Friday, December 5, 2008

Conquer the Blue Christmas: Go Green!

And so this is Christmas, goes the John Lennon classic, and an interesting one it is, as the economy has severely dampened the Yuletide cheer.

But even with the year’s grim economic news, interest in green gifts continues, and an ocean of web sites offers millions of ways you can give memorable presents that have a net-positive impact on the ecological systems that sustain us. So here are some green ways to conquer a blue Christmas.

Green is a very big umbrella: when purchasing gifts, a few pointers are appropriate. First, local products are very green. Locally purchased gifts require less fossil fuel to get to your door, reducing your carbon footprint.

Second, reused products trump recycled ones. The difference? Recycled materials are melted down and turned into something new, a process that saves materials but requires energy and water. Reused objects save tons on energy and water, again lowering that carbon footprint, the Holy Grail of our time.

Sweet Mabel’s, a gift shop in Narberth, is a homegrown gift shop featuring wild things like clocks pressed from classic rock albums, cuff links made from typewriter keys, goblets formed from soda and beer bottles, purses produced from reclaimed inner tubes and candy wrappers, wine bottle stoppers cleverly crafted from doorknobs, of all things, and even beautiful, colorful baskets hand-woven from telephone wire by Zulu women. (OK, a Zulu hand basket is not local, but it does contribute to the creation of sustainable economies in third world countries, not a bad reason to think globally as well.)

On the web, a Google search for recycled and green gifts offers an ocean of possibilities to wade through. Great Green Goods lists jewelry made from recycled flip flops, of all things, plus tree decorations crafted from recycled oxygen containers found on Mt. Everest and Santas cut from Dr. Pepper cans. Eco-Artware presents bracelets from vintage watch faces and subway tokens. Uncommon Goods provides wine goblets made from tinted automobile glass by people in Colombia and elegant journals and stationery made from—get this—elephant dung by women in Thailand. Yes, elephant droppings are loaded with fiber, and this fiber is turned into beautiful paper—check it out.

Speaking of elephants, Abundant Earth offers tire swings made from reused truck tires that come in the shape of elephants, horses, reindeer, T. rexes, even motorcycles and fire-breathing dragons—a great way to reuse tires and get the kids outside. And speaking of kids, if you want to give them a head start in the post-carbon economy, lots of web sites offer a variety of hydrogen-powered toy cars for kids, which run only on water. Today it’s a toy, tomorrow perhaps the greenest invention of all, an adult hydrogen car.

Adopt a species this Christmas. You can adopt a polar bear, killer whale, panda, tiger—or even an elephant so it can continue pumping out poop for your stationery! From the Defenders of Wildlife, you get plush toy versions of the adopted animals for your child’s room. (not a typo, but a relatively new group connecting kids to the outdoors) offers a variety of tree-planting packages that are extraordinarily priced—go to their web site to see what’s available, and plant away! Other groups allow you to adopt sections of rainforest and coral reef, two of the most important, vulnerable, and species-rich habitats.

One final green gift that benefits the local economy: give a membership or a contribution to an environmental nonprofit—again, your choices are limitless.

Beat the blues: GO GREEN.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Santa Swimming: The Science of North Pole Ice

This week’s multiple days of frigid weather and snow flurries were quite the counterpoint to last week’s posting about Obama wrestling with global warming on his short list of big concerns. That’s the bummer about climate change—it makes weather patterns increasingly erratic, not predictably balmier.

And the fact that the weather may be changing doesn’t change the fact that we’ll still have snow.

But with snow falling and Thanksgiving arriving, thoughts do naturally turn to colder places, like the North Pole, habitat for reindeer, polar bears, and, of course, Santa and his elves. And the story there is interesting.
Classroom globes show a static amount of ice covering the Arctic Ocean above Canada and Russia. The truth is very different: the polar ice cap is a dynamic system that contracts and expands, thickens and thins with the seasons. During our summer, the ocean melts; in the winter, snow cover increases substantially. For millennia, permanent ice—ice that survives the summer thaw—outlasts the summer season and builds up, thick and massive deep-blue plateaus decades, even centuries old.

That was then.

For the last 30 years, polar scientists have been noting a decline is polar sea ice. In 2007, Arctic sea ice hit a record low, covering only 1.6 million square miles of ocean. The previous record? 2005. With the ice cap now rapidly cooling again, the
National Snow and Ice Data Center says the ice covered 1.7 million square miles at its lowest point on September 12. To put this in perspective, 30 years ago there would be about 2.5 million square miles of ice left at the end of an Arctic summer—roughly the size of the lower 48 states. That's now dropped by almost 40 percent.

"We've essentially lost sea ice equivalent to land east of the Mississippi River and even beyond. So that's a significant amount of area," Walt Meier, a scientist at the snow center,
recently told the BBC.

And here’s the kicker: both last summer and this one, for the first time in quite a while, the ice pulled far enough back from adjoining land masses that at high summer, a boat could circumnavigate the North Pole, using the northwest passage above Canada and the northeast passage above Siberia, to circle the globe in the north, in the Arctic Ocean.

So I’m happy to report that this summer's ice cover did not set a record. No. It was only was the second lowest since satellite records began 30 years ago, which Mier says emphasizes the “strong negative trend,” as the three years of the least amount of ice ever recorded all occurred within the last four years.

And the ice is younger: less of it is surviving the winter as permaice. And it is thinner—19% thinner last winter than the average of the previous five years. That’s a big change in one winter.

The best known consequence of disappearing sea ice has been the loss of polar bear habitat, and the polar bear is quickly emerging as the poster child of global climate change. Dependent on sea ice for so much of its behavior, including standing on it to hunt for seals, its most important source of food, reports are emerging of bears starving, drowning, even eating each other. One scientist monitored 9 polar bears swimming in the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Strait, not in itself unusual—bears are powerful swimmers capable of covering 100 miles in the water. The group was only 40 miles from land—but heading in the wrong direction, where the closest land was 400 miles away, well out of range.

In May, the polar bear was listed as threatened—one step away from endangered.

The scariest part of the data is the quickening pace of the change. Only a few years ago, many scientists were noticing a warning trend, and began predicting a totally ice-free Arctic Ocean at its summer peak within 50 or 80 years. Then they began saying it would likely happen within 30 years.

Some are now predicting only five years from now. Within five years, an ice-free pole in the summer.

For ice is a giant mirror reflecting sunlight back into space, protecting the ocean water below from sunlight energy. When sea ice melts, the sunlight strikes the dark ocean water, which then warms. As it warms, it melts more snow, which uncovers more water, which warms—and you have a positive feedback loop exacerbating the trend.

Now some nations, most notably Russia, are salivating over the notion of an ice-free Arctic, as there are huge possible pockets of oil trapped beneath the waters, oil much easier to reach without permanent ice. Talk about a positive feedback loop: the burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which warms the climate, which melts the ice, which opens up new oil fields, which releases carbon dioxide—and ripples throughout both economy and ecology.

But all this discussion of polar bears and petro-exploitation misses the biggest issue raised by the possible melting of the Arctic’s ice cap:

Just where will Santa put his workshop as the sea ice vanishes beneath the North Pole?

Something to think about as you place your child atop Santa’s lap in the holiday season. And shop for presents that release no greenhouse gases.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Obama in the Green House

As the Obama presidency begins to take shape, those of us in the environmental movement—leaders of green nonprofits across the country—are eagerly awaiting the new administration. And while everyone is breathlessly second guessing everything from who might join his cabinet to which puppy his girls should adopt, let’s make one incredibly safe assumption. When all is said and done, Barack Obama will go down as the greenest president ever.

And not because he wants to. Because he has to.

Consider this: name the single most important president in the history of the environment. No, not Teddy Roosevelt, even though he named the first national park, started the National Park Service, and founded 51 wildlife refuges (he's pictured here with Sierra Club founder John Muir in Yosemite in 1903). Not Jimmy Carter, who set aside 130 million acres of Alaska and put solar panels on the White House (which Ronald Reagan famously removed).

Surprise, the most effective environmental president of all time—by far—is still Richard Nixon. In his six years in office, Nixon presided over a startling number of eco-accomplishments: the creation of the EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, bans on DDT and lead in gasoline, and the passage of an unprecedented raft of legislation including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the National Environmental Policy Act (which begat environmental impact statements), and more.

And Nixon did all this not because he wanted to. Because he had to. Nixon took office in January 1969 at the height of the nascent environmental movement’s powers. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire (twice, actually), Lake Erie was declared biologically dead, smokestacks in cities nationwide were spewing everything, and bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans were vanishing from egg-shell thinning courtesy of DDT. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb were clarion calls to action, and 1970’s first Earth Day was then the largest demonstration in American history.

Nixon saw where this was all heading, and to ensure his political future, became Chief Environmentalist.

Obama is coming to the presidency precisely at another watershed moment for the environment. The earth is warming as atmospheric dioxide concentrations continue to climb with devastating consequences: sea levels are rising, storms increasing, species disappearing at record levels,
forest fires raging (like this week's California , a photo of which is here) deserts and diseases spreading, coral reefs bleaching and dying. Just this week, the island nation of Maldives, only three feet above sea level, announced it is shopping for real estate in Sri Lanka or India just in case it drowns under a warming ocean. Global CO2 concentrations, historically at 280 parts per million, are fast approaching 400 ppm, while the emerging scientific consensus recommends hauling concentrations back to 350 or below.

And there’s one key difference between 1970 and today: Nixon’s problems were seen as local. Restore Lake Erie. Clean that smokestack. Today’s problems are hugely, unforgivably global.

But global climate change is just the first of the ecological twin towers confronting us and Obama. The emerging freshwater crisis, exacerbated by climate change, is only starting to get the attention it deserves, and will soon burst onto Page One as weather patterns continue drying key bodies of water. Many of the world’s largest rivers—the Colorado, Nile, Ganges, Yellow—barely reach the sea in dry seasons, and water scarcity is playing a significant role in the unfolding Darfur crisis. Want peace in the Middle East? You’ll have to solve Palestinian access to water first.

To his credit, Obama sees the writing on the wall. In his Grant Park victory speech, he recognized the short list of issues confronting his presidency. “For even as we celebrate tonight,” he intoned last Tuesday night, “we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime—two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” And during the debates, when moderators asked which programs he’d give up as the economy collapsed, Obama adamantly reasserted his belief that green collar jobs like building wind turbines, weatherizing houses and installing solar panels were a centerpiece of his emerging economic agenda, and would NOT be cut. Let’s see.

Not surprisingly, environmental leaders, starved for action, are quickly pushing and pulling at Obama. Al Gore and his “
We” campaign advocate weaning us completely off fossil fuels in 10 years. Author Bill McKibben, leader of the new, a reference to CO2 concentrations, has lobbied the president-elect to head to Poland in December for upcoming climate talks. And the entire green community is salivating over the possibility of the US revisiting the Kyoto protocol.

What will Obama do? The likely short list includes a radically new energy policy, a reinvigorated EPA and Interior, new protections for old growth forests and endangered ecosystems, an international climate treaty of some kind, a revived and greener Detroit, a continued greening of architecture, schools, businesses, and the marketplace, new wilderness areas, enhanced recycling, and a stronger endangered species act.

For like Nixon in 1969, one sees the unfolding arc of the environmental story. On the campaign, Obama frequently cited Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now,” referring to his own candidacy as much as anything else. And without question there is a fierce urgency to economic realties—in fact, many will urge Obama to derail a green agenda for the sake of the economy.

But there is a fierce urgency to the planet’s situation—and the data will continue to unrelentingly point in even gloomier directions. The planet is ecologically unraveling, and a tsunami of public support will demand critical action.

And Obama will respond. Not because he wants to, even though he might. Because he has to. And if McCain had win last week, I'd be writing the same words.

“We’ve only got four minutes to save the world,” sings Madonna. We might have a little longer than that. Four years—his first term—sounds about right.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Power of Green

Obama and McCain talked about it for months, as did Hillary.

T. Boone Pickens never stops talking about it, in TV commercials and web sites.

Everyone’s talking about green collar jobs, one of the very few glimmers on an increasingly gloomy economic scene. And after a week when the Dow sheds points like the
maple outside my window drops leaves, we need good news.

In fact, when pressed in the last two debates about what he’d cut from his ambitious platform of middle class tax cuts, health care reform, and more, now president-elect Obama went out of his way to say he would make sure he did NOT cut spending on new energy sources like wind and solar, because that’s where the jobs are.

And the UN agrees.
A report earlier this fall revealed that there are millions of jobs to be had in the emerging green economy. Among the report’s findings:

The global market for environmental products and services is projected to double from $1.37 trillion per year at present to $2.74 trillion by 2020.

Half of this market is in energy efficiency and the balance in sustainable transport, water supply, sanitation and waste management.

Clean technologies are already the third largest sector for venture capital after information and biotechnology in the United States, while green venture capital in China more than doubled to 19% of total investment in recent years.

2.3 million people have in recent years found new jobs in the renewable energy sector alone, and the potential for job growth in the sector is huge. Employment in alternative energies may rise to 2.1 million in wind and 6.3 million in solar power by 2030.

And this is key: Renewable energy generates more jobs than employment in fossil fuels.

Projected investments of $630 billion by 2030 would translate into at least 20 million additional jobs in the renewable energy sector.

That’s the ticket, putting people back to work installing solar panels, building wind turbines, planting green roofs, insulating and re-wiring houses, and more.

The power of green: the greening of the economy will be led by a, well, greening of the economy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama on the Environment: Amen!

“For even as we celebrate tonight,” president-elect Barack Obama noted as he presented his valedictory in Chicago early this morning, “we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime—two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.”

There: he said it. “A planet in peril.” At long last, an American president stated the obvious, and it’s tucked into the top of a very short to-do list.

As a naturalist and environmental educator, you can’t believe what this means to me.

The race is on, to cool the climate, save species, preserve forests and fields, green the economy, find the sustainable, softer path on water, energy, business.

But can we win this race?

By now, you know the answer: yes we can. We have no choice.

Savor the moment—but tomorrow, let’s roll up our sleeves.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Sinking Ark: Vanishing Mammals

This blog was begun to celebrate and advocate for nature, with emphasis on celebrate—we just don’t do that enough.

But today, we’ll leave the celebrating for another day: A recent United Nations study, as reported in many places (like here) fully one quarter of the world's mammals are threatened with extinction by 2030. That's 25% of the world's 5,600 mammals.

As if that wasn’t sobering enough, the study also found that half of all were in decline. Jan Schipper, the scientist who led the study, said threats were worst for land mammals in Asia, where creatures such as orangutans (left) are suffering from deforestation. Almost 80 percent of primates in that region are in trouble.

One of the most threatened includes the Iberian lynx, for which there are only some 100 left. But such notables as the Tasmanian devil, black rhino, and Siberian tiger are also in steep decline. The little earth hutia of Cuba has not been seen in 40 years; the polar bear is rising in concern as Arctic ice melts seemingly before our eyes.

At least 76 mammals have gone extinct since 1500.

No surprise: habitat loss, hunting and now climate change are big factors in the loss.

"Within our lifetime hundreds of species could be lost as a result of our own actions," said Julia Marton-Lefevre, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

OK, there’s a slim glimmer of hope: five percent of species are recovering because of conservation efforts, including the black-footed ferret; the African elephant was also moved down one notch of risk, from "vulnerable" to "near threatened." Amazingly, almost 350 new species of mammals have been found since 1992, such as the elephant shrew in Tanzania, it said.

There’s a cruel irony: species are likely vanishing before they are even described.

So we’ve got work to do. As Martin Luther King said in a different context, there is a “fierce urgency of now.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Leaf Them Alone! Two Reasons to Rake Less Leaves

Fall: cold, crisp weather, shorter days, and leaves turning stunning colors.

There's a massive sugar maple turning an extraordinary red-orange not far from my house. You’ve got to see this one—sugar maples are among the area’s showiest fall colors anyway (photo below), and this is one of the best sugar maples I’ve ever seen. In fact, the sugar maple color is so unique it belongs in a Crayola crayon box.

Tuliptrees, the largest trees in local forests, are busily brightening yellow, dogwoods slide into a beautiful deep burgundy, sassafras glows bronzy orange with hints of purple, and believe it or not, poison ivy turns the purest red in nature’s fall palette. Each tree turns its own characteristic color in the fall season.

But even as the trees complete this miracle, something else happens to their leaves: they drop. It’s why we call it fall. Between now and the end of the year, we’ll fill uncountable numbers of big brown leaf bags. It is simply amazing— discouraging, even—how many leaves fall from a single tree.

So by Thanksgiving, we’re sick of leaves, sick of raking, sick of the unending dreary brown of dead leaves that cover the landscape. And for many of us, the neatening genes kick in, and we want to gather and get rid of all those wet, decomposing leaves that suffocate our suburban lawns.

But wait.

This year, I invite you to join me in a very special, almost anarchic, act: rake less leaves this fall. Leave piles of leaves in corners or sections of your lawn and garden, if you can. For two reasons, one more obvious than the other.

More obvious: those leaves falling off your trees are filled with the exact nutrients in the perfect combinations that your lawns need as nutrition. Amazingly, we pay people to blow every leaf off our precious green lawn, then pay someone else to pour buckets of nutrient-rich fertilizers onto those same nutrient-starved lawns, most of which runs off the property when the first rainfall comes anyway. We burn a lot of bucks this way.

We’d save tons of time, energy and money if the nutrients stored in those leaves were simply put back directly where they belong—on your lawn. Use a mulching mower to chop them (much more effective when the leaves are dry than wet), and leave them in place. The small particles of leaves will happily decompose into your lawn—and feed your grass. Some people compost their leaves, which is also fine—but few then use the resulting compost. Mulching in place saves incredible amounts of precious energy while feeding the lawn organically, skipping fertilizers made from petrochemicals.

Mulching promotes energy conservation and cools the climate.

Less obvious reason: yesterday, I spotted a Monarch butterfly flitting across a meadow. Normally a happy sight, seeing one this late in the fall made me sad—Monarchs overwinter in Mexican mountain valleys, and as the first Monarchs usually show up in Mexico around Halloween, this dude should have been much farther south by now, and I don’t think it’s going to reach Mexico for the winter.

But countless other insects like beetles, wasps, bees and butterflies—the same creatures that literally hold up the world—hibernate in one stage of their life cycle, tucked away in nooks and crannies of our fields and forests. Many burrow beneath piles of leaves, using them as blankets of insulation, and sleep the winter away. Ladybugs hibernate as larvae, praying mantises as egg cases, tiger swallowtails as cocoons: each insect survives the winter in only one stage of its life cycle, and each insect has picked a different stage.

So when landscapers leaf-blow our gardens, or when we meticulously rake every leaf off our lawns, we are disturbing and even killing countless numbers of overwintering insects, trucking them off to the leaf dump to be buried beneath tons of debris. And there is a cost.

Fireflies, for example, are becoming increasingly rare in American suburbs, partly because of too much light at night—they can’t see each other with all our security lights—and partly because too many lawns are too well manicured. They have no place to overwinter.

While it drives one of my daughters crazy, I am deliberately a lazy gardener, leaving corners and beds loaded with leaves, Mother Nature’s mulch, not raking them up but letting them be. They slowly decompose during the winter, slowly releasing their nutrients into my flower beds, providing sleeping places for butterflies, bees and bugs.

Messy gardening promotes biological diversity.

With all our discussions about living green, there are so many actions you can take, from aggressively recycling to purchasing an electric car. But also on the list is changing our gardening habits. So leave those leaves, wherever you can, conserving energy and allowing creatures great and small their winter hiding places.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Warming World: More Hurricanes Like Ike?

In the wake of Hurricane Ike’s devastating hit on Galveston and the Gulf Coast, discussion swirls around the role of global warming in creating both more and larger hurricanes.

As I noted today on WHYY’s “Morning Edition,” you can’t pin any one hurricane on global warming. But you can look for long-term trends.

So the
Pew Center for Climate Change has discovered that between 1850 and 1990, there were, on average, 10 tropical storms in the North Atlantic annually, five of which became hurricanes.

Since 1995, the average number has jumped to 14, eight of which were hurricanes. The North Atlantic shows an increase in hurricane activity in the last decade, a possible fingerprint for global warming.

But don’t get cocky: oddly enough, there is no evidence for more hurricanes worldwide. So scientists continue to wring their hands over evidence.

Still, the UN’s
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the group that won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Al Gore, weighed in last year: the probability that GW makes more hurricanes “is more likely than not.” A tepid but appropriate response as science continues to weigh the evidence.

Meanwhile, the
National Wildlife Federation has just released a study that says that when hurricanes do form, global warming gives them a three-fold wallop:

Hurricanes will be stronger with more winds.

They will bring heavier rainfall.

And they will cause more flooding because of a larger storm surge.

Their data says a warmed atmosphere over a warmed ocean—the fuel that powers hurricanes—will push wind speeds up some 13%, nudging some storms from dangerous Category 3 to catastrophic Katrina-level Category 4.

Rainfall can increase between 10 and 31% over normal; Hurricane Fay, the one that managed to hit Florida four times, a record, dropped 27 inches of rain in some places. 27 inches: almost what Philadelphia gets in a full year!

And Ike traveled north after Galveston, dropping nine inches of rain in Chicago a couple of days later, causing horrific flooding up there.

And if powerful winds push storm surges higher, there will be more flood damage. Since 1998, some dozen hurricanes have topped $1 billion in damage, capped by Katrina, raining down $125 billion in destruction. Who knows what Ike’s bill will be; the costs mount daily.

To mitigate flood damage, NW reminds us that beaches were once the barriers that protected the mainland from storms—the loss of wetlands in New Orleans exacerbated Katrina’s damage. They are sponges that absorb storm surges and excess water.

Every mile of healthy wetlands, they say, can trim 3-9 inches off a storm surge. Yet wetlands continue to vanish under an assault of development.

And one acre of wetlands reduces hurricane damage by $3,300. String together thousands of acres, and you’ve got something. In fact, Texas and Galveston have begun an intense debate on whether or not homeowners can rebuild on the barrier beaches.

Let’s first just acknowledge that in the last 20 years, there has been a building boom on beaches—a potential accident waiting to happen.

The impact of global warming on hurricanes is, of course, controversial in some circles: just check out the web site of for starters.

No matter how you feel about the issue, this is a critically important discussion, and the defining era of this, the Greenhouse Age.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Carbon Sequestration: A High Tech Hail Mary

Even with the price of gas beginning to drop from historic highs (a gallon of unleaded regular is $3.89 this week outside Philly), energy remains one of the top stories of the summer. In fact, it’s astonishing that a price below four bucks suddenly seems reasonable.

And with Big Oil openly acknowledging that the age of Black Gold is ending (BP, after all, reminds us its initials now stand for Beyond Petroleum), entrenched fossil fuel interests are doing whatever they can to grab the last few straws—drill in the Arctic Circle, drill offshore, drill anywhere…

While oil reserves are dwindling, everyone acknowledges there are massive coal seams across the United States. To get us to energy independence, Big Coal is
working overtime to convince us that coal is, or can be, clean (unlike the stacks pictured here). There are aggressive advertising campaigns on TV polishing coal’s image, and lots of high-tech research going on.

This summer,
the EPA has announced a high-tech solution to global warming—it has authorized a new class of deep-injection wells for pumping highly pressurized, liquified carbon dioxide for permanent storage.

In other words, keep burning coal, the dirtiest of fuels, but don’t worry about global warming: just capture the CO2, inject it into wells, and store it there in perpetuity.

Forever is a long time.

Coal executives crow that their power plants can thus become carbon neutral: they’ll sequester 90% of the emissions and plant trees to offset the final 10%, the hardest part to capture.

At face value, this sounds good, and EPA says “sequestration will play a major role in reducing CO2 emissions.” But a
growing chorus of voices is reminding us of some of the downsides of sequestration.

First, whatever formations the highly pressurized, very cold, liquefied carbon dioxide is injected into have to be highly stable—imagine injecting it into wells here, only to have it leak out of fissures in the rock over there, defeating the purpose at great price to both economy and ecology.

Then, creating the high-pressure injectable fluid is itself an energy-intensive project; the sequestration plants might increase the plant’s energy needs by as much as 40%. And the sequestration plants themselves create smog and burn oil in injecting the gas.

Third, one doesn’t sequester the CO2 in the rock right below the power plant. Pipelines must be built to bring the liquefied stuff to the injection point hundreds of miles away.

So we have a high-tech shell game of moving carbon dioxide around at great expense—so that coal remains in play as an energy source.

Big Coal sees that the clock ticking; time is running out.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times reminds us we’re looking for 21st century solutions, and coal is a 19th century fuel. Coal is akin to whale oil—yes, we can burn it, but at what cost?

As one studies the entire energy picture, sequestration seems a Hail Mary pass the coal hopes will buy it more time.

But it’s not the future. The future is clean and green, and we need to begin moving there far more rapidly than we currently are.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Knot of a Conservation Issue

Scientists have long noted that we are in a horrific extinction event with hundreds of species vanishing daily. Daily. Trouble is, that number is based on mathematical models, and is, for many, just a number, a clinically cold number.

But consider the red knot pictured here—extinction with a face. The knot is a member of the sandpiper clan, a shorebird with one of the longest migration routes on Earth, flying from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle and back, almost 20,000 miles annually.

And it is vanishing before our very eyes. From 100,000 birds in the 1980s, scientists estimated only 17,200 were left in 2006. The bird was featured in a recent PBS Nature episode, titled, appropriately, “Crash.”

We are eyewitness to extinction—scientists worry the knot may vanish by 2010, two years away.

And what a loss. In migrating north from Argentina, knots gather on the coast of Brazil, then leap into the Atlantic Ocean, flying for several days without landing until they pull up on the Delaware Bay, exhausted, ravenously hungry, bodies depleted. But a miracle happens.

At just this same time, horseshoe crabs haul themselves up onto these same bay beaches, laying what was once a superabundance of green BB-sized eggs in the sand, thousands of crabs laying quadrillions of fat-rich eggs.

In an elegant confluence of events, the knots arrive just as the crabs are laying, and engorge themselves on crab eggs, doubling their body weight in a very short time, preparing themselves for their great leap forward—to the Arctic Circle, for mating and laying their own eggs.

Trouble is, the horseshoes crabs are themselves valuable, used as bait for catching conch and eel, and crab fishermen have been aggressive in protecting the horseshoe crab fishery.

As crab populations themselves crashed in past years, knot populations plummeted. There has been tons of attention focused on knots and crabs recently, and while crab populations seem to be rebounding from new rules and changed management, some say they rebounding from historically low levels, and knots are leaving for the Arctic Circle without the fat reserves they need.

And are simply not surviving the trip.

But the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is set to rule on the 2009 Delaware Bay crab harvest, the latest round in a fierce tug of war between the competing interests of commerce and conservation, and a moratorium is not on the table. More likely, they will allow a male-only delayed catch, but conservationists remind us that crabs need multiple male partners to fertilize all their eggs (the photo here shows a female surrounded by male suitors, all likely contributing sperm to the externally fertilized eggs). And crabs don’t become egg layers until the age of 10—lots of young crabs in the water now may not help the knot.

Conservation vs. commerce. Sound familiar? Whenever experts declare there should be a balance between the two interests, that usually means conservation loses.

The red knot is vanishing, right in front of us. And for what?

Eel bait.

Maya Van Rossum, the Delaware Bay's Riverkeeper, says "the whole world is watching" what happens here. That would be great—I fear not enough of the world is watching, and the knot is slipping through our fingers.

It bears repeating: for eel bait.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Worth of Water

We know the worth of water, said Ben Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac, when the well runs dry.

He’s right, and in a hot summer like this, lots of wells run dry.

As I discussed today on WHYY’s “Morning Edition,” many analysts—and not the obvious ones—are predicting that water will become, as The Guardian wrote in a May story, “the next scourge to afflict the global economy after soaring oil and food prices.”

General Electric—no Greenpeace this group—is preemptively cutting its own use of water by 20% by 2012, and will look to export water-saving technologies to water-starved countries. Here’s more evidence of the emerging green-collar economy that has received only modest attention in the presidential election—GE wants to lead in water conservation.


A vice president of GE says “there is going to be a price on water that is going to reflect its scarcity in a way that it doesn’t today. We’re going to see that change over time—certainly in emerging markets.”

DuPont has joined the water bandwagon, dedicated to reducing its water use by one-third in the next 7 years, and Coca-Cola has already reduced its consumption 20% since 2003. Of course, greening large corporations isn't easy, and Coke continues to take heat for not living up to its hype. Still, industry is light years ahead of the government on at least this issue.

As global warming radically alters climate in the coming decades, one UN office predicts that half of the world’s arable land might no longer be suitable for food production by 2050.

Today, numerous rivers—Colorado, Rio Grande, Nile—are exhausted by the time they reach the sea. In fact, they no longer run to the sea.

Our use of water is unsustainable, and this issue will soon take its place alongside global warming as the Scylla and Charybdis the world has to pass between to navigate this, the environmental century.

Ands look who’s leading the way: Coke, DuPont, GE.

Jump on board the bandwagon, before your well runs dry. One way to begin wading into the issue is to calculate your own use of water-- your water footprint. Check out ways to do this, and, like everyone is installing compact flourescent light bulbs to combat global warming, consider ways you can begin participating in the global push for water conservation.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Butterfly: A Declaration of Interdependence

It’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and I’ll soon be heading over to the local fireworks to mark the day.

But while most of us are thinking about fireworks and flags, independence and declarations, I’ve been thinking about butterflies.

For me, thinking like a butterfly is the key to our environmental future, and is intimately connected with Independence Day.

Hang with me on this.

Consider the butterfly. Butterflies begin life as caterpillars, miniature mowers that chew through entire forests of trees, stripping leaves and denuding vegetation. In one of nature's ironies, caterpillars can weaken, even kill, the plants that serve as their hosts, precluding future butterflies from laying their eggs there. In some places, caterpillar droppings rain down from trees as armies of marauding tent caterpillars and gypsy moth larvae wreak destruction on our forests.

Caterpillars eat their future. They loot and pillage, like Eric Carle’s creation in the children’s classic, “A Very Hungry Caterpillar,” taking from the world the resources they crave for their survival.

Kind of like us.

Then, in a stunning act of mea culpa, an odd and magical transformation occurs. As if being punished for the sin of gluttony, the caterpillar metamorphoses into an adult with no mouthparts whatsoever for eating any solid food at all. A butterfly’s mouth is a long slender tube, essentially a straw, adapted only for nectar-sipping.

Butterflies drink the world, flitting from flower to flower in search of sugar water, drinking their way through the day.

And as they flit, pollen grains accidentally adhere to their hairy bodies, and butterflies pollinate the flowers they visit. Here’s one of nature’s most enduring examples of interdependence: butterflies require flowers for nectar; flowers in turn require butterflies to create the next generation of seeds and flowers.

But humankind is stuck in a protracted caterpillar stage, perpetually taking from the world whatever we need to survive, whether oil to power massive SUVs named after endangered places vanishing under an onslaught of car tires, or ancient old-growth forests clearcut to quench our unyielding thirst for chopsticks and plywood.

Yes, we are organic creatures with real needs: we must breathe air, drink water, eat food grown in soil, live in houses made from wood, water that house with coal taken from underground seams. The word “balance” is kicked around a lot in policy discussions about environmental issues, and it is a critical word. There simply must be a balance between what we take and what we give.

But let’s not kid ourselves: there is a deep and dark imbalance in our relationship to life and the resources that sustain us. We need forests for wood and water to drink, but we the future of wood and water is grim.

Humankind is way out of balance: precious little butterfly, far too much caterpillar.

July 4th is also the height of summer, butterfly season. As we celebrate the Fourth and our Declaration if Independence, butterflies remind us that the future of humankind is a deep interdependence, an acknowledgment that we must give back to the systems that sustain us if these systems are to continue functioning.

It’s time for a radical transformation, from caterpillar to butterfly, from unyielding takers vacuuming forests and ocean floors to generous givers restoring the systems that keep us alive.

Each of us needs to begin thinking like a butterfly.

A big thought from a small corner of the web. Happy Fourth.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Growing Butterflies

Nothing says summer like butterflies drifting lazily across a meadow. And just like fireflies use their flash to attract mates (see entry below), butterflies call to each other with their loud exuberant colors—the tiger swallowtail’s bright yellow, for example, calling other swallowtails.

They are flying billboards, advertising—what else?—sex.

While we all love butterflies, too few people realize you can actually GROW butterflies. Yes, grow them. If you plant the flowers their caterpillars crave and nectar-rich flowers the adults need, you can nurture larger numbers of butterflies.

Take milkweed, for example. Monarch butterflies—those big orange dudes—only lay eggs on milkweeds, as the caterpillars eat this, and nothing else. The caterpillar incorporates noxious milkweed poisons into its chemistry, transforming into adults that use their bright orange to advertise their distastefulness.

Milkweeds also produce stunning nectar-infused flowers that butterflies find irresistible. So put milkweed in your garden, and you’ll grow Monarch butterflies while offering nectar for dozens of varieties of butterflies and skippers, their smaller cousins.

Grow dill or fennel, and black swallowtails will lay eggs in your garden. Hollyhocks host painted ladies and gray hairstreaks. Violets support members of the fritillary clan, a diverse group of stunning fliers. The pipevine swallowtail’s caterpillar lives on, you guessed it, pipevine and Dutchman’s pipe; the spring azure—a dainty powder-blue beauty—craves Spirea and viburnums, and so it goes. For a long list of host plants, try here or here.

So far, however, it’s been a thin butterfly summer—I’ve only seen only two Monarchs so far, and precious few swallowtails. To understand butterfly populations, the North American Butterfly Association leads July 4th counts of butterflies nationwide. Join me on my count—I’d love to welcome you.

And grow butterflies. Plant dill and milkweed to start, and see where it goes. Enjoy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bright lights, no pity

Flash! I saw the first firefly of the young summer strutting his stuff tonight, lighting my way while walking the dog. And I do mean he: the fireflies you see flying and flashing are males, advertising their wares by sending signals into the night.

The larger females are flightless, sitting in grasses or on branches checking out the light show above them.

And each species of firefly has its own unique Morse code, using both time and space to alert others as to which species it might be. So one firefly performa a flashing J pattern, distinct from the one that performs, say, one low dash, or three high dots.

When the female spots an acceptably sexy flashing male of the proper species, she has the appropriate answer, a coded response. He flies to the signal, and mating ensues—and she soon lays eggs that themselves even glow in the dark!

But it gets even better: in one group of fireflies, the female has decoded the flashing pattern of males of different species. He flashes, looking for a mate; she responds. He flies down, visions of sugarplums dancing in his head… And she devours him.

Sex and food explain just about everything in nature, even the welcome flash of fireflies.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Return of the King

Some people mark the calendar by days of the week, or dates of the year. Me, I’m a naturalist, and mark the calendar by the rhythms of the natural world. Skunk cabbage in bloom in a February wetland signals the coming spring; the first trillium or trout lily announces high spring; the first warbler migrating through deserves a celebration.

Last week, June 5—the day my nonprofit was hosting its huge annual gala—a Monarch butterfly drifted lazily across my path.

The first Monarch of 2008. Good omen for the gala. And, for me, the official beginning of summer.

Monarchs—those big butterflies wearing Flyers jerseys—famously spend the winter in remote Mexican mountain valleys, where they encase the trees keeping each other warm. There, they become the longest-lived butterflies of all, surviving as long as nine months waiting out the winter season.
As spring dawns, the females begin the journey north, making it maybe to Texas, searching for the first milkweed, the only plant they lay their eggs upon. After the females lay their eggs, they collapse from exhaustion—and die.

And it’s that next generation that continues migrating north—and here it is, in early June. Summer is here; nature’s clock continues, and the Monarchs are back in town.
Want to know more? Visit Monarch Watch or Journey North.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Out of the Frying Pan...

A soaring wall of thunderheads just passed overhead, rumbling and flashing but not raining one-tenth as much as I expected.

Nonetheless, it broke the back of that psyche-shattering heat wave we’ve been mired in. Check this out: my kids have been given half-days off to avoid the heat. Early June and it feels like the dog days of August.

So the last two days here, parents have been lining up at school carpool queues to pick up their little charges, not wanting them to swelter on the long bus trip. And the cars—all those Suburbans and Tahoes—sit there, engines idling, air conditioners on full, waiting to whisk kids home to central air turned all the way up.

It’s ironic: as the heat climbs, power usage escalates—or in your Cadillac, it Escalades. As usage climbs, we burn more fossil fuels cooling down, and greenhouse gas emissions rise, forming a positive feedback loop. The hotter it gets, the more power we consume; the more power we consume, the hotter it gets. And carbon dioxide concentrations keep ratcheting up.

Two weeks from now, I expect we’ll hear this is one of the hottest Junes ever. Meanwhile, just last week, Congress punted on a climate change bill that, imperfectly unexplainable as it might have been, would at least have been a statement. Those who filibustered claim combating climate change is too “costly.”

Maybe, but tell that to a farmer with scorched corn.

Thankfully, both McCain and Obama take climate change seriously, so we’ll see what happens next year. (Meanwhile, Chevy is abandoning Tahoes and Suburbans for the emission-free electric Volt. Now there’s progress.)

But at some point, like with the war effort, we’re going to begin to need to make some personal sacrifices to cool the climate. We continue wanting to have our cake and eat it too, but the oven doesn’t work anymore.

Still, the heat wave broke. Tomorrow’s high will only be 89. Whew.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Our Poisoned Pets

In a groundbreaking study, the Environmental Working Group discovered that our pet dogs and cats are polluted with even higher levels of many of the same industrial chemicals that researchers have begun finding in people, even newborns.

We’re talking about a witch’s brew of flame retardants, teflons, plastics, mercury and other metals. Yum.

The blood and urine of the dogs they studied contained 35 chemicals, 31 of them toxic to reproductive systems and 24 of them neurotoxins…

Cats were home to some 46 chemicals, including nine carcinogens, 40 substances toxic to reproductive systems, 34 neurotoxins, and 15 chemicals toxic to endocrine systems (yes, many do double or triple duty).

Sometimes, the levels are incomprehensible: cats, for example, were discovered to show elevated amounts of fire retardants 23 times higher than people.

The source of all this contamination? A cat sleeps on its bed sprayed with flame retardant, grooms itself and ingests polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), linked to a host of health issues. Cat food cans are lined with Bisphenol-A, an estrogen mimic, and the can’s tuna often contains high doses of mercury, a neurotoxin. Chew toys give off small amounts of phthalates (a plasticizer increasingly under indictment), flea collars emit small doses of insecticides, lead based paint is ingested by pets when they lick dust off their paws.

Just walking across a new carpet exposes your pet to PBDEs.

The upshot? PBDE has been linked to thyroid disease, and hyperthyroidism in cats is increasing alongside PBDE use. The rate of skin cancer in dogs is 35 times higher than people, bone cancer eight times higher—and they suffer a quadrupled rate for breast tumors and twice the rate of leukemia.

It’s a little scary, but this knowledge is important. “Just as children ingest pollutants in tap water,” concludes the study, “play on lawns with pesticide residues, or breathe in an array of indoor air contaminants, so do their pets. But with their compressed lifespans, developing and aging seven or more times faster than children, pets also develop health problems from exposures much more rapidly. The National Research Council has found that sickness and disease in pets can inform our understanding of our own health risks.”

Makes you wonder what’s in our own blood, doesn’t it?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Earth Day: Green Tsunami Rising

I'm a Pennsylvanian, living in the epicenter of American politics-- until next week. But in quite the confluence of events, Tuesday’s April 22 presidential primary is also Earth Day, the emerging environmental holiday.

Guess which gets more press coverage.

Not Earth Day. Coverage will be limited to the president half-heartedly standing in a remote national park quoting Teddy Roosevelt while announcing some cleverly named initiative. Find the photo op buried on page 17 of Wednesday’s paper. Page 1? Primarily the election.

But hang on. While the state of the environment is grim this Earth Day—the climate is changing, species vanishing, glaciers melting, sea levels rising, rainforests burning, coral reefs bleaching and dying, deserts spreading, population rising—if you place your finger on the pulse of popular culture, you can feel it: a green tsunami rising.

In fact, the word green is suddenly everywhere: green roofs on green buildings, green products on web sites, presidential candidates debating “green collar jobs,” a new phrase that entered the lexicon only this spring. In fashion, green is the new black, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reminds us that “green is the new red, white and blue.” A rainforest has been pulped to produce Vanity Fair’s annual green issue, featuring a half-naked Madonna, the green goddess undressing, and my Philadelphia Inquirer has just launched GreenSpace, a new column showcasing the explosion of green.

Kermit got it wrong: it’s easy being green. Or at least, in shallow America, it’s easy to market green. But dig deeper.

Al Gore, fresh off his Nobel Prize, has launched the $300 million We global warming campaign. Plug-in hybrid cars are coming on fast as the next generation of transport. Organic food options are exploding: Wal-Mart is the largest seller of organic food, Gallo Brothers the largest organic wine producer. Wind power is smokin’ hot, alternative energy is already hyped as the next bubble, the coal industry is pouring buckets of money into convincing us coal is clean, solar is back from the dead, and BP, the oil giant, touts its initials as meaning “Beyond Petroleum.”

Interest in the environment is resurgent. This Earth Day, we are witnessing the dawn of the third wave of environmental activism.

The first dates to the 1970 teach-in that was the first Earth Day, then the largest mass demonstration in history (in archival photo at right, this protester offered a comment prediction of the time). Lake Erie was dead, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring jumpstarted the pesticide debate, bald eagles were vanishing from eggshell thinning. Nixon became the First Environmentalist, reluctantly signing bills banning DDT, reauthorizing the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and creating the EPA. Scratch any environmentalist of a certain age, and he’ll trace his interest in the environment to that Earth Day.

The second wave broke across pop cultural shores during the first Bush presidency. Medical waste washed up on beaches alongside dead dolphins; the garbage barge took its world tour hoping to unload its half-ashed cargo. One landfill closed every day. Yellowstone burned, drought gripped the South, the Exxon Valdez crudely vomited into Prince William Sound, and the ozone hole yawned wide.

The culture responded. In December 1988, Time magazine skipped its usual Person of the Year honor to anoint Earth as Planet of the Year. Curbside recycling took off, a global summit on CFCs produced a workable treaty, “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth” embeds itself atop the bestseller list, and 120,000 Philadelphians—a record!—gathered in Fairmount Park for a monstrous EarthFest ‘90. The UN’s Earth Summit assembled the largest gathering of world leaders ever.

Fast forward to 2008: green is hot again. But Earth Day is not—not yet, anyway—and environmental issues will not decide Tuesday’s primary. Once again, a Clinton is telling us it’s the economy, stupid.

But Americans are counterpunchers—we respond best when smacked in the gut. If syringes and Flipper litter beaches, we suddenly invent plastic recycling and dolphin-safe tuna. If planes crash into the World Trade Center, we invade Iraq. The next—and final—wave of environmental activism begins when some big mediagenic event occurs, like the last mountain gorilla being hacked to death, or a monstrous iceberg calving off Antarctica, or polar bears vanishing under an ice-free Arctic Ocean. We’re waiting for the punch, and when it comes, the counterpunch will be huge.

For as I take our collective pulse, a groundswell of support for environmental issues is forming. And just in time, for the four horsemen of a global apocalypse—global warming, species loss, water shortages, and overpopulation—are galloping swiftly toward us.

The green tsunami will rise, and the next president will have to react. By the 2012 election, green issues will be transcendent, the global environment standing alongside Islamo-fascism as the Twin Towers through which we navigate the 21st century.

In 2012, it will be the ecology, stupid, and we’ll be locked in a race to rescue the planet. As Pennsylvanians head into the election booth on Tuesday, I hope we consider which candidate can lead us into that environmental future, which can help us win that race, which can best surf the green tsunami rising.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Get Out! Kids Crave Nature

In the first days of spring, I’m thinking about kids. For me, growing up in postwar subdivision on the edge of a forest, spring meant time to head back out into the woods. But that’s an anomaly today, and there’s been a lot of attention paid to the state of childhood in postmodern America. Sadly, little of it is good.

Since we’re so busy making sure no child is left behind, our kids are over-tested, overstressed and over-programmed-- if this is Tuesday, it must be French lessons and a piano recital. Headlines pile up like snowdrifts noting increased rates of obesity, depression, asthma, autism, attention-deficit disorder, and worse; today’s parents have been nicknamed “helicopters” for how we hover around our children assisting them in every single decision they make.

Then there’s the whole technology piece: kids spend more time immersed in the iWorld of laptops, cable TV, IM, iPods, and more. The Kaiser Family Foundation noted that the average 10-year-old spends more than 45 hours a week—essentially a full-time job—consuming electronic media.

Visitation to national parks is declining. There’s been a 30 percent decrease in bicycle riding. Many schools have curtailed, even cut, free time, and school commitment to outdoor play has dwindled. The percentage of children who live within a mile of school and walk or bike there has declined nearly 25 percent in the past 30 years. In one survey, 71 percent of adults report that they walked or rode a bike to school when they were children, but only 22 percent of children do so today. Children predominantly play at home, with their activities monitored and controlled by adults; only 3 percent have a high degree of mobility and freedom in how and where they play.

From 1997 to 2003, there was a 50 percent decline in the proportion of children who spent time in such outside activities as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening. Children’s free play declined more than seven hours a week from 1981 to 1997, and an additional two hours in the next decade—that’s a loss of nine hours a week over a 25-year period.

But a movement is slowly building momentum to combat these trends. Richard Louv, journalist and author of the much-discussed Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the growing disconnect between children and nature. And he’s been getting a lot of attention. A Children and Nature Network has been created to support his book’s work (, and disseminate research about this topic. Many states, including Pennsylvania, are considering No Child Left Inside legislation to encourage, even mandate outdoor education, the Forest Service launched a More Kids in the Woods initiative, and the Secretary of the Interior has challenged his national parks to reconnect children and nature.

It turns out that research is also revealing the importance of nature to children, and the restorative tonic that nature is. Kids who grow up immersed in nature have less issues with ADD and depression, and outdoor play reduces incidence of obesity, which is connected to heart disease and diabetes. “Children are smarter, more cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent and varied opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors,” states the Children and Nature Network’s online research paper.

And check this out: students score higher on standardized tests when natural environments are integral to schools’ curricula. Leave no child behind? Fine. Get them outdoors.

In addition, studies indicate green plants and play yards reduce children’s stress. Free play in natural areas enhances children’s cognitive flexibility, problem-solving ability, creativity, self-esteem, even self-discipline. “Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imaginations and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity,” says Robin Moore, an international authority on the design of environments for children’s play, learning, and education.

There’s even evidence that growing up in a neighborhood filled with trees leads to healthier, happier kids. Hospitals have long known that people recuperating in a room with a view of greenspace recover sooner, leave earlier, and return less frequently. In a British study, 71 percent of people with mental health disorders reported that taking a walk decreased their depression and tension. Wilderness therapy is catching on as new cure for mental illness.

The more we research the issue, the clearer the trend becomes: humans evolved in the natural world, and our growing disconnection to that world comes at the peril of both people and nature. We need this information now more than ever, as other lines of research continually indicate the extent of the decay within natural systems, with temperature and ocean levels rising, ice sheets melting, glaciers disappearing, rivers drying, deserts spreading, forests vanishing, coral reefs bleaching, and so on.

So get out! Grab the kids, head to a greenspace, put down a picnic blanket, and let the kids play. Let them get wet and muddy. Let them pull up a log and look for ants. Let them take time to smell the roses. Literally.

Just get out. There’s tonic in them there hills.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Real March Madness

At 1:48 a.m. this Wednesday night, while you are tucked snugly in bed, it will happen: the sun will stand directly above the equator, a vertical shaft of sunlight striking the earth’s midpoint. Ding dong, the winter witch is dead, spring is here, and you know what that means:

March Madness.

Yup, hoopheads are pouring over their brackets, office pools are bursting with bets from some 3 million participants, ESPN is all roundball all the time, Internet chat rooms are on fire (“Tennessee was robbed!”) and today’s water cooler conversations revolve around fierce discussions over whether Coppin State cops a steal over Mt. St. Mary’s in tonight’s inaugural game to become the 64th team to make it into the tournament.

Who will be this year’s Cinderella team—Belmont, Austin Peay? Will Gonzaga be the next, well, Gonzaga? Can Cornell, this year’s Ivy League sacrificial lamb, advance past the first round? Who’s got the easier road to the Final Four, North Carolina or Memphis? Will Butler beat South Alabama, or Washington win over Winthrop—and what is a Winthrop anyway?

Meanwhile, that same vertical shaft of sunlight is shaking up the natural world. Already, the first crocuses have begun opening, the advance guard in an exquisitely timed march of flowers that unfolds all spring. In order, forsythia, daffodil, tulip, iris—each searching for its moment in the sun—pushes petals up to the sky.

In forests, a similar drama unfolds, as ephemeral spring wildflowers like trillium and trout lily, Quaker ladies and Dutchman’s breeches, Jack-in-the-pulpit and Solomon’s seal race to absorb the sun’s rays, seduce bees and get pollinated before trees leaf out and darken the forest floor, shading that precious sunlight.

While we got Cardinals, Jayhawks, Eagles and Owls flying through this year’s brackets, in nature, migrating birds are undergoing their own rite of spring, parading through in a progression of color, red-winged blackbirds now, ruby-throated hummingbirds later. Waves of woodland warblers—tiny but unbelievably beautiful creatures wearing the most extraordinary coats of many colors—pass through like clockwork, pine and prairie warblers soon, blackpolls bringing up the rear at season’s end. They’re all heading to nesting grounds north of here, only visiting the region for a few days on their journeys north and south. Blink, and they’re gone.

And butterflies will soon awaken and return: mourning cloaks first, painted ladies next, swallowtails after that, monarchs much later.

That’s the real March madness, that here we are, only moments into the nascent spring, having survived yet another (admittedly mild) winter, and instead of diving into the great outdoors to search for celandine poppy and scarlet tanagers, we’re glued to the tube hoping Western Kentucky upsets Drake. Seeds are sprouting all over outside, but we’re jammed into bars screaming at big screens over the seedings of our favorite teams: Texas should have been number 1! I mean, really?

That’s also part of our madness, that I can mention scarlet tanager, and likely as not no image comes to your mind—yet if you saw one, it would take your breath away. Smaller than a robin, with bright red body and jet black wings, the contrast makes your heart stop when you see it. We can analyze picks, posts and zone defenses, but when it comes to ecological knowledge—the stuff that really matters—we are clueless.

Sure, it would be amazing if a number 16 seed finally makes it to the Final Four. Sure, a three-point buzzer-beater is really cool, no matter what school does it. Sure, that Tyler Hansbrough from the Tar Heels is quite a player. But though Tyler bleeds Carolina blue, he ain’t no bleeding heart, a wildflower that blooms about the same time the finals will be held in San Antonio. You can watch Tyler on Tivo, but the bleeding heart doesn’t blossom long.

The real flower show starts this weekend at a forest near you. But we’re stuck inside filling out brackets.

Which is just madness.

Unless the final is Villanova-Temple. OK, that would be pure madness too, and then, even the flowers can wait.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Vampire Appliances: Draining Your Wallet, Warming the World

Everyone is concerned about global warming—but everyone tends to look elsewhere, outside their own home, to find the solutions to the looming crisis.

Trouble is, with global warming, Dorothy’s right, there’s no place like home—like searching your own house to rid it of energy-sucking vampire appliances.

A recent study by Cornell University discovered that the average home contains at least 20 appliances that suck power all day and all night, even when they’re “off.” These appliances drain our pockets of $3 billion annually, averaging 200 bucks per household. In fact, seven power plants alone are dedicated to producing power for America’s vampires, spewing greenhouse gases all the while.

Your TV set continues pulling power even when it’s off, so it can await a signal from the remote. Microwaves and ovens stay on forever, powering the clock; in fact, microwaves can use more juice running the clock than actually warming food. Alarm systems, clock radios, answering machines, stereos, computer monitors, even garage door openers—all these stay on 24/7.

New houses are designed with special counters lined with plugs so the family can recharge its fleet of cell phones. The rechargers often stay plugged in all day, adding to your bill.

California—of course, who else?—is considering legislation requiring more efficient appliances. That’s critical—these appliances just use too much.

But there are a million ways you can personally lessen your carbon footprint. And while there is no silver bullet, pulling the plug on your own house’s vampires is a good beginning. Stake out your position on global warming. Zap a vampire today.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wheels off the Biodiesel Bandwagon

A couple of wheels feel off the biodiesel wagon recently—seems gas and alcohol manufactured from corn, soy and palm may not be the magic bullet we’re desperately seeking.

One study recently—widely reported in places like here—discovered something not very surprising: bulldozing the Amazon rainforest to grow soybeans is not, from a greenhouse gas or biodiversity point of view, ecologically smart.

Seems American farmers once grew corn and soy in rotation, the soybeans enriching soil with nitrogen. But with so much demand on corn for food, corn syrup, and ethanol, farmers have stopped growing soy, and must use more fertilizer to nourish the soil.

And we’ve farmed out soybean production to the Amazon rainforest—which must be clear-cut before being planted. But growing soybeans in the Amazon for soybean biodiesel creates a carbon debt through deforestation that sets us back more than 300 years—it will take us 300 years to earn back the carbon released in deforesting the rainforest.

And using Indonesian peatlands for palm oil plantations is worse, putting so much carbon into the atmosphere it will take us 400 years to repay the debt.

Converting natural habitats into monocultures for alternative fuels is not the direction we should be headed. Rather, we should be using plants like native, wild grasses on degraded agriculture land that can’t be used for anything else.

But, of course, that would be smart, and with energy policy, we’ve always taken the road most traveled—the wrong one. In our headlong rush to break our addiction to Big Oil, burning the Amazon basin to grow biodiesel is a massive mistake.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Fierce Urgency of Now"

Political junkie that I am, glued to the primaries this compelling season (let’s face it, CNN boasts more drama these days than even Project Runaway), I rose off the couch the first time I heard Barack Obama—it may have been South Carolina—quote Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now.”

Never heard it before. But now, the phrase won’t let me go. Bloggers too: a Google search pulls up thousands of blogs inspired by the turn of phrase.

King spoke these words in 1967 in a major speech given to a gathering of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York. He presented in stunning detail the full spectrum of reasons he decided to come out against the war in Vietnam, a decision for which he was skewered by so many. (Read the
full speech here, and you’ll have no doubts about how he would have felt about the current Iraq dilemma.)

When I heard Obama quote King, I had no idea it reflected the Vietnam situation-- for me, the phrase beautifully sums up in four words where we are now.

The fierce urgency of now: the world is warming, climate changing, species disappearing, water vanishing, crops failing.

“The oceans of history,” King noted in that same speech, “are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”

Like King connected Vietnam to the larger civil rights struggles of his day, today he would easily connect the dots between rising greenhouse gases, the rising tides of weather patterns, and the pummeling of New Orleans from Katrina, the coming crisis of millions of Bangladesh refugees when the warmed Indian Ocean rises, the devastating droughts in the South last year that crippled family farmers.

Global warming is not just an environmental issue: it is an economic issue. And a civil rights issue.

Just after offering the “fierce urgency phrase,” King added, “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’”

Obama is right. On just the environment alone, we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. Like King and Vietnam, I pray it’s not too late, and I pray we elect the right president in November for these, the greenhouse times.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Holy Crow! Hope on a Morning’s Birdwalk

I’ve been thinking about global warming a lot these days, as I’ve started this blog and been asked to write an educational activity guide for middle schoolers on the subject. It’s a depressing topic—how do you unpack the science in a meaningful and hopeful way for young teenagers, giving them solid information while allowing for the possibility that life on Earth will continue?

To get my mind settled, I went birdwatching this morning in Saunders Woods, a nature preserve not far from my home. But even there, global warming was distressingly at the fore: the temperature was in the 50s, allowing me to go birding in February—the depth of winter, for God’s sake—without jacket or gloves. My mood was as dark as the rain clouds whipping across the dramatic sky.

But then it happened: a white-throated sparrow popped out of a rose tangle not far from me. A Carolina wren (in photo above) perched above it, and belted out a song. Titmice were suddenly singing on both sides of me, a pair of cardinals joined the fray, a mourning dove cooed, a robin flew overhead, and two chickadees alit on a branch above my head, one only two feet away from me. The latter stretched out its tail and wing feathers simultaneously, drying itself out from the wet night. I could see every feather in delightful detail.

I’ve birdwatched at this place many times over many years, and you don’t get many days like today. And I’m really not big on signs or omens. But, pardon the pun, holy crow, I felt like they had gathered around me to buoy me up—and it worked.

Surrounded by a dozen birds of many species, all arrayed around me in one rose bush, a multi-species cacophony of bird song, how could they not?

It’s like architect Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote, “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

This morning, the birds did not fail me. I went home to start writing.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Coming Third Wave

Welcome to Natural Selections, a new blog ranging across the landscape of nature and the environment.

As an initial entry, I should tell you straight up what I believe. As a naturalist and student of environmental issues who has spent a 30-year career teaching about nature and the environment, I firmly believe we are in the first throes of the Environmental Century. And we’re in a race against time: as environmental issues literally heat up, a flowering of green technology and culture will begin tackling global issues—and how this plays out, no one yet knows.

Science tells us—the hard data is irrefutable—that global surface temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, the ocean warming, rainforests burning, species vanishing at their highest rates in 65 million years, coral reefs bleaching and dying, old growth forests disappearing, and so on. You know that.

It’s too easy to get all doomsday about where we are in this unique moment on Earth. The four horsemen of the coming global apocalypse are bearing down upon us, and the entire landscape will be radically transformed in the coming decade or so. Global warming, species extinction, water scarcity and that long overdue but inexorably ticking population time bomb will at some point soon converge—and all hell will break lose. I believe that Al Gore will be right—at some point, as he wrote in “Earth in the Balance,” the environment will become the central organizing principle for civilization.

We can see it beginning now. Barely a week goes by that important environmental news isn’t one of the top stories. “Green” is the chic buzzword-of-the-moment, used and abused in everything from architecture to Christmas presents. And in the presidential campaign, where environmental issues historically have gone to die, even McCain has a global warming plan, and the environment is being given—finally!—serious attention.

But Americans are counter-punchers: we need large telegenic disasters to rattle our cage. Like 1970’s first wave of environmentalism needed endangered bald eagles, the Cuyahoga River catching fire, and that Indian crying on TV commercials to kick start a cultural conversation on pollution, like 1990’s second eco-boomlet needed the Exxon Valdez, Yellowstone’s fire and beached dolphins washing up alongside used needles and hospital waste, a compelling image will trigger the third wave: the calving of a huge iceberg off Antarctica, perhaps, or the poaching death of the last mountain gorilla or black rhino or orangutan, or a new Exxon Valdez, or a massive Amazonian wildfire pointing its plume at both global warning and species loss.

Or the loss of polar bears, quickly emerging as the new poster child for our troubled Earth.

The coming third wave will be a tsunami of popular outpouring for environmental issues and concerns. And my goal is to share with you the signals and cues from nature and the environment about where we stand in this unique moment in time.

Lots of people are giving you the tips and tricks about what you can do to protect the planet. Me, I’m going in a different direction.

I want to inspire you to action based on good writing, great information, and a fresh perspective on the issues.

Hope you enjoy, and I’d love to hear from you.