For every type of fossil fuel that we so profligately burn, it seems there’s a newsworthy disaster lately relating to the method of getting it out of the ground. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, of course, need no introduction. The various coal-mining disasters, with their loss of human life and despoliation of entire landscapes, are similarly well-known.

And natural gas has hydraulic fracturing, aka hydrofracking. Although this isn’t the nationally-known buzzword that BP is, hydrofracking – a technique in which high-pressure liquid is used to fracture rock and extract the gas – has also started racking up a litany of accidents, notably in Pennsylvania.

The deposits of natural gas involved in these untoward events are found in a rock formation called the Marcellus Shale – a formation that also extends into New York. Other shale beds in New York, notably the Utica shale, are also believed to contain commercially significant concentrations of natural gas.

The battle is heating up between those who favor bringing hydrofracking into New York State, citing potential economic benefits for financially beleaguered communities, and those who fear that the process could actually strip entire regions of the ability to make money via recreation, tourism, and agriculture, while profiting mainly out-of-state gas companies and degrading both human quality of life and the environment. Tempers are high, since both paying the mortgage and keeping benzene out of the family’s well are potentially matters of life and death.

I, as you might have guessed, say nay on hydrofracking. Once you’ve contaminated an aquifer, you can’t un-contaminate it – and it is no exaggeration to say that groundwater is the life’s blood of everything that makes Central and Western New York valuable on a human scale. But this is a bird blog. What of the birds?

Well, it turns out that in addition to all the other problems with hydrofracking, they possess – as if representing a giant, gratuitous middle finger extended heartily to Mother Nature – extremely bright lights which are kept running whenever the well is.

And we all know how helpful bright, isolated, man-made lights are for migrating birds.

Even if you favor natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, it’s plain that a negative impact as incidental as light pollution should be monitored closely, regulated vigorously, and mitigated to the greatest extent possible. But energy companies are notoriously adverse to even the most sensible regulation, so action must be taken to ensure that their feet are held to the fire by state government. Contacting the DEC and your elected officials directly is the most effective step.

For a one-click way to register your disapproval of the entire hydrofracking fiasco, there is also the option of signing the petition. Better still if you do all of the above.

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“Yet even with these clearer design cues, customers will have to be taught to think about the destination of every throwaway if the zero-waste philosophy is to prevail, environmental officials say…”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? You have to think all the time. Think when you buy. Think when you discard. Know about stuff that has been hidden from view, often quite purposefully, often because we don’t want to know and never have (Not in MY backyard…)

And I find… I’m not saying this to be cruel, or accuse people of being “sheeple” or some similar horrid term, but it is my observation that a lot of people find thinking tiring. This is merely funny when they’re accusing you of spoiling their favorite book by having the temerity to analyze it, but a bit more serious when they refuse to separate their garbage or buy the non-disposable option.

I suspect a lot of it is the particular form that capitalism has taken, especially in the U.S. Our employers do more and more to eat our leisure time, commutes (besides being environmental nightmares in themselves where the public transit is weak) get longer, and the only compensation we’re offered in return is the promise that the things we buy will make our non-work hours a lotus-filled haven of contentment. We’re not free long enough to get bored and actually want to do something, which I (incurable optimist) am convinced that even the most putatively sheep-like person will do eventually when offered a surfeit of leisure. Not that a hearty dose of socialism by itself is going to cure our environmental woes, but a person working two jobs, caring for their children and home in between, may well decide that a special trip down to the recycling center is a corner that can be cut, just like home-cooked meals or exercise or any of the other long-term desirable things that the more fortunate scold us for not doing often enough.

And speaking of that home, those children… who is taking care of them? If it’s disproportionately a woman (as, statistically, it often is even when both parents work) then giving up the Swiffer, mucking through the trash bin picking out carelessly discarded bottles, rinsing and reusing plastic baggies, are all likely to fall disproportionately on her as well. As is the work of reminding (read: get criticized for nagging) the partner to do what he needs to do (mulch the lawn clippings, not throw the bottle in the trash to begin with). Again, hard to fault someone who already is burdened for looking for short cuts. Hard to blame someone who already has a lot on their mind for being a “sheeple” when they balk at adding something else.

Again, the successful conclusion of the gender revolution is not going to magically solve our environmental problems (not even if we all start praying to Mother Earth or what have you.) But it’s increasingly apparent that a whole lot of our culture is going to have to change, and change in sync, to pull our fat out of the fire. And since rapid social change is generally pretty wrenching (to say nothing of hard to steer) we’d best get on it now and give ourselves as much time as possible to work it out.

Because it is going to have to be worked out. This (warning: graphic photos) is one reason why.

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There’s a new post by yours truly over at the PSFC Environmental Committee’s blog, reprinting an article I wrote about landfills, decomposition, and the pesky truth about those new-fangled biodegradable plastics. Enjoy.

The headline says Greedy Dogfish Blamed for Mass. Fishery’s Problems.

But the article points out that the spiny dogfish, a small shark species only now recovering from decades of overfishing, is not regarded as the problem by most scientists and regulators. The complaint of the fisherfolk seems to be that the dogfish, or any species that isn’t H. sapiens, has the temerity to eat any fish at all.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same charges of greed and demands for suppression have been leveled at sea lions, cormorants, orcas… and on and on. And yet, oddly, in all these situations, the only common factor is humankind – human overfishing, human pollution, and in some cases invasive species introduced by humans.

So who’s really the greedy one?

Well?

Well?

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International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

The great broad wings tilt slowly, spilling the sun-warmed air, sacrificing lift, then they tilt to the other side, and again, again. The vultures spiral, drain out of the sky.
Just so, they’ve drained out of nearly the whole subcontinent, felled by cheap drugs for cows, of all things – drugs that were banned in your country long ago – banned to use but not to make.

So begins a short science fiction story* set in India and Nepal. The decline of the vultures, unfortunately, is not the SF-nal part.

And this is not a problem that American birders can regard smugly as far away and Third World. We’ve done pretty much the same thing to our own most magnificent vulture (no relation) with both DDT and lead. Even though you wouldn’t know it by their numbers today, the Turkey Vulture once suffered from DDT poisoning too – and from the benighted blasts of gunners who thought that the “buzzards” were a threat to chickens or game birds or just their sensibilities.

There’s a tendency, I think, to cast judgment on endangered species; the same Just World fallacy that allows so many people, particularly Americans, to sit back and try to figure out what a crime victim or a person in poverty did ‘wrong’ also leads us to think of lost and at-risk species as finicky narrow-niched things that brought their distress on themselves because they just couldn’t cope with the rough-and-tumble human-dominated world. Of course, this is pretty rich coming from the humans that invaded a continent and in short order wiped out the most common bird and the swarmingest insect (along with most of the humans who were already there, most of the apex predators, most of the vast herds of large herbivores, etc., etc.)

If that weren’t enough to give us a hint, the plight of the vultures proves that it’s just not a few fringe weaklings at risk. So much of what we think of as ‘normal’ in the modern world is built on a foundation of poison; so few of our systems are set up to take into account all the real costs of our actions to our fellow beings. Vultures, the opposite of finicky, pay the price when they try to perform the valuable service of cleaning up after us.

Only with active awareness can we hope to set right what has gone wrong.

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*which I hope to finish any day now

So, in my last post, I mentioned niblets of hope. Here’s another one.

The Bronx River, like most bodies of water in major urban areas, has historically had a little pollution problem, by which I mean it spent over two centuries being used as a giant open sewer and disposal unit for points from Westchester down to the harbor. Although it is by no means pristine, it’s made some progress since an agreement by the relevant communities to stop using it for sewage overflow…. which they finally figured out was a bad idea in 2006.

Compared to the vast sweep of the history of life on earth, the millions of years it takes to carve a river and evolve the critters to go in it, or even the amount of time it took to make the river as dirty as it was, 2006 is not very long ago. Still, it’s long enough for things to begin to look up. In fact, it was in 2007 that a beaver was spotted in the river, to much rejoicing throughout the city (one of the things that living in NYC has taught me is that many people have a fierce pride in the toughness of nature here, to go with their urban chutzpa. Look at the cult of Pale Male or the celebrated if ill-fated Manhattan Coyote for additional anecdata.) Now, alewives have also returned, albeit with a little help from the evil human overlords.

Alewives are a fish of the herring type. Like their more famous cousins the salmon, some populations are born in fresh water, swim out to sea for some schooling (heh), and then return to their natal streams to breed in their turn. Also like the salmon, this migration was once a magnificent phenomenon involving numberless shiny silver creatures traveling en masse, but humans, with their damming and harvesting and polluting and whatnot, fucked it up. In the case of the Bronx River, we fucked it up so bad that the alewives disappeared entirely. However, in 2006, 201 young alewives were moved from Connecticut to the Bronx. They spawned, and this year their offspring have returned.

Of course, all is not shiny. The river is dammed, and the dams, dating back as they do to the beginning of the Open Sewer Era, are historical structures. So fish ladders must be installed with a great deal of delicacy – but these ladders are needed to give the spawning fish access to less turbulent waters, and thus a better chance of success.

Still, if the fish can do it, maybe we can too.

When you think of bird poaching for the pet trade, your mind might leap to the decimation of parrots in the Neotropics or the smuggling of rarities from Asia. But common songbirds in the heart of a bustling metropolis in one of the world’s great alleged superpowers are not spared from human greed, either.

Via the Prospect Park bird blog, a disturbing report:

“Oddest thing in PP this evening — a couple (in their 50s) trying to capture orioles in a net attached to 20′ long pole.”

Capturing, harming, or possessing any of North America’s native songbirds without a proper permit is, of course, prohibited by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, along with various state laws. This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has come to light in Brooklyn.

Besides being a tragedy for the birds that are caught (many of which will die rapidly but horribly from improper care) and a massive stressor for those that are chased or disturbed, the illicit bird trade can spread diseases among various bird populations and even result in the introduction of invasive species to new ecosystems.

If you’re in Brooklyn and come across bird poaching or bird smuggling activity, Peter Dorosh and Rob Jett have assembled a helpful list of contact information here.

Anyone in New York State can use the DEC tip line to report harassment or capture of wild birds, as described here.

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