Recently in Environment Category

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In these days when the sun is darkened by smoke
And the moon is turned to blood
In these days of earthquake, fire and flood
In these days unprecedented, unprecedented,
In these days when vain and fatuous men
Hurl words of mushroom cloud, ash and inferno,
In this dark time
When millions flee from famine, war and storm
We turn to you, The One
Our only refuge.
This day you set before us life and death.
Strengthen us, make firm our tongues
To speak your truth
To men of war and oil.
Let us choose life!

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It's a historic moment. After over twenty years of talking, wrangling and inaction, world leaders have signed a legally-binding climate deal--even agreeing that ultimately warming should be limited to 1.5'C, rather than the previously-discussed 2'C.

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We've all been fighting for this for years--and of course, it isn't what we asked for. As we knew going into the talks, current pledges by nations will bring us to a catastrophic 2.7-3.5'C. The document also says that we need to reach net zero carbon emissions in the second half of the century, whereas the UN's own climate science panel is much more specific, saying we must to get there by 2070.

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There's climate science and there's climate politics. Climate politics means striking a deal that oil producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia will sign. We knew this all along. COP21 won't save the world--but it will send a message. The message to global financial markets is loud and clear--the fossil fuels era is coming to an end. Put your money elsewhere. The oil still in the ground is worth billions of dollars only if there's a market for it. No market, no profit. Instead, investors will be looking to renewables and the low carbon economy, spurring increased development and implementation of green energy, electric vehicles and so on.

Meanwhile, Mother Nature is speaking loudly and clearly. Record floods in Chennai, record floods in the UK, record droughts in the Sahel, record droughts in the US, record fires in Australia...to mention but a few of her recent messages. She'll continue speaking and waking us to the need to change.

Before the Paris talks, we'd been sitting with an empty cup for twenty years. Truly slow service at the World Café! During the talks we lifted our voices. The type of tea being brewed wasn't really what we ordered. For example, emissions from shipping and air traffic were left out of the mix. Now the tea is poured. Our cup is half full--and that's progress. It is indeed historic.

Let's take a moment to join the applause, then consider how to get the other half-cup. As one Paris delegate, activist Anieesa Khan said, real change doesn't come from governments, it comes from grassroots action. So, what can we do?

  • Press your church, university or city to divest from fossil fuels.
  • Promote, volunteer for and vote for the potential world leaders who will make a difference-- such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. (Canada, congratulations, you did it!)
  • Be a voice for justice and peace. Every action you take on behalf of social justice and human rights will have a positive feedback towards environmental concerns. Climate justice, social justice and human rights go hand in hand.
  • Eat less meat. Get your dairy from small local producers. Cattle feedlots produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than CO2.
  • Keep fighting fracking. Here's what Cornell professor Robert Howarth told The Nation: "If we stop producing methane, which means stop doing fracking of natural gas and oil, the world wouldn't run up against that (1.5'C) limit for about 50 years. So we could buy ourselves 25 to 35 years of time, which is critical."
  • Walk, bike, take the bus. It's what you do every day that counts. You don't need to go into agonies of guilt over an occasional plane trip, but choose nonstop flights and only for longer journeys.

Most of all, stay positive, keep hope alive and remember the seventh generation. Cynicism, bitterness and despair will only lead to apathy. Without us, all of us, there would have been no COP 21 and no Paris agreement. We can't save ourselves and our fellow species by acting from fear or anger, still less by giving up and withdrawing from the fight.

Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight
Get up, stand up. Life is your right
So we can't give up the fight
.

Love will save us, gratitude will save us. With a big thank you to all Paris delegates who stayed up night and day to bring us the climate agreement, let's have a nice slow sip of the tea they have poured us, take a breath and keep on fighting as open-hearted warriors.

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Haiku by Paul Reps

Becoming Painfully Aware

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With his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis is very much the man of the hour. But Francis is far more than a beloved, charismatic figurehead. He is also a powerful prophetic voice for the social teachings of the Catholic Church. We may not have been able to see Francis on his recent visit, but we can draw close to him through studying his teachings. In particular, Pope Francis has recently authored an encyclical--a papal letter--addressed not to Catholics alone, but to all humanity.

Francis has entitled his encyclical Laudato Si, Praise Be, after the great Canticle of the Creatures written by his namesake, St Francis of Assisi. In his encyclical, Pope Francis calls our attention to the devastating environmental impacts of industrialized society, with special reference to global climate change.

Last semester, I taught toxicology and environmental medicine to my students. In the course of the semester, we looked into many interlocking concerns, including pesticides, genetic engineering, mining, toxic chemicals, radiation, air pollution, waterway pollution and climate change. We saw that, just as a chronically ill person may suffer from several co-existing and mutually exacerbating conditions, in the same way, numerous interacting and mutually exacerbating stressors affect our biosphere. Often, the students complained, "This is depressing!"

What do we mean by this? How do we respond to the current ecological crisis? And how does Pope Francis invite us to respond?

Faced with species extinction and looming environmental catastrophe, we may prefer not to know too much. "Ignorance is bliss." If we avoid the news, isolate ourselves as much as possible from current concerns; perhaps we could lead happier, less stressful lives. How does it help me to worry about Tuareg nomads in Northern Mali who cannot find water for their livestock? Isn't it better just to get on with my own life? In fact, when I was growing up, Timbuktu was an idiom for a place too far away to worry about. I didn't know a real Timbuktu actually existed, still less that it was an ancient seat of culture and literature in Mali.

Laudato Si was published in May of this year and soon became an important theme of our summer holiday. Picture us sitting in an attic room on the slopes of Etna, reading the encyclical together as we avoid the noonday heat, or gathered in my mother's flat in West Wales, as the three of us read together, Mum just as inspired as Sadananda and myself. I had many aha moments as we read, the first being the answer to the question, "Why do we need to know this?"

To this burning question, Pope Francis replies: "Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."

Becoming painfully aware is a vitally important teaching which reminds me of the Four Steps of Reconciliation. Fist comes recognition--we must recognize and understand the impacts of our actions, as a person and as a species. Second comes repentance. This is the moment when we understand not just cognitively but also emotionally; we feel the pain we have caused. This is painful awareness. Out of this arises reparation--our willingness to make good, to give back. Finally, we commit to rehabilitation, the step of making the needed changes to prevent the issue happening in the future.

We, as a human species, need to reach out for reconciliation with other species and with Mother Earth. We who enjoy all the luxuries of industrialized society need to reach out for reconciliation with the Tuareg and all the other poor and vulnerable victims of climate change, who themselves have never experienced the benefits of life in developed countries, but must pay a high price for what we enjoy. The things we take for granted have had impacts that rob them of the traditional lifestyle that brought them joy and meaning. But by the same token, small actions of awareness and compassion on our part could have benefits beyond our imagining in lands we have never seen.

Laudato Si is a lengthy and thoroughly researched letter. It must have taken tremendous effort on the part of an elderly man to write such a letter, personally intended for each and every one of us, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists alike. I would encourage each one of us to take some time to study what Francis offers us and to see how we personally are called to respond. (Here's the link to it). Above all, I invite us to take to heart the call to painful awareness. Becoming painfully aware of the impacts of our actions and the effects of what we enjoy, making it our own personal suffering, let us look to the big and small ways in which we can make a difference.

"Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs".

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A swarm of cold & hungry bees find refuge in our topbar hive: Photo by Nicole Herbert

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Sadananda and Michael installing bees: Photo by Nicole Herbert

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Ma and Akacia watch as Sadananda and Michael install bees: Photo by Nicole Herbert

For the last few years, we've been keeping bees at Alandi Ashram. The garden is fragrant with the scent of propolis and honey and abuzz with bees busily pollinating the garden. Yet keeping bees alive is becoming increasingly difficult.

We've all heard of neonicotinoid pesticides and how they precipitate colony collapse disorder in bees. Banned in the EU to save bees, this class of pesticides continues to be used in the US, where the Department of Agriculture has refused to ban it.

Today, I want to talk about another hazard that bees face. In our years of keeping bees, we've realized that bees are climate change victims, suffering even more than their keepers from extreme weather events.

Initially, we didn't have our own bees, but a neighbour placed a beehive in our garden to enjoy our flowers and help pollinate--with dramatic results in the garden's productivity. Then drought and forest fires began to plague the Boulder area. Watering restrictions made it hard to keep the garden in bloom. Our friendly beekeeper gave up keeping bees.

Next, we had our very own bees, with all the emotional upheavals that go with losing your pets. Beekeeping went quite well at first, but as CO2 levels have increased, so has extreme weather. Drought and forest fire made the local black bears hungry, short of berries for winter food. Some moved from the foothills into town. And so a neigbourhood black bear was one of the first unexpected hazards our bees faced. He, or she, broke down our fence in an attempt to get to the hive. We saw the bear's paw prints right in front of the hive. We'll never know whether a car entering the next-door parking lot spooked the bear, or whether the bees themselves fought him off.

Another extreme weather event that is becoming increasingly common is the polar vortex phenomenon. It's challenging to keep Italian honeybees warm when it's twenty below--and more so when this occurs unseasonably. The November 2014 polar vortex will have long-term effects on bee forage. Just yesterday our neighbour showed us two wild plum trees killed by that weather event. She said that many fruit trees around town were killed, lowering the amount of bee forage available in the crucial weeks of spring.

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2014 Polar Votex

Of course, our most extreme weather event was the 2013 Boulder Flood Disaster. I was so busy at the time taking care of flooded rooms and indoor mold that I did not realize that water had also entered the hives. The winter store of honeycomb moulded and we lost our bees yet again. In fact, Boulder County lost ninety percent of its bees as a result of the flood.

Fall of 2014 brought an amazing Indian summer. It was an enjoyable time in many ways, but disastrous for the bees. Instead of hunkering down in their own hives, local bees were out raiding other hives. All our three hives were raided and our bees slaughtered--a painful event because, as I've said, they are our pets.

Spring of 2015 rolled around, and our bee support person, Michael has brought us three swarms. But we have been having an exceptionally wet and cold spring, so there is little to no forage for the bees. Rainstorms keep knocking the pollen and nectar off the available flowers. And the newly installed swarms don't have any stores built up for rainy days. The swarm in the pictures had been out in the rain and cold for two days. In desperation, we've begun feeding our bees. And we've added the winter insulation to the exterior of the hives. The swarm that had been out in the rain was too exhausted even to make it to the feeder. Instead, we sprayed bee food on the bees, so they could lick each other clean and gain strength that way. We don't know if that colony will make it or not , but on the occasional sunny intervals we've seen some of them flying around.

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Feeding the bees, winter insulation in place in late May.

The environment is a system, a web of life. Extreme cold kills bees. Lack of berries means more bear predation. Shortage of forage makes for more bee raiding. Whatever affects the flowers affects the bees. Whatever affects the bees will in the end affect us, for we depend upon pollinators for food.

How can you help:

  • Don't use pesticides
  • Let your dandelions bloom, a crucial early food for bees and hummingbirds
  • Grow bee-friendly plants like members of the mint and borage families.
  • Let your bolted mustards and arugula bloom.
  • Grow some clover on your lawn and let it bloom.
  • Most of all--become a climate change activist!

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    This page is an archive of recent entries in the Environment category.

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