Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Photo Art and the Environment: Take 3 -- Fracking

For those who are tiring of posts on this theme -- take heart, it's only a link. For those who want more, Andrew Revkin has an interesting discussion of 'Fracked' photos with links to a variety of interesting projects.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Photographic Art and the Food System: Take 2

German photographer Michael Schmidt, like Dutch designer Mediemsta who was profiled in the previous post, spends several years on a single project. Schmidt is best known for Waffenruhe (Ceasefire), a study of Berlin immediately before the fall of the Wall, which is widely considered one of the greatest contemporary photobooks. 

Schmidt's latest obsession is the mechanized, industrialized food system of contemporary Western culture.  The project has resulted in a book, Lebensmittel (Food), and is currently being exhibited in Europe.

Using his trademark style combining social documentary and urban topographics, he explores the fascinating topic of how we feed ourselves, from the farm to the table (or the fast-food restaurant).

 Here is what Artforum has to say about the associated exhibition:
With his current exhibition, “Lebensmittel” (Food), which consists of 177 photographs, Berlin-based photographer Michael Schmidt debuts the results of his research into agribusiness, which between 2006 and 2010 took him to many different locations throughout Europe. Schmidt sought out places where edibles are produced, packaged, distributed, and sold. Yet the specific locations are never revealed, neither in the exhibition nor in the accompanying catalogue. Thus the mostly uninhabited cultivated fields and plantations, the motifs of fish, pig, and cattle breeding, of large-scale bakeries as well as supermarkets, appear to be anonymous and exchangeable: everywhere and nowhere.

Schmidt’s interest in a nonspecifity of place should come as no surprise. He is known not for single images but for vastly conceived series, as in the case of “EIN-HEIT” (Unity), 1991–94; “Waffenruhe” (Ceasefire), 1985–87; and “Irgendwo” (Somewhere), 2001–2004. In the present show, which can be seen in Innsbruck this summer and in Berlin next spring, it is precisely a multitude of images that Schmidt pursues. Within the series, an image forms of the maximally rationalized production of edible goods.

There are nonetheless two narrative lines to be read: On the one hand, the observer is confronted with technical equipment which one only recognizes after a closer look as a fish farm or mussel bank. One sees sheer endlessness: one part of a stripped field, fenced-in production facilities that reveal nothing as to what will be processed there. Other shots reveal the subject under investigation at close range: broken eggs behind glass, shrink-wrapped and labeled beef, swollen udders with milk stools set at the ready, greased griddles from which tumble french fries, a great green apple in front of Styrofoam. In this time of food scandals, one might suspect these photographs to be a means of agitation. But this is clearly not Schmidt’s intention. “Lebensmittel,” in all its clarity, comes across instead as the cool image-record of a complex system on the brink of collapse.

The following video, even if you don't speak German, provides a wider look at the images and, more significantly, illustrates the comparative power of the exhibition relative to the presentation of the same images in book form.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Inequality and Ecological Crisis

This video conference is between Richard Heinberg and Gar Alperovitz, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland. Gar is the author numerous books, including most recently America Beyond Capitalism and, with Lew Daly, Unjust Deserts. Gar is the co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, an innovative think tank developing new models for sustainable, equitable and cooperative community development. Heinberg and Gar discuss the links between extreme economic inequality, the economic and ecological crises that we face. They discuss the possibilities of a 'new economy' of cooperatives and local economic development. 


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Photographic Art and the Food System: Take 1

The first of two posts on photography and food.

Back in 2007 Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma produced a fascinating book, Pig O5049, which is essentially a product catalog of the 180+ products produced from a single pig. The surprise is that the pig yielded not only predictable foodstuffs – pork chops and bacon – but far less expected non-food items: ammunition, train brakes, automobile paint, soap and washing powder, bone china, cigarettes. The book is such an effective way of communicating the disconnect between production and consumption -- that is our total lack of awareness of the inputs into the products we buy -- that she was invited to give a TED talk. As Meindertsma notes: “There are very many steps between the raw material and the end product in modern commercial production. And because there are so many steps in between, the knowledge gets lost. For instance, the pig farmers also don’t know all the end-products that are made from their pigs because they just don’t know where it goes.”

Here is the TED talk:


The book won an Index Award and the awarding group produced an interesting summary / presentation which is available here.

Even at full screen it's hard to read the print and get the full effect, but those wanting a virtual look at the book can do so below.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

From '"O' Canada" to "Oh My God, Canada!"

It hasn't been a good week for Canada, its reputation or its environment.

Here's Ellen Rainwalker on the current budget bill (C-38) and its implications:
Unlike previous budget bills, which were on average 30 pages long and covered only money matters, this massive 425-page document contains 0ver 700 clauses and is full of technical language. It includes items that would eliminate or drastically change over 70 Canadian laws and regulations. It is an "omnibus" bill, meaning that the government intends to pass it in its entirety. They are refusing to break it up so that its different parts can be discussed and considered by separate committees.

Deceptively-named the "Jobs, Growth and LongTerm Prosperity Act", Bill C-38 was introduced as a budget bill on April 26 and it immediately passed first reading. It passed second reading on May 14 and was referred to the Finance Committee, even though all Members of Parliament in the four opposition parties voted against it. The government wants to have it passed into law by midJune. This is an incredibly short period of time for there to be proper discussion and debate. And it's ludicrous that the only Parliamentary committee to scrutinize this Bill is the Finance Committee, since a great many of its clauses have nothing to do with finance, but have a great deal to do with gutting environmental and labour protections.

Bill C-38 would completely repeal the Fair Wages and Hours Labour Act, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy Act, the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

It would alter core provisions of the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act, National Energy Board Act, Species at Risk Act, Parks Canada Agency Act, Canadian Oil and Gas Operations Act, Canada Seeds Act, and the Nuclear Safety Control Act.

Major alterations would be made to many other acts and regulations for which Canadians of all political persuasions fought long and hard, including Old Age Security and Unemployment Insurance.
Elizabeth May weighs in with a litany of the specific changes to environmental laws:
Here's what is in C-38 on the environment. (C-38 threatens more than environmental damage, but this should give you a sense of why I am determined to stop this bill.)

Canadian Environmental Assessment Act ditched. Repealed and replaced with a completely new act. "Environmental effects" under the new CEAA will be limited to effects on fish, aquatic species under the Species at Risk Act, migratory birds. A broader view of impacts is limited to federal lands, Aboriginal peoples, and changes to the environment "directly linked or necessarily incidental" to federal approval. 

Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency seriously weakened. The agency will have 45 days after receiving an application to decide if an assessment is required. Environmental assessments are no longer required for projects involving federal money. The minister is given wide discretion to decide. New "substitution" rules allow Ottawa to download EAs to the provinces; "comprehensive" studies are eliminated. Cabinet will be able to over-rule decisions. A retroactive section sets the clock at July 2010 for existing projects.

Canadian Environmental Protection Act undercut. The present one-year limit to permits for disposing waste at sea can now be renewed four times. The three and five-year time limits protecting species at risk from industrial harm will now be open-ended.

Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act killed. This legislation, which required government accountability and results reporting on climate change policies, is being repealed.

Fisheries Act seriously weakened. Fish habitat provisions will be changed to protect only fish of "commercial, Aboriginal, and recreational" value and even those habitat protections are weakened. The new provisions create an incentive to drain a lake and kill all the fish, if not in a fishery, in order to fill a dry hole with mining tailings.

Navigable Waters Protection Act hampered. Pipelines and power lines will be exempt from the provisions of this act. Also, the National Energy Board absorbs the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) whenever a pipeline crosses navigable waters. The NWPA is amended to say a pipeline is not a "work" within that act.

Energy Board Act neutered. National Energy Board reviews will be limited to two years -- and then its decisions can be reversed by the cabinet, including the present Northern Gateway Pipeline review.

Species at Risk Act hamstrung. This is being amended to exempt the National Energy Board from having to impose conditions to protect critical habitat on projects it approves. Also, companies won't have to renew permits on projects threatening critical habitat.

Parks Canada Agency Act trimmed, staff cut. Reporting requirements are being reduced, including the annual report. Six hundred and thirty eight of the nearly 3,000 Parks Canada workers will be cut. Environmental monitoring and ecological restoration in the Gulf Islands National Park are being cut.

Canadian Oil and Gas Operations Act made more industry friendly. This will be changed to exempt pipelines from the Navigational Waters Act.

Coasting Trade Act made more offshore drilling friendly. This will be changed to promote seismic testing allowing increased off-shore drilling.

Nuclear Safety Control Act undermined. Environmental assessments will be moved to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which is a licensing body not an assessing body -- so there is a built-in conflict.

Canada Seeds Act inspections privatized. This is being revamped so the job of inspecting seed crops is transferred from Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors to "authorized service providers," the private sector.

Agriculture affected. Under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act, publicly-owned grasslands have acted as community pastures under federal management, leasing grazing rights to farmers so they could devote their good land to crops, not livestock. This will end. Also, the Centre for Plant Health in Sidney, B.C., an important site for quarantine and virus-testing on plant stock strategically located across the Salish Sea to protect B.C.'s primary agricultural regions, will be moved to the heart of B.C.'s fruit and wine industries.

National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy killed. The NRTEE brought industry leaders, environmentalists, First Nations, labour, and policy makers together to provide non-partisan research and advice on federal policies. Its demise will leave a policy vacuum in relation to Canada's economic development.

More attacks on environmental groups funded. The charities sections now preclude gifts which may result in political activity. The $8 million new money to harass charities is unjustified.

Water programs cut. Environment Canada is cutting several water-related programs and others will be cut severely, including some aimed at promoting or monitoring water-use efficiency.  

Wastewater survey cut. The Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey, the only national study of water consumption habits, is being cut after being in place since 1983. 

Monitoring effluent cut. Environment Canada's Environmental Effects Monitoring Program, a systematic method for measuring the quality of effluent discharge, including from mines and pulp mills, will be cut by 20 per cent. 

 Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne decries the implications of such omnibus bills for Canadian democracy:
My point is not that any of the bill’s provisions are good or bad in themselves (that’s the kind of thing committee hearings and debate often help to clarify). Nor is there anything unlawful in any of this, so far as I’m aware. ... But there’s a limit. What is lawful may nevertheless be illegitimate, especially where fundamental issues of Parliamentary government are in play. For, in combination with so many recent abuses, from prorogation to the F-35s, that is what is at stake here.
(T)he increasing use of these omnibills extends Parliament’s powerlessness in all directions: it has become, if you will, omnimpotent — a ceremonial body, little more. What is worse, it cannot even seem to rouse itself to its own defence.

Once upon a time such insults could be relied upon to produce unruly scenes in the House, obstruction of government business and whatnot. The packaging of several pieces of legislation into one omnibus energy bill in 1982 provoked the opposition to refuse to enter the House to vote. The division bells rang for nearly three weeks until the government agreed to split the bill. The insertion of a single change to environmental legislation in the 2005 budget bill, a note from the Green Party reminds us, so enraged the then leader of the Opposition, Stephen Harper, that he threatened to bring down the government.

But today’s Parliament is so accustomed to these indignities that it barely registers. It has lost not only the power to resist, it seems, but the will.
And, James Hansen's NYTimes editorial suggests Canada's actions pose a threat to global civilization:
GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.” If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk. 
There are some weeks when your country would be better off just staying in bed.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Social Conquest of Earth

Edward O. Wilson has published a new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which says that social groups, rather than individual genetics or kinships, are the mechanism for evolutionary selection in the human species. As a social constructionist, I'm often in the camp that critiques sociobiology, but I'm intrigued by the idea that social groups can have an evolutionary effect. Wilson's theory comes from a lifetime of research on ant colonies and other "eusocial" species that developed elaborate social structures based on a division of functions. I can't personally say more about it until I read the book. So here's a link to a Review in the New York Times.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Climate Change Narratives in the US News

Frederick Mayer has published Stories of Climate Change: Competing Narratives, the Media, and U.S. Public Opinion 2001-2010. Rather than simply categorizing news accounts as pro, con, and neutral, the objective was to analyze the narrative content of the news reports in order to see what stories they told: What were their plots? Who were the villains, victims, and (potential) heroes? What was their meaning?

He found that TV news coverage from 2001 to 2010 typically exemplified one of six basic narrative lines and that there were striking on-air differences between cable coverage on Fox and CNN and broadcast news on ABC and other traditional networks. Here are the six different narratives that were tracked:
  • The Climate Tragedy: A story of impending disaster, in which we (or big energy) are the villains, scientists and environmental advocates the potential heroes.
  • He Said, She Said: A conflict story about the contest between scientists: some say that humans are altering the climate, some say we aren’t, inaction is the prudent path.
  • Don’t Kill the Goose: A story in which climate change may be happening (most likely from natural causes) but the real threat is regulation.
  • Hoax: A tragic story in which climate science is part of a conspiracy (along with liberal elites and the UN) to empower government, and the heroes are those who expose them.
  • The Denialist Conspiracy: A story about those who tell the Hoax story, in which they are part of a right-wing conspiracy (funded by energy interests and wealthy ideologues).
  • The Policy Game: A story about the contest over policy, similar to “horse-race” stories in elections, in which the reader/viewer is encouraged to take a rooting interest.

Stories of climate change told by Fox and CNN began to differ dramatically from those told by traditional television network news during the decade from 2001 to 2010. By 2009, the crucial year both for congressional action on climate change and for the global negotiations in Copenhagen, the divergence was almost complete.

On Fox the dominant climate change story had become some variation of a “Hoax” narrative: climate change is a fraud foisted on the public by scientists, the UN, and liberal elites and the media. If Fox were one’s only source of information, it would have been nearly impossible to even imagine that climate change was real, let alone an issue society should do anything about.

On CNN, a potpourri of narrative lines did battle: “Hoax” stories, “He Said/She Said,” and “Don’t Kill the Goose,” on one side; “Climate Tragedy” on the other; and “Policy Game” reporting on the fortunes of climate risk-management initiatives.  If CNN were one’s only source of news, it would have been hard not to be confused.

And on the traditional ABC, CBS, and NBC networks, a curious thing happened. Although each had provided extensive coverage of climate change in 2006 and 2007 — a huge majority of them with some variation of a “Climate Tragedy” story — they all but stopped covering climate change in 2009. If one of these networks were one’s only source of news, it would have been perfectly reasonable to imagine that somehow climate change was no longer an issue.

Because the patterns of coverage at NBC and CBS were nearly identical to those of ABC, the research focused on only the one traditional network. The results were striking. On ABC, “Climate Tragedy” dominated, with most stories about the impending disaster and about what we should do about it. As Figure 1 shows, the network gave considerable play to these stories in 2006, the year Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released, and even more in 2007, the year the United Nations/World Meteorological Organization’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its strongly worded report on climate change and shared the Nobel Prize with Gore.

But in 2009, the year of “cap and trade” in the U.S. Congress and of the December Copenhagen climate summit, ABC was AWOL, airing only a fraction of the stories it had broadcast two years before. (CBS and NBC had strikingly similar patterns of coverage.) The pattern of stories on Fox, shown in Figure 2, provides a stark contrast. In the early years of the decade, Fox had barely attended to climate change. In 2007, though, its coverage increased substantially, perhaps triggered by the IPCC report and the accolades showered on Gore. But its mix of stories was predominantly of the “Hoax” narrative, a story in which climate scientists (in cahoots with the UN, liberal elites, and Gore) were cast as the villains. And in 2009, unlike ABC (and also unlike CBS and NBC), Fox continued to shout “Hoax!” culminating in a frenzy around “Climategate,” the story about hacked e-mails among climate researchers that climate “skeptics” by and large interpreted as showing those scientists “cooking the books.”

CNN, the other major national source of television news, might be characterized as going for maximum conflict. As can be seen in Figure 3, in 2006-2007, CNN told both the “Climate Tragedy” story and the “Hoax” narrative (the conservative firebrand Glenn Beck was then on CNN). Again in 2009, when it offered extensive coverage before and during the Copenhagen summit, CNN’s favorite formula involved pitting the two narratives against each other. Leading up to the December summit, for example, it ran with four consecutive nights of “Climate Change: Trick or Truth?”

What difference might the differing mix of stories have made? It seems quite likely that they contributed to the remarkable shift in public opinion (toward decreasing concern over climate change) in the latter part of the decade, particularly among those on the right of the political spectrum who were more likely to be Fox viewers.

After peaking in 2007, the year IPCC issued its most recent assessment and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Gore, Americans’ belief in climate change headed downward. By the crucial year of 2009, with the Congress debating nationwide “cap and trade” carbon dioxide emission legislation, the percentage agreeing that “there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming” had dropped from 77 percent to only 57 percent, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Even more problematic in terms of the politics and what has become a full-fledged split between Democrats and Republicans, only 35 percent of Republicans agreed with the “solid evidence” premise, down from 62 percent. And only 18 percent of Republicans said they believed warming was substantially caused by human emissions.

Why the dramatic drop? The “Great Recession” that began in 2008 almost certainly played its part. In economic hard times, combating climate change, as with addressing most other environmental problems, becomes a lower priority, and not acting is just plain easier to justify if one rejects that there is a problem in the first place.

But the economic downturn cannot account for the growing partisan divide, a divide that had become particularly glaring in the context of the past several months’ presidential primary campaigns. Part of the shift in public opinion, and particularly the collapse of belief among Republicans, was likely driven also by the impact of an increasingly partisan media and the different stories they told.

(The above is a slightly rearranged and slightly modified version of Mayer's summary of the study.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Canada's Auditor General on GHG policy

As the figure shows, Canada's reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions have become less ambitious over time.

The Auditor General of Canada's spring report has a scathing chapter documenting both the shifting goal posts of Canada's GHG policies and its consistent failure to come anywhere near any of them. Here is the conclusion:
2.36 Since 1992, the Government of Canada has committed, in various plans and agreements, to address climate change by reducing its national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, national GHG emissions have risen and were 690 million tonnes in 2009, which is 24 percent above the Kyoto target.
2.37 In 2010, the Government of Canada made new international and domestic commitments to reduce GHG emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Environment Canada has announced a sector-by-sector regulatory approach in alignment with the United States. However, we concluded that the Department has not put in place an appropriate implementation plan to support this approach, which is designed to meet the 2020 target established by these commitments. As of February 2012, only one of the sectors, the transportation sector, was under regulation for GHG emissions. No regulations were in place for the oil and gas sector, the second-largest emitter of GHG. Because regulations are complex, and can take up to five years to develop and result in GHG reductions, it is unlikely that the regulatory approach will contribute emission reductions that are sufficient to meet the 2020 target.
2.38 In July 2011, Environment Canada released Canada’s Emissions Trends, a report that outlines expected GHG emission reductions up to 2020, under varying scenarios. This document is an important step toward a transparent accounting of Canada’s efforts to reduce GHG emissions. However, the forecast shows that in 2020, Canada’s GHG emissions will be 7.4 percent above the 2005 level instead of 17 percent below, which indicates that the 2020 target will not be met with existing measures.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Climate polarization on steroids yields to satire

On May 4 The Heartland Institute rolled out a provocative billboard campaign in Chicago.

It was accompanied by an equally provocative press release explaining the reasoning behind the billboard.
The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren't scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.
Although the Institute removed its provocative billboard after only 24 hours, this didn't stop the tit-for-tat retaliation.

Meanwhile, the folks over at Grist have opted for a more satirical approach.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Two takes on extreme weather

Extreme Weather, Climate and Preparedness in the American Mind is the most detailed look to date at the link between extreme weather and public attitudes toward climate change. Among the key findings:
  • Overall, 82 percent of Americans report that they personally experienced one or more types of extreme weather or natural disaster in the past year.
  • Over the past several years, Americans say the weather in the U.S. has been getting worse – rather
    than better – by a margin of over 2 to 1 (52% vs. 22%).
  • About half of all Americans say that heat waves (53%), droughts (46%) and very heavy rain storms
    (43%) have become more common in their local area over the past few decades.
  • As shown in the figure below, 69% of Americans agree that global warming is affecting weather in the US and a large majority believe that global warming made several high profile extreme weather events worse. 


So, not surprisingly, a number of climate change advocates like Bill McKibbon (with the Connect the Dots event on May 5 aimed at cementing the connection between climate change and extreme weather) and Climate Central's Extreme Planet blog are attempting to use the climate change / extreme weather connection as a hook to mobilize action on climate change.

There is some intuitive sense to this. As you put more thermal energy into the system, the planet will find ways to distribute that energy and extreme weather events are a plausible vehicle for accomplishing that.

But, the scientific distinction between weather and climate is notorious complex. And the weather folks are pushing back. See, for example, Extreme Silliness on the blog of University of Washington  meteorologist Cliff Mass or the recent March Maddness-weather wise op-ed piece by atmospheric scientist John Wallace. Looking at the data, for example the graph below of global hurricane events over a 40 year period from an article by Roger Pielke Jr. and others, it is hard to discern a trend.