Monday, October 5, 2015

SXSW Eco 2015 - Day 1

SXSW Eco has kicked off again in the balmy city of Austin. Leaders and learners from renewable energy, eco politics, sustainable design and even the green fashion world have once again fallen upon the city's convention center to learn and network.

This year's beginning instantly divided the attendees. The keynote by Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources split those who believed that humanity must first concentrate on the problems at home before investing in space from those who believe that, to "get off rock" we have to start now.

Twitter between participants went back and forth from lavishing nerd-riddled love to the concept of space mining instead of striping our own planet to flat out declaring that an extraction introduction keynote had no place in the sustainability conference.

The rest of the day proved just as interesting.

One major highlight featured Janine Benyus a leader and charismatic speaker in the Biomimicry movement. The room was packed to the point where there were people turned away from actually attending her talk. She began her presentation with a quick jab at the introductory keynote, regarding concentrating on the problems of Earth "...way before asteroids."

Her talk was an overview of the biomimicry movement, a scientific exploration of learning valuable lessons in design and processes from those already in nature. A good example is creating swimming suits that mimic the skin pattern on sharks or creating a microscopic "net" to capture antibiotics in water modeled after naturally occurring cells. The entire room erupted with laughter at her jokes, "oohed" and "awed" at some of the discoveries and advances she highlighted and gave a standing ovation when she was finished.

Monday's sessions actually including at least one biomimicry themed panel or presentation each session, because the Biomimicry Institute not only was a key sponsor of SXSW Eco this year, but also had just finished the most latest round of their "Design by Nature" challenge. Most of the finalists where in attendance and featured in a session of the same name as the challenge. Each of the finalists that had a chance to go over their project was interesting and amazing in their own way.

One in particular, Team Penthouse Protozoa, is trying to solve, among other issues, the problem of Nitrogen and nutrient runoff for farmers. Traditionally farmers will irrigate their crops with pipes that lead excess water off their fields carrying with it the fertilizer that isn't absorbed by the earth. This eventually makes its way into the oceans and causes a horrific effect in the ocean known as "dead zones." To tackle this issue the team has taken lessons from a wide variety of sources in nature including human gut bacteria to create a semi-permeable tube which allows the water to be drained off but will leave the nutrients in the soil.

Another interesting panel highlighted cities resilience to climate change, especially drought and flooding through design. Hosted by the Natural Resource Defense Council the panel was educational on a number of factors including the fact that every time there is a major storm event in Chicago, 1 billion gallons of "poop" enter the local water ways. The conversation also covered whether it was economically feasible to try and stem the rising tide and one participant in particular seemed very interested in protecting Wall Street from being underwater.

While the entire day was filled with events including an overview of the continuing work on the hyperloop and the Department of Energy's future energy efforts (all that can be gleaned from checking out the hashtag #SXSWEco on twitter), the other major highlight was seeing the XPrize show off the winner of their latest prize, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health prize. This challenge was surrounding measuring pH levels in the ocean at various depths in order to keep tabs on ocean acidification. The team that won the grand prize had never done an ocean test on their product before the trails in Hawaii, namely because they are based out of Missoula, Montana.

As the conference moves along, the participants can continue to look forward to interesting panels and some rousing discussion on hot-button issues. Hopefully, the SXSW Eco will get a little extra room for the Biomimicry panels.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Overpopeulation: The Pope's Conception Problem

Pope Francis has been making sweeping changes for the Catholic Church and its followers. He has taken on corruption, the mafia and even started to warm his flock towards homosexual equality. One of the Pontiff's biggest efforts has been surrounding how humanity treats the world, pushing for a greener and more sustainable lifestyle. He has even called for a new global day of prayer for Catholics to celebrate and respect the environment. If the Pope wants to continue to push for peace, prosperity, and the planet then there is one issue that the church will have to readdress; contraception.

A recent report came out detailing that the world's population is continuing to rise and at an alarming rate. New estimates are surfacing where, by the end of the century, global population could reach over 11 billion with some researchers pushing that number to 13 billion. With population directly relating to air pollution, consumption levels and other horrible ecological effects, it is the forefront issue for many environmentalists. There is a huge a question of whether our planet, which is already seeing massive changes directly related to the human population, can handle this future burden.

The most unfortunate aspect of this situation is that the same populations that are most at risk when it comes to climate change; the poorer and developing countries, are the same groups that are seeing exploding population growth. Overpopulation will continue to be a looming problem, especially in Sub Saharan Africa and India, unless practices change.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his own encyclical letter reemphasizing the Church’s stance that it "is always intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence." Contraception is wrong, as close to a sin as one can get without actually declaring it. This hard-line stance has been held by the church since before the church was officially founded. In the beginning of 2015, Pope Francis took an interesting step away from this mentality. In a small discussion with reporters during a flight from the Philippines to Rome Francis reportedly said, "God gives you methods to be responsible,.. Some think that — excuse the word — that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No."

While Pope Francis walked back this statement a day later, it is still an interesting move. Eventually there will have to be a reconciliation between the Vatican's new environmental push and the need to curtail our species' explosive growth. Until that day, we can only hope that people stop breeding like rabbits.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Trial of the Island President

While America and most of the world was concentrating on the Academy Awards and the speeches of famous actors, the star of the documentary the Island President was arrested under terrorism charges. The arrest of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed came as a shock but not as a surprise to the climate activism community and to those who have been following the political birth pangs of the island nation off the tip of India.

Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected president of the Maldives following more than 30 years of despotic totalitarianism was a climate change advocate and one of the loudest voices in the UN climate talks at Copenhagen. His fervor and urgency came from concern for his people, citing the fact that with long-term sea level rise the Maldives is set to disappear from the face of the Earth.

A reformer, religious moderate and charismatic leader, Mohamed Nasheed was subject of the 2011 documentary the Island President.  The film depicted the heartbreaking efforts of the President to fight on the international level for action on climate change, being blocked by the United States and China. Five month's after the movie's release, internal forces caused Nasheed to withdraw from office, under dubious circumstances that some have claimed a coup.

Superficially, the spark that ignited the political unrest that ended Nasheed's Presidency surrounds the arrest and detainment of a Judge who was being investigated on corruption charges and had suspended officers investigating corruption in the government. The arrest was called illegal by the opposition party and became the impetus for protests by local police and religious hardliners in the country who were uncomfortable with some of Nasheed's interactions with non Muslims.

The country seems divided on the issue of the arrest, with calls on Twitter to #FreeNasheed and from those that say #ISupportNasheedArrest. For the outside observer, this appears to be a domestic dispute that holds no bearing over our daily lives. To truly understand the situation, and why it is important, we need to dive into the full details.

History of the Maldives

The nation of 350,000 is made up of over 500 islands surrounded by coral in the Indian Ocean. It is destination spot of approximately 100,000 tourists a month who come for the fishing, diving, snorkeling and exotic hotel hot spots

The island nation also boasts a tumultuous political history. The country has been briefly dominated by foreign powers in three separate occasions including the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. In 1965 the Maldives gained independence from the British Empire and in 1968 became a republic ruled by an authoritarian government through a presidency and a "Constitutional Shari'ah" law which is still in place. These laws include Hudud punishments (ranging from exile to public lashing and death) for crimes like adultery, fornication, homosexuality, apostasy, and consuming intoxicants. 

For example, in February of 2013, the judiciary sentenced a fifteen-year-old girl to 100 lashes and house arrest for 8 months for premarital sex after her stepfather had raped her and killed their baby. He is still to face trial. After international attention was put on the situation, the High Courts overturned the ruling but it is just one example of the current status of law in the Islamic country.  

In 1978, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom took power and over the next 30 years created a booming tourist economy (see above) at the expense of the freedoms and the equality of the Maldivians. During his three decades in power, President Gayoom systematically replaced leadership rolls throughout the government with family and friends. During that time he has been accused of being a "dictator" and authoritarian with policies including suppressiontorture, and unlawful detainment. In 1997 the Special Majlis, a selected group of parliamentarians, produced a new constitution that vastly expanded powers of the executive. According to an Amnesty International report from 2003 "...there were severe restrictions on freedom of the press, and political parties were unable to function."

It has also been reported that Gayoom misappropriated government funds and received kickbacks from local resort and tourism owners. 
Among Gayoom’s assets mentioned $9.5 million spent for a luxury yacht, $17 million to renovate the presidential plaice, as well as the purchase of 11 speed boats and 55 cars with government money.
Amid growing international pressure in 2008 Gayoom finally allowed for open elections for the president and lost %54 to 46% to a former political prisoner under his regime, Mohamed Nasheed. The 30 year President left office, but the legacy of those he placed in office still lingered including in his Judicial appointments.

Mohamed Nasheed 

During Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's regime, Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed set up a magazine and published articles critical of the regime, reporting of corruption and brutality. Nasheed was promptly arrested. His imprisonment included torture and solitary confinement. This was just one of 16 separate times he was jailed and has spent a total of 6 years in work camps or prison. Amnesty International listed him as a "Prisoner of Conscience", before he fled into exile in 2003.

In 2005, Nasheed returned to the Maldives and was promptly arrested that August, causing a civil uproar. In June of 2005 "Anni" was able to official register with political party, the MDP in the Maldives.

After declaring a state of emergency, and attempting to deal with local civil unrest, President Gayoom buckled to international pressure to hold open elections, a divisive race was run where Gayoom's party accused Nasheed of spreading Christianity, a serious allegation in the Islamic nation via his links with foreign countries. His message of change coupled with a call for social and economic liberalism drew support behind him and he became the first democratically elected leader of the island nation.

During Nasheed's tenure, the country found itself in the center of democratic reforms including moving away from strict sharia laws, efforts to ban female genital mutilation and climate activism including being linked with the international organization Nasheed gave an especially stirring speech on the subject stating;
But physics isn't politics. On climate change there are things on which we cannot negotiate…The most important number in the world. The most important number you'll ever hear. The most important number you'll ever say. These three words: Three-five-oh.
In October of 2009, then President Nasheed drew international attention to sea level rise by holding a cabinet meeting underwater. The video of the scuba-clad colleagues deliberating the works of the state rang poignantly throughout the world and sounded a clarion call for action.

The charismatic and obviously driven Nasheed found himself the center of international attention and the subject of a widely distributed and respected documentary. The Island President tells the story of his fight for climate action during the international climate talks in Copenhagen and the anguishing process of international negotiation. In the film the Chinese delegation make it entirely clearn that they are against international monitoring of their emissions, arguing that it compromises their sovereignty. "It's simply madness of China and India not to take it up," says Nasheed in the film. "Just because the West has pumped so much poisonous gas into the atmosphere, that doesn't mean we have to do it again." 

Eventually in the film Nasheed compromises his efforts and his moral high ground, even posing with the Chinese delegation. Leaving Copenhagen, there is an agreement with nice language, but no enforcement and the audience is left grief-stricken the driven hero looks so dismayed. 

Little did the film makers know that they were documenting the end of the President's time in office. In fact, the moment that the film was shown at the 2012 BLUE Ocean film festival in Monterey, the attendees and shocked audience were informed that Nasheed had been forcibly removed from office. 

Following the detainment of a Supreme Court Judge, who had been appointed during the regime of Gayoom, on charges of corruption police protests broke out in the Maldives. As the result of rising protests, allegedly orchestrated by the opposition and Gayoom remnants, the Maldives President and climate change activist resigned "under pressure," and stated on a nationally televised address, "I don't want to hurt any Maldivian. I feel my staying on in power will only increase the problems, and it will hurt our citizens. So the best option available to me is to step down."

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Nasheed wrote, "the former president’s supporters protested in the streets, and police officers and army personnel loyal to the old government mutinied and forced me, at gunpoint, to resign. To avoid bloodshed, I did so. I believe this to be a coup d’├ętat and suspect that my vice president, who has since been sworn into office, helped to plan it." 

Mere hours after the Nasheed resigned office, the Chief Justice of the Criminal Court was released from detention

Here are Nasheed's statements on a 2012 Daily Show appearance:

2012 saw the start of an odd political and legal situation within the country. The new government, headed by former Vice-President, issued a warrant for his arrest and threatened him with life imprisonment. He was dragged from his home and peppersprayed by a group of riot-gear clad police.  

In 2013, new elections were held where Nasheed actually won, but the results were thrown out by the sitting Supreme Court, including the Judge which had been being examined for corruption. A few months later, in a new election Nasheed won the most votes, which should have triggered a run-off, but was again interfered with by the courts under pressure from candidate Abdulla Yameen Gayoom, the former President Gayoom's younger brother.  

Eventually Abdulla Yameen Gayoom was elected and the legal status of Nasheed has been in question ever since. 

Internationally, especially in the climate, human rights and ocean communities. Nasheed has been seen as a hero and friend. Over the years he has been a featured speaker at conferences and has received an incredible number of awards for his work. At the BLUE Ocean Film Festival this year he won the Mission Blue award for his work on ocean issues, presented by Dr. Sylvia Earle.

Just a few months later, when he returned to his home, he was once again arrested.

The Arresting Issue

In 2012 a leading member of the opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party, Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, was arrested on charges of hate-speech. Jameel was said to have accused Nasheed of acting under the influence of Jews and "Christian priests" to undermine Islam in the Maldives. As one can imagine, under an Islamic nation that follows Sharia law, this is a incendiary charge.

Ahmed's statements were on the tail end of increasing Islamic extremist rhetoric in the island nation that has now become a hotbed of Isis and terrorist activities.

As the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission in Britain wrote in an op-ed:
The rising influence of the Islamists is equally troubling. There is growing intolerance of non-Muslims, anti-Western sentiment is being whipped up and there is talk of fully implementing Shariah law. A prominent blogger, Ismail Rasheed, who dared to speak for religious freedom, was nearly killed in a knife attack, and later fled the country.
Supreme Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed, a remnant from the previous 30 year administration, ordered Ahmed's release and was detained by the Maldive's military for approximately 23 days. The detainment was surrounding the Judge's 14 cases of obstruction of police duty including the suspension of two police lawyers who were investigating corruption in parliament and the courts on “ethical grounds” and the release of a wide range of detainees including murderers and Mohamed Jameel Ahmed.

The Vice President under Nasheed called to suspend Judge Abdulla Mohamed for his alleged corruption and other actions and the Home Minister Hassan Afeef requested military assistance for "fear of loss of public order and safety and national security" because of the Judge who, according to the minister had "taken the entire criminal justice system in his fist."

Maldivian law requires that any arrested suspect must be released if not brought to trial within 15 days, though the President may extend pretrial detention for an additional 30 days. This is well within the limits of the 23 days that the Judge was detained.

Nasheed apparently had mixed feelings about the arrest:
"I didn't like arresting a judge, and as a long and dedicated Amnesty member I must say yes, Amnesty's point was that I must try and find a procedure within the system to deal with this another way. And I was asking everyone, can you spot that procedure? But I just couldn't let him sit on the bench. There is a huge lack of confidence in the judiciary, and I had to do something and the constitution calls upon me to do that. It's not a nice thing to do. And it's not a thing that I would want to do. And it's not a thing that I liked doing. But it had to be done."
It should be noted that the catalyst for these events, Mohamed Jameel Ahmed who is now Home Minister under the new regime, has been accused of influencing Nasheed's trial and attempted to bar Nasheed from the 2013 elections.

On February 22nd, the current administration arrested Nasheed on the charge of Terrorism, has barred press entry to the proceedings and have even refused bail for the former president.

A Country Divided.

The news broke on twitter that Mohamed Nasheed had been arrested and detained. Soon the country seemed divided on twitter with some vocal posters lauding the arrest using the phrase "no one is above the law" while others pushed for Nasheed's immediate release.

While being taken to court Nasheed attempted to talk to some members of the press before his closed proceedings occurred to make a statement. The police grabbed him and an altercation occurred causing the former president to fall to the ground and be grappled by the police.

The images of this altercation came to be a rallying cry for both the pro-Nasheed and pro-arrest camps. On one side saying he was being brutalized and beaten, on the other claiming that Nasheed orchestrated the altercation and was a "drama queen." But the images of Nasheed in anguish has spread throughout the British and Indianan news like wild fire.

Calls to action on both sides of the discussion have been launched including a petition for his release that, as of this article holds 3,500 signatures. An opposing petition, which has been running for the same length of time currently holds 115.

One main undertone that has been running through the political struggle has been that of moderate Islamists in the nation, and those who take a more hard-line view. One video that has been circulating shows Nasheed speaking on the need for a reformation and modernized Islam.

As one Maldivian stated in a post, "this is enough" for his arrest. One source who requested to remain anonymous told me;
You should keep in mind that Maldives is an Islamic nation. Mohamed Nasheed was probably the best politician Maldives have ever seen. He fought against the dictatorship, against corruption and more. Nasheed is a moderate, but he failed to recognize the moderate people out from the extremists. He gave number is speeches which he should not have being the President of the Maldives. That's his weakness. For example the one in Denmark. He asked Jesuits to come and assist Maldives to fight against extremism. As a politician of an Islamic nation he shouldn't have reached out to the Jesuits. It's all politics. The current government can easily trap him for what happened during his term.
Earlier this week, an angry crowd threatened to assault Human Rights Commissioners over a statement which "condemned the police’s disproportionate use of force against Nasheed, and urged the state to immediately extend medical attention and access to a lawyer."

According to press, "President Yameen has recently become alienated from key former colleagues. He arrested his defence minister, accusing him of plotting a coup. He has also been deserted by another former ally, a resort tycoon who has now joined hands with Mr Nasheed."

In fact, recently, thousands of Maldivians took to the streets to rally against Nasheed's detention in Male. This is an impressive view from above as witnesses were eager to share the news of the demonstrations.

Twitter user @nazeee took some amazing shots on the ground as well.

Free President Nasheed

Protester engulfed in the Maldivian flags at the MDP JP rally calling for
the release of President Nasheed and all political detainees.

Friends and family of the detained MP Ali Azim near his family home
30 of the thousands of protesters were arrested and the demonstrations were brushed off by the current administration with one Minister stating the government, "can't be overthrown in the streets" seemingly counter to the Maldives recent history.  

Foreign Response

One of the most interesting players in the Maldives situation is the nation of China. Unlike the nations of India, the United States, the European Union and the UK joining the call of Bill McKibben and Richard Branson's concern of the situation, China has remained relatively silent. China's official statement of this being a "domestic issue" that they will not "interfere" is very similar to the party line of the current regime.

This is not very surprising as Nasheed was China's enemy number one during the Copenhagen climate talks. The country has been eyeing the island nation for a military base location. There are even those who theorize the arrest and coup was a push from this foreign, non-interfering government. The relationship between the Maldives and the Chinese is a strangely close one.

As stated by the previous President Gayoom:
China, like India, has been with us for a very long time. During my time [as President] also they provided a lot of assistance. China has been with us for 40 years. It is natural for a country with such huge resources to come and help us…This is not a case of us preferring China and dislodging India
While the relationship is an interesting one, any further analysis of China's involvement in the ousting and subsequent trial of the climate activist, moderate Islamic reformer president is just speculation.

The rest of the world can only watch on and continue to put pressure for this process to be open and fair while the Island President faces on uncertain future. My thoughts are with you Anni.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Fox in the Hen House

There is something fundamentally broken about the way our government operates. Ignoring how ridiculous the incumbent win rate is, or the fact that we are now in an oligarchy represented by those with more wealth than many in our country can even imagine, the real concern is in our legislative committees.

Congress oversees so many bills and pieces of our national government that they attempt to delegate those responsibilities and lighten the load. Covering issues like agriculture, economy and veterans affairs, these committees not only are responsible for legislation in these areas but on hearings and even the budgets of government agencies.

The ideal is that those with expertise or grounding in the subject matter of these committees would serve as members. The reality is far from the ideal. How our system currently works is that the leadership of the parties in control decide who gets placed into these committees and who chairs them. Yesterday, as part of the transition of our Senate to Republican Control, Senator Ted Cruz was appointed chair of the Space, Science and Competitiveness committee. Senator Cruz's appointment is the sign of a broken system.

This committee oversees "science, engineering, and technology research and development" including the agency NASA. The biggest fear with Cruz's new position is that he has a bad track record when it comes to science and NASA. There is also concern, as a die-hard Tea Party Budget Hawk, that Cruz will take an AX to the budget of the agency. As the main spear-header of the government shutdown, he caused more lasting damage to scientific research than we can really measure. As a staunch Climate-Change denier, Cruz seems like he would be less than likely to listen to NASA's findings on the subject. NASA is the leading source of climate data, so the publicly stated goal of both Cruz and other republicans on the committee to refocus NASA on space exploration creates a nervous situation.

One may think that being faced with the findings of NASA's carbon project, or witnessing the ice-caps receding from NASA's Operation: Ice-Bridge could change the denier into a believer, but his historic denial of facts and his long standing on this same committee makes most doubt such an effect will occur.

This leadership shift should come as no surprise, the high likelihood of Cruz becoming a "Lead Senator on science" was reported after November elections caused the political shakeup. Added to that is the fact that currently 72% of Republican Senators deny that humans have a role in climate change - or that it is happening at all. That number is getting higher with the new power shift.

What is shocking is that the American people, besides the power to vote for elected officials, have no control over committees or who is in charge of them. There are no checks and balances over these committee assignments. These type of odd assignments happen all the time. In fact the majority of the science committee members on conservative side have been climate deniers since the 1970s.

The thought comes to mind that those who should be making decisions on science legislation and budget should be Scientists. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out eloquently, there is a lack of scientists in congress.

What we as members of the public can do is voice our concerns and make sure that scientists have a say in our legislature's science work.

In the last few years NASA has discovered exoplanets that could support life, found water on other planets and successfully landed a rover on a comet. These successes are on the back of a limited budget and the agency should be above reproach from a Senator with an ax to grind who is only in a position of power due to a broken system.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

America Loses the Colbert Report

A national treasure, hero and amazing actor is leaving his role as a satirical mirror of the conservative pundit to another stage. Stephen Colbert has been a political jester the likes of which the world hasn't seen since Diogenes the Dog and tonight is his last show. For 9 years this entertainer has acted as an iconic personality and affected American politics far beyond any fictional character in history. Tonight is Stephen's last Colbert Report and America is losing a needed voice in the political conversation.

Over the past 9 years the brilliant host of the Colbert Report has played the part of lampooning conservative punditry. On the national stage this entertainer and joker had played his part so well that he managed to convince House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi to first advise colleagues against going on the show, to jokingly campaign against his Super Pack, to later debating him on his own show, and finally appearing in his send off.

Stephen Colbert taught us the Elven language, that it was OK to argue with ourselves, why bears should never be trusted, and tried to bring the funky Cornel West to a different audience. The Colbert Report helped us all better know our political districts"bumped" some serious academic guests, and even introduced me to one of my heroes of the ocean, Dr. Sylvia Earle. One shark scientist even made the claim that "Stephen Colbert Is the Best Source of Science on TV." The article in question asks if the move to CBS will "dumb down" his programming. I share that fear.

Colbert hosted the 2006 Presidential Correspondents Dinner (roasting President W. Bush in the process) has won Grammys, Emmys and even two Peabody Awards. Stephen Colbert pointed out the absurdity in the hubris in our policies and even taught American's about an interesting concept in campaign finance, the Super Pack.This program was not only consistently hilarious, but it was also provocative and educational.

Colbert is an amazing interviewer and that will follow no matter where he goes. His subject matter and his guests will likely be more akin to the fluff of other late night T.V. and far less impactfull on National discourse. In many episodes, Stephen Colbert goes toe-to-toe with the political leaders and heads of state with barely breaking a sweat like Newt Gingrich and Laura Ingraham. He opened up his image for the larger community through releasing a "green screen" challenge. In one particularly interesting situation Colbert covered the issue of migrant worker's conditions and later testified before Congress in character.

The program, by pointing a finger at the hilarious underbelly of the political system, Stephen Colbert changed it. By making himself part of the political narrative, Colbert also put himself in a corner. He had to consistently play the same character, probably even in public, for 9 years. This level of commitment and obsession will be missed.

I am happy for Stephen in the fact that he will be replacing David Letterman for the prime, late night TV spot. I am sad for America because we will be losing a key voice in the political discourse who brought up the level of our culture, our scientific awareness and our awareness of the absurdity around us.

Shine on you crazy Stephen Colbert, you will leave America a slightly less politically educated place but I am positive the hilarity will ensue.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Thoughts on the Plastic Bag Ban

Yesterday California became the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags from grocery stories. Building on similar efforts by municipalities such as San Francisco, San Jose, Washington D.C. and others throughout the country, the State ban is the latest push against these urban tumble weeds.

After July 1st, 2015, grocery stores and other retail locations will no longer be able to give single-use plastic bags and charge 10-cents for paper or compostable bags. This push comes after the relatively ineffective efforts of the California legislature to enforce recycling of these plastic pests. In 2006 the state put forward legislation mandating recycling at stores and, eventually, curb-side locations. The estimate by most agencies was that as few as 3% of California's plastic bags we actually being recycled and the law had little to no oversight. This isn't the first time that California has tried to pass a Plastic Bag Ban, but this is the first successful effort.

The pollution and waste that these products create has been cited as the main reasoning for this legislation. The facts that the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually at an estimated cost to retailers of $4 billion, and that most of these end up either in land-fills, in creeks, or in our oceans should lead most to the conclusion that the ban is a reasonable move.

Plastics are durable, cheap to make, light and cheap to transport. The same reasons that these bags are attractive to consumers are the same reason that they are a problem. Plastics don't biodegrade, they do break down into smaller parts and photo-degrade but they can last at least 500 years. The lightweight plastic bags get picked up by breezes and eventually make their way to all sorts of places they shouldn't be. During these migrations the plastics absorb bacteria and toxins that can create their own bio-systems and, by being eaten by fish and other animals, can enter our food stream.

What is not cited is the cost these bags to the American taxpayer. Those bags that end up as litter or are caught by trees and the landscape have to be cleaned up. Unless there is a massive volunteer force, the cost of the labor usually falls to the municipalities. While these bags are lauded as "Recyclable," the energy and economic costs associated with recycling can be a huge net-loss and most facilities can't process them. Those that are mandated to collect them, but do not have the equipment to convert them into something new usually ship them to other locations, causing a larger carbon footprint for this film.

In many instances, with mixed recycling being sorted at municipal waste facilities, plastic bags would end up in machines that could not process them and cause those machines to break down. The cost of repairing these machines usually falls to the tax payer.

In 2009 I was working for City Council Member Kansen Chu and, at the time, I worked with city staff on a ban on plastic bags. The process for attempting to pass such legislation included a closed door meeting with stakeholders from the opposition. The list included waste management, grocers associations and the American Chemistry Council. The main arguments were that the ban would cause increased costs for grocers, that paper bags were a higher cost and higher impact alternative and that the convenience of these fully recyclable bags outweighed any "negligible environmental impacts."

During those sessions I talked to each of their points and retorted that, the times are changing and that the Chemistry Council should try and change with them through bio-degradable plastics, or be comfortable with the concept of becoming obsolete.

Almost as soon as California's ban passed, a similar response was published by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group of American plastic bag manufacturers and related companies, who plan on trying to repeal the legislating through referendum. Trying to tug at libertarian heartstrings with phrases like "greedy special interests and bad government collide in the policymaking process" the release is short, cryptic and filled with unsubstantiated claims.

The release specifically states that the bill "would jeopardize thousands of California manufacturing jobs, hurt the environment, and fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets."

In regards to California jobs, there are many plastic film producers in California but, like other industries whose product's usefulness has come to an end, those facilities and their staff either need to adapt to new forms of plastic or find new industries to explore.

I actually called the APBA to follow up on the other claims but the representative was unavailable for comment. As of this posting the American Chemical Council, who has direct ties to the formation of the Bag Alliance, had made no public comment.

The fact of the matter is that the real solution regarding plastic waste for American's and people around the world to change their consumption habits to something SLIGHTLY less convenient than getting a new, single-use plastic bag every time we go shopping. We need to recognize our impact and the waste we produce. Remember each time you get a Starbucks or a soft drink with a plastic straw that those items will probably not be recycled and next time, carrying a reusable container or straw would be, in the long run, a better decision.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The People's Climate

Yesterday a flood of over 400,000 people descended on the streets of New York city. Banging on drums, singing out chants, and displaying signs of all shapes and sizes, the attendees of the aptly named "People's Climate March" lent their voices demanding action on the tragedy of the commons we are currently witnessing in our changing world.

Citing frustrations with the current international inaction on climate change by world leaders, citizens of the world from as far away as France, Rome and Papa New Guinea joined in this single act, creating the largest climate demonstration of its kind. This event seemed like the culmination of disappointing and anger at the ineffectiveness of conferences like Kyoto, CopenhagenCancun and Durban mixed with similar attitudes towards their own governments. The roughly four hundred thousand attendees in New York were joined in 24 hours of demonstrations world-wide calling for real action in response to the pending United Nations Climate announcement beginning tomorrow.

Attendees ranged not only in origin but backgrounds as well. Reports of contingents representing Hurricane Katrina victims, the ocean, climate scientists, and VIPs. Officials and activists like Al Gore, UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon, John Kerry and activist/movie star Leonardo Di Caprio were a few of the multitudes who took to the street.

Organizers and leaders at the event called on participants to not only take action, as Bill McKibben and a panel urged, but to also pay attention on the issue of dirty money in politics. The event triggered huge media attention including 24 hour live blogging by the Guardian and the NY Times and the 1,400 groups either supporting or participating ranged from the Sierra Club to AVAAZ have been very pleased by the results.

 “Today, civil society acted at a scale that outdid even our own wildest expectations,” said May Boeve, executive director of, in a statement. “Tomorrow, we expect our political leaders to do the same.”

The main purpose of the event was to resonate with those meeting at the United Nation on Tuesday. world leaders from 125 nations, including Barack Obama, President Obama and world leaders from government, finance and business worlds will be at the U.N. to announce initiatives meant to move the world towards limiting global warming. While some may argue that we are too late for an international bureaucracy like the UN to make any effective change from where we are headed, citing past failures, back and the fact that "some of the most important world leaders" like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be skipping the proceedings. These two nations missing this summit would be more than just a snub at the UN, it could be disastrous for any agreements made there. 

There are a few external trends that seem to be supporting the People's Climate march. Just today the news broke that Google was dissolving their ties with the lobbying group ALEC, a group that normally represents the dirtiest of oil interests. This was the culmination of an effort by a coalition of groups, spearheaded by eco-billionaire Tom Steyer backed Forecast the Facts.

Adding to this interesting trend are some moves made by the energy industry. First, it is noteworthy that Six international energy companies have agreed to work to reduce emissions of methane, through a UN backed process. The hope is that these initial steps will resonate throughout the industry and eventually bring a change to the culture and practices. Second, the Rockefellers, a family that made most of their fortune through oil, have decided to shift more than $50 billion of their fossil fuel holdings and business to the clean energy sector citing the reason as clean technology and renewable energy are trending to be the future of the energy industry.

The People's Climate march was a sight to behold and made me lament the fact that I was stuck on the west coast for this perfect storm of action. While the effects of the event, and the #FloodWallStreet protest, are still playing out, we cannot sit idly by waiting for the longer term effects to play out. Now is the time to contact your local representatives, citing this historic moment as a turning point.

We, as a collective commons, have to protect our interest through paying attention to the activities of the UN, of our local government and by getting involved with events throughout the world. Those who have held a vested interest in the goings on in the Climate March need to continue the wave through participating (either in-person or virtually) with events like SXSW Eco happening next month or the IUCN World Parks Congress and the BLUE Ocean film festival and conservation event happening in November. We each need to continue the conversation, look to solutions and plan for the future. As others have noticed, we are at a crossroads of opportunity and need to dramatically change our economic model to something that supports us in the long run without decimating our home.