Posts Tagged ‘environmental activism’

The upside of fracking and water contamination

July 19, 2010

Homeowner setting his water on fire, from the film GASLAND.

It’s become a cliché that water is the new oil. Experts predict that clean, fresh water will, by the end of the century, be as precious and hard to find as black gold is now. Business magazines and websites are already instructing investors on how to profit from the coming market in water. (See

In many developing countries, drinkable water is already extremely scarce, and environmental justice demands that affluent nations like the U.S. attend to the needs of the arid poor.

The good news is, as unregulated fracking—extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing—moves forward, many communities across the U.S. are finding their water supplies undrinkable. Pretty soon we may not have to worry about the Third World’s water problems—our own will be just as bad, and justice will be served.

Our use of water is much greater than that of people in the Third World. Can you imagine an American family of four hauling nine buckets of water a day from a well a quarter mile away and making it do for cooking, drinking, and washing? I once spent three days in a village in the desert of Rajasthan, India, where I watched a family do just that, but there were eight of us in the house, including me, using that precious water. I was not allowed to help fetch water—because of the danger of wild dogs, they said.

To personal use, add the water required by agriculture, industry, and energy production, and you have a system that gobbles up vast quantities of fresh water. Fracking itself uses millions of gallons of water at a shot, injected into the ground at high pressure, along with chemicals and sand, to break up gas-trapping shale deep below the surface. Once the water is polluted with chemicals, it is sequestered below the water table to keep it out of the groundwater. Some of it returns to the surface along with the natural gas and has to be trucked to disposal sites. Either way, millions of gallons are being withdrawn from our water systems, while some of it is escaping into community water supplies and making water undrinkable.

Residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, are getting dizzy from taking showers. In the documentary film Gasland, people are shown lighting their water on fire as it comes out of the tap.

Josh Fox, director of Gasland, traveled to Arkansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and New Mexico, looking for towns where fracking was well-regulated, landowners were happily living off the leasing fees paid by drilling companies, and the water was still clean. He did not find any such community.

The New York State legislature is currently grappling with whether to allow fracking in the natural-gas-rich Marcellus Shale, which underlines much of the state, including the Catskills, source of New York City drinking water. The city is opposed to fracking in the state, but forces in favor of it include the politically powerful gas companies, landowners hoping to get rich from leasing fees, and the country’s need for energy supplies.

For more information and ways to take action, see


Kids and nature deficit

June 27, 2010

Do you remember playing outdoors as a child?  I remember climbing a five-trunked maple tree, playing house in the shady gaps of a honeysuckle thicket, tasting the nectar of columbine flowers, stripping the seeds from plantain stems, for that satisfying prickle along the fingers.

If you have kids, I hope they’re getting to have their own outdoor explorations. A growing number of experts (see have observed that children these days spend much less time out in the natural world than any previous generation, and that this lack may be unhealthy. Studies show that problems such as obesity, depression, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) improve when kids are exposed to natural environments.

The problem was dubbed Nature Deficit Disorder and described in detail by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods (Workman Publishing Company, 2005). He blames such influences as the loss of green space, a cultural obsession with safety, educational pressures, and the easy fascination of TV, computers, and video games. Louv’s research shows that contemporary environmentalists had childhoods involving plenty of time exploring nature, either alone or with a mentor who modeled a respect and appreciation for the wild. Today’s efforts to deliver nature to children tend to be overly structured and sanitized, with national parks resembling theme parks and children forbidden to leave manicured paths to play in the woods. Louv wonders, where will the next generation of protectors of the environment come from without youthful experiences to inspire them?

In one study, researchers examined stress levels of children in an area of upstate New York. They correlated the quantity of green space near the children’s homes with their scores on psychological tests and with questionnaires on their behavior filled out by parents. The results showed that children with ready access to nature had more success at handling the stress in their lives.

Other research found that children diagnosed with ADHD showed a reduction in symptoms after a guided walk through a park as compared with walks through a downtown area and a neighborhood.

The 2008 edition of Last Child in the Woods lists 100 suggestions for connecting kids and nature. For example: buy a truckload of dirt to play in; go for a family walk when the moon is full; buy field guides; plant a butterfly garden; study animal tracking. Even here in the Catskills, where such opportunities are abundant, kids may be mesmerized by electronic devices and require a parental push to get outside, or even gentle guidance to discover the details they tend to overlook, which may provide unexpected and nourishing enchantment.

Since the first edition Louv’s book was published, it has sparked the creation of a Children and Nature Network (see, which promotes public awareness, organizes community events, and pushes for legislation. Check it out!

The Saving Grace of Computer Modeling

February 8, 2010

Scientists throw out predictions on how long it’s going to take for the average temperatures on Earth to rise 5 degrees and what the effects will be on sea level, agriculture, and human existence—but many people are skeptical because it’s all based on computer modeling.

As a former computer programmer, I know how impossible it is to take every possible effect into account when considering changes to a system. The more complex a computer program is, the more debugging and tweaking it requires, and not just because of misplaced commas—mostly the problems occur because of an impact the programmer didn’t think of or a phenomenon introduced by the program itself. And the life of planet Earth is an exceedingly complex system.

So the predictions of scientists vary widely and are constantly being revised, as human behavior takes unexpected twists and turns, and new variables in the climate change process are discovered. The predictions of computer models have lots of data to back them up, but ultimately, they are highly educated guesses.

It’s good to have tools to help us make guesses and decisions about the future, even if the climate skeptics are constantly shooting them down. The most positive impact of computer modeling may be the example of the process itself—it models for us the holistic thinking we need to practice in order to solve environmental problems.

A simple cost-benefit analysis is no longer adequate to evaluate industrial development, house building, government programs, new technologies. We have to be thinking about effects on local people and ecosystems, those of other continents, and future generations.

If reports on computer modeling can get us into the habit of thinking holistically, maybe we can see deeply into what we’re doing to the planet. Maybe we can change.

Sometimes I think the Republicans are right

February 4, 2010

It’s not that I disbelieve the scientists who say climate change is happening—I’ve seen photos of the shrinking polar ice caps, and I vividly remember the colder, snowier winters of my childhood.

Nor do I doubt that humans have contributed to, if not caused, a rise in overall global temperatures, and that reducing our energy use would slow, halt, or reverse climate change. Just looking at the masses of cars, industries, and power plants, in the U.S. alone, gives me an intuitive sense that we are deeply altering the climate—and regardless of the numbers, which can be skewed in innumerable ways, it’s our intuition that determines what we believe.

But when the Republicans say, “It’s all part of nature’s cycle—why waste money and effort on trying to change our habits when climate change is inevitable?”—it gives me pause.

First of all, I don’t think we are capable of changing our habits, especially in the U.S.  We are too comfortable and too attached to our lifestyles, and we are not physically tough. The vast majority of our jobs, our living quarters, our pleasures are dependent on the industries and financial systems that are destroying the climate balance.

Secondly, the population of the Earth has expanded beyond what it can comfortably support, especially in Western countries where use of resources is out of control. We are trying to meet the needs of 6.8 billion people and of the physical planet at the same time, and I have doubts that this goal is achievable.

Some people have declared that yet-to-be-invented technology is what will save us, but I don’t see that. Every technology devised has its benefits and its drawbacks. Even solar power, which I wholeheartedly endorse, has pitfalls.

For instance, there’s no such thing as “off the grid” if you rely on solar panels for power. Thirty years from now, when those panels break, you will have to go somewhere to replace them, and you will still be dependent on silicon mines and markets, manufacturers, truck drivers, testing agencies, and the whole economic web.

If you believe in evolution, then the Republicans could be right: we humans are part of nature, and the law of the survival of the fittest will kick in when the seas rise, crops fail, drinkable water grows scarce, disease ravages the population, and only the strong and the savvy will endure the worst and remain alive.

Maybe we are wasting our time and money forestalling the future. Maybe we should let change accelerate and fiddle while Rome burns—grab these last moments of opulence and let the next generation sort out who will survive the apocalypse.

Even though I tend to think this way, I can’t do it. Maybe there’s a chance we can change. I’ve had too many experiences of awe out in the wild to abandon it to the forces of greed and callousness. I have to do what I can, trying to plant seeds of change even as I participate in the absurd riot of spending and using.

After all, no one really knows what will happen.

An early environmental activist

November 13, 2009

fox2Aldo Leopold was a visionary ecologist of the first half of the twentieth century. I’m reading his classic A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949), a then-radical view of the imbalance between human activity and the needs of the environment, as considered by a scientist, hunter, and deeply thoughtful observer of his surroundings.

It’s a book of love and grief.

It was written in the 1940s, when Leopold could already see the wilderness he adored being hacked away at by civilization, and he knew it could not be stopped.

“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”

He describes lovingly, and in poetic terms almost devoid of cliche, the quirks of pines and chickadees, rabbits and marshes. He examines the benefits of tree diseases that open up trunks to all manner of inhabitants. He questions his sentimental attachments and self-serving aversions. He traces history through the rings of a stump. He is an overflowing fund of information.

He was acutely aware of the interdependence of every element of nature. He describes in great detail the cascade of effects when a species is eliminated from a habitat, as for instance, the explosion of vegetation-ravaging deer that followed upon the extirpation of wolves:

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

Further, he has the audacity–not common in these days, when safety has become a moral issue, spawning laws on issues from seat belts to vaccines–to comment that “too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world.”

The one hopeful thought I’m having is that Leopold was one of the few who recognized, in those days, the devastation that was being wrought. Today there are millions, and the urgency of the situation is bringing us together. May we accomplish something great!