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.