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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.
Continue reading “Strategic design can help car-free streets gain popularity post-coronavirus”

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable LivingTags , , , , ,

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/

Posted on Categories Habitats, Land Use, Sustainable Living, WildlifeTags , , , ,

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.
Continue reading “Stanford researchers explain how humanity has ‘engineered a world ripe for pandemics’”

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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

Posted on Categories Habitats, Land Use, Sustainable Living, WildlifeTags , , ,

‘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

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Six Bay Area counties will be ordered to ‘shelter in place’ as coronavirus spreads

James Rainey and Susanne Rust, LOS ANGELES TIMES

Six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area will be placed under a shelter-in-place directive by public health officials in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus, San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals said Monday. It’s a move that will close virtually all businesses and direct residents to remain at home.

Goethals said he believed that the order, to be issued Monday afternoon, will put the six counties on perhaps the most restrictive public health footing anywhere in America, since the outbreak of the potentially deadly coronavirus.

Only police and fire departments, hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies and a few other businesses will be allowed to remain open under the shelter-in-place order, said Goethals, who holds a master’s degree in public health.

Residents will be able to go grocery stores and other essential services, but the mayor urged residents not to rush, adding that stores will remain fully stocked.

The order will come from public health officials in the nine counties around the Bay — San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda. It will last for at least two weeks and could be extended for a third week, Goethals said.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10827908-181/six-bay-area-counties-will

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable LivingTags

Sonoma County farmworkers and the 2017 and 2019 wildfires

Martin Bennett, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

Last year the trade publication Wine Enthusiast recognized Sonoma County as the ‘Wine Region of the Year,’ and the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association announced that 99 percent of the county vineyards achieved their ‘sustainability’ certification. But the county’s farmworkers — who produce the wealth of wine country — are mostly invisible to the public. Winegrowers and the media rarely recognize the actual value of their labor, and their contribution to the local economy is seldom acknowledged.

Winegrowers and the media rarely recognize the actual value of their labor, and their contribution to the local economy is seldom acknowledged. Image: pxhere.com-Creative Commons CC0

Winegrowers and the media rarely recognize the actual value of their labor, and their contribution to the local economy is seldom acknowledged. Image: pxhere.com-Creative Commons CC0
Most county farmworkers do not earn a living wage nor receive employer-provided health insurance, lack access to affordable housing, and confront dangerous health and safety conditions on the job. A just, equitable and, sustainable recovery from the 2017 and 2019 wildfires must include new public policy and grower initiatives to improve the economic security and public health of farmworkers.

Nine out of 10 Sonoma County farmworkers are employed in the wine industry. Farm labor analyst Don Villarejo examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 Census and calculated the average hourly wage for a county farmworker employed directly by a farm operator for at least 150 days was $15.43 an hour; the weighted annual average income of all farmworkers who were used by growers and farm labor contractors was $21,920–these figures are likely slightly higher today due to recent increases in the minimum wage and new overtime requirements for farmworkers.

The Department of Labor National Agricultural Survey reports that few California farmworkers are employed full-time in agriculture: on average, they work just 36 weeks annually. UC Davis economist Phillip Martin calculated that in 2015 the average California farmworker, employed primarily in agriculture, earned only $20,500 annually. Three out of four California farmworkers had only one employer and, just 15 percent crossed the border or migrated between California agricultural regions.

Read more at https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/sonoma-county-farmworkers-and-a-just-recovery

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California’s solar mandate to allow homes without solar

Cuneyt Dil, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Over the objections of environmentalists, California regulators approved a proposal Thursday to allow builders to construct homes without solar panels, a decision critics said undercuts California’s seven-week-old law that all new houses have their own solar power.

At a passionate hearing, the California Energy Commission unanimously approved the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s plan to build its own large-scale solar site that homeowners can tap into, forgoing the need for solar on each new home.

Environmentalists said it guts the state’s new landmark mandate and will lead to other statewide proposals copying Sacramento’s utility, which serves 1.5 million residents. But regulators backed the proposal after support from home builders and lawmakers who said it provides clean energy without raising home prices in a state facing a housing crisis.

“This is something that is bold and cutting edge,” Commissioner Janea Scott said of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s application.

The mandate that took effect Jan. 1 calls for new single-family houses or low-rise apartments to install solar panels. Alternately, utilities and organizations can apply to the California Energy Commission to build an offsite “community shared solar” site for buildings to draw from.

Using the latter option, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s plan sets a blueprint for private and public entities to seek their own large solar sites to meet the mandate, watchers say. The largest public utility in the U.S. — the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power — endorsed the idea in filings to the commission.

Public testimony ran for two hours at the commission meeting Thursday. Environmentalists and some homeowners said the move means fewer homes will be built with solar panels included. Solar advocates said consumers would save more money with their own solar panels rather than the savings from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s proposed plan.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10734660-181/californias-solar-mandate-to-allow

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Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport sets record for January passengers

Kevin Fixler, PRESS DEMOCRAT

The popularity of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport continues to grow, with the regional hub recording its highest-ever passenger count for the month of January.

Nearly 37,000 commercial passengers traveled through the local airport during the first month of 2020, which represented a 30% increase from the same time last year. In January 2019, Sonoma County airport counted another record for the month, with 28,400 passengers — an 8% gain from the prior year.
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County airport adding more flights to major hubs

With the addition of new routes, including the introduction of nonstop flights to Denver and Dallas/Fort Worth in 2019, the local airport set a new record last year with more than 488,000 passengers. The all-time high maintained a decadelong streak of annual growth.

The airport, which began offering commercial service in 2007, expects to add three more flights later this year, which at its peak will bring the number of daily departing flights to 19. American Airlines already launched a second daily flight to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Feb. 13. Starting March 19, Alaska Airlines will add a second daily route to each of San Diego and Orange County.

Source: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10727039-181/charles-m-schulz-sonoma-county-airport