Archive for 2012 December

The sound of 2012: Anthemic, but with banjo or violin

Although Frank Ocean captured the headlines and topped the critics' lists, for yours truly what stands out in pop music this year is the discovery of a consensus acoustic sound that is not rock, for better or worse, and yet is shared by the likes of relatively new bands Mumford & Sons, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, the Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, and Lord Huron, among countless, countless others.

Anthemic folk-rock, as Jon Pareles said. With a dash of sarcasm, he voiced the thoughts of a young fan newly converted to this "roots" music: “Wow, I’m cool. I heard a banjo. I’m different. And I’m going to tell all my friends how much hearing an actual banjo as opposed to a synthesizer moved me.”

Yes, but…stand-out tracks include I Will Wait, Stubborn Love, and the instant classic Winter in My Heart (though it's a yearning ballad, not an anthem). My fav band is everyone else's too, Mumford & Sons, the most exciting, although Fleet Foxes still have the best harmonies, and the Avett Brothers make me ache the most.

Most visual is surely Lord Huron:


…who seems to offer in their visual work a destination, a virtual home in the lonesome wilderness.  

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A to Z in the environment in 2012

A is for ARCTIC, once ice-bound year round, but no longer, as ice and snow coverage this summer in the Arctic this year plunged to an all-time low. This will amplify warming over time, but in the short-term, forecasters say warming summers in the far north tends to bring cold winters to Europe and the East Coast, due to the breakdown of the polar vortex.


B is for BIODIVERSITY, imperiled by global warming. According to Sir Robert Watson, who once helmed the IPCC, the international body that catalogues global warming, a 1 degree rise means about a 10% reduction in species diversity. If this conservationist rule of thumb proves to be true, he said, up to half of all species on earth face extinction this century.

C is for CLIMATE CHANGE, which — with greenhouse gas emissions — is accelerating. Previous IPCC estimates have been shown to be understatements. Scientists at the National Center for Atmopheric Research looked at sixteen overall temperature projections issued in recent years, and found the most pessimistic to be the most accurate — pointing towards an 8-degree temperature rise this century, 4x the rise since 1870.

D is for DROUGHT. At the beginning of December this year, 60% of the nation remained in a crippling drought that has challenged the heat waves of the l930’s for seriousness. Drought and heat has been projected to substantially worsen in the Southwest this century,  but was not forecast for the Midwest on this scale at this time.  

E is for greenhouse gas EMISSIONS, which are soaring in China and India, but flattening out in the U.S. and other industrial nations. This modest good news is undercut by the fact that most of those Chinese emissions are going to the production of goods sold to advanced nations such as the U.S., thus making us responsible indirectly, a concept known as “embedded emissions.”

F is for FRACKING, or hydraulic fracturing, the injection of water and other unidentified chemicals at high pressure far below the surface to break up rock formations to release natural gas. The resulting energy boom and price decline has reduced the cost of natural gas, and in turn discouraged construction of more costly coal plants in the U.S., which will in time help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but will also discourage efforts to turn towards renewable (non-fossil fuel).

In Ventura County, last week Supervisors Steve Bennett and John Zaragoza won passage of a measure authorizing county management to lock into fracking in the county. They asked the county’s executive director and counsel to work together on a report, to assess the risks of fracking,  to learn more about the disposal of wastewater from fracking operations, and to understand the county’s legal rights in relation to the practice.

G is for GLOBAL WARMING, based on the greenhouse effect, by which addition of a trace gas — carbon dioxide — to a closed atmospheric system steadily raises temperatures, a discovery first scientifically shown in 1899, and since then firmly established in both physics and on earth.  

H is for HEAT WAVES, which this March broke over 15,000 all-time records in the Midwest, and led to the hottest March on record. Another heat wave in July devastated Midwestern wheat. To date 2012 has been the hottest year in the history of instrumental record-keeping in the United states, about 1 degree Fahrenheit hotter than the previous high year.   

I is for ICE EXTENT in the Arctic and Greenland, which plummeted to lows never before seen in the instrumental record, including one stretch in July, when — according to satellite records — 97% of the top of the Greenland ice sheet melted in a span of five days.


J is for the J STREET DRAIN PROJECT near Ormond Beach, a controversy with roots in Oxnard’s industrial past. This drain, which was little more than a ditch in the l950’s, was concreted by the county in the l960’s, and intended to route floodwater directly to the ocean. But when an endangered species, the tidewater goby, was discovered living in a lagoon at the drain exit in 1992, the county allowed waters to gather behind an ad hoc earthen dam to give the species a chance to survive.

That ended after a huge flood in 2010, in which the lagoon expanded vastly and flooded the Halaco toxic waste site, the International Paper Plant, and the Oxnard wastewater treatment plant. To prevent a spill of untreated sewage, a public safety risk, the county asked for (and was granted) emergency permission to breech the dam and allow the floodwaters to dissipate.

This past April the Board of Supervisors voted for construction intended to protect the community from floodwaters and allow the expansion of the lagoon. Although the plans were unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors, reviews from the environmental community have been mixed. Wishtoyo and the Ventura Coastkeeper group urged the Board to bury the outfall, to make the concrete ditch into a “vegetated trail” to the ocean, while a coalition of birders and nature lovers in Oxnard urged opposition to the project entirely.

Also this year in the Ormond Beach area, the local chapter of the Sierra Club filed suit against a new development of 1500 homes in the area, called Southshore, winning a delaying ruling this summer from a Superior Court judge.

K is for the KEYSTONE XL pipeline, which if built will transport up to 800,000 barrels of tar sands slurry a day from pits near Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf Coast. The State Department, which under law must approve all international pipelines into the U.S., rejected the  Canadian pipeline firm’s TransCanada’s first application in late 2011, but President Obama has spoken favorably about the project, and a decision is expected in early 2013. James Hansen, the best-known of climatologists, has said that the development of Keystone would be “game over” for the climate if allowed to proceed, because production and refinement of tar sands slurries is vastly more carbon polluting than traditional fossil fuels.

L is for climate LEGISLATION, which has fallen by the wayside since the Tea Party helped power the GOP to control of the House. President Obama could empower the EPA to take on the utility industry under existing law by holding coal plants to high standards, and is under pressure to do so from environmentalists, including his former cabinet official Van Jones.

M is for MIGRATION, which researchers increasingly believe will be a consequence of climate change, including the possibility that the relatively stable and benign California coast, moderated by the Pacific Ocean, may prove attractive to domestic migration from other regions.

N is for NEWHALL RANCH near Magic Mountain. A project to eventually house up to 50,000 residents on 12,000 acres was set aside by state Superior Court judge Ann Jones. This means further delays for the slow-moving project, and the possibility that it will not be permitted. Jones dinged the developers and California Fish and Game for an inadequate assessment of the projects risks to two endangered species, and as well raised questions about the need for a huge project in the economically depressed area. The project already has been through a bankruptcy proceeding, after costing the nation’s largest pension fund, the California Employees Retirement System, $1 bllion in 2009.

In response, citing an alleged tie to a local Sierra club activist, the developers have asked the Judge to recuse herself from the case. The Judge has refused.

O is for OCEAN ACIDIFICATION, the process by which about a quarter of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is taken up and absorbed by seawater. Over time this changes the chemistry of the water, which is already 30% more acidic than it was a hundred years ago, threatening coral reefs and crustaceans.

P is for a new kind of water POLLUTION, known as “emerging contaminants.” These are compounds from urban sources, not agricultural, including pharmaceutical byproducts, birth control medication, perfumes, and cosmetics, some of which are known to influence hormone levels in wildlife and people. The city of Ventura is working on an innovative study of these compounds, putting money from a settlement with a local scrapyard in Saticoy, Standard Industries, into funding for research into these contaminants in the Santa Clara River estuary.

Q is for QUERCUS AGRIFOLIA, the Coast Live Oak tree. This iconic species has to date been spared the scourge of Sudden Oak Death in Ventura County. though the disease is devastating oaks of coastal Northern California. Speculation is that its success linked to foggy climes and vector species tan oak and bay laurel, all of which are more common in coastal Northern California than the hotter Southern California.


R is for the RECESSION, which although devastating for millions of Americans, perversely helped reduce energy demand and emissions, making it possible — theoretically — for a nation powered increasingly by natural gas to reduce emissions by 17% by 2020, a promise the U.S. made in climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

S is for SANDY, the superstorm routed into New York City and New Jersey by freakish meteorological conditions. The clean-up and rebuild will cost taxpayers at least $60 billion, part of the most expensive year ever for natural disasters in American history. In the week after the storm, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover that read: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”


T is for a carbon TAX, which a prominent liberal think tank — Brookings — and several oil companies — including ExxonMobil — have endorsed as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

U is for the environmentalism of the UNITED NATIONS, which is greatly feared by Republicans. The GOP labeled AGENDA 21, a vague gesture at sustainability endorsed in  l992 by President Bush, as a threat to the American way of life, despite its obscurity and lack of any sort of enforcement mechanism.

V is for the VENTURA RIVER CLEAN-UP, which at considerable effort and expense removed the homeless and their belongs from the Ventura River bed…but may have simply relocated the problem to the Santa Clara River Bed.

W is for WATER. Ventura County made headlines with an ambitious “drought-proofing” scheme to recycle water, while on the state level, Governor Jerry Brown promised to revive the long-dead Peripheral Canal, intended to earthquake-proof the State Water Project.

X is for XERISCAPING, or dry gardening. For a decade, xeriscaping has been mandated in Las Vegas to reduce lawn acreage. After a recent drought, Florida too began offering incentives for lawn removal, which some water purveyors offer in Ventura County, to reduce consumption. .  

Y is for GENERATION Y, which support clean energy and environmental regulations to a far greater extent than other generations, according to Pew polling research.

Z is for ZOOS, which a recent study found are growing more popular in the U.S. and the UK, and may prove to be a harbor for endangered species.

[from my story in the Ventura County Reporter]

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The “fiscal cliff” and the climate cliff: Tom Toles

A month ago the environmental Time reporter Bryan Walsh, commenting on Paul Krugman and the fiscal cliff, laid out the basic equivalence between these two crises, one manufactured, the other real: 

The fiscal crisis and global warming are
both, to put it bluntly, problems for tomorrow. Even if Congress can’t
come to an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff, the economy won’t
collapse immediately and the U.S. will still be able to borrow money,
just as climate change won’t render the world uninhabitable next year
the world can’t reduce carbon emissions overnight anyway. As a
society—and as a species—we tend not to be very good at addressing
problems of tomorrow, but in one very important respect, the climate
cliff and the fiscal cliff are very different. The Washington
establishment—including large chunks of both parties—is convinced that
something must be done now about the U.S.’s long-term fiscal problems, and a lot of Americans agree with them. They disagree on what to
do, but no serious politician would simply dismiss the threat of the
fiscal crisis. Yet Washington remains largely unmotivated on global
warming, despite growing evidence that we could be facing a truly frightening future. Why does one long-term problem scare us, and the other remain ignored?


Some of us wonder about this question too. 

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Coffee is good for you: New England Journal of Medicine

Unbelieveably unpuritanical but factual. Here's the first sentence of the conclusion of a study of 617k participants, published in our leading medical journal, and written in (of course) the driest possible prose: 

In this large, prospective U.S. cohort study, we observed a
dose-dependent inverse association between coffee drinking and total
mortality, after adjusting for potential confounders (smoking status in
particular). As compared with men who did not drink coffee, men who
drank 6 or more cups of coffee per day had a 10% lower risk of death,
whereas women in this category of consumption had a 15% lower risk. 

Coffee drinkers have already built a vast global infrastructure to support their habit, so the study will change nothing — except maybe the guilt. 

Knowing Americans, that's a big maybe. 

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To wipe out coastal cities, burn the fossil fuels: Hansen

In his latest posting, James Hansen looks at ice sheet loss in Greenland and Antartcia, and warns of the possiblility of an exponential ice sheet loss rate.

Posing the question, he asks:

A crucial question is how rapidly the Greenland (or Antarctic) ice sheet can disintegrate in response to global warming. Earth's history makes it clear that burning all fossil fuels would cause eventual sea level rise of tens of meters, thus practically wiping out thosands of cities located along global coast lines. However, there seems to be little political or public interest in what happens the next century or beyond, so reports of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) focus on sea level change by 2100; i.e. during the next eighty-seven years. 

He adds an alarming graph, looking at the possibilities mathematically, charted against known satellite records, but writes that exponential ice sheet loss — although looking all too likely — is not yet certain. 

Bill McKibben makes a related point with a graph in the Washington Post (click to enlarge). He writes:


"This shows that fossil fuel companies have five times more carbon in their reserves than even the most conservative governments think would be safe to burn." 


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Why we melodramatize the fate of polar bears: Zac Unger

Great excerpt from a book on the fate of polar bears, including a super-thoughtful discussion of why even highly reputable scientists turn to melodrama, in the under-appreciated Pacific Standard

Called: The Fuzzy Face of Climate Change. Highly recommended. 

Speaking of excerpts, here's a couple. The set-up question: Are polar bears threatened with extinction?

Actual data is hard to come by—polar bears live in cold places with bad
access to cozy university towns—and surveying them is time-consuming and
expensive. Subpopulation by subpopulation, the numbers are all over the
place. Near Greenland, one subpopulation grew to nearly two and a half
times the size it had been in the 1970s; one group in the extreme north
of Hudson Bay had been stable or moderately improving since the early
2000s; and in the Beaufort Sea of Alaska, Amstrup was suggesting that
the polar bears could be entirely gone by 2050. About half of the
subpopulations hadn’t even been studied enough for anybody to make any
predictions at all. In western Hudson Bay, near Churchill, a bitter
fight was being waged in the media between rival camps, one who said the
subpopulation had declined by 22 percent over the course of 17 years,
and another who said the population had grown enough to allow for a big
increase in trophy hunting.

Introducing an awe-inspiring scientist:

Amstrup-300x199Whenever anybody needed a prediction about the future of polar bears,  [Steven] Amstrup was the crystal ball into which they gazed. One minute he’d be
publishing papers dense with statistics, and the next he’d be chatting
with a television host, detailing the crisis in calm, measured tones. He
was never hysterical and always struck the right balance between jargon
and a heartfelt appeal to humanity’s better impulses. It didn’t hurt
that he was tall and better-looking than anybody with a PhD has a right
to be. With sandy-blond hair, a square jaw, and broad shoulders, no
wonder the cameras loved Amstrup. To this day, he remains the only
person I’ve ever met who can look suave while wearing thermal underwear
and a hat with chinstraps.

A complication: 

So this was [skeptic] Rocky’s [Robert Rockwell's] grand theory, I thought: as the Arctic warmed and
the sea ice shrank, the bears might somehow manage to adapt. Rocky’s
ideas were engaging, and he was a good salesman, but I wasn’t entirely
buying it. Compared to a blubber-laden seal carcass, the occasional bony
goose was hardly an adequate meal. Probably not quite enough to launch a
wholesale revolution in the conventional wisdom regarding polar bears
and global warming.

Later I found Rocky sitting heavily on his bunk in a room that was
redolent of graduate students with limited access to shower facilities.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t want you to come away from your time here
thinking that we’re against these people. But there are things going on
that affect polar bears that are not getting a full hearing. The polar
bear is really special to me, but the Endangered Species Act and the
commission of proper science are more important.”


I wanted the polar-bear story to be simple and stark. But the more I
learned, the more melodramatic it became, with everyone slipping into
roles that were far too easy to caricature.

The story is drawn from Zac Unger's forthcoming book Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye. If the excerpt is any guide, the book will be terrific, with reviews to match. Here's your chance to get ahead of the curve when it comes to putting polar bear research in context. A great long read. 

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Maybe stories are just data with a soul: Brené Brown

Great talk from Brene Brown on vulnerability (not to mention shame, guilt, and fear). All the good stuff. Especially applicable at Christmas: 

Am I alone in struggling with vulnerability? No. So this is what I learned. We numb vulnerability — when we're waiting for the call. It was funny, I sent out something on Twitter and Facebook that said "How do you define vulnerabilty? What makes you feel vulnerable?" And within an hour and a half, I had 150 responses. Having to ask my husband for help because I'm sick, and we're newly married. Having to initiate sex with my husband, initiating sex with my wife, being turned down, asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying people off — this is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And the way we deal with it is we numb vulnerabilty.

By the way, born readers, you don't have to listen to TED talks. You can read them. It's much faster, and of course it makes a person far less vulnerable to the emotions of shame, guilt, fear, and regret.

Just so you know. In case you feel, you know, vulnerable to any of that. 

h/t: Kim Maxwell

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“If you’re still denying global warming…

…you're the mayor from Jaws." 

[From SNL and Gary Janetti, pretty much simultaneously.]


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Happy birthday Keith Richards, king of the underground

Keith Richards has an unusual problem for a memoirist: a too dramatic life:

The temptation for most memoirists is to beef up, at times even to make up, life; for Richards, who has lived one of the most eventful and excessive lives ever, the point is to tamp it down. His is an odd book for many reasons, among them its refusal to impute any meaning to the structure of experience, beyond its basic contingency. The book tells no “story,” presents no overwrought “themes,” proposes no shape to life beyond the amorphous ooze of passing time. Thus the hilariously nonchalant title, which, shorn of the expected first-person possessive, would suggest that Richards’s life is more or less the one we all experience.

At one time or another, everyone rides in a red Cadillac with the Ronettes out to Jones Beach, then wakes up on Ronnie Spector’s mother’s living room floor in Spanish Harlem, to a plate of bacon and eggs. We’ve all had the major licks of “Satisfaction” come to us in a dream, then adjourned to the pool to write the lyrics with Mick Jagger. This is the kind of thing that happens. Uschi Obermaier, the German leftist supermodel, chews off your earring in a Japanese-style hotel in Rotterdam, leaving you with a “permanent malformation” on your right earlobe. The prime minister of Canada’s wife turns up in your hotel room, looking eager to party. That’s life. Or,Life.

From a great review of Richards' memoir, Life, by poet Dan Chiasson in the NYRB. Which he really likes! Typical with Keith: Take him for granted, despite his fame, his known brilliance as a writer of songs, his greatness as a player. As his old pal and bassist Bill Wyman said, in the doc Crossfire Hurricane on HBO a month ago, the Stones' have an unusual sound for a reason. 

Most bands follow the drummer. When we got together, something happened, something magical. Every band followed the drummer. We don't follow Charlie, we follow Keith. So the drums are barely slightly behind Keith. Just a fraction, you know. I tend to play ahead. It's got a sort of a wobble. And it's dangerous, because it can all fall apart at any second.  

Think you can hear that in some of the songs: the near-chaos that resolves into a chord in "Tumbling Dice"; the yelling back and forth in "Get Off My Cloud," and harrowing violence in "Sympathy for the Devil." And too, the unexpectedly sweet ballads, such as "Wild Horses," which the band was glimpsed finishing in the studio in the famous doc "Gimme Shelter."  

The image of Richards, though, is what stays with you: head back, eyes closed, sloppily lip-synching to Jagger’s vocals. Keith had written the song as a lullaby for Marlon, his son, according to Jim Dickinson. Jagger got his hands on it and made it a love song, probably addressed to Marianne Faithful. It is hard to know whether Keith is synching his own lyrics, which Jagger changed, or is simply too high to sing along. But it is an unforgettable image, the image of a band beholding its own complex chemistry, even as they are beheld by the Maysles’ camera. That moment seems to me the peak of the Stones’ career. From there, as Richards puts it, things went “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Hard to disagree. Here's a photo from that era, l971, with Mick, Keith, and Gram: 


Happy birthday, Keith. Many happy returns of the day. 

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An emerging environmental/minority climate coalition?

In the Nation, Mark Hertsgaard outlines the possibility of an emerging majority coalition composed of minority and environmental voters:


"Just as Latinos overwhelmingly supported Obama over Romney, they also—along with African-Americans, Asian-Americans and youth of all races—demonstrate the highest levels of support for action against climate change and air pollution, according to extensive polling data. 

In one sense, this should come as no surprise. Minorities are more likely to live in areas burdened by extreme pollution, and young people are the ones fated to spend the rest of their lives coping with worsening climate change. Of the 6 million people living within three miles of America’s coal-fired power plants, 39 percent are minorities, according to a report by the NAACP, “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People.” 

Nevertheless, the notion that Latinos, blacks and Asian-Americans are the nation’s most fervent greens contradicts the stereotype of environmentalists as white, upper-middle-class Prius drivers."

It's true that minority voters were crucial in derailing a multi-million dollar attempt by fossil fuel interests to overturn California's AB 32 in 2010, and it's true that minority voters are much greener than the cliche allows — in California!

Still, to snark at Bill McKibben for concentrating on college audiences in his divestment campaign — questionable. After all, college students were the first to support a divestiture from South Africa campaign in the l980's, despite the fact they were more white than other possible constituencies. 

But Hertsgaard's central point remains, and you can see it  in Sierra magazine, which these days is aggressively young and color-blind. Smart! 

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