Video: Barack Obama interviews David Attenborough


The pope’s climate change message is really about rethinking what it means to be human

Stephen P. White writes: Given the media coverage since its release, and the political implications of the pope throwing his moral weight behind one side in a high-stakes debate about climate policy, one could be forgiven for thinking that Pope Francis’s new encyclical is mostly about climate change and what we need to do to combat it.

Except it is and it isn’t. In fact, mostly it isn’t.

What makes this encyclical controversial is its reading of contested questions of science, economics, and politics. What makes it radical — in the sense of going to the root — is the pope’s reading of the profound human crisis that he sees underlying our modern world. Abuse of our environment isn’t the only problem facing humanity. In fact, Pope Francis sees the ecological crisis as a symptom of a deeper crisis — a human crisis. These two problems are related and interdependent. And the solution is not simply to eliminate fossil fuels or rethink carbon credits. The pope is calling on the world to rediscover what it means to be human — and as a result, to reject the cult of economic growth and material accumulation.

Reading the encyclical, one quickly realizes that the “pope fights climate change” narrative is far from the whole story. In fact, that line leaves out the most fundamental themes of the encyclical: the limits of technology and the need for what he calls an “integral ecology,” which “transcend[s] the language of mathematics and biology, and take[s] us to the heart of what it is to be human.” [Continue reading…]


The Earth stands on the brink of its sixth mass extinction and the fault is ours

Jan Zalasiewizc writes: Life on Earth is in trouble. That much we know. But how bad have things become – and how fast are events moving? How soon, indeed, before the Earth’s biological treasures are trashed, in what will be the sixth great mass extinction event? This is what Gerardo Caballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and his colleagues have assessed, in a paper that came out on Friday.

These are extraordinarily difficult questions. There are many millions of species, many elusive and rare, and inhabiting remote and dangerous places. There are too few skilled biologists in the field to keep track of them all. Demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that any single species is extinct is arduous and painstaking (think how long it took to show – to most people, at least – that Loch Ness probably does not harbour a large monster).

And it’s not just a case of making a head-count of modern extinctions. This needs to be compared with a long-term “baseline” rate of extinctions in our planet’s long geological history. This can only be extracted via the equally painstaking and difficult work of excavating and identifying millions of fossils from the almost endless rock strata. Not surprisingly, different studies made so far on different fossils have yielded different baseline rates.

Caballos and colleagues have thought through these difficulties, and come up with probably the most robust estimate yet of how severe the modern crisis is.

They have been deliberately conservative – they’re well aware of the dangers of crying wolf on a topic of such importance, and where passions run so high. For a start, they limit themselves to the best-studied group of organisms, the vertebrates. Then, they take a high estimate of background extinctions to compare with, to make the modern figures as undramatic as possible. And then, they either consider only those animals known to be extinct (the “highly conservative” scenario), or they add in those extinctions in the wild that are likely to have happened, but are not yet verified.

Even with this caution, the figures are still shocking. [Continue reading…]


Pope Francis on how we are trashing our home

Pope Francis writes: The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilised in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.

These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesise nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the Earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the Earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.

Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies. Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread. [Continue reading…]

The complete text of the encyclical, Laudato Si: On the Care of the Common Home, from which the extract above was taken, can be read here.

Did Pope Francis actually write this 180 page document? John Hooper explains that it was a team effort and that “much of the work was delegated to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Vatican department that most closely resembles an overseas aid and development ministry in a secular government.” Nevertheless, it was the pope who did the final editing.


There is no conflict between our faiths and the science of climate change

Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Rabbi David Rosen and Professor Dr M Din Syamsuddin write: On Thursday, Pope Francis issued a powerful and timely encyclical on the environment, urging humanity to come to its senses and cease its reckless onslaught against God’s creation. He addressed this letter not only to his fellow Catholics, but to all people of the world, asking people of different religious traditions to unite in common purpose to save our planet.

As religious figures, we too accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming comes from human activity, as we see no conflict between faith and reason.

And, coming from the three great Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – we stand together on the need to be good stewards of the earth. All of our traditions affirm the inherent goodness of all creation, and the binding obligation on human beings to protect our common home, the planet that sustains us. The Hebrew Scriptures state clearly that the Earth belongs to God alone, and that we are merely sojourners – we do not have ownership on a permanent basis: the fruits of the earth belong to all, including the poor. This ancient teaching is affirmed by both Christianity and Islam. Christians also view the world through a sacramental lenses, believing that the redemption of Christ has in turn redeemed all of creation. And Islam can be thought of as a religion of nature, with 750 verses in the holy Qur’an speaking about our responsibility to the environment and our relationship with all creatures. Islam too recognizes that everything in the heavens and the earth belong to God, and that we are mere trustees and vice-regents.

We must agree with Pope Francis that we have violated this most sacred trust. This is evident with the scandal of climate change, which comes predominantly from the relentless burning of fossil fuels to power our global economy. The path we are on is a path of destruction. [Continue reading…]


Pope Francis calls on Christians to undergo an ‘ecological conversion’

The rich heritage of Christian spirituality, the fruit of twenty centuries of personal and communal experience, has a precious contribution to make to the renewal of humanity. Here, I would like to offer Christians a few suggestions for an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith, since the teachings of the Gospel have direct consequences for our way of thinking, feeling and living. More than in ideas or concepts as such, I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us, without an “interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity”. Admittedly, Christians have not always appropriated and developed the spiritual treasures bestowed by God upon the Church, where the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us.

“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”. For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience. [Source: Laudato Si: On the Care of the Common Home]


Factory farm nation

Food & Water Watch recently published its report Factory Farm Nation based on an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture data from 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012 for beef cattle, hogs, dairy cattle, broiler meat chickens and egg-laying operations. These are the report’s key findings:

  • The total number of livestock on the largest factory farms rose by 20 percent between 2002 and 2012. The number of livestock units on factory farms increased from 23.7 million in 2002 to 28.5 million in 2012. “Livestock units” is a way to measure different kinds of animals on the same scale based on their weight — one beef cattle is the equivalent of approximately two-thirds of a dairy cow, eight hogs or four hundred chickens.
  • These factory-farmed livestock produced 369 million tons of manure in 2012, about 13 times as much as the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population. This 13.8 billion cubic feet of manure is enough to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 133 times. Unlike sewage produced in cities, manure on factory farms does not undergo any wastewater treatment.
  • The number of dairy cows on factory farms doubled, and the average-sized dairy factory farm increased by half, between 1997 and 2012. The number of dairy cows on factory farms rose 120.9 percent in 2012, the equivalent of adding 550 factory-farmed dairy cows every day for 15 years. The average size of dairy factory farms grew by half (49.1 percent) from 1,114 cows in 1997 to 1,661 in 2012. In nine states — Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Missouri and Nevada — the average size was more than 2,000 cows in 2012.
  • The number of beef cattle on feedlots rose 5 percent from 2002 to 2012. Feedlot size grew even as the 2012 drought reduced total cattle numbers. The number of beef cattle on operations with at least 500 head grew from 11.6 million in 2002 to 12.1 million in 2012 — adding about 157 beef cattle every day for 10 years. Texas, Nebraska and Kansas all had more than 2 million beef cattle on feedlots in 2012. The 2012 drought reduced the total number of beef cattle on feedlots nationwide, but the average feedlot size increased by 12.7 percent over five years, from 3,800 in 2007 to more than 4,300 in 2012.
  • The number of hogs on factory farms increased by more than one-third, and the average farm size swelled nearly 70 percent from 1997 to 2012. The number of hogs on factory farms grew by 37.1 percent — from 46.1 million in 1997 to 63.2 million 2012 — the equivalent of adding 3,100 hogs to factory farms every day for the past 15 years. The average size of a hog factory farm increased 68.4 percent, from 3,600 hogs in 1997 to nearly 6,100 in 2012.
  • The number of broiler chickens on factory farms rose nearly 80 percent from 1997 to 2012, to more than 1 billion. The number of broiler chickens raised on factory farms rose 79.9 percent from 583.3 million in 1997 to 1.05 billion in 2012 — about three birds for every person in the United States. The growth in industrial broiler production added 85,000 chickens to factory farms every day over the past 15 years. The average size of U.S. broiler chicken operations rose by 5.9 percent, from 157,000 in 1997 to 166,000 birds in 2012. The average size in California and Nebraska exceeded 500,000 birds in 2012.
  • The number of egg-laying hens on factory farms increased by nearly one quarter from 1997 to 2012, to 269 million. The number of egg-producing layer hens increased 24.8 percent from 215.7 million in 1997 to 269.3 million in 2012. Nearly half (49.3 percent) of the egg-laying hens in 2012 were in the top-five-egg producing states: Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, California and Texas. The average size of egg operations has grown by 74.2 percent over 15 years, rising from 399,000 in 1997 to more than 695,000 in 2012.

How water, paradoxically, creates the land we walk on

Julia Rosen writes: It’s no secret that water shapes the world around us. Rivers etch great canyons into the Earth’s surface, while glaciers reorganize the topography of entire mountain ranges. But water’s influence on the landscape runs much deeper than this: Water explains why we have land in the first place.

You might think of land as the bits of crust that just happen to jut up above sea level, but that’s mostly not the case. Earth’s continents rise above the seas in part because they are actually made of different stuff than the seafloor. Oceanic crust consists of dense, black basalt, which rides low in the mantle — like a wet log in a river — and eventually sinks back into Earth’s interior. But continental crust floats like a cork, thanks to one special rock: granite. If we didn’t have granite to lift the continents up, a vast ocean would cover our entire planet, with barely any land to speak of.

Gritty, gray granite and its rocky relatives dominate the continents. It forms the sheer walls of Yosemite Valley and the chiseled faces of Mount Rushmore (and also gleams from many a kitchen counter and shower stall). If you don’t see granite at the surface, you can bet it’s hiding just a few kilometers below your feet, unless you’re cruising over the middle of the ocean in a boat or plane. But what’s special about granite is that it’s relatively buoyant, for a rock—and that to make it, you need water. [Continue reading…]


Why technocracy won’t save the world

Benjamin Cohen writes: In a 2014 New Yorker profile of twenty-five year old entrepreneur Rob Rhinehart, Lizzie Widdicombe explained the millenial’s motives for inventing a new caloric infusion named for the 1973 film. Rhinehart thought that “food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive.” He “began to resent the fact that he had to eat at all.” It was becoming too problematic for him to invest the effort in food shopping, preparation, or even, apparently, consumption. For the lifehacker, these were the wrong kind of disruptive. Widdicombe resisted editorializing on the shocking arrogance of the view that food was a hindrance to life. But I won’t. When a Bay Area twenty-something understands food as an obstacle to daily life, that person conceives of the environment as a constraint on rather than the basis of living. The dream of efficiency and the view that food is but a calorie delivery vehicle is all too familiar as resting on assumptions of a technocratic worldview.

I question whether anything is best pursued by technocratic means, let alone environmentalism; the political character of technocracy is ethically tenuous for the governance of people, not to mention nature. Technocratic thinking is based on logic of dehumanized values. It’s pinned to strictly technical criteria measured by disembodied quantitative metrics — efficiency, speed, yield, productivity, for example. Anything non-technical is not of significance: if it can’t be stated as a technical problem then it isn’t a problem at all. Values beyond that of a thin and narrow register — consider empowerment, dignity, justice, fulfillment, nourishment, honor, harmony — have no place in such a discussion because they’re too difficult to shoehorn into technical metrics. As for environmental virtues, good luck. Biodiversity, environmental knowledge, or the organic tenets of sustainable ecosystems find little space in technocratic pursuits. [Continue reading…]


Humanity’s destructive thirst

Nautilus reports: A sliver here, a spot there. That’s all the water that’s left of the great Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world by surface area. Recent images of the dry Aral Sea show camels sheltering from the sun beside the rusting husks of fishing boats, perched permanently on the dried-up lakebed. The extreme transformation took all of 50 years.

The Aral Sea wasn’t historically fragile. Humans have been using the saltwater lake for at least 3,000 years, the water level only fluctuating by about four meters during the 300 years prior to 1960. And the water provided for neighboring communities, offering a sustainable and profitable way of life for early 20th-century fishermen who caught carp, pike, and perch in numbers great enough to export them widely. Fish were so abundant that Aralsk fishermen, when called upon by Soviet leader Lenin, were able to load up 14 train cars bound for starved regions of the Soviet Union with fresh Aral Sea fish in October of 1921.

Around 1960 the land began to change. The erstwhile Soviet Union expanded irrigation projects aimed at increasing the yield of profitable cotton. The crop’s thirst for the freshwater in the rivers replenishing the Aral Sea meant less water ended up in the lake. Over time, one of the rivers — the Amu Darya — stopped making it to the lake. And as the water depleted, the salt in the lake’s water became more concentrated. Salinity went up, killing off several fish species that couldn’t cope in the changing environment. Now the fishermen can’t make a living, and those not impoverished by decreasing opportunities in the barren land can only find continuous work in feeding, growing, and picking cotton or other water-guzzling crops. The dry basin itself, doused with farming chemicals and prone to rise up in dust storms, threatens the health of any who live nearby. And since Uzbekistan is today the second-biggest cotton exporter in the world, the Aral Sea has little hope of recovering its former size. [Continue reading…]


EPA takes first step to regulate aircraft greenhouse gas emissions

Reuters: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday said greenhouse gases from aircraft endanger human health, taking the first step toward regulating emissions from the domestic aviation industry.

The EPA’s endangerment finding kicks off a process to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry, the latest sector to be regulated under the Clean Air Act after cars, trucks and large stationary sources like power plants.

The finding allows the EPA to implement domestically a global carbon dioxide emissions standard being developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).


Fish, crabs are losing homes as oceans lose oxygen

National Geographic reports: Atlantic cod, the storied catch of New England’s fishing industry, have little in common with bottom-dwelling rock crab, which are perhaps best known for swiping bait from lobster traps. But a largely unheralded byproduct of climate change–loss of oxygen in the ocean–will hit both dramatically by limiting where they can live, according to a new study published Thursday.

The oxygen losses accompanying global warming could reduce by 20 percent the amount of ocean suitable for cod and crab by the end of the century, according to the study in the journal Science.

The new research suggests this oxygen loss may shift and shrink marine habitats for a multitude of species globally, potentially upending marine food webs far more substantially than previously thought. [Continue reading…]


5 reasons Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment matters

Reynard Loki writes: Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical on the environment has been described as “long-awaited” and “much-anticipated.” Indeed, as Peter Smith, who covers religion for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, recently put it: “Rarely in modern times has a major papal pronouncement received so much attention and debate before it’s even been delivered.” And why not? In addition to being Francis’s first encyclical, it will be the first encyclical on the environment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

The landmark document is expected to be issued sometime this summer, and perhaps even later this month, with the title “Laudato Sii” (“Praised Be You”), taken from the pope’s namesake St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, which praises God for creation, and the subtitle “Sulla cura della casa commune” (“On the care of the common home”). Published around the year 1224, St Francis’s prayer reads: “Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun,” and continues to praise God for “Sister Moon,” “Brothers Wind and Air,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire, and “Mother Earth.”

In a speech he delivered in Ireland in March, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which prepared the first draft of the encyclical, said that Laudato Sii “will explore the relationship between care for creation, integral human development and concern for the poor.” [Continue reading…]


The insecurity of the world’s priceless crop gene banks

Virginia Gewin writes: During the past few years of civil war in Syria, rebel fighters have destroyed Shia mosques and Christian graves, and burned and looted Christian churches while the Islamic State group has demolished priceless artifacts in the region. Nothing seemed sacred to the disparate groups vying for control of the region. Yet, so far, a store of ancient seeds has been left alone.

In 2012 rebel fighters seized control of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, a research field station and gene bank about 20 miles (32 km) south of war-torn Aleppo that maintains a unique collection of 150,000 different populations of wheat, barley, lentil and faba bean seeds from 128 countries.

“We’re very lucky that [the rebels] realize the importance of conserving biodiversity; it’s one of the activities that has never been interrupted in Aleppo,” says Ahmed Amri, head of ICARDA’s genetic resources unit. “But we cannot predict how each day will be.”

ICARDA is just one of the hundreds of institutional crop collections, or crop gene banks, around the world that meticulously preserve samples of distinct crop populations and their wild relatives, even creating duplicates for storage elsewhere, so that this vast genetic diversity is not lost. Seeds are the easiest samples to store, and remarkably, the rebels have allowed five remaining ICARDA staff, all Syrians, to maintain that country’s seed collection.

Before the situation in Syria deteriorated in early 2012, ICARDA staff members diligently duplicated 26,000 accessions that had not yet been safely stored outside Syria and transferred them to Turkey and Lebanon. Since 2012, they’ve continued to secure duplicate samples at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and other locations outside Syria, and now plan to reconstruct the collection in Morocco so they can continue to distribute seeds. Their efforts garnered them the Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize, which recognizes contributions to plant breeding, in March 2015. [Continue reading…]


New research shows global warming has continued this century without a hiatus

The New York Times reports: Scientists have long labored to explain what appeared to be a slowdown in global warming that began at the start of this century as, at the same time, heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide were soaring. The slowdown, sometimes inaccurately described as a halt or hiatus, became a major talking point for people critical of climate science.

Now, new research suggests the whole thing may have been based on incorrect data.

When adjustments are made to compensate for recently discovered problems in the way global temperatures were measured, the slowdown largely disappears, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared in a scientific paper published Thursday. And when the particularly warm temperatures of 2013 and 2014 are averaged in, the slowdown goes away entirely, the agency said.

“The notion that there was a slowdown in global warming, or a hiatus, was based on the best information we had available at the time,” said Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Centers for Environmental Information, a NOAA unit in Asheville, N.C. “Science is always working to improve.” [Continue reading…]

ClimateWire reports: Living in a warming ocean won’t just be uncomfortably hot for marine animals, it’s also likely to suffocate them.

According to a newly published study in the journal Science, the combined stresses of rising ocean temperatures and the resulting drop in oxygen levels will put too much physiological strain on marine animals living closer to the equator.

As water temperatures rise, the animal’s metabolism speeds up, increasing the demand for more oxygen. At the same time, the rising temperatures reduce the amount of oxygen that the upper ocean can hold, so the concentration of the gas will go down, said Curtis Deutsch, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington, Seattle.

“Put these two things together and it’s kind of a double whammy,” he said. [Continue reading…]


The Northern Bald Ibis is extinct in the Middle East — but we can’t blame it on ISIS


Gianluca Serra writes: A few days ago the BBC reported that the capture of Palmyra by Islamic State (IS) threatens to propel the oriental population of Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) into extinction. Sadly they are wrong – because sadly this iconic and unique population already went extinct in Syria a few months ago.

The Northern Bald Ibis vanished from the wild as a breeding species due to known threats along the migratory route, including hunting and habitat degradation. One of our tagged birds, named Julia, was shot in northern Saudi Arabia in 2009.

Three birds, including Zenobia, had been observed at the wintering site in Ethiopia during winter 2013-14, but only she came back to Palmyra in spring 2014, alone for the second year in a row. That made 2014 the last year she was seen at the Palmyra breeding site.

So this year, for the first time in millennia the Bedouin nomads of the Palmyra desert saw no Northern Bald Ibis in late February, at the beginning of the spring, as I was informed by my contacts in Palmyra. The bearded and black-clothed extremists were only the unaware funereal witnesses of the ibis’s absence. [Continue reading…]


The neuroscience of a sense of place

Rick Paulas writes: Comedian Eddie Pepitone once said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that there are no great neighborhoods in Los Angeles, only great blocks. The stretch of Echo Park on Sunset Boulevard between Glendale and Logan is one. The establishments on that short stretch include an upscale wine bar, a hipster concert venue, a vegan restaurant, a deep dish pizza place, cheap thrift stores, not-so-cheap “vintage” stores selling roughly the same stuff, a check-cashing joint, a few fast food chains, and even a supermarket for time travelers.

While it’s not the most diverse cross-section you’ll find in the city, the block can be used as a social barometer when brought up in conversations. Mention the stretch, and whatever landmark the other person’s familiar with tells the tale of the socioeconomic sphere they inhabit; the landmark that puts a gleam of recognition in the other person’s eye says everything about their story.

Blocks and neighborhoods aren’t concrete concepts that mean the same thing to everyone, unlike, say, things like “apple” or “sky.” Points of reference shift depending on the person that’s using that reference, so blocks/neighborhoods are more like alternate realities laid atop one another, like plastic sheets on an overhead projector. There’s even a phrase for the study of this murky concept: mental maps. They can help us understand why some neighborhoods thrive, others die, and how changes are made.

The theory of mental (or cognitive) maps was first developed in 1960 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Kevin Lynch in his book The Image of the City. Rather than relying on how cartographers saw a city, Lynch asked residents to draw a map, from memory, depicting how their city was arranged. He found that five elements compose a person’s understanding of where they are: landmarks, paths, edges, districts, and nodes. Landmarks are reference points, paths connect them, edges mark boundaries, and the other elements define larger areas that contain some combination of each of those designations.

Neuroscience backs up Lynch’s findings. In 1971, Jon O’Keefe discovered “place cells” in the hippocampus, neurons that activate when an animal enters an environment. The neurons calculate a current location based on what the animal can see, as well as through “dead reckoning” — that is, accounting based on subconscious calculations using previous positions in the recent past and how quickly it traveled over a stretch of time. In 2005, husband-and-wife team Edvard and May-Britt Moser discovered “grid cells,” neurons that fire in a grid-like pattern to measure distances and direction. O’Keefe and the Mosers all won Nobel Prizes in 2014 for their discoveries. [Continue reading…]


The future of power: Going beyond coal

Michael Grunwald reports: The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days. It has quietly transformed the U.S. electric grid and the global climate debate.

The industry and its supporters use “war on coal” as shorthand for a ferocious assault by a hostile White House, but the real war on coal is not primarily an Obama war, or even a Washington war. It’s a guerrilla war. The front lines are not at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Supreme Court. If you want to see how the fossil fuel that once powered most of the country is being battered by enemy forces, you have to watch state and local hearings where utility commissions and other obscure governing bodies debate individual coal plants. You probably won’t find much drama. You’ll definitely find lawyers from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the boots on the ground in the war on coal.

Beyond Coal is the most extensive, expensive and effective campaign in the Club’s 123-year history, and maybe the history of the environmental movement. It’s gone largely unnoticed amid the furor over the Keystone pipeline and President Barack Obama’s efforts to regulate carbon, but it’s helped retire more than one third of America’s coal plants since its launch in 2010, one dull hearing at a time. With a vast war chest donated by Michael Bloomberg, unlikely allies from the business world, and a strategy that relies more on economics than ecology, its team of nearly 200 litigators and organizers has won battles in the Midwestern and Appalachian coal belts, in the reddest of red states, in almost every state that burns coal.

“They’re sophisticated, they’re very active, and they’re better funded than we are,” says Mike Duncan, a former Republican National Committee chairman who now heads the industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. “I don’t like what they’re doing; we’re losing a lot of coal in this country. But they do show up.”

Coal still helps keep our lights on, generating nearly 40 percent of U.S. power. But it generated more than 50 percent just over a decade ago, and the big question now is how rapidly its decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.

This is a big deal, because coal is America’s top source of greenhouse gases, and coal retirements are the main reason U.S. carbon emissions have declined 10 percent in a decade. [Continue reading…]