Bad News, Good News

There’s actually more good news than bad in this month’s Sierra Magazine. So I thought I would pass it along, starting with the bad news.

BAD NEWS

• Polar bears are moving further North in search of longer-lasting ice.

•A Montana man was fined $30,000 for killing three grizzly bears (which is a bit of both, good and bad).

• The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will allow the killing of up to 15 grizzly bears in Wyoming in connection with an elk hunt and livestock grazing.

•The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is determining whether the monarch butterfly belongs on the endangered species list.

• Sea lion pups off the California coast are starving in record numbers, apparently because warmer waters are driving their prey to deeper areas farther offshore.

Now for the GOOD NEWS

•Bald Eagles are nesting in New York City.

•President Obama proposes to designate 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness.

•Coal prices have fallen by half since 2011 due to oversupply and reduced demand, especially in China.

• India’s tiger population has increased by a third in the past four years.

• Obama proposed to sharply restrict oil drilling in Arctic waters but takes steps to allow it on the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Georgia. [A political trade-off??]

•President Obama vetoes legislation that would have approved the Keystone XL pipeline.

•Scotland bans fracking.

• Baby tortoises are sighted on the Galapagos’ Pinzon island for the first time in 100 years.

•The Senate voted 98-1 that “climate change is not a hoax.” [But, I dare say there is still a large number who insist the problem is not exacerbated by humans.]

• California broke ground for the nation’s first bullet train.

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that the good news each month from the Sierra Club were to increasingly outweigh the bad news? Now THAT would be good news.

Road Rage

Since we live in a very small town with very little in the way of grocery stores, my wife and I almost always drive to the larger (small) town of Marshall nearby. It normally takes us about 20 minutes because we like to take a county road that runs in a small river valley through which the Redwood River flows (more nearly the “Redwood Brook,” but folks in the Midwest don’t know about brooks). On our trips we are always alert for wildlife. A pair of eagles nests in the region year-round and we often see them and their offspring. We have also seen a great many deer, pheasants, wild turkeys, raccoons, box turtles on the pond (when it’s not dry), and the occasional snapping turtle. In addition, there is always a host of bird life. The trip, as I say, is supposed to take about 20 minutes but it can often take twice that long, depending on what’s going on in the river valley. We always come armed with binoculars and drive slowly through that area.

Not long ago we had stopped on the road to watch a group of wild turkeys. I must admit I had been driving very slowly and had failed to check my rear-view mirror because the turkeys were putting on a show and the road hardly ever has anyone else on it so traffic is seldom a problem — which is one of the reasons we take the road. But this time I was alarmed by loud shouting, including profanity, coming from a red pickup behind me that drove into the oncoming lane where the driver put down his cell phone and stopped to open his window and read me the riot act. Now bear in mind that this road is so seldom traveled that this man could sit there in the oncoming lane for 30 seconds or so to chew me out. He could have stayed longer.  But chew me out he did, to my everlasting humiliation and chagrin. I smiled and pulled out my AK-47 and shot him apologized, feeling sheepish and angry at one and the same time.

The point of this brief anecdote is to suggest that if I had an automatic weapon in my vehicle I can imagine myself sorely tempted to pull it out and at least threaten the man with it, which in retrospect would have been very stupid indeed.  He was being boorish and bellicose and my instinct was to respond in kind — and I am not a violent person. I don’t like confrontation and I wouldn’t ordinarily think about shooting a pheasant or a wild turkey, much less another human being. But he was way out of line, given the situation, and at that moment I could imagine doing just that. In fact, I can see why people who carry weapons use them and it makes me more concerned than ever that our gun laws are so lax and that so many people are not only able but eager to carry a loaded weapon with them wherever they go.  It doesn’t take a genius to predict that the number of gun deaths in this country will continue to escalate, to the dismay of those survivors who have to attend the funerals of their loved ones killed by a hand gun — and to the delight of the gun manufacturers who are reaping such huge profits from our collective stupidity, anger, and fear.

Delicate Balance

In the struggle to make inroads against Big Oil and Coal the renewable energy industry on occasion meets with obstacles from the unlikeliest sources. For example, an attempt to build an off-shore wind farm in the North Atlantic has met with considerable opposition from a group of wealthy individuals who have formed the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The grounds of their opposition are, surprisingly enough, a presumed concern for the environment and the wildlife that will be impacted by the wind generators. Now, we can debate the question of whether this group is really concerned about the environment and/or the wildlife — the wealthy seldom seem to be. It’s quite possible that they simply don’t want to look out of their picture windows from their ocean-side estates and see a plethora of whirling propellers. But that point is moot.

The fact remains there are serious and sober concerns on the part of a great many people about the consequences of placing wind generators or solar collectors in certain parts of the world. A thoughtful article by Tom Zeller in “The Blog” published by HuffPost recently attempted to spell out the problems. In the midst of a very thorough and balanced analysis, Zeller made the following remarks that seem to present the strongest case for continuing to develop alternative energy at the risk of endangering wildlife and even the environment:

“Compared to the thousands of birds and fish and other critters that have been offered up as collateral damage in the nation’s thirst for oil, or the saturation of local wildlife and habitats with mercury and other poisons that arise from coal-fired power — not to mention the widely documented impacts of fossil fuels on human health and the global climate — some might argue that a fair bit more local fauna could be sacrificed before the tradeoffs of renewable energy proved worrisome.”

And that’s the issue: it is a question of trade-offs. The possible harm to the environment and to wildlife in the area of Nantucket must be balanced against the benefits, especially in light of the alternatives to renewable energy which have a terrible history of destruction to both wildlife and the environment, not to mention human health. It would appear to be the lesser of evils. But the issue will be settled in the courts and it will be most interesting to see how the judgment comes down, given the considerable weight the opponents to the wind farm in that region of the world can bring to bear.

Not so in the Mojave desert, however, where Bright Source has already begun to develop the country’s largest solar facility. The issue here is the danger to the desert tortoise and it has already cost Bright Source $56 million to try (not altogether successfully)  to protect the animal through relocation. This has not satisfied many critics who want clean energy but are unwilling to put any creature at risk in the process. Again, it is a delicate balance and one that humans have not shown themselves adept at managing in the past. As a species we seem to prefer intellectual extremes to the middle and would rather lean left or right rather than to balance upright.

But it is encouraging that steps to produce clean energy are being taken slowly and with every possible attempt to do as little damage as possible to the environment and to wildlife. Clearly, some damage is inevitable — though they seem to rotate at a snail’s speed, the tips of the giant wind generators, for example, travel at 100 MPH and there aren’t many birds that can avoid being clipped by one of those blades from time to time. But, given our increasing demand for energy, how much damage is acceptable — especially in light of the certainty of damage to both wildlife and the environment from such things as oil spills and the discharge from burning coal? That is the question.

Doing Some Good

I have been giving the infamous 1% in this country a hard time in my blogs. To be sure, for the most part they deserve it as they continue to amass wealth while the world around them and many of the people in it struggle. But there is at least one billionaire, Louis Bacon, who is capable of doing good while doing well. He has recently donated 90,000 acres of his ranch in Colorado to conservation. A recent story from USA News on MSNBC reports:

A billionaire hedge-fund manager on Friday pledged to protect 90,000 acres of his Colorado ranch from further development as part of a much larger planned conservation area. The Obama administration said it would be the “largest single conservation easement” ever provided to the federal government.

The easement will allow ranching and hunting, but no development. It is part of Bacon’s 172,000 acre ranch and is reported to be one of the most beautiful spots in the country and alive with wildlife. It is a most generous gift though the cynic in me keeps nagging: why on earth would a man want a 172,000 acre ranch in the first place? But I told that part of me to shut up and just enjoy the moment: not all of the obscenely wealthy people in this country are blindly piling up ever more wealth at any cost. After all, Ted Turner, who does a great deal of good with his money, has a ranch near Bacon’s that is 600,000 acres. And if he can justify owning all that land, surely Bacon can find a way to justify his ownership of a ranch only about a quarter as large — or if not “justify” it, at least rationalize it, which is not the same thing at all.

Bear in mind that Bacon’s generosity, while it is admirable, does not put food on the table of hungry and destitute families; it does not put clothes on the backs of poor children, or roofs over the heads of the homeless; it does not undo the damage done by unscrupulous bankers (as described in this excellent blog:http://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/). But it will protect some of our vanishing wilderness from the ravages of developers and oil exploration, at least for a time. And this is a good thing. One wishes there were more of the wealthy who chose to do even this much good.

Indeed, if the wealthy in this country weren’t intent on getting more tax breaks (yes, Bacon will get those from his gift) and watching their “disposable” income grow beyond one’s wildest imaginings, and if they were determined to not only preserve wild places and protect animal and fish life, but also help their fellow humans who are in need, it would be fairly easy to make a case that these people are entitled in some way to their wealth because of the immense good they are determined to do with it. But that isn’t happening.

Bear in mind that 1% of the population of this country amounts to slightly over three million people each of whom is worth countless millions of dollars. Think of the immense good they could do if they chose to do so. That is, if more of the privileged 1% acted with a social conscience, they (and their not-quite-so-rich friends) wouldn’t have to rail against an over-sized government grown large out of their indifference to the plight of the planet and its inhabitants. But few of them seem to have a conscience at all: the number of folks like Ted Turner, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Louis Bacon in the group of the 1% is very small. Unfortunately.