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A travel writer contemplates a less mobile future

Henry Wismayer, THE WASHINGTON POST

…the coronavirus shutdowns have reinforced an uncomfortable truth: The way we engage with the wider world has needed to change for a long time.

A future without travel? Until recently, I admit, it’s not a concept I’ve been able to imagine, much less embrace. Ever since I turned 18, I have shaped my life, and scratched a writer’s living, around the pursuit of foreign places. In that time, the weeks that I spend overseas have often seemed like a prerequisite of contentment: a source of not only stimulation, but also self-actualization.

That is how vital travel can feel to those of us who let it. In an era in which spirituality has in many ways been supplanted by a quest for temporal experience, to venture abroad is to accumulate evidence that we are making the best of our short time on Earth. Bask in the afterglow of the last adventure. Count down to the next.

At least that’s how it used to be.

For the last few months, the borders have closed, and the skies have emptied. The cruise ships have all docked, the hotels have shuttered. Suddenly, those of us who love to travel have found ourselves living in a strange limbo, lavished with a surfeit of time, yet deprived of the liberty to take full advantage of it.

In the months since the coronavirus outbreak pushed much of the global population into quarantine, many of us have sought distraction, even enchantment, in photographs of the newly empty human world. Among these, tourist attractions can seem among the most poignant and uncanny, for it is rare that we get to see these places without the throngs of visitors that usually populate them. It is interesting to consider what our response to these images suggests about travel today.

Of course, there is longing. The sight of famous destinations, absent crowds and traffic, evoke a Sartre-like ideal — travel, without the hell of other people — that only accentuates their enticement. But alongside this desire, for me at least, there is also melancholy, for it is impossible to witness the serenity of the paused planet without feeling a tinge of regret for what travel has become. In the same way that some of us have found a misanthropic thrill in apocryphal tales of dolphins swimming up a Venice canal, or satellite images of pollution dissipating over China, the coronavirus shutdowns have reinforced an uncomfortable truth: The way we engage with the wider world has needed to change for a long time.

Recently, I marked 10 years of travel writing feeling uneasy about the state of modern tourism. In part, my idea of foreign places had become infected by the unavoidable backdrop of an angrier, destabilizing world. And while millions still jumped on planes for leisure, I couldn’t shake the creeping sense that so much of what we call travel is extractive, the commodification of someone else’s sunshine, culture and photogenic views. In my most cynical moments, I had started to see travel as something monstrous, a vector of humanity’s infestation that has evolved out of all proportion with what the planet can sustain.

Last summer, I looked on, aghast and complicit, as the world’s most celebrated sights and cities were inundated like never before. Regions once off-limits to all but the most intrepid now teemed with rubberneckers from every corner of the world. Those tourists brought with them a litany of collateral issues, from environmental damage and consumer price inflation to cultural insensitivity and urban displacement. Lines snaked beneath the summit of Mount Everest. Behemoth cruise ships jostled for space at the Venice quayside.
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Posted on Categories Air, Climate Change & Energy, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

Global emissions plunged an unprecedented 17 percent during the coronavirus pandemic

Chris Mooney, Brady Dennis and John Muyskens, WASHINGTON POST

But scientists say the drivers of global warming could quickly bounce back as social distancing ends and economies rebound.

The wave of shutdowns and shuttered economies caused by the coronavirus pandemic fueled a momentous decline in global greenhouse gas emissions, although one unlikely to last, a group of scientists reported Tuesday.

As covid-19 infections surged in March and April, nations worldwide experienced an abrupt reduction in driving, flying and industrial output, leading to a startling decline of more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That includes a peak decline in daily emissions of 17 percent in early April, according to the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. For some nations, the drop was much steeper.

Scientists have long insisted that the world must scale back carbon pollution significantly — and quickly — to mitigate the worst effects of climate change over coming decades, although none have suggested that a deadly global pandemic is the way to do so.

Tuesday’s study projects that total emissions for 2020 will probably fall between 4 and 7 percent compared to last year — an unheard-of drop in normal times, but considerably less dramatic than the decline during the first few months of the year when economies screeched to a halt. The final 2020 figure will depend on how rapidly, or cautiously, people around the world resume ordinary life.

The unprecedented situation produced by the coronavirus has offered a glimpse into the massive scale required to cut global emissions, year after year, to meet the most ambitious goals set by world leaders when they forged the 2015 Paris climate accord. Last fall, a U.N. report estimated that global greenhouse gas emissions must begin falling by 7.6 percent each year beginning in 2020 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Read more at https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/05/19/greenhouse-emissions-coronavirus/?arc404=true

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City leaders aim to shape green recovery from coronavirus crisis

Matthew Taylor and Sandra Laville, THE GUARDIAN

Mayors coordinating efforts to support a low-carbon, sustainable path out of lockdowns

Cities around the world are already planning for life after Covid-19, with a series of environmental initiatives being rolled out from Bogotá to Barcelona to ensure public safety and bolster the fight against climate breakdown.

Mayors from cities in Europe, the US and Africa held talks this week to coordinate their efforts to support a low-carbon, sustainable recovery from the crisis as national governments begin to implement huge economic stimulus packages.

Many cities have already announced measures, from hundreds of miles of new bike lanes in Milan and Mexico City to widening pavements and pedestrianising neighbourhoods in New York and Seattle.

The initiatives are designed to allow people to move around urban spaces safely in a world where physical distancing will be the norm for the foreseeable future – and do so without sparking a drastic increase in air pollution.

The mayors who took part in the newly formed economic taskforce this week believe these initial schemes point the way to more radical long-term measures that will help tackle inequality and the climate crisis.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/01/city-leaders-aim-to-shape-green-recovery-from-coronavirus-crisis

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Earth Day at 50: Why the legacy of the 1970s environmental movement is in jeopardy

Denise Chow, NBC NEWS

Changing global and political landscapes have made the kind of broad and bipartisan agreements reached in the 1970s seem impossible.

The first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970, marked a turning point for U.S. environmentalism, capturing the growing activism of the 1960s and putting the country on track to create the Environmental Protection Agency and many major pieces of legislation in the 1970s.

Fifty years later, those efforts are at risk of being rendered null.

For the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, veteran climate activists are offering words of warning about the changing global and political landscapes that have made the kind of broad and bipartisan agreements reached in the 1970s seem impossible.

“What’s disturbing to me about what’s happened over the last 50 years is this steady drift of the Republican Party toward opposing environmental action and dismantling 50 years of environmental progress,” said Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University.

And with countries around the world in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, some experts fear that climate action could fall by the wayside as nations attempt to restart their economies. Rather than investing in infrastructure to support renewable energy and focusing efforts on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, for example, countries could revert back to the status quo in a bid to recoup coronavirus-related economic losses.

But the path ahead won’t be easy. Humanity is quickly running out of time to keep global warming below2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) and slow the most damaging impacts of climate change. And even with aggressive action, the planet is still at risk of rising seas, drought, wildfires, extreme weather and other potentially damaging consequences of the warming that has already happened.

Still, David Muth remembers when taking environmental action wasn’t always a partisan fight.

As the director of Gulf restoration for the National Wildlife Federation, Muth knows that climate policies have always been hard-won, but beginning in the 1960s, as the severity of human-caused pollution was becoming more apparent, people started to demand change.

Read more at https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/earth-day-50-why-legacy-1970s-environmental-movement-jeopardy-n1189506

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How we can build a hardier world after the coronavirus

Bill McKibben, THE NEW YORKER

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed one particularly shocking thing about our societies and economies: they have been operating on a very thin margin. The edifice seems so shiny and substantial, a world of silver jets stitching together cities of towering skyscrapers, a globe of soaring markets and smartphone connectivity. But a couple of months into this disease and it’s all tottering, the jets grounded and the cities silent and the markets reeling. One industry after another is heading for bankruptcy, and no one knows if they will come back. In other words, however shiny it may have seemed, it wasn’t very sturdy. Some people—the President, for instance—think that we can just put it all back like it was before, with a “big bang,” once the “invisible enemy” is gone. But any prosperity built on what was evidently a shaky foundation is going to seem Potemkinish going forward; we don’t want always to feel as if we’re just weeks away from some kind of chaos.

So if we’re thinking about building civilization back in a hardier and more resilient form, we’ll have to learn what a more stable footing might look like. I think that we can take an important lesson from the doctors dealing with the coronavirus, and that’s related to comorbidity, or underlying conditions. It turns out, not surprisingly, that if you’ve got diabetes or hypertension, or have a suppressed immune system, you’re far more likely to be felled by COVID-19.

Societies, too, come with underlying conditions, and the two that haunt our planet right now are inequality and ecological turmoil. They’ve both spiked in the past few decades, with baleful results that normally stay just below the surface, felt but not fully recognized. But as soon as something else goes wrong—a new microbe launches a pandemic, say—they become starkly evident. Inequality, in this instance, means that people have to keep working, even if they’re not well, because they lack health insurance and live day to day, paycheck to paycheck, and hence they can spread disease. Ecological instability, especially the ever-climbing mercury, means that even as governors try to cope with the pandemic they must worry, too, about the prospect of another spring with massive flooding across the Midwest, or how they’ll cope if wildfire season gets out of control. Last month, the U.S. Forest Service announced that, owing to the pandemic, it is suspending controlled burns, for instance, “one of the most effective tools for increasing California’s resiliency to fire.” God forbid that we get another big crisis or two while this one is still preoccupying us—but simple math means that it’s almost inevitable.

And, of course, all these things interact with one another: inequality means that some people must live near sources of air pollution that most of us wouldn’t tolerate, which in turn means that their lungs are weakened, which in turn means they can’t fight off the coronavirus. (It also means that some of the same people can lack access to good food, and are more likely to be diabetic.) And, if there’s a massive wildfire, smoke fills the air for weeks, weakening everybody’s lungs, but especially those at the bottom of the ladder. When there’s a hurricane and people need to flee, the stress and the trauma can compromise immune systems. Simply living at the sharp end of an unequal and racist society can do the same thing. And so on, in an unyielding spiral of increasing danger.

Since we must rebuild our economies, we need to try to engineer out as much ecological havoc and inequality as we can—as much danger as we can. That won’t be easy, but there are clear and obvious steps that would help—there are ways to structure the increased use of renewable energy that will confront inequality at the same time. Much will be written about such plans in the months to come, but at the level of deepest principle here’s what’s key, I think: from a society that has prized growth above all and been willing to play fast and loose with justice and ecology, we need to start emphasizing sturdiness, hardiness, resiliency. (And a big part of that is fairness.) The resulting world won’t be quite as shiny, but, somehow, shininess seems less important now.

Read more for interview with Bill McKibben: https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-a-warming-planet/how-we-can-build-a-hardier-world-after-the-coronavirus

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Strategic design can help car-free streets gain popularity post-coronavirus

Jason Plautz, SMARTCITIESDIVE

Looking forward, some planners think any block could go car-free with just the flip of a switch. Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s urban innovation offshoot, has pitched a set of design principles that would reimagine streets for a multimodal future, tailoring different streets for different modes.

As cities and states enact stay-at-home orders to stem the COVID-19 outbreak, once-packed urban streets are now empty of cars.

Some mayors have seized that opportunity to open the pavement up to people for exercise. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week he would open a limited number of streets to pedestrians as an alternative to crowded parks, and in Philadelphia, a stretch of MLK Drive has been shut off to traffic in favor of bicyclists.

To some advocates, the street closures are a silver lining to the public health crisis: a chance to see what urban streets can do without cars on them. It could even lend more momentum to the car-free streets movement that has grown since San Francisco officially remade Market Street into a pedestrian promenade in January, inspiring cities like New York and Denver to experiment with the concept.

Pedestrian-focused street design has long been a staple in European cities, but experts say implementing such a change in the U.S. requires factors that don’t always exist in its car-centric cities. Jason Thompson, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, recently analyzed the design of 1,700 cities and found the U.S. tended to have sparser road networks with less transit — conditions that do not lend themselves to car-free streets.
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Environmental Working Group publishes its “Dirty Dozen” list for 2020

Zee Krstic, GOOD HOUSEKEEPING

Each spring, the Environmental Working Group (also known as the EWG) publishes a list of fruits and vegetables that experts at the nonprofit say contain elevated levels of pesticides that may be concerning. Now known as the Dirty Dozen list to health experts and in-the-know shoppers, the list has long called conventional farming methods into question, especially as the EWG also publishes a competing list called the Clean Fifteen that highlights produce containing little to no pesticides when grown conventionally.

Read more at https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/a31916678/dirty-dozen-foods-2020-list/

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Stanford researchers explain how humanity has ‘engineered a world ripe for pandemics’

Josie Garthwaite, STANFORD NEWS

A pandemic can strike at any time. It takes little more than the right roll of genetic dice in a virus circulating among animals, followed by a chance encounter with a person or some go-between species, like pigs or mosquitoes. But as the new coronavirus whips around the world with a speed matched by few of the infectious diseases that have emerged in modern times, it poses the question: Why now?

According to Stanford biological anthropologist James Holland Jones, we have always had spillover events, in which disease jumps from animals to people. “What’s different now is that a spillover in one part of the world can have major consequences for the rest of the world,” he said. “We have engineered a world ripe for pandemics.”

Central to this vulnerability is the fact that our species moves around the world so much, and so quickly – whether for business, leisure, safety, education, economic necessity or other reasons. Many diseases are able to move right along with us. In fact, one of the most successful indicators of where pathogens will spread is the number of flight connections between cities, said Stanford biology Professor Erin Mordecai, who studies how climate, species interactions and global change influence infectious disease dynamics in both humans and natural ecosystems.

All this interconnectedness is particularly problematic with a disease like COVID-19, which can be transmitted by people who are not experiencing symptoms. “This disease is really nasty from a control standpoint,” said Mordecai, an assistant professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “If you don’t know you’re sick, you might get on the plane and shed virus everywhere.”

An engineered world

It’s not only our highly mobile lifestyles that are helping give pandemics a runway to spread around the globe. It’s also the way we crowd together in increasingly dense cities, interact with wildlife and alter the natural world.
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A just and sustainable economic response to coronavirus, explained

David Roberts, VOX

In the short term, recovery; in the long term, resilience and renewal.

As the government considers stimulus going forward from this pause, it should see an opportunity to stimulate the growth of a cleaner, greener, more just economy. Workers should return to find jobs opened up in cleaner industries, with paid medical and family leave, better union protections, and a seat on corporate boards.

The coronavirus has all but ground the US economy to a halt. The list of states and cities that have closed nonessential businesses and urged citizens to stay home is growing by the day. Essential workers remain in place, and some people are able to work from home, but millions of jobs — at bars, hotels, restaurants, gyms, theaters, salons, shops — are simply evaporating.

Late last week, Goldman Sachs predicted that jobless claims in the US will spike to 2 million in the second quarter, which it calls “the largest increase in initial jobless claims and the highest level on record.” The Economic Policy Institute projects that 14 million jobs will be lost by the summer.

All those people with shaky or vanished jobs still have families to feed, mortgages coming due, utility bills, student debt payments, credit card payments, car payments, prescription and medical bills, and children or older relatives to care for. Already, millions of people are uncertain where they will live or how they will pay bills in the months ahead.

The result is a huge, rapid, ongoing loss of purchasing power in the US economy. The same Goldman Sachs report projected a 6 percent drop in US GDP in Q1 and a 24 percent drop in Q2, which is utterly unprecedented in a major modern economy outside of wartime.

The US appears to be heading into the mother of all demand recessions. On top of that, widespread social distancing has just begun. Some estimates say at best it could last three months; at worst — if distancing proves difficult to maintain, if the Trump administration botches the ramp-up of testing and tracing, if a vaccine takes longer than expected — it could last, on and off, for well over a year, stifling any recovery.

Even Republicans seem to have been terrified into action. Two short-term relief packages, with measures like limited paid sick leave and family leave for some classes of workers, have been passed through Congress. Another, reported to total $2 trillion, has just reached tentative bipartisan agreement. But no one believes that will be the end of the help the economy needs. Democrats are predicting at least two more stimulus bills; there will be much more to do.

For the past few days, I’ve been talking to economists and wonks, reading various proposals, trying to wrap my head around what a good economic response to the virus would look like. But there’s a slightly surreal atmosphere to the discussion, because the crucial period for stimulus will be the next six months or so, and for the next six months, the country will be run by Donald Trump and his administration.

Read more at https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/3/25/21180248/just-sustainable-economic-response-coronavirus-explained

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‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

John Vidal, THE GUARDIAN

As habitat and biodiversity loss increase globally, the coronavirus outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics

Mayibout 2 is not a healthy place. The 150 or so people who live in the village, which sits on the south bank of the Ivindo River, deep in the great Minkebe Forest in northern Gabon, are used to occasional bouts of diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever and sleeping sickness. Mostly they shrug them off.

But in January 1996, Ebola, a deadly virus then barely known to humans, unexpectedly spilled out of the forest in a wave of small epidemics. The disease killed 21 of 37 villagers who were reported to have been infected, including a number who had carried, skinned, chopped or eaten a chimpanzee from the nearby forest.

I travelled to Mayibout 2 in 2004 to investigate why deadly diseases new to humans were emerging from biodiversity “hotspots” such as tropical rainforests and bushmeat markets in African and Asian cities.

It took a day by canoe and then many hours along degraded forest logging roads, passing Baka villages and a small goldmine, to reach the village. There, I found traumatised people still fearful that the deadly virus, which kills up to 90% of the people it infects, would return.

Villagers told me how children had gone into the forest with dogs that had killed the chimp. They said that everyone who cooked or ate it got a terrible fever within a few hours. Some died immediately, while others were taken down the river to hospital. A few, like Nesto Bematsick, recovered. “We used to love the forest, now we fear it,” he told me. Many of Bematsick’s family members died.

Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harbouring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans such as Ebola, HIV and dengue.

But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise – with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.

Is it possible, then, that it was human activity, such as road building, mining, hunting and logging, that triggered the Ebola epidemics in Mayibout 2 and elsewhere in the 1990s and that is unleashing new terrors today?
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“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe