When Pigeons Break the Pact

By Keith Kloor | July 11, 2014 4:07 pm

Birds lead hazardous lives. They are preyed on by cats. They fly into tall buildings, glass windows, airplanes, cell towers, and wind turbines. All of this happens mostly out of our sight. In New York City, where I live, people go about their business while pigeons flutter all around us, sometimes annoyingly, but largely ignored.

One of the great urban mysteries is how all these pigeons dodge cars at the last second. Except when they break the pact.

Last night, while playing with my 7 year-old son in our local school yard, the pigeons seemed unusually active. It was around 7pm. I watched several chase after each other. Maybe they were playing, too.

I went back to pitching the soccer ball to my son, who wanted to practice his kick ball game. He kicked a line drive to my left that I almost snared. I broke the ball’s momentum and it dribbled a few feet from me. I casually strolled over to snag it. As I bent down, a baseball ripped into the back of my right calf. At least that’s what I thought it was. But when I looked around the only other kids in the school yard were way over on the other side, playing soccer, oblivious to my pain.

I could barely stand up. I looked all around for the perp who I was sure whizzed a rock in my direction. Again, nobody in sight. Read More


Why You Should Elbow the Elevator Button

By Keith Kloor | July 10, 2014 2:15 pm

In 1997, I was living in Manhattan when the New York Observera sardonic weeklypublished a front page story entitled, “New York is Germ City!” As the Seattle Times recalls: Read More

MORE ABOUT: bacteria, germs, science

About Those Fluoridated Water Skeptics

By Keith Kloor | July 9, 2014 4:37 pm

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has vibrated the internet with a whacky speech he recently gave to an audience of climate skeptics. Here’s the bit that many are picking up on:

“I don’t know whether or not fluoridating the water helps people’s teeth become better or not,” said Rohrabacher, invoking his childhood memories. “I don’t know that,” he continued, “But I do know that in this country, we should be the ones who should be deciding what we put into our bodies one way or the other, not the federal government or the local government putting fluoride into our water!”

The water fluoridation screed elicited support from the crowd.

Okay, so we learned something new today about the Heartland crowd. They should consider holding their next climate skeptic conference in Portland, or this village in Palm Beach, Florida.

But back to the GOP congressman and his problem with fluoridated water. Wonkette asks:

What is it with Republicans and really fucked up ideas about drinking water, anyway?

Cute. The problem with this logic, however, is that plenty of liberals have a similar disdain for fluoride. As one famous Portlander tweeted last year, referring to a subset of progressive Democrats:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, science

Climate Change and Democracy

By Keith Kloor | July 9, 2014 12:26 pm

From an interview between Columbia University Press and science historian Naomi Oreskes: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, democracy

Can Monsanto Win Over its Critics?

By Keith Kloor | July 3, 2014 11:11 am

Earlier this year I explored how Monsanto, the world’s most successful agricultural biotech company, became the poster child for the anti-GMO movement. (The best book-length history of how this came to be remains “Lords of the Harvest,” by NPR’s Dan Charles.) What fascinates me–and undoubtedly infuriates anyone who works at Monsanto–is how hard it is for the company to shake its villainous public image.

Even writing about Monsanto is a fraught endeavor, as Michael Specter has noted: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs, Monsanto

Perhaps Global Agricultural Trends aren’t as Dire as We Thought

By Keith Kloor | June 30, 2014 10:49 pm

Many people working in the global sustainability arena tend to be focused on one of two knotty issues: 1) climate change or 2) food security.  The former is devilish because we have to figure out how to power the developing world while reducing our overall carbon footprint. The latter is also complex because we have to figure out how to feed billions more people in the coming decades while reducing our overall agricultural footprint.

Some brainy wonks are fairly pessimistic about climate change being meaningfully dealt with anytime soon–if at all. If this proves true, let’s hope that the worst case scenarios don’t play out.

As for agriculture, there’s a widely held belief that growing demand for food will require ever more cropland, resulting in devastating ecological consequences.  But perhaps this future is not as certain as some think. Jon Fisher, a researcher at the Nature Conservancy, recently dug into a trove of agricultural data and was pleasantly surprised by what he found (his emphasis): Read More

Facing Up to the Anthropocene

By Keith Kloor | June 20, 2014 9:13 am

Several years ago, I wrote about about an insurrection in the environmental movement. A new group of greens–called eco-pragmatists–had taken on the old nature-centric guard, which still held sway but also had rendered environmentalism anachronistic and ill-equipped to address complex 21st century challenges, such as climate change.

It was a battle between what I called the green modernists and the green traditionalists. The latter, I wrote:

has never had a sunny outlook. Forty years ago, he warned about a plundered planet. Twenty years ago, he warned of a sixth extinction. In recent years, he has warned about a baked planet. Now he is warning of a planet under severe ecological pressure. Make no mistake: These are all warnings that deserve to be taken seriously. The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists.  Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come true.

The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many vague, screechy calls to action.

If you think I’m exaggerating, read Yale historian Paul Sabin’s “The Bet,” which chronicles environmentalism’s incessant warnings of imminent doom since 1968. (I recently reviewed the book here.) Green modernists, I wrote in 2012, dared to remake environmentalism:

Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace.

This was heresy. For the Anthropocene, as I noted in a follow-up piece at Slate, had already been characterized by green thought leaders and earth scientists as an irredeemable disaster for the planet. 

The future of environmental discourse, I argued, would turn on how the Anthropocene was ultimately defined:

Both [green] modernists and traditionalists agree that human activities since the Industrial Revolution have given the planet a global facelift. But the two camps differ on what the Anthropocene means and how it should be interpreted.

Fast forward to the furious debate playing out this week, kicked off by a recent talk by Andrew Revkin, which he discussed at his New York Times Dot Earth blog. The title of his talk is called “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” which, as he explains, has quotation marks “around the adjective ‘good’ to stress that values determine choices.”

A number of people took offense to the notion of a “good” Anthropocene. Read More

Spinning for Greenpeace

By Keith Kloor | June 18, 2014 12:34 am

When Greenpeace generates global headlines, it’s often for dramatic, gimmicky stunts, like scaling an oil rig or breaking into a nuclear power plant. This week, the environmental group is making news for a different kind of high stakes behavior: losing $5.1 million on a bad financial bet.

It seems that a Greenpeace employee had been dabbling in the volatile currency trade market.

Critics of Greenpeace are chortling over this. Others, such as John Vidal, the Guardian’s environmental editor, are spinning it rather oddly. He writes: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: environmentalism, Greenpeace

Agriculture isn’t Natural

By Keith Kloor | June 12, 2014 1:34 pm

In PLOS Biology, a UK geneticist offers some wise suggestions on how to move beyond the simplistic frames that dominate agriculture and the GMO discourse. She writes:

First, it is necessary to move on from the well-worn logical fallacy that anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad. The application of this fallacy to agriculture is an excellent illustration of why it is so flawed. Plants evolved by natural selection, driven by the survival of the fittest. As a result, naturally, they are defended to the hilt from herbivores of all kinds, including humans. We know this. No one sends their children into the woods saying “Eat anything you find. It’s all natural, so it must be good for you.

It’s hard to exaggerate just how much romanticized, outdated views of nature influence the discourse on agriculture and other sustainability issues.

A prime example is this recent post from Greenpeace Africa about “ecological farming.” Below the picture of the smiling Kenyan woman, Greenpeace explains the eco-farming she is engaged in.

A woman inspects a crop of sorghum in Kenya

This woman is part of a community-based organisation that trains farmers and promotes ecological agriculture and other development technologies among small-scale farm holders in Kenya. Ecological farming is a way of growing food that works in harmony with nature — not against it. While chemical-intensive agriculture uses artificial fertilizers and pesticides to alter the environment, ecological farming works to enrich the soil and protect crops in ways that don’t destroy the ecology of the surrounding environment.

This mushy notion of nature-friendly agriculture is widely held in green circles. Perhaps “ecological farming” is another way of saying organic is better than conventional, in which case you should read this myth-busting piece by Christie Wilcox.

In this country, we can afford to indulge our ideological predilections and yearning for a mythical agricultural idyll. But as Tina Rosenberg wrote earlier this year in the New York Times: Read More

Apocalypse Then

By Keith Kloor | June 5, 2014 8:51 am

One of the best books I’ve read in the last year is “The Bet,” by Yale historian Paul Sabin. The author penned a New York Times op-ed around the time of its publication. As Fred Pearce wrote in his New Scientist review, Saban “has produced an absorbing narrative of how two people’s ‘clashing insights’ unleashed on the world polarized views of the environmental and resource threats we face in the 21st century.”

Those two people would be the economist Julian Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich. When you see those names paired together, their famous wager will surely be mentioned in the same breath. Saban’s book is a must-read if you want to learn how the stage was set for the acrid, polarized climate debate playing out today. This incubation is something I discuss in my recent review of the “The Bet.”

Admirers and detractors of Paul Ehrlich are aware of the enormous influence he had on the trajectory of the environmental discourse. This passage from “The Bet” speaks to the conflicted assessment of Ehrlich by his peers just as he was making his mark in the early 1970s: Read More


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