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A time of reproductive unrest

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 05/07/2022 - 6:00am in


Blog, Water

The overturning of Roe vs. Wade in the USA highlights the precariousness of legal institutions and the necessity for continuous struggle to both push for and enforce social rights. It shows the limitations of legal and state apparatuses, that are themselves a reflection of existing power relations and vested interests, but also the ways that previous struggles and class forces are continuously inscribed within such institutions. While this decision clearly signifies a new intensity of attacks on women’s rights in the USA, it may also (hopefully) signify a heightened mobilisation and coordination of left-wing struggles.

This increasingly fractious relation between church, the capitalist state, and capital accumulation regimes, alongside increasing social struggles is not unique to the US. In a recent article in New Political Economy, entitled ‘A time of reproductive unrest: the articulation of capital accumulation, social reproduction, and the Irish state’, I analyse similar dynamics in the Republic of Ireland (herein Ireland) and argue that this is a time of Reproductive Unrest. The concept Reproductive Unrest captures two dynamics, first the way that economic crisis (in this case the repercussions following the financial crisis) were “resolved” by displacing it to the sphere of social reproduction (housing, water, healthcare, reproductive rights) and in particular, working-class communities. And second, the way that economic crisis and the dominant accumulation regime that caused it were contested by these communities on the terrain of social reproduction and increasingly the capitalist state. Economic crisis was displaced to the social and then the political, which left behind an increasingly uneasy and unworkable institutional and political constellation.

Successfully exiting the Troika bailout in 2013, Ireland was regularly held up as an austerity success story. However, scratch the surface and this positive imagery appears much more fragile. The Irish state has historically positioned itself as a nodal point for global finance capital, preferencing multinational corporations over domestic industries through preferential tax regimes, land deals and investment conditions. For Ireland, this meant that when global capital was doing well, so would Irish economic indicators and vice versa. As such, when global markets began to collapse in 2007 Ireland was incredibly vulnerable. Under pressure from the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund the banking industry was bailed out with public funds, transforming the banking crisis into a sovereign debt crisis.

However, unlike other bailout states, austerity was not new to Ireland, but rather as one of my interviewees stated:

The Troika had to come into this country not because we weren’t pursuing austerity. We were … The Troika became austerity’s lender of last resort.

Central to Ireland’s model of attracting global capital flows was its appealing investment conditions including low taxes and a weak social wage. The Catholic Church filled some of these gaps, particularly in relation to education and healthcare. The Church in effect acted as a form of shadow welfare state: it was a critical apparatus of the Irish state yet was shielded from formal processes of political accountability. Since the late 1980s, further concessions to working class communities were made through Social Partnership agreements where trade unions, business, state and later civil society organisations agreed to a broad range of economic and social policies. The Church and Social Partnership – albeit in different ways – provided critical institutional supports for the dominant accumulation regime.

However, as the economy collapsed so too did these institutional supports. Social Partnership broke down in 2009, and the Catholic Church was facing a global legitimacy crisis as scandals around clergy abuse were uncovered. Adding to this institutional crisis, from 2011 onwards there was an emerging crisis of political representation as the two dominant centre right parties and the Labour Party pushed for further austerity even if they had been elected on anti-austerity platforms. So, at the same time that the economic crisis was being resolved, the concurrent institutional and political crises closed down previous (if limited) channels for alternatives within the Irish state. Existing institutions were unable or unwilling to challenge the dominant argument pushed by those in power and mainstream media that ‘we had all partied too hard’ and now needed to deal with the consequences.

My argument is that these political-institutional crises were not contingent but instead expressions of inherent contradictions within the Irish state and its articulation to social reproduction and global finance capital, contradictions that can be extended to many neoliberal states in this period. Moreover, that these contradictions were further sharpened and understood as interrelated by each subsequent protest movement during this period. Ultimately, the economic crisis resulted in little (if any) change to the dominant accumulation regime, even if the regime was the cause of Ireland’s vulnerability to fluctuations in the global economy. Instead, budgets were restored by further cutting back on social welfare and opening up public services to private investment – social reproduction was depleted and expropriated. Yet, for the evolving social crisis to be addressed the conditions that make Ireland attractive to global finance capital would be undermined. As such, the Irish state was increasingly unable to provide both the conditions for social reproduction for working class communities and the conditions that would attract finance capital – life-making and profit-making were proving mutually exclusive.

At the same time, and due to long-fought struggles on abortion and LGBTQI+ issues Ireland was also becoming more socially liberal and communities were organising and fighting back. Travelling through struggles against water charges to Repeal, healthcare, and homelessness was a growing understanding that social reforms would be limited without the material conditions necessary for their realisation. Yet material concessions would only be possible with a transformation of the dominant accumulation regime. As one interviewee stated:

We’ve decided it (the current political system) is the best system money can buy, you know?

Dots were being joined as activists continued to ask critical questions about why the Catholic Church still provided much primary school education or was given the contract to a new maternity hospital even after the abortion rights were won; about why the state rejected underpaid taxes from multinational corporations while the health system was chronically underfunded; and why there was a housing crisis when large numbers of properties remained empty after being bought up by vulture funds. Each crisis was understood as inter-linked and a facet of a larger crisis. As another activist claimed, ‘The crisis is neoliberalism’. Protesters demanded not only social rights such as abortion, marriage equality or the right to water, but the material conditions that would allow for those rights to be realised, which included a re-fashioning of the way that social reproduction had been provided for within the Irish state.

So, although Ireland may have exited the bailout almost a decade ago, this is an increasingly fragile recovery. Politically, there is a more active if also disenchanted electorate, Sinn Féin’s 2020 election result suggests that new political spaces are opening up and the dominance of the centre-right (in power since independence) is breaking down. Moreover, institutional supports have fractured at the same time as shifts in the global political economy may make Ireland a less attractive proposition for finance capital.

For neoliberal states more broadly, this case suggests that crisis management through the displacement of crisis onto certain communities, social reproduction, or political institutions might only last so long. Labour, understood broadly, was not only disciplined but also mobilised. The creation of a social and political crisis, as a consequence of resolving economic crisis, did not allow the structuring conditions of, in this case, Irish capitalism to escape contestation. Instead, they were contested through water, housing, healthcare, and increasingly the environment. Protesters are demanding an alternative, yet this alternative is increasingly impossible without concrete political, economic, and institutional transformations. As such, even socially liberal neoliberal states are increasingly coming up against their own economic limitations. Crisis management that merely displaces crisis tendencies to the conditions that make accumulation possible – nature and social reproduction – will face increasing reproductive unrest whether in Ireland or the US, unrest that is identifying the internal relation of economic and political power and the structural limitations of relying upon liberal political institutions.

The post A time of reproductive unrest appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).

Water-Guzzling Yards Are Getting a Celebrity Makeover

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

They bought the house of their dreams in Winter Park, Florida. There was just one problem.

“Our yard is lifeless,” says homeowner Brian Lewis, nudging a toe across the stony landscape. “So much gravel.”

Lewis and his family are standing in their yard while a landscaping crew looks on with shovels poised. The crew is about to give the place a complete overhaul, replacing the gravel and the dry, depleted soil beneath with nutritious black compost into which they’ll plant a variety of attractive greenery that will provide a haven for bees and butterflies.

There is also a film crew present. The Lewis’ lawn makeover is being documented on Flip My Florida Yard, a reality TV series that features households having their yards “flipped” by professional landscapers, transforming bare, haggard lawns into environmentally friendly oases. The show visits homes across Florida, from small urban developments and coastal, waterfront residences, to multi-acre rural properties.

The Lewis family's yard, mid-transformationThe Lewis family’s yard, mid-transformation. Credit: Crawford Entertainment.
The same yard once the renovation is completeThe same yard once the renovation is complete. Credit: Crawford Entertainment.

The series has many of the elements typical of an HGTV-style home makeover show: A charismatic makeover team led by presenter and Emmy Award-winning director Chad Crawford, the time pressure of just eight hours to transform the locations, and a big reveal at the end of the day when homeowners return to see their renovated yards.

Flip My Florida Yard is the brainchild of Crawford, who says it was when he was doing an episode on lawn makeovers for another of his TV series, How To Do Florida, that he realized how popular the topic was — and the scope that interest provides to encourage positive environmental action. 

“Everybody has something about their yard they want to fix,” he says. “Everybody has this desire to have someone else come in and show them what to do … We see these major environmental issues going on around us that a lot of us have no control over, but we as Floridians can control our yards. We can be environmentalists right outside our front door. That’s really what the show’s about.”

A central aim of the series is to show Florida homeowners how to conserve water, an issue that’s becoming increasingly important as the state’s population swells. Over the next four years, Florida is expected to gain an average of almost 310,000 people annually, “analogous to adding a city about the size of Orlando every year,” say demographers. Between 2010 and 2070, it is estimated Florida will gain 15 million residents.

That growth is straining the state’s water supply, with water demands anticipated to rise at least 100 percent by 2070. Sprawling development patterns and traditional landscaping, which is often dominated by water-guzzling varieties of turfgrass, contribute to much of that demand. 

That’s where Flip My Florida Yard comes in.

The landscaping methods used on the show were developed by the University of Florida’s Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program, in partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They emphasize planting mostly native shrubs and grasses, which tend to require less water and less fertilizer, replacing portions of turfgrass with shrubbery beds, and installing water-efficient irrigation systems. 

Chad Crawford at workChad Crawford on location at a Flip My Florida Yard shoot. Credit: Crawford Entertainment. 

A recent study from the University of Florida found that “Florida-friendly” landscapes conserve 70 percent more water than traditional landscapes in their first year, and more than 80 percent over three subsequent years. That can mean substantial savings for homeowners on their water bills.

And they don’t have to devote extra time to caring for their yards, according to Tom Wichman, assistant director of the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program, who says the study also found that mowing traditional landscapes and hand-weeding Florida-friendly ones took about the same time. Over the longer-term, he added, the latter should actually take less time given that more mature plants will shade out the area beneath, reducing the volume of weeds.

Ultimately, the point of Flip My Florida Yard is to show homeowners how simple it can be to create and maintain a Florida-friendly lawn. 

“People are a little scared because they just don’t know where to begin,” says Wichman. “But it doesn’t have to be a huge project and it doesn’t have to be all at once.”

Every episode brings in an agent from the local Extension office, which offers free resources and advice to homeowners on caring for Florida-friendly lawns. The statewide Extension program, run by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, is “the best-kept secret out there,” according to Wichman, who says too few people know that it exists.

The show is helping to change that. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much impact Flip My Florida Yard is having relative to simultaneous awareness-raising efforts taking place, the Extension program has seen a significant uptick in traffic to its websites and other online resources since it began airing, and increased engagement with Extension agents around the state. 

Flip My Florida Yard will gain a wider audience in its next season, which will premiere on PBS. The idea, says Crawford, is to return to some of the flipped yards to see how they’ve developed. He hopes allowing viewers to see how Florida-friendly lawns look over time will start to change entrenched ideas of what “good landscaping” means.

Florida-friendly landscape signFlorida-friendly landscapes have been found to conserve 70 percent more water than traditional landscapes in their first year alone. Credit: Crawford Entertainment.

“We have a standard in our mind that I call the pig-and-parsley standard,” he says. “You have the house, which is the pig, and then you have the parsley, which is the hedge that goes around the house. Everything else is green grass. In our mind, that’s good landscaping.” 

A Florida-friendly yard, on the other hand, features much more plant variety, which looks more aesthetically pleasing and has the added benefit of cooling and filtering pollutants from the air, improving soil quality and attracting pollinators.

“The goal here is to recapture and reestablish some of the biodiversity we’ve lost in our yards,” says Crawford. “When you have all that grass and just that shrubbery against the house, what you’ve lost is a lot of what was there before that house.”

Whether they’re actively thinking about biodiversity or not, Florida homeowners tend to be very enthusiastic about plants that attract butterflies, birds and bees to their yards, according to Dr. Laura Warner, a behavioral scientist at the University of Florida who studies sustainable landscape practices.

They are also very willing to purchase low-water-consuming plants, one study showed. The same study also found that, when it comes to water conservation, Florida residents are most interested in learning about the issue as it relates to their own gardens and lawns — and least interested in larger-scale conservation efforts like watershed restoration and management. That’s because people tend to feel less motivated about issues that seem more abstract to them, says Warner. 

“You really have a personal relationship with what happens in your yard,” she says. “You may enjoy the wildlife that comes there, you may enjoy the flowers, the different amenities that the landscape can offer you. As ideas get more removed from us, we feel less of a connection.”

But Flip My Florida Yard is not about forcing that connection. The series is about showing people how to be responsible stewards of the piece of land that’s right in front of them, whether it’s five acres or five square feet, says Crawford.

“When you connect with your yard, you connect with nature,” he says. “There’s something that happens there from a quality of life [perspective], from a mental perspective, that’s hard to quantify. And that’s the big change we’re seeing. We’re seeing the environmental impact of that yard, less water, fewer chemicals, but there’s also a life impact that it’s having on a family. To me, that’s really, really cool.”

The post Water-Guzzling Yards Are Getting a Celebrity Makeover appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The Colorado River: Devoured by Growth

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/05/2022 - 12:49am in
by Gary Wockner

“The nature of consumption is the consumption of Nature” – Jordan Perry

Map of the Colorado River Basin

The Colorado River Basin, a life source for the Southwest, is being drained for growth. (CC BY-SA 4.0, Shannon)

The natural environment of the American Southwest is sending out a loud call of distress, but few people in positions of power are listening. Economic and population growth are straining nature, especially across the Colorado River Basin, which encompasses parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

From 2010 to 2020, Colorado gained about 725,000 people, Arizona gained 760,000, and California gained a whopping 2.3 million. At the same time, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico grew considerably, and the population even inched upwards in slow-growing Wyoming, the least populous U.S. state.

Similarly, the GDP of each Colorado River Basin state increased by two to four percent annually in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Despite the pressures of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the collective GDP raced upward even faster.

Growth in the Southwest is largely due to state and local policies that incentivize, subsidize, or otherwise lure people into the area. A researcher could craft an entire career out of cataloguing pro-growth policies in just one state.

In Colorado (where I live), a succession of governors—including incumbent Governor Jared Polis—have promoted and celebrated every uptick in statewide GDP, consumption, and population. Thanks to these pro-growth attitudes and initiatives, the Colorado River Basin’s water, landscape, and biodiversity are continuously under assault.

GDP Goes Up, Water Goes Down

The Colorado River, which sustains over 40 million people across the Southwest, has been hit hard by climate change, drought, and resource exploitation. Nearly every month, news reports paint a worsening picture for river flow and the water levels of reservoirs. The two largest reservoirs in the USA—Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both on the Colorado River—are at their lowest levels in history with further decreases predicted.

Lake Mead levels are at historic lows.

Lake Mead water levels have dropped to historic lows. (CC BY-SA 2.0, Bureau of Reclamation)

The Bureau of Reclamation has announced “emergency” measures to increase Lake Powell’s water level so electricity turbines may continue spinning at Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower plant. Meanwhile, California, Arizona, and Nevada have decreased their water diversions out of Lake Mead. Yet, as drought and climate change intensify, upper basin states—Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming—continue building more dams to support the growing population.

There’s not enough water to support the population and economy that already exists in the Southwest, but continued growth means stretching water supplies further by transferring water from farmers—who control about 75 percent of water in the basin—to cities. The city of St. George, Utah, for example, is struggling to find alternative water sources to accommodate growth. Officials recently warned that the “stalled water supply could put the brakes on the growth economy.”

The ecological health of river systems across the basin has been deteriorating for as long as I remember. Now, flows are at historically low levels, fish and aquatic life are suffering from low flows and warmer water, and pollution levels continue increasing. Furthermore, the parched landscape is burning more frequently and intensively, increasing the runoff of river-clogging soot and debris into the rivers and reservoirs.

Landscapes, Open Space, and Farms Disappear

Growth in the Southwest is devouring open space, farms, and wildlife habitats. A March 2022 comprehensive report, published by Numbers USA (which advocates for U.S. population stabilization) is titled, “From Sea to Shining Sprawling Sea.” The report offers state-by-state insights into the way growth is devouring the landscape in basin states. According to the report, from 1982 to 2017:

  • Colorado lost 1,126 square miles of open space, farms, and wildlife habitats due to growth and sprawl
  • California lost 3,420 square miles
  • Nevada lost 498 square miles
  • Utah lost 713 square miles
  • Arizona lost 1,744 square miles
  • New Mexico lost 1,018 square miles
  • Wyoming lost 251 square miles

Some policymakers and activists concerned about this loss of open land for growth argue that the solution is to pack people in more densely to reduce sprawl. However, as I have described in other columns and posts, dense housing increases the ecological footprint of growing economies and human populations as surely as sprawl does. The Global Footprint Network describes how Americans’ environmental impacts extend far beyond our housing choices and spatial arrangements.

Our ecological footprint includes the roads we drive on, the malls we shop at, and the pipelines that bring natural gas to our homes. It also grows with plane trips to Europe, electronic devices imported from China, produce shipped from South America, granite countertops sourced from Brazil, and even the various materials extracted to construct our houses. Any additional activity producing the goods and services we consume entails a larger ecological footprint.

Biodiversity and Habitat Fragmented and Diminished

In March, the New York Times published a series of maps illustrating the threat to biodiversity across the USA. The report included a disturbing image of nature being destroyed in the Southwest. Healy Hamilton, chief scientist at NatureServe, said, “There are hundreds of species known to be globally critically imperiled or imperiled in this country that have no protection under federal law and often no protection under state law.”

Panoramic view of a Southwest desert city overtaken by urban sprawl.

Natural landscapes across the Southwest are being overtaken by urban sprawl. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, scaredpoet)

The map shows the basin states as having some of the most imperiled biodiversity in the USA, most notably the Colorado River’s aquatic diversity. California—including Southern California, which receives Colorado River water—appears particularly stressed. The New York Times report quotes Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary as saying, “We have this tremendous biodiversity, but we also have these major stressors, including that we built ourselves into the fifth-largest economy in the world with 40 million people.”

Several NGOs work throughout the Southwest to protect biodiversity. One NGO, Defenders of Wildlife, catalogues the biodiversity threats as “urbanization, agriculture, water diversion, fossil fuel extraction/conveyance/processing, and open-pit mining.” And, the so-called “green economy” is creating new threats.

Proposed lithium mines in Nevada and Arizona are some of the latest flashpoints of enviro-political controversy. These mines further destroy the landscape, pollute streams and rivers, and imperil biodiversity that relies on intact and healthy ecosystems.

America the Beautiful?

Given the extreme threats to water, land, and biodiversity throughout the Southwest, the U.S. government appears to be making an effort to manage the degradation caused by growth.

In May 2021, President Biden launched the “America the Beautiful” initiative with the goal of “conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.” Sometimes called the “30 by 30” (or “30×30”) campaign, this initiative has been broadly embraced by conservation leaders, nonprofit groups, tribal governments, and eleven U.S. states. Further, in April 2022, Biden doubled down on the campaign, pledging a $1 billion investment to bring the 30×30 campaign to fruition.

Beyond the 30×30 campaign, however, other U.S. policies are absurdly designed to pursue more growth. It will be increasingly difficult, if not completely impossible, to accomplish the goals of the 30×30 campaign if the U.S. population and economy continue to grow.

At local and state levels in the Southwest, we routinely see tax incentives for new businesses, subsidies to cut development fees, and aggressive marketing campaigns aimed at luring new residents. Eliminating these growth subsidies and pro-growth campaigns is critical for any semblance of sustainability, but that elimination is almost unheard of in any local or state-level discussion throughout the region.

Steady-state policies, including an ethical approach to stabilize population, are the only options that can protect water, land, and biodiversity across the Southwest. We’ve been warned, “The nature of consumption is the consumption of Nature.”

Gary Wockner, CASSE's Colorado River Chapter DirectorGary Wockner is CASSE’s Colorado River Chapter director, and an environmental activist and writer.

The post The Colorado River: Devoured by Growth appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Does This Water Have Legal Rights?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 22/04/2022 - 6:00pm in

Mary Jane is a looker. Her curves hug the Isle of Pine Preserve to the southeast of Orlando, Florida, nearby residents enjoy her coolness for kayaking, and her body of water is part of rather spectacular wetlands that connect her to her twin, Lake Hart. She is also the first lake in the U.S. to make waves by filing a lawsuit.

Beachline South Residential, a developer, wants to take advantage of the region’s growing popularity and convert nearly 2,000 acres of wetlands, pine flatwoods and cypress forest just north of the lake into apartments and offices. So Mary Jane, Lake Hart, two other local waters and a marsh in Orange County have done what most Americans who feel existentially threatened would do: They’ve lawyered up. 

“We must protect this environmental treasure,” says Chuck O’Neal, the human who filed the lawsuit against the developer and the state on behalf of Mary Jane and her fellow plaintiffs in April 2021 while he was chairman of the Florida Rights of Nature Network. “Right now, there is a building boom that is leveling forests at record rates and destroying large swaths of nature. It’s important that local governments have the right to protect their environment.”

O’Neal grew up in Orange County and watched developers cement over much of the county, not least with the arrival of Disney World in the 1970s. Passionate about the local waterways, he launched Speak Up Wekiva in 2013, a campaign to galvanize support for the state’s wildlife and flora. At the time, the Floridian businessman believed the rights of nature movement was “too radical,” but he changed his mind after several weather events in 2018 caused severe water contamination and massive fish die-offs. “At that point I understood that we needed to change the legal system fundamentally.”

The Split Oak Forest Wildlife Environmental Area abuts Lake Hart, one of the five bodies of water suing the State of Florida. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife

What O’Neal is attempting with the lawsuit on behalf of the water is not just another environmental lawsuit against an eager developer. Asked why he wasn’t filing a traditional lawsuit, he responds that what’s needed is a shift in perspective. “The current laws are stacked against nature because nature is viewed as property. When you buy a property, you can do whatever you want with it. Our planet needs to take into account that these natural bodies of water, forests and animals have a right to live.” 

Looking at the history of the constitution, O’Neal believes it’s time to expand the definition of rights. “When the Constitution was written, only a certain few people were rights-bearing, generally white property-owning males. The point is that we need to instill rights in our legal system for nature.” 

O’Neal is not alone in this belief. In November 2020, Orange County voters approved a charter amendment to protect the “rights of nature” by a margin of nearly 90 percent. “And that in Florida, where people don’t agree on anything,” he exclaims. “The amendment grants nature four rights: the right to exist, to flow, to be protected against pollution and to maintain a healthy ecosystem. That, paired with the human right for all citizens to have clean water, went on the ballot and passed in 2020 with 89 percent of the votes. I consider this monumental for a county of 1.4 million people.” 

By advocating for earth laws, O’Neal is taking a page from the playbook of Indigenous Peoples all over the planet. 

“I was taught that water is alive. It can hear. It holds memories,” Kelsey Leonard, the first Native American woman to earn a science degree from Oxford University, explained in her viral TED Talk, “Why lakes and rivers should have the same rights as humans.” 

The Indigenous leader and Harvard-educated expert in water science would have loved to name her talk “Why nature should get more rights than humans,” she says via Zoom from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, where she is a professor in the Faculty of Environment. “Humans have a fascination with trying to play God, to dominate nature. Well, nature has something to say about that. Through earth law, we’re trying to remedy the harms past legislation has created.” 

Leonard points out that Indigenous folks like herself were not citizens within the U.S. until 1924, meaning her Shinnecock ancestors were not citizens under the law. Indeed, the definition of a legal “person” has been evolving. Over the last decades, the American legal system expanded legal personhood to slaves, women, children and corporations. 

“As a Shinnecock woman and a legal scholar, I question the moral compass of the Western world where you can grant legal personhood to a corporation but not nature,” Leonard says. “If you can grant that to a corporation, why not the Great Lakes? Why not the Mississippi River? Why not the many waterways across our planet that we all depend on to survive?” 

According to Leonard, the visible destruction of climate change with its wildfires, droughts, and floods drives home the insight for many people that human “dominion” over the earth has devastating consequences if no one is authorized to speak up for nature and its creatures. “The status quo has allowed us to destroy nature,” she states. “If we are maintaining the status quo, we are not going to do what we need to address climate change. We are at a pivotal point.” 

In 2008, Indigenous Peoples led Ecuador to become the world’s first country to formally recognize the “Rights of Mother Earth,” a ruling that the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN) and others subsequently used successfully against a construction company that dumped rubble into a river. As a result, the government was forced to clean up the river. Any citizen in Ecuador can now go to court on behalf of nature. 

“Rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights of nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles,” asserts GARN. Recognizing the inherent right of nature to remain intact would be a wholesale shift of perspective after centuries of regarding it as a resource to be owned, used and exploited. 

New Zealand’s Whanganui River. Credit: Jason Pratt / Flickr

In 2017, four rivers in Colombia, India and New Zealand won legal rights, including the Whanganui River, ​the longest navigable river in New Zealand. The Māori fought for more than a century against the British Crown to save the Whanganui River and finally reached agreements over the last decade that recognize personhood of the waterway and a former national park known as Te Urewera. In a novel decision, the courts decided that neither the Māori nor the Crown owned the river but that the river is its own being. The Māori and the New Zealand government agreed to share guardianship of the environment. 

The U.S. is far behind in these efforts but some communities have started the process. For example, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, passed an anti-fracking law that includes the provision that, “Natural communities and ecosystems… possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish.” 

Some version of nature rights laws now exist in about 20 countries, including Canada, Bolivia and Uganda, as well as half a dozen Tribal Nations in the U.S. (including the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, the Yurok and the Menominee) and dozens of cities and counties. 

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“This process is one of democratization,” Leonard says. “The majority of the world’s religions and cultures have always acknowledged that water is living.” She also believes that earth laws will enable communities to address the threat of climate change much more swiftly and comprehensively.

Ultimately Leonard, and the rights of nature movement more broadly, is calling for nothing less than a fundamental shift in our relationship with our environment, using a responsibility-based legal framework instead of a property rights-based one.

“We can start to honor the original treaties between Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous Peoples for water protection,” she says. “We can appoint guardians for the water that ensure the water’s rights are always protected. We can also develop water quality standards that have a holistic approach, that ensure the well-being of the water before our human needs. And moreover, we can work to dismantle exclusive property ownership over water.”

If you look at it from this perspective, granting nature rights isn’t a new idea at all. For millennia, people considered themselves as part of the natural world.

Despite these convincing arguments, Mary Jane et al. have little chance of winning in court. As soon as Orange County voted for the bill of rights for its waters, state legislators snuck a last-minute amendment into a sewage bill that prohibits local governments from granting legal standing to a “part of the natural environment.” O’Neal is waiting for the upcoming hearing on April 26 to see if his case will be dismissed before it has even started. The governments of India as well as courts in Ohio have similarly struck down regional attempts to establish earth laws. 

“That’s why it’s important to build consensus, a broad network,” Leonard says. “It is not something that should only be on the shoulders of Indigenous Peoples. It’s about transforming hearts and minds.”

Despite its challenges, O’Neal, like Leonard, believes that the movement might be as hard to stop as a mighty river. “Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.”

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Water Belongs to the People, Not Corporations

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 19/04/2022 - 10:00pm in

Is water sacred? In the Roman Catholic tradition, it is through a rite of minor-exorcism: prayers that both breaks the influence of evil and sin in a person's life and sanctifies water as “holy.” In this ancient rite, a priest blesses the living “creature of water” to cast out devils, put sickness to flight, and let the hidden enemy depart....

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A sad memorial

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 20/03/2022 - 9:05am in

A sad memorial drinking fountain. Kevin (Dick) Phegan was a 22 year old electrician from nearby Rozelle who broke his spine after packing into a scrum in a rugby league football match, becoming a total paraplegic. Team mates pitched in to get the best of medical care, but he died just over four months later in the hospital where the fountain is located. About 100 people attended his funeral. The bubbler still works and was welcome cool water on a hot summer’s day. Balmain.

Oregon Is Turning Sewage into an Endless Supply of Green Energy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/03/2022 - 7:00pm in

In the summer of 2020, as wildfires burned across more than a million acres in Oregon, workers at Clackamas County’s water treatment facility started calling each other. From their homes, they could see that the towers of flames were closing in on the wastewater treatment plant. Power was failing all over the state. If the facility lost power, it could flood the Willamette River with untreated waste, causing untold environmental damage. 

In the end, the facility remained powered up and the Willamette was spared. But with wildfires and extreme weather increasingly common, the incident underscored how generating and storing renewable power on site could build resiliency into the system. 

water treatmentGrey Eyerly with the tank that safely stores a fluctuating level of methane gas. Credit: Britany Robinson

“It’s extremely energy consumptive to treat wastewater,” says Dave Moldal, program manager at Energy Trust of Oregon. As the region grows in population, the more energy the wastewater plant requires. But what if increasing volumes of wastewater could provide the treatment plant with more energy rather than consume it? That’s exactly what’s been happening at Clackamas County’s Tri-City Water Resource Recovery Facility for the past seven months.

Since August 2021, the plant has been pumping out renewable power produced from methane, a natural byproduct of human waste decomposing in an oxygen-free environment. Now, this loop of green energy represents a powerful example of how waste can become something we benefit from rather than expend resources disposing of. By turning human waste into power, wastewater treatment facilities have the potential to become energy generators instead of consumers, while creating clean water that’s returned to the local ecosystem.

A very renewable resource

When wastewater arrives at Clackamas Water Environment Services’ treatment plant, it contains pretty much what you’d expect — human waste, paper, food, soap, sand — plus a random assortment of items that people accidentally flush or drop into drains, like a miniature Stormtrooper helmet, a Pee-wee Herman doll and a rubber elephant, all of which are proudly on display at the facility. 

But the individuals who work here don’t consider this to be a mere waste treatment facility. Instead, they see it as a place where clean water and fertilizer for non-food crops is produced. And now, they’ve added a third item to the list of beneficial resources they churn out: green energy. 

water treatmentTrash pulled from the facility’s waste flow are among the few things that can’t be turned into something useful. Credit: Britany Robinson

When wastewater arrives, it first must be pumped into the facility. Five motors, each running 100 to 200 horsepower, are needed to lift the flow up into the machinery that will treat it. “That’s a huge energy consumer right there,” explains operations supervisor Darren Eki. 

Once the water is pumped up, screens are used to pull out the biggest solids, like paper and rags. “It can cause clogs and damage — all kinds of bad stuff,” says operations manager Greg Eyerly. “They clog our pumps and cost millions of dollars a year for municipalities. So all of that goes to landfills. This is essentially the only waste product we have.” 

Grit is removed next, which includes asphalt, limestone and concrete, as well as eggshells, coffee grounds, seeds, bone fragments and other organic food waste particles. 

water treatmentFoam rises to the water’s surface as activated sludge forms. Credit: Britany Robinson

Up until this point, the water has been moving pretty fast as junk and grit are filtered out. Now it slows through open-air channels where the remaining solids settle to the bottom. About 40 percent of waste is filtered here in this natural process. 

Then it’s bacteria’s turn to do the work. In the human stomach, microbes help to break down food. Water treatment plants like Clackamas County’s employ a similar process. It takes a long time to grow the right kind of microbes, though, so if a treatment facility is starting from scratch, they might borrow some bacteria from another plant to kickstart their own, not unlike a friend might lend you their sourdough starter. Once those microbes are working, it’s called activated sludge, and it’s a key player in cleaning water. “We’re replicating what happens in nature, but we’re doing it in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks,” says Eyerly. 

“This biological treatment, nobody had that before 1972,” explains capital program manager Lynne Chicoine. That’s when the Clean Water Act was passed, forcing wastewater treatment facilities to do a better job at cleaning the water they released into nearby rivers. The federal government funded retrofits at many of those facilities around 50 years ago, including this one. “And now a lot of them need to be expanded or upgraded,” says Chicoine. That need for expansion is part of what prompted the plant’s latest upgrades.

water treatmentGraphic courtesy of Clackamas Water Environment Services

While clean water goes in one direction to disinfection, and ultimately, the river, the remaining biomass goes in another, to one of three anaerobic digesters, the newest of which is a 1.3 million-gallon tank that operates like a hulking metal stomach. Inside, naturally occurring microorganisms further break down organic matter in an oxygen-free environment that allows for the concentrated production of methane. The methane rises to the top of the digester and is transferred to a new 600 kW lean-burn co-generation engine, which converts it into heat and electricity. The co-generation engine creates heat for five of the buildings on site and an estimated 4,324 megawatts of electricity, providing about half of the facility’s energy usage. 

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Chicoine estimates that they’ll save $319,000 on electricity and $99,500 on heat in the first year — savings that will only increase with ever larger volumes of wastewater. “As our population grows,” she says, “the average annual savings are anticipated to be about $619,000 on power and $191,000 on heat over the life of the engine.”

The solids that settle out of this process don’t go to waste, either. They’re removed to create nutrient-rich fertilizer, which is delivered to farmers in Eastern Oregon who use it on their non-food crops. 

truckA truck filled with fertilizer to be delivered to the region’s farms. Credit: Britany Robinson

Prior to this co-generation system upgrade, the water treatment process still emitted methane, but it was simply burned off — natural energy created and immediately lost. Overall, it cost about $35 million to add the co-generation system, an expense that’s not financially feasible (or politically attractive) to all cities. But Eyerly recalls managing a treatment facility in Iowa, where excess methane was burned in flares. “People would drive by and see those flares, and they’d ask me, ‘What’s that?’” And he’d tell them: “That’s a waste of money.” 

Energy Trust of Oregon has contributed about $2 million toward the cost of the project. “They didn’t have to install this co-generation system,” says Moldal of the people making decisions at Water Environment Services. But with wildfires a growing threat to the area’s power supply, the potential energy independence the system creates could prove increasingly critical. The site isn’t set up to run independently on biogas just yet, but Moldal envisions a future where this is the case. 

By harnessing the natural production of methane, wastewater treatment facilities can turn one of the worst accelerators of global warming — methane emissions — into renewable energy that reduces local reliance on fossil fuels. Co-generation systems like Clackamas County’s aren’t yet commonplace, but they’re growing in popularity in the United States, China, Brazil, Argentina and Norway. 

“There’s a people element to this,” says Moldal. “If it weren’t for the people here — they had to sell this to their local officials. And thankfully, they said yes.” 

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A Waterlogged Park Embraces Bangkok’s Monsoons

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 10/03/2022 - 4:26am in

Carry the water

Bangkok is a waterlogged city, built on marshes in a part of the world where monsoon season can drop over 13 inches of rain in a single month. Yet the way it has developed — rapidly and haphazardly — has made it even more prone to flooding. Now, with some major new projects, the city is breaking ground in how to live with regular inundations.

The most notable is a huge new park, the city’s first in 30 years, that opened in central Bangkok in 2017. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park is a marvel of flooding adaptation. It embraces the city’s original, natural topography, with a green slope that allows water to tumble down to a series of wetlands. These wetlands filter the water and feed it into a retention pond. 

bangkokChulalongkorn University Centenary Park. Credit: Wikipedia

The park was designed by Landprocess, a Thai firm started by Kotchakorn Voraakhom, who cofounded the Porous City Network, which develops nature-led solutions to flooding in Southeast Asia. In an interview, Voraakhom explains how the region’s cities are leading the way in flooding adaptation, and why women are particularly adept at leveraging natural solutions to human-made problems. 

Read more at the New York Times

Air plants

In a part of the world that’s as dry as Bangkok is wet, scientists are successfully growing vegetables in the desert using moisture pulled from the atmosphere around them.

RTBC has reported on ways to extract moisture from the air before. But this effort, in Saudi Arabia, is distinctive for its focus on finding a new way to irrigate farms in arid climates. Solar panels convert the energy they collect into heat, and a hydrogel smeared onto the backs of the panels absorbs and locks in the resulting vapor. The process is surprisingly simple — desert air isn’t as dry as you think. Saudi’s humidity hovers around 40 percent during the day, and 80 percent at night.

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So far, the experiment is small — the scientists have sprouted 57 spinach seeds into seven-inch plants. And scaling up the model to support small farms will require industrial collaborators. But in principle, there’s no reason the process couldn’t be used by arid or off-grid communities as a resource that is already available in the air all around them. “For a single household living in the mountain, or a very small community living in the middle of nowhere, this system can really help get those very basic human needs,” said one of the researchers.

Read more at Fast Company

Checking in

California’s struggles with homelessness have been most evident in its cities, but unhoused folks in the rural parts of the state — often less visible than in urban areas — need assistance, too. In Del Norte County, for instance, a northern region of only 28,000, there are at least 250 people experiencing homelessness, and officials say that’s probably a drastic undercount.

del norteDel Norte County, California. Credit: David A. Hofmann / Flickr

 To assist these people, Project Homekey is turning the state’s underused hotels and motels into affordable housing. In Del Norte, a 30-room motel has been renamed the Legacy Apartments. Many of its residents are only temporary, eventually moving on to conventional housing, but others have decided to stay long-term. Some that spoke to the L.A. Times credited the accommodations with keeping them warm and safe from Covid. “If it wasn’t for this place, I would probably be dead right now,” said one. 

Soon, the state will renovate the rooms to make them more like apartments, with full kitchens and homier furnishings. Statewide, over 7,000 affordable housing units have been created this way. In January, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state will spend an additional $14 billion to create even more.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times

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Water pumping station.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 09/03/2022 - 10:24am in

Water pumping station. Improving reticulation to parts of the Inner West from the still operating landmark water tower (1965), sitting atop a nearby covered-over 19th century reservoir. Petersham.

Can I Have a Sip?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/03/2022 - 7:00pm in

Three great stories we found on the internet this week.

Water under the bridge

“Water, by its very nature, is used to extinguish fires, not to ignite them,” wrote Munther Haddadin in his book Diplomacy on the Jordan, an apt metaphor for Israeli-Jordanian diplomacy. For years, the two countries have used water exchanges made possible through joint desalination efforts to forge a stronger cross-border connection. Now, new research suggests that Mexico and the U.S. could do something similar, using desalination to reduce tensions over declining flows in the Colorado River.

The U.S. and Mexico share the river’s water supply, but today it provides less water than we can sustainably take from it — 1.2 billion cubic meters less, to be precise. The new research proposes a solution similar to what Israel and Jordan worked out: a desalination plant that would benefit both countries. The plant, which the U.S. would pay for, would be located on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The water it provides Mexico would allow the U.S. to take a larger amount from the Colorado River without its neighbor to the south feeling the pinch.

colorado riverThe Colorado River winds its way through Utah torward Mexico. Credit: Simon Morris / Flickr

As climate change and development strains global water supplies, these types of water exchanges are increasingly being seen as a way to preemptively circumvent future conflicts over water. As one observer put it, binational desalination is “a bargaining chip to make people come together… Everybody needs water, everybody wants water, and it creates opportunities for people to come together and create solutions.” 

Read more at Ensia

Better blasting

For the world to go green, it needs rare earth elements (REEs) — metals like yttrium and neodymium that provide crucial components for wind turbines, solar panels and rechargeable batteries for electric cars. The problem is, these metals are often as hard to extract as they are to pronounce. They exist in such low concentrations that that mining them requires blasting through massive amounts of ore.

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Instead of extracting REEs from the earth, what if we could extract them from stuff we’re not using anyway? A new method does just this, using heat to separate REEs from certain types of industrial waste. Take coal: after it’s been burned, the REEs it contained remain stuck in the ash, trapped in microscopic bits of glass that can be shattered with pulses of extreme heat. Once released, the REEs can then be collected and used. The technique has proven twice as efficient as other methods of extraction and uses no polluting chemicals.

One big hurdle is the high amount of heat that’s required, which makes scaling the process up tricky. But if that dilemma can be worked out, say the researchers, there is more than enough coal ash in the world to give us all the REEs we need. “We don’t need any more coal to be burned for this [recycling] process to work,” said one. “We have sufficient mountains of this forever.”

Read more at Science

All about perspective

This month, the Baltimore Museum of Art will unveil an exhibit curated by the people who probably spend more time with the art than anyone else: the security guards.

Since last year, the guards have been working with the museum’s curatorial staff to learn how to curate an exhibition. Many chose pieces that spoke to them personally, from a sixth-century pre-Columbian sculpture to a 2021 protest painting. One who is studying to become a singer chose a Hale Woodruff oil painting after asking himself, “If these paintings could sing, what would they sound like?” All of the guards involved were paid extra for the time, and will be able to explain the reasoning behind their choices. The exhibit, titled “Guarding the Art,” opens March 27.

Read more at NPR

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