Sandy to political instability in the Middle East, to melting Arctic ice. The stories also focus on how climate change is affecting the life of everyday Americans and offers some ideas about how they can be part of the solution.

The first …more

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