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King Coal: Willing To Kill For Kilowatts

When a suicide bomber blows a half dozen of our soldiers into smithereens, Americans get understandably outraged. And here at home, when a deranged malcontent goes postal and guns down classmates or co-workers, we call it a massacre.

But if you kill nine men for the sake of keeping the juice flowing through America's veins, well, evidently, we're so addicted to cheap energy that we're willing to write off dead coal miners as collateral damage. What looks like manslaughter, if not outright murder, is handled as some sort of infraction. The penance? A pittance. Not enough to make much of a dent in King Coal's deep pockets. As the AFP reports:

The operators of a Utah mine at the center of a collapse that led to nine fatalities last August have been fined 1.6 million dollars, health and safety officials announced Thursday.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) said the operators of the Crandall Canyon Mine had failed to report repeated collapses at the facility which meant inspectors were unable to assess practices there.

Two federal reports released on Thursday reveal previously unknown details about the August 6th disaster. Now we know, for example, that the sheer force of the collapse probably killed the six workers who were trapped in the mine pretty quickly. So, they were probably dead long before three rescue workers died 10 days later trying to save them.
It all adds up to nine needless deaths, because the reports also make it excruciatingly clear that the mine's operator, Genwal Resources, had to know that it was risking its workers' lives. One of the reports found that Genwal had ignored warning signs that the mine was unsafe, and concealed dangerous conditions from the MSHA:

In a statement, Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for the MSHA, said the tragedy had stemmed from mine operator Genwal Resources' "reckless failure" to report three previous coal "outbursts," including one just three days before the initial incident on August 6...

..."MSHA also found that the operator was taking more coal than allowed from the barrier pillars and the floor. This dangerously weakened the strength of the roof support."

Ah, but the other report--this one from the Labor Department--sticks Stickler's own agency with some of the blame, finding that the MSHA never should have approved Genwal's mining plan in the first place, and failed to take full control of the rescue operation following the collapse. As Nelda Erickson, whose husband Don was killed in the August 6th collapse, told the New York Times:

"If everything was as bad as it was, then the men shouldn't have been in there...It's hard to swallow. I don't understand how the company got approval to do mining that deep underground."

Terry Byrge, whose son-in-law, Brandon Kimber, was one of the rescue workers who died, told the Times:

"They had those men working in a section they knew was doomed to fail...They were playing spin the bottle with their lives every day and taking a chance on whether those men would come out alive."

What we've got here is a government agency and a corporation who shared the mindset that a miner's life has less value than the coal that lies so deep that you're courting disaster to extract it.

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The Answer is Up

As I zoomed across I-80 this weekend in a single shot from New York to Chicago and back, my mind drifted back and forth across the countless miles of corn and my gas meter, as all that 4 dollar gas dripped away. The big question in my mind was how the heck we were going keep shipping all this corn all the way to New York and California, not to mention shipping banana in refrigerated cars all the way from South America. The answer is not bringing the food to Manhattan but bringing the farms.

Vertical Farms are the way of the future, or so says Dr. Dickson Despommier who has been working on vertical farming technology for 10 years now. Take 35 acres of farmland, stack then into a precisely regulated farming skyscraper, and you have yourself a Vertical Farm. In fact an acre of vertical farmland is predicted to have 4-6 times greater output than a boring old acre of flat land. This is a big deal with a population slated to increase 3 billion, 80% of whom will be living in urbanized areas, by 2050. With ever increasing transport and fuel costs for farming our farming practices must evolve vertically if we are going to stop millions from starving and full nations worth of natural ecosystems laid waste by flat and fat farms.

Many designs have been published for these towering greenhouses, which can protect plants from irregular weather, pests and pesticides, recycle water, transform methane to energy, and provide a source for urban food and jobs, while leaving our battered world to recuperate a little. Still the notion as a few ominous sci-fi elements with the website describing them as a prerequisite for moon colonization and asking, “Don't our harvestable plants deserve the same level of comfort and protection that [people] now enjoy?” This may be the great green hope for agriculture but it is also implies a huge condensing of our food source and the complete stewardship of people creating a new ecosystem. Futuristic and yet surprisingly obvious, this is the thinking that will reshape both urban and rural landscapes, and could make some real change, leaving carbon offsets and the inefficiency of ethanol in the dust.

PB&J: Good for You. Good for the World.

How many people out there like a good old fashioned Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich. I know I do and I think quite a bit of our population would agree with me. However, like many PB&J loving Americans, I haven't eaten one of those delicious brown'n'purple delights in a while.

Well, a new organization say that that's got to change. The PB&J Campaign is on a mission to save our environment one Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich at a time.

Every time you eat a plant-based lunch, like PB&J, you reduce your carbon footprint by 2.5 pounds of carbon emissions. If you want some comparison thats almost half the about of carbon emissions you would cut by driving a hybrid for a day.

The PB&J campaign also points out that eating a plant-based meal conserves about 133 gallons of water, meaning that "five PB&Js or other plant-based lunches per month would save more water than switching to a low-flow showerhead." You'd also be saving approximately 24 square feet of land that could be deforested, overgrazed or subject to pesticide and fertilizer.

So how does this all work?

Well, according the PB&J campaign, when you eat an animal-based lunch, anything that contains meat or dairy, you are being extremely energy inefficient. In effect, all food comes from plants because even if the food isn't a plant itself, it took plants to give the animals energy to grow and make meat or produce dairy. And as anyone who takes a basic course on Environmental science knows, energy is always lost to heat as you move up the food chain. So, when you eat equal proportions of meat and plant, you are getting about 10x more energy with the plant.

There are also many destructive factors that go into meat and dairy production such as the fossil fuels needed to power machinery, irrigation and transportation, and the vast amount of plants that need to be grown (taking up lots of farmland) to produce small amounts of meat.

When you eat a PB&J sandwich you are reducing the vast amount of resources put into meat and dairy production, which means cutting carbon emissions, and water and land usage.

So as they say, "Eat a PB&J, Save the world today!" Sounds delicious.

America’s Greatest Source Of Renewable Energy: Whine Power?

Lou Dobbs has got his presumably made-in-the-USA knickers in a twist over Al Gore’s “truly absurd proposal” for Americans to ditch the fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy in the next decade. Dobbs, inexplicably deluded that stepped-up domestic drilling would offer some kind of immediate relief from high gas prices, is furious at the folks who oppose lifting the offshore ban:

“There is an environmental orthodoxy in this country that is losing its grip; it’s time now for Al Gore and his left wing orthodox friends in Congress such as Senator Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to start lifting, trying to ease the pain and the burden of working men and women and their families in this country, this is not some abstract discussion about environmental issues or conservation…”

So I guess I’d be going off on an abstract tangent, here, to note that while drilling in ANWR or offshore won’t make a dime of difference to our current energy crisis, there’s something Americans could do to save 30 cents a gallon now, starting today. According to Thursday’s New York Times, the Energy Department has determined that “fuel efficiency deteriorates radically at speeds above 60 miles per hour. Every 5 miles over that threshold is estimated to cost drivers…essentially an additional 30 cents per gallon in fuel costs.”

So, the fastest way to “ease the pain and the burden” would be to simply slow down. But many Americans vehemently reject the very notion, regardless of the potential savings:

…slowing down from 65 or 70 miles per hour to 55 or 60 might seem a no-brainer — free money! — for drivers reeling from high gas prices. But though the rational brain might say yes, the reptile brain, the metabolic modern brain, the highway-driver brain, seems to say, let’s look for savings another way.

…maybe Phil Gramm wasn’t entirely wrong. Maybe we are happier whining about problems rather than coming up with solutions that entail any sort of inconvenience.

Why ease up on the gas pedal when we could wring every last drop of oil out of our soil and seas instead? Three-quarters of Americans reportedly share Dobb’s support for offshore drilling despite the fact that it would do little or nothing--even in the long term-- to offset rising fuel costs, as the New York Times noted recently:

In any event, added drilling is unlikely to generate sharply lower prices. A recent study by the federal government’s Energy Information Administration estimated that under the best-case scenario opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would reduce prices by $1.44 a barrel by 2027. Drilling in broader swaths off the continental United States wouldn’t affect prices until 2030.

Did you get that? The best case scenario in ANWR would lower prices by $1.44 a barrel in, like, two decades. And, as Senator Diane Feinstein noted in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times, promoting offshore drilling as any kind of meaningful solution to our energy crisis is a total sham, too.

We’re so screwed that there’s no way we can drill ourselves out of this mess. What will it take for people to accept the fact that the era of livin’ large is over? The signs are everywhere, from Wal-Mart’s procuring its produce more locally to cut fuel costs to pilots accusing U.S. Airways of sending them up with an insufficient fuel supply in a desperate bid to lighten their load.

And yet, as angry and frustrated as folks are with the high cost of gas, they’re apparently not ready to do something so drastic as conserve by reducing their speed, which puts them right in step with our President, who wouldn’t dream of asking them to. That, he insisted at a press conference the other day, would be “presumptuous…They're smart enough to figure out whether they're going to drive less or not."

But aren’t these the same people who are too slow-witted to stop driving so fast? And what about the millions of Americans who haven’t got the option of scaling back on their driving because we’ve never bothered to invest in the infrastructure to support alternative forms of transportation like mass transit, biking, and walking? We haven’t committed serious resources to developing renewable sources of energy, either, and all because we’ve been too busy bowing at the altar of the automobile.

Is Gore’s admittedly ambitious challenge “truly absurd,” as Dobbs huffed? What’s truly absurd is the idea that anyone would look to a former Texas oilman to do anything other than shill for the drillers.

Let’s Ask Marion: Why Follow Our Fuelish Example?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

Kat: Two of America’s most entrenched traditions--our meat-centric meals and car-crazy culture—are undermining our health and degrading our environment (and, with the rising cost of fuel, breaking our budgets) on an unprecedented scale. It seems that our way of life has essentially become a recipe for disease and pollution.

So why do so many other countries aspire to live the way we do? Meat consumption is on the rise the world over, and more cars are on the road in China and India everyday. The demand for more grain to feed livestock and produce biofuels is surely worsening the global food crisis. Are human beings just hardwired to crave animal flesh and horsepower?

Dr. Nestle: Kat—I think you may be asking the wrong question, this time. The real question is: Why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t hungry people who have to work really hard to get food and to get from one place to another want to live the way we do? Some of us give up meat because we have a choice. But I can’t see that we have any right to expect people who don’t have that choice to make sacrifices. I don’t see too many of us giving up our cars, however (I don’t have one so can be somewhat smug about this point but I also live in a zipcode where owning one is a liability). It’s pretty hard to worry about climate change when you wonder where the next meal is coming from or how you are going to get to work.

I’m not sure it’s hardwired, but it’s practically a law of nutrition that meat intake rises with income. So does intake of sugar, soft drinks, and processed foods, not to mention cigarettes and alcohol (where these are socially acceptable). All you have to do to see this phenomenon in action is to take a look at Peter Menzel and Faith d’Aluisio’s glorious book, Hungry Planet,in which families all over the world pose in front of everything they ate for an entire week. The instant they have a little money, their diets become more diverse, processed, convenient, and meat-laden. We are, after all, omnivores at the top of the food chain. If we want others to give up meat and cars, we have to do that first.

Our Denier-In-Chief Punts While the World Pants

Image By Holly Wong courtesy of United Farm Workers

Is global warming a hazard to your health? Just ask 42 year-old Abdon Felix Garcia, a farm worker in Central California. Oh, wait! You can't, because he died on Wednesday after working in a vineyard in 108 degree heat. And he's just the latest casualty of the heat wave that's gripping California's Central Valley; three other farm workers have died under similar circumstances since May.

Meanwhile, the EPA issued a 588-page federal notice on Friday that, the AP reports, makes "no finding on whether global warming poses a threat to people's health."

That is, like, so bizarre! Because just three weeks ago, the folks at the EPA had concluded that it did, and called for the regulation of greenhouse gases under the auspices of the Clean Air Act.

Three weeks ago I was in Central California myself, to attend my oldest brother's wedding. The day before my departure, when my husband Matt thoughtfully added the weather for Paso Robles to my iPhone, he literally started to shake the phone as if it were broken.

"This can't be right!" he exclaimed; the forecast showed daytime highs ranging from 107 to 110 degrees. On the day of my brother's wedding, the temperature was predicted to hit 108 degrees, so the ceremony, which had been set to take place outside, had to be moved indoors. Why? Because, well, 108 degree heat can be hazardous to your health. Just ask--oh, nevermind.

The LA suburb I grew up in, Woodland Hills (sounds so bucolic, doesn't it?), made the news recently when temperatures there hit a record 109 degrees. My memories of my Valley Girl childhood are filled with disasters: earthquakes, fires, floods, mudslides, Ronald Reagan's ascension from Screen Actors Guild President to Governor of California.

Sometimes the smog was so bad, when I was a kid, the city would issue an alert warning us not to play outdoors. That was normal. But 109 degree weather? Not even close.

In Central California last month, I couldn't get over how horribly dry and brown the hills looked, like the proverbial tinderbox. Grace, my fifteen-year old niece from lush, leafy Larchmont, couldn't either.

"What happens when lightening strikes?" she wondered. Well, Grace, you get hundreds of wildfires raging out of control, is what happens. And more every year, as the Santa Barbara Independent noted last week:

A 2006 study published in Science found that since 1986, the number of major wildfires has increased by 400 percent, and the amount of land these fires burned increased by 600 percent, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.

Until recently it was often assumed that spiking population growth and expanding land use patterns were mainly to blame for any increase in the number of big fires. But the Science study, which was conducted by researchers at the Scripps Institute and the UC Merced, concluded that these factors have had "relatively little effect." Instead, the authors wrote, the change has come about mainly because summers have gotten longer, hotter, and drier. "The transition has been marked by a shift toward unusually warm springs, longer summer dry seasons, drier vegetation, and longer fire seasons."

Do greenhouse gases contribute to global warming? You can debate that point--if you're a dumbass. But how can you possibly question whether global warming is a hazard to our health? From drought to floods to fires to a rise in pest populations and plant diseases, the world is reeling from the consequences of this fossil-fueled fever.

But it's the Bush administration that's delirious, determined to fight any attempts to regulate greenhouse gases on the grounds that it would damage the U.S. economy and cause too many job losses. So the White House forced the EPA to revise its earlier document, which not only supported regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act but noted, to the Administration's consternation, that there could be a "net benefit to excess of $2 trillion," as the Wall Street Journal reported Friday:

The White House on Thursday rejected EPA's conclusion three weeks earlier that the 1970 Clean Air Act can be both workable and effective for addressing global climate change. Instead, EPA said Friday that law is ''ill-suited'' for dealing with climate change...

...''One point is clear: the potential regulation of greenhouse gases under any portion of the Clean Air Act could result in unprecedented expansion of EPA authority that would have a profound effect on virtually every sector of the economy and touch every household in the land,'' EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said in a preface to the 588-page federal notice Friday.

As opposed to global warming, which only affects some households? Like the families of the farm workers dropping dead in the fields? Or the folks who've lost their homes in the California wildfires? Or the farmers in the heartland who've lost their crops to floods?

Instead of taking action, the Decider's decided that we need to continue to debate this matter until someone who's even more of a Decider sets up shop in the Oval Office, according to the Guardian:

The US environmental protection agency (EPA) announced today that no action will be taken to regulate carbon emissions while George Bush remains president.

The EPA's decision to sit on its hands comes after months of wrangling between government scientists, who pressed for action in the wake of a landmark US Supreme Court ruling, and White House officials dead set against regulating pollution...

...the EPA forestalled environmental action today with a unique response. Rather than weighing in on how to regulate emissions, agency administrator Stephen Johnson extended the period for public comment on climate change until after Bush leaves office, effectively depositing the problem in the lap of the next president.

OK, so here's my public comment: on behalf of Abdon Felix Garcia and his fellow farm workers who've perished in the scorching Central Valley heat, may I state that global warming is, like, rilly, rilly deadly? Like, seriously? Mister Prezidon't, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the White House, already--you're killing us.

A Dirty Picture For Patriots Of All Ages

Forget about science fiction; WALL-E is séance fiction—it channels the soul of our land-loving founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Now that a handful of loose wingnuts is denouncing WALL-E as a piece of pro-planet propaganda, I’d like to note, for the record, that Jefferson would have absolutely loved WALL-E.

Normally, I wouldn’t presume to speak for the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, but given Jefferson’s reverence for our most precious resource, i.e., the soil, he surely would have appreciated the underlying message of Pixar’s latest animated opus—that it’s our civic duty to be good stewards of the land.

Yeah, yeah, I know that WALL-E’s creator, Andrew Stanton, is insisting that WALL-E is first and foremost a love story, but the whole plot hinges on another relationship: the one between us and the dirt beneath our feet. Jefferson was an early advocate of maintaining soil fertility through such practices as crop rotation, and would doubtless be horrified by the pollution and depletion of our topsoil that’s become standard operating procedure since the advent of industrial agriculture.

(Of course, he’d also be appalled that the Fourth of July has turned into a giant meat-fest; Jefferson was an unabashed lover of fruits and veggies who maintained that produce should dominate our diet and meat should be used sparingly, as a “seasoning” or “condiment.”)

Set in the year 2815, 700 years after the Earth’s been trashed by mindless consumers and a monolithic corporation named Buy n Large, WALL-E depicts a nation whose excesses have launched it into perpetual astro-exile on a fleet of super-duper Buy n Large-sponsored spaceships. Its morbidly obese, infantalized citizens, too fat to stand upright, zip around aimlessly on their hovercraft-style loungers sipping sodas, playing video games, and awaiting the day the Earth will have detoxed enough to be “recolonized.”

Some folks are eager to dismiss this cautionary tale of a corpulent corporatocracy as a far-fetched scenario aimed at advancing some eco-extremist agenda, but it’s an eerie echo of the warnings from Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer-Prize winning UCLA professor of geography and author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In a precursor to Collapse that Diamond wrote for Harper’s back in 2003, he challenged the conventional wisdom that we have to weigh environmental concerns against economic considerations, citing the popular misconception that:

…we must balance the environment against human needs. That reasoning is exactly upside-down. Human needs and a healthy environment are not opposing claims that must be balanced; instead, they are inexorably linked by chains of cause and effect. We need a healthy environment because we need clean water, clean air, wood, and food from the ocean, plus soil and sunlight to grow crops. We need functioning natural ecosystems, with their native species of earthworms, bees, plants, and microbes, to generate and aerate our soils, pollinate our crops, decompose our wastes, and produce our oxygen. We need to prevent toxic substances from accumulating in our water and air and soil…Our strongest arguments for a healthy environment are selfish: we want it for ourselves, not for threatened species like snail darters, spotted owls, and Furbish louseworts.

In WALL-E’s world, mankind has failed to recognize this inexorable link, forcing a mass exodus into outer space and leaving behind a barren landscape littered with post-consumer crap and unable to support any vegetation.

Watching WALL-E trundle through this lifeless landscape on his daily rounds, compacting garbage and salvaging such manmade marvels as a spork and a Rubik’s cube, you realize that it’s not about saving the earth. The planet will, in all likelihood, be able to withstand whatever drastic alterations to its ecosystem we’ve unwittingly unleashed. It’s ourselves we have to save.

Will we figure this out in time to avert the kind of catastrophic future portrayed in WALL-E? As Diamond notes in Collapse:

:Perhaps the crux of success or failure of a society is to know which core values to hold onto, and which ones to discard and replace with new values."

If only we had a clue about what to discard and what to replace. After leaving a matinee of WALL-E last weekend, I stopped into the Chelsea Home Depot, which, in a rare concession to place, is housed in an elegant turn-of-the-century cast-iron building. On my way to the garden department to buy mulch for my windowboxes, I passed a display of cheap kitchen faucets with a sign reading, “Why Fix It When You Can Replace It?”

No wonder we’re the trashiest people on the planet. If the Great Pacific Garbage Patch grows any bigger, we’ll have to colonize it and declare it the 51st state. The signs that our habitat’s under siege are everywhere, but our “Drive All You Want, We’ll Drill More” culture motors on, oblivious. With the cost of a barrel of oil setting new records each day, more and more Americans reportedly support the idea of offshore drilling, despite the fact that it can’t possibly solve the underlying problem that demand is increasingly going to outstrip supply as China and India follow in our tire tracks.

Sadly, WALL-E’s anti-consumer, anti-corporate message is undermined by the regrettable array of cheap, mass-produced WALL-E tchotchkes destined for the garbage heap. It’s a shame that Pixar couldn’t pass on the obligatory merchandise tie-ins, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the film’s S.O.S: Save Our Soil. It’s a message that this nation of babies, big and small, needs to heed. Colony collapse disorder—it’s not just for bees!

White House Bounces EPA Reality Check

Last December, the White House simply refused to open an e-mail from the Environmental Protection Agency because it contained the unwelcome conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to public health and therefore need to be regulated. The EPA finding was a response "to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that required it to determine whether greenhouse gases represent a danger to health or the environment," the New York Times reported last Wednesday.

Faced with the proverbial inconvenient truth, the White House not only refused to open the e-mail, they ordered Jason Burnett, the EPA official who sent the document, to "recall it," according to the Washington Post.

Burnett, who has, not coincidentally, since resigned, told the Post:

"In early December, I sent an e-mail with the formal finding that action must be taken to address the risk of climate change...The White House made it clear they did not want to address the ramifications of that finding and have decided to leave the challenge to the next administration. Some [at the White House] thought that EPA had mistakenly concluded that climate change endangers the public. It was no mistake."

I'd accuse the administration of foot-dragging, but that implies some kind of forward movement, however glacial (now, there's a word that's headed for extinction, thanks to climate change.) The dinosaurs who've been dictating our energy policy in this country are as encased in asphalt as the fossils at the La Brea Tarpits, and just as unlikely to budge.

Jon Stewart highlighted this new low point from the Petro-Pusher-In-Chief on the Daily Show last Wednesday with a segment called "Be Patient - This Gets Amazing":

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Food & Farming Event: New Amsterdam. Sunday. Be there.

KAT: NYC's real food fanatics are gearing up for a gala event this Sunday down at Lower Manhattan's legendary Seaport. Guest blogger Leslie Hatfield from the Eat Well Guide's Green Fork blog tells why:

“Old New York…was once New Amsterdam…”

Back then, a widely diverse population of city dwellers bought their food at the market, not at the Quizno’s.

If you are in New York on Sunday, come join thousands of other foodies, farmers and activists at the New Amsterdam Market. This is the third New Amsterdam gathering so far–the last event got hit by a snow storm but 5,000 people still showed up, so this weekend’s market is expected to be major. We’re excited about the implications of a market in the Seaport area, as is Robert LaValva, the Director of the New Amsterdam Market Association:

“The participants we have gathered for New Amsterdam Market on June 29th represent a shift in thinking. With its four century legacy as a market district, the Seaport and its empty public market halls offer New Yorkers an unprecedented opportunity to anchor the food system now emerging from this change.”

And the lineup of vendors looks amazing. I’m especially intrigued by Wild Foods (cattail hearts?!), and I hear there will even be sustainably-produced popsicles. Don’t forget your re-usable bags–you’re going to want to bring some food home.

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