GMOs: a week of ironies and surprises

Yours truly doesn’t profess to *know* anything about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), not having researched the subject, although he thinks the chasm between the reporting and the fear cannot be overlooked. (Notably this New Yorker story from last year, called Seeds of Doubt, in which Michael Specter politely and almost apologetically reported that a slew of peer reviewed scientific studies from around the world have found no health impacts and identified no harmful biological mechanisms to human health in GMOs themselves.)

Dr. David Katz, of Yale, put it a little more spikily, pointing out that among the safe and accepted genetically modified organisms in our common experiece is the tea rose and the dog, which is a genetically modified wolf.

But even if GMO impacts on human health have not been found that’s not to say that their impacts on natural systems and agriculture have no consequence. Far from it. Nor does that let manufacturers such as Monsanto, who profit mightily from their use, off the hook. This month in Harper’s, contrarian and leftist Andrew Cockburn writes a remarkably sharp piece about a seemingly different subject — invasive species — in which he shows that the fiercest scientific opposition to invasive species, from a famous ecologist named Peter Raven, allied with a personal faith in GMOs that was enormously useful to Monsanto.

The piece is called Weed Whackers. In it Cockburn shows that GMOs and glyphosate are very much intertwined in history of action on invasive species.

For his part, Raven spoke publicly about the virtues of GMOs. The company’s grand scheme was to genetically modify crops — particularly corn, soybeans, and cotton — to render them immune to the glyphosate in Roundup. This would allow farmers to spray weeds without killing the crops. Teaming with Life featured a Monsanto photograph of a flourishing bioengineered plant next to a pathetic nonengineered plant obviously about to expire. “Major companies will be, are, a major factor if we are going to win world sustainability,” Raven told an interviewer in 1999. “There is nothing I’m condemning Monsanto for.” (In his conversation with me, Raven defended his former patron even more stoutly, noting Monsanto’s many civic philanthropies and absolving the company of any ill intent: “They obviously have no interest in poisoning everybody or doing something bad.”)

I asked Raven whether his efforts to protect the natural world didn’t clash in some way with his support for something very unnatural: GMO technology. “What’s natural anymore?” he replied. “If we’re going to play God, we might as well be good at it.”

With the backing of Al Gore, an admirer of Raven’s, and support of the Clinton administration, in the 1990’s GMOs were encouraged by federal anti-invasive prioritization that promoted new formulations of Round-Up, Monsanto’s leading herbicide, for “habitat restoration markets.”

Even if well-intended, surely the prospect of massive applications of herbicides to the natural landscape for the sake of wildness has to give pause. “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” and all that. Read More →

Full Story » Add Comment

People of the PCT: Honeybun [in section I]

On day four of my section hike from Tuolumne Meadows to South Lake Tahoe, I was taking a break and swatting flies in spectacular but hot Jack Main Canyon, about forty miles from town, when a fellow in a straw hat with an enormous staff dashed by, flashing me a smile.

I caught up to him and his friend from New Zealand a couple of miles down the trail. Honeybun (aka Griffin Barry) was on his sixth-third day on the trail and looked it — but also looked to be loving it. I didn’t get a great picture, but maybe you’ll get the idea:




He with his friend Miner, from New Zealand, blog at and I recommend you take a look — one of the better pictures of what it’s like to hike the trail from what I’ve seen.

But I also recommend you take a look at some of the pictures to follow from this part of Section I, miles 986 to 996 or so (Dorothy Lake). The Yosemite Wilderness.  Sets a high bar: Read More →

Full Story »

Limbaugh’s Big Lie on immigration in California

Predictably, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh is cheerleading for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and his demagoguery on immigration. Birds of a feather stick together, to put it as gently as possible.

Limbaugh’s blast today (from his transcript) includes a lot of fulminating against “the Beltway” and the media, of course, but it also includes a classic example of the Big Lie, as defined by Adolf Hitler in his classic “My Struggle,” meaning “a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” (Wikipedia)

In this case Limbaugh lies and tells his followers that:

Look at California.  If you want to find the future of the Republican Party and the country, look at California.  There isn’t a single Republican in statewide office.  There never will be in the future.  It’s not gonna happen.  The Republican Party practically doesn’t exist statewide…And I’ll tell you when you can tie it to. You can tie the end of the Republican Party in California to 1986, and that was the Simpson-Mazzoli amnesty immigration bill. We’re talking back then 3.9 million illegal aliens granted amnesty.  Since then it’s been curtains for the Republican Party, which means constant victory for the Democrat Party.

[that’s from the transcript on Limbaugh’s site, folks]

Well, the truth is that California Republicans were doing just fine, despite the state’s well-known liberalism, throughout the 80’s and well into the 90’s — heck, the state elected Arnold Schwarzenneger governor for two terms, beginning in 2003. The collapse of the party had nothing to do with Simpson-Mazzoli and amnesty (passed by Ronald Reagan’s administration, of course).

The collapse of the California GOP followed the passage of a GOP-led anti-immigration act called Proposition 187 in l994. Before the passage of that law, Latinos in California were fairly supportive of the Republican party — among males, the GOP had about 50 percent backing.

This is a consensus analysis, as evidenced by this chart published a couple of months ago in the LA Times.


To accompany the chart, the paper writes:

1994, California voters approved Proposition 187, a controversial ballot measure to deny public services, such as public education and healthcare, to people in the country illegally.

Although most of its provisions were struck down in court, passage of the initiative was a seminal event in recent California political history.

It energized a growing Latino voter population and badly damaged the image of the Republican Party, which was most closely associated with the measure, helping turn California into one of the bluest states in the country.

An effort, led by Latino lawmakers, is now underway in Sacramento to wipe Proposition 187 from the books.

One measure of the political sea change in the 20 years since the initiative passed is the number of Latino lawmakers in the Legislature then and now; with larger numbers comes greater clout.

The Latino lawmakers of today succeeded: Prop 187 has now been completely wiped off the books. Even as Limbaugh and Trump champion even cruder measures to insult and deport the Latino population nationwide.

The nihilism of the extreme right is something to behold. Cheerleading the self-destruction of the GOP! Who would’ve thunk it?

Full Story »

CA leading on climate as well as water: LA Times

Yesterday the NYTimes’ lead op-ed in the Sunday Review was about how California is Winning the Drought (as discussed here a couple of days ago) from a respected author on water issues.

Today the lead op-ed in the editorial pages of the LATimes comes from a well-known expert on drought, who argues that California is leading the way for the nation when it comes to mitigating climate change damages such as drought. It’s called Get Ready for the New Normal: Dry and Drier.

If California points the way to dry times ahead, it also gives us a glimpse of how a responsible society can adjust to a warmer future. In general, the state’s individual consumers and water districts are meeting conservation goals, thanks to a range of innovations and sacrifices.

Perhaps most impressively, the state has adopted its own pioneering cap-and-trade program aimed at rolling back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. Emissions are capped and emitters are assigned a certain number of carbon permits. If they emit less, they can sell their extra permits in a state auction, creating incentives to cut carbon pollution.

Will cap and trade enable the state to meet its greenhouse gas goal? That’s unknown, but there is no debating its positive effect on the state treasury. In fiscal year 2015-16, the permit auction will net about $2.2 billion for mass transit, affordable housing and a range of climate-adaptation programs. And by the way, the warnings of naysayers and climate deniers that cap-and-trade would prove a drag on the economy have proved groundless.

California a “responsible society!” Doesn’t fit our flaky image does it? Columnist Joe Matthews wrote about our flaky image for Zocalo Public Square a couple of years ago, and pretty much blew it out of the water.

It’s true that in our personal lives, Californians can tend toward the unreliable. But in our work lives, we have never been flakes. If we’re social flakes, we have a good excuse: It’s because we’re working too damn hard.

While the federal government doesn’t break out productivity by state, academics have found California to be among the top places in the country in worker productivity, right up there with New York. If you want to find flakes in the workplace, try Alaska or Louisiana—or the big slacker, Texas. (No wonder Texans find so much time to criticize our business climate).


Our state attracts more venture capital than the rest of the country combined. We lead in agriculture revenues, high-wage services, fastest-growing companies, patents and inventions (more than 20,000 a year), job creation (at least recently), initial public offerings, and (by any measure you want to use) in innovation. We’re paying more in taxes, and getting back less, than virtually every other state. If you’re reading this in another state, odds are we’re subsidizing your flakiness.

So there. Here’s the image that went with the “Winning the Drought” op-ed.


Full Story »

Eliza Gilkyson solo for Acoustic Guitar

Eliza Gilkyson, despite having been nominated for a Grammy last year, remains one of our most-overlooked pop stars.

Well, not pop. As a singer, a songwriter, and guitarist, she shines brilliantly from afar, as she demonstrates in a lovely interview and performance for Acoustic Guitar. In her quiet way, she’s fierce.

Acoustic Guitar Sessions Presents Eliza Gilkyson

The above has an especially nice version of her “Roses at the End of Time,” one of her best recent songs.

Full Story »

PCT Section I: Kerrick Canyon (mile 972-986)

Miles 972 to 986 on the PCT offer gorgeous views at the price of real effort. This was one time on the trail that yours truly, age sixty, was passed by folks, both younger and older, from twenty-somethings coming south from Truckee to family groups passing heading north, in both directions. Didn’t manage to capture portraits this day.  Spectacular to see though. Let me feature this image of the lake at the top of the first pass, a sizeable jewel, which had an excellent campsite that appears rarely used — perhaps because it’s at the top of a pass. I wanted to make it here on day three,  but ran out of steam at the end of day two of this part of the trail, section I.

This is what it looks like as you crest the top of the ridge at 9002 feet, headed northbound, at mile 975:


Not too shabby, no? I wished I had camped there. For more of this section, featuring yet another paradise called Kerrick Canyon, please see below the fold. Read More →

Full Story »

Homeless man saves a CA beach: The Week

Today the popular news magazine The Week republished the story I wrote for Latterly on Walter Fuller and Ormond Beach that, may I say, changed Walter Fuller’s life. He’s famous now, and his work is better supported than ever before.

So for the record, let me post it again, and this time as a tweet from the magazine.


This version has been re-edited, and I like the original Ben Wolford version, as was republished in LongReads, better. But this one has its moments, and it’s fascinating to see a story change and morph and live on.

Full Story »

It’s the fourth year of drought in CA. How are we doing?

It’s the fourth year of drought in California. We’re suffering big fires in Northern California, employment drops and spikes of poverty in the Central Valley, and asking for unprecedented conservation in Southern California. We’re also seeing huge impacts on groundwater and to wildlife statewide. We’re hurting.

But is it possible that despite our losses the state as a whole has weathered this slow-motion disaster with some grace, and possibly even shown some leadership?

So argues Charles Fishman in the NYTimes:

For California, there hasn’t ever been a summer quite like the summer of 2015. The state and its 39 million residents are about to enter the fifth year of a drought. It has been the driest four-year period in California history — and the hottest, too.

Yet by almost every measure except precipitation, California is doing fine. Not just fine: California is doing fabulously.

In 2014, the state’s economy grew 27 percent faster than the country’s economy as a whole — the state has grown faster than the nation every year of the drought.

California has won back every job lost in the Great Recession and set new employment records. In the past year, California created 462,000 jobs — nearly 9,000 a week. No other state came close.

The drought has inspired no Dust Bowl-style exodus. California’s population has grown faster even as the drought has deepened.

More than half the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States come from California farms, and last year, the third growing season of the drought, both farm employment and farm revenue increased slightly.

Amid all the nervous news, the most important California drought story is the one we aren’t noticing. California is weathering the drought with remarkable resilience, because the state has been getting ready for this drought for the past 20 years.

Fishman is talking about the changes agencies and farmers in particular have made to adapt to life in our mostly semi-arid environment, and he’s not overlooking what still must be done.

It’s the work of a man with years of experience, and a contrarian, audacious argument to be recommended.

By chance, I expect, today also a noted UC San Diego scientist named Mike Dettinger posted this:

Updated (thru 7/15) Calif “reservoirs” status plot…still 39% more water than in July 1977.

Full Story »

Patzert: El Niño 2015 a potential Godzilla. Maybe.

On a slow news day in August, NOAA’s prediction yesterday that El Niño will continue to strengthen and may well bring big precipitation to the southern half of the country (not just SoCal) made headline news across the nation.

But the focus in the LATimes — and several other news outlets — came not from the official announcement, but from JPL forecaster Bill Patzert, who uses strong language the way other scientists use phrases like “favor” and “preponderance.”

“This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

His shop posted an image comparing this El Niño to the epic one of l997-1998. This year’s ocean phenomenon looks even stronger:


Yet to the NYTimes, Patzert was a little more specific — and cautious.

The main missing piece of the current patterns that would ensure an event like 1997, he said, is a relaxation of trade winds in the central and western Pacific, which allows the weather patterns to move eastward. “I’m a little cautious: This could happen, it could not happen,” he said.

In other words, Dr. Patzert said, “Bob Dylan says it all: The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Without the relaxation of the trade winds, he said, “this will turn out to be a modest El Niño, with a huge sigh of disappointment here in the West.”

NOAA Mike Halpert seemed to agree, saying that we cannot assess “the character of the winter” until about mid-October. He also noted that El Niño doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal of snowfall in Northern California and in the Rockies, from which SoCal gets a great deal of its water — although it can mean that.

In response to a question from yours truly, he directed climate wonks to a post on the agency’s ENSO blog by Dennis Hartman of the U of Washington. Hartmann argues that the drought in the West and the cold winters of recent years (and decades) can be traced to anomalous warmth in the North Pacific. He stresses several times that it’s not yet possible to say if this connected to climate change, natural variability, or other factors.

Although the North Pacific Mode is known to be a product of natural variability associated in some way with ENSO, this mode of variability has become more prominent since 1979.  Whether the enhanced importance of this mode is related to natural variability, global warming, or just changes in observing systems, is, I think, unknown at this point. 


Full Story »

Obesity: An Incurable Disease?

George Monbiot writes an environmental column for The Guardian that admirably refuses to be restricted to the obvious topics of climate, wilderness, and waste. This week he challenges the usual medical advice on reducing weight as a useless gesture for people who are obese, pointing to an article in The Lancet that remarks (with a remarkably sharp wit, for a medical journal):

Once obesity is established, however, bodyweight seems to become biologically stamped in and defended. Therefore, the mere recommendation to avoid calorically dense foods might be no more effective for the typical patient seeking weight reduction than would be a recommendation to avoid sharp objects for someone bleeding profusely.

It’s important to distinguish in this conversation between people who are overweight — who can lose weight, and whose health may not suffer — and people who are obese and typically cannot lose weight and often do suffer from the life-threatening complications of obesity, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

As Monbiot writes:

People who are merely overweight, rather than obese (in other words who have a body mass index of 25 to 30) appear not to suffer from the same biochemical adaptations: their size is not “stamped in”. For them, changes of diet and exercise are likely to be effective. But urging obese people to buck up produces nothing but misery.

The crucial task is to reach children before they succumb to this addiction. As well as help and advice for parents, this surely requires a major change in what scientists call “the obesogenic environment” (high-energy food and drinks and the advertising and packaging that reinforces their attraction). Unless children are steered away from overeating from the beginning, they are likely to be trapped for life.

This dire analysis is not all that controversial in the field, from my experience reporting on the issue. (See for instance Dr. David Katz, editor of the journal Childhood Obesity, in his articles on the topic for the general public.) But it’s not often put that bluntly to the public, especially perhaps in this country.

I raise this question to wonder out loud: Should I try to write about this subject as a health topic? What really got me thinking so was a jaw-dropping data animation, showing how obesity has overwhelmed the nation in the last three decades. (From Max Gilka, charting CDC data.) We take for granted the ruination of so many lives.


Full Story »