McKibben’s Brave New World

Bill McKibben, climate activist and author

By Becky W. Evans CAMBRIDGE, Mass.– Climate activist and author Bill McKibben believes the world is headed toward a future where cheap oil will no longer fuel boundless economic growth. The outcome, he says, will be greater human flourishing, the subject of a recent lecture series at Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions. A diminished supply of cheap fossil fuel combined with the atmosphere’s inability to soak up carbon dioxide emissions will lead to a “new logic” of human flourishing, said McKibben, who spoke at the center this week.

“All the glory associated with the concept of growth will begin to tarnish and instead, words like stability and concepts like hunkering down will become more and more the new lingo that we adopt,” he said. “Maturity will become our credo instead of growth.”

McKibben envisions tighter-knit communities connected by local food supply chains with community gardens and farmers’ markets. He blames fossil fuel-dependent economies for eroding communities. According to McKibben, the average American in 1950 ate twice as many meals with friends, family and neighbors and had twice as many friends as an average American does today.

“The biggest impact on our lives from fossil fuels, I think, has been in a way to make us lonelier people than we were before…simply isolating ourselves in ever larger buildings, ever further apart has played an enormous role in deep, deep changes in human satisfaction,” he said.

Even as communities localize, they will face “acute global problems,” with climate change topping the list, McKibben said. “The ground for human flourishing of any kind is a relatively stable climate.”

To that end, McKibben and his advocacy group are organizing a global work party for October 10, 2010. Their goal is to continue pushing leaders of developed countries to commit to a global climate treaty that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In July, the U.S. House passed legislation that would limit emissions through a cap-and-trade system, but the bill has languished in the Senate. In December, negotiators failed to reach a binding international climate agreement at the United Nation’s climate summit in Copenhagen.

McKibben’s 10-10-10 work party aims to get communities around the world participating in greening projects from planting gardens to laying out bike paths to installing solar panels.

“If we can get up on the roofs of schools and put up solar panels, then people in the Senate can do the work that they are paid to do, writing legislation and passing it,” McKibben said. “We need to begin shaming some of those leaders and pushing them much harder than they’ve been pushed.”

The ThreeBeats Challenge: Reader Annette Zaale Champney sent the following YouTube video link about deadly mudslides in her native Uganda. The March 1 mudslides were caused by unseasonably heavy rains and flooding. Hundreds of residents in the eastern district of Bududa were buried alive in the mud. Champney regrets the weak U.S. media coverage of this tragedy, which was overshadowed by the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. She and other members of the Ugandan diaspora in North America are raising funds for relief efforts in Bududa.

View the YouTube video:

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“Just a Regular Guy”

Fishing vessels in San Diego Harbor

By Becky W. Evans

For the past year, commercial fishing communities across the country have been waiting as Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, vetted candidates to direct NOAA’s Fisheries Service, which manages fish stocks in U.S. waters.

The West Coast fishing industry rooted for Arne Fuglvog, a commercial fisherman from Alaska who works as a legislative assistant for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. In July, Fuglvog dropped his name from consideration, citing conflicts presented by the long vetting process.

Dr. Brian Rothschild, a fisheries scientist in New Bedford, Mass.

On the East Coast, fishermen joined U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in advocating for Dr. Brian Rothschild, a fisheries scientist and former NOAA Fisheries policy advisor who collaborates with the fishing industry in his work at UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology in New Bedford, Mass.

Lubchenco finally made the appointment this month, choosing Eric Schwabb to head up the fisheries agency. Schwabb, who has spent the past 23 years working in various roles (most recently as Deputy Secretary) for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, has the “experience and proven leadership to bring a fresh perspective” to managing the agency, Lubchenco wrote in a Feb 10 statement announcing his appointment.

Eric Schwabb, NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator (Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries)

In a press teleconference last week, Schwabb said he plans to adopt the same strategy he used to manage Maryland’s natural resources: listening to and communicating with fishermen and scientists to “find the right balance between the use of resources and ensuring that they are sustainable for future years and future generations. It’s been my life’s work.”

Winning the support and trust of commercial fishermen will prove difficult, especially in New England where the industry was surprised and upset by Lubchenco’s decision to overlook Rothschild and appoint someone lacking a background in  fisheries science.

Schwabb, who holds a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in geography and environmental planning, admitted he is “just a regular guy,” not a scientist. But he said his management experience speaks for itself. He has directed Maryland’s Fisheries Service, Forest Service and its Forest, Wildlife and Heritage Service. Outside of state work, he served as the resource director for the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies in Washington, D.C.

“I think he’s got good experience for the job,” said Lee Crockett, fisheries policy director for the Pew Environment Group. “He’s had a long career here in Maryland as a natural resources manager and he’s worked in enforcement. I am more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“I don’t think you necessarily need a scientist in that job…being a scientist doesn’t mean you are a good manager,” Crockett said.

Schwabb takes the helm from acting NOAA Fisheries chief Dr. Jim Balsiger at a time when fishermen’s frustrations with federal fisheries rules have reached their boiling point. Thousands of commercial and recreational fishermen are expected to rally this week on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where they will urge Congress to revamp federal fisheries law, known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act. They claim the law, which was last revised in 2007, is too rigid. They fear the mandatory 10-year timeline for rebuilding depleted fish stocks will devastate the industry with massive cuts in fishing effort. Environmental groups, such as Pew, contend that the timeline is necessary and will benefit the commercial fishing industry in the long run when stocks are more robust.

Schwabb faces the added challenge of improving the image and actions of NOAA Fisheries Enforcement following a scathing review by the Commerce Department’s Inspector General’s office last month. “I look forward to beginning immediately to implement the strong game plan Dr. Lubchenco has laid out in restoring confidence in fisheries law enforcement,” Schwabb said, noting his former experience as a natural resources police officer in Maryland.

Lubchenco has outlined Schwabb’s immediate priorities as: “improving outreach and relationships with recreational and commercial fishermen, better aligning federal and regional fisheries priorities, restoring confidence in fisheries law enforcement, and promoting management approaches that will achieve both sustainable fisheries and vibrant coastal communities.”

Evans interviews Dr. Jane Lubchenco, head of NOAA, in July 2009 (Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries)

Rothschild said it will take “almost a superhuman person” to deal with the “huge, huge problems” plaguing commercial fisheries management. Though he didn’t get the job, he said he feels good knowing that he made it clear he was willing to serve the country.

“Basically the political system felt that someone else was better and that is their prerogative,” he said.

For now, Rothschild is busy planning a March 8 fishing summit in New Bedford. “We are going to discuss many of the issues of concern to people on the street, ranging from catch shares and sectors to enforcement to the council to alternative ways of thinking about fisheries management.”

Coming Home

By Becky W. Evans

When I traveled from Ecuador to the United States last week, my journey home was relatively quick and painless, a privilege of my status as a wealthy U.S. citizen. I boarded a plane in Quito, flashed my passport to customs officials in Miami, and touched down in Boston just before sunset — less than 9 hours after leaving Quito.

The most challenging part of my trip was re-checking my luggage at Miami International Airport. After clearing customs, I hauled my two bags (one containing a delicate Ecuadorian end table padded with my dirty laundry) nearly a mile through a maze of lifeless, gray corridors. At the end of the tunnel, I was greeted with a long security line, which led to yet another snaking security line. Eventually, my bags were sent on to Boston; the table still in one piece.

For Ecuadorians who want to visit, study or work in the United States, entering this country is far more difficult than enduring airport security lines. Visas are necessary and they are hard to come by, especially for the poor. Those who cannot obtain a visa often try to enter the United States illegally. Many emigrants leave Ecuador on overcrowded fishing vessels bound for Guatemala and Mexico. They are crammed in unventilated fish holds below the ship’s decks, where they may go for days without food and water. Some people die and others are seized by the U.S. Coast Guard. Those who survive the voyage often owe thousands of dollars to coyotes, or guides, who smuggle them through Mexico and into the United States.

An economic crisis during the late 1990s sent many Ecuadorians searching for work outside South America. More than 600,000 Ecuadorians emigrated to the United States and Europe between 2000 and 2001, according to the U.S. Department of State. In recent years, high unemployment rates have continued to push job-seeking Ecuadorians into the United States. Today, an estimated one to two million Ecuadorians live here, according to the state department.

The government of Ecuador has partnered with child advocacy groups to launch a public awareness campaign that warns people, especially children, about the risks of illegal immigration. While walking through Quito’s Parque Carolina on my way home from Spanish class, I would pass the billboard pictured above. Translated into English, it reads: “Don’t travel illegally. You may never arrive. Be careful of coyotes.” I found the billboard haunting, especially knowing the ease of my return trip to the United States.

Though I am now back in Boston, I plan to publish more ThreeBeats stories about Ecuador in the coming weeks. Below, I have posted a few more photos from my stay in Quito. I have also posted the first submission to the ThreeBeats Challenge (see sidebar).

This YouTube video features surfer-activist Kyle Thiermann and his take on a proposed coal power plant, which he claims will threaten the fishing industry and pollute the marine environment of Constitucion, Chile. The video link was submitted by ThreeBeats subscriber Emily Thompson of New York City.

Hasta pronto.

A Glimpse of Glaciers

By Becky W. Evans

Ecuador’s highest peak, Volcan Chimborazo (20,700 feet), is covered with finger-shaped glaciers that are retreating, possibly due to climate change. Research conducted in the Tropical Andes shows that temperatures are warming and humidity patterns are changing. Both factors influence the melting rate of glaciers and are indicative of climate change, scientists say.

Jeff LaFrenierre, a geography PhD student at Ohio State University, says photographs of Chimborazo’s glaciers reveal “noticeable retreat” over the past decade. LaFrenierre, who is connected with the university’s Byrd Polar Research Center, is conducting research on Chimborazo. For his proposed PhD dissertation, LaFrenierre is studying how the volcano’s glaciers contribute to the region’s water supply. He wants to know if and how further reduction of Chimborazo’s glacial mass could impact this water supply.

“Glaciers store excess snow and release it as meltwater during periods when it is warm or dry,” he said. As glaciers retreat, they initially release more meltwater but eventually the flow decreases.

“Anything that tinkers with the local hydrologic system can change the local ecology impacting human water supplies, agriculture and hydropower,” said LaFrenierre. “If we find that all these things are reliant on glacial contribution to the water system, we will know what to expect here in Ecuador if the glaciers continue to retreat.”

The glaciers of the Cordillerra Blanca in Peru and the Himalayas of India and Pakistan are known to be major feeders of water systems that supply millions of people with drinking water. If retreating glaciers deplete these water supplies, there are fears that so-called “water wars” will erupt in the future.

“These are very preliminary concerns raised in other parts of the world and my objective is to see what the situation may be here on Chimborazo,”  said LaFrenierre, who became familiar with the volcano while working with Engineers Without Borders.

For my part, I made a recent visit to Chimborazo, a dormant volcano that lies in the Cordillera Occidental of the Andes of central Ecuador. My ears popped as we drove up the cloud-covered volcano passing through different ecosystems, including the paramo, or high-altitude grasslands, and the arenal, a high-altitude plateau littered with volcanic debris.

I exited the truck at Carrel Hut, which stands at 15,900 feet. Initially I felt great taking in the silence of the vast landscape and sipping the fresh air. Yet just a few steps into my hike, I could feel the effects of the high altitude in my labored breathing and starry vision, both reminiscent of my experience hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. I continued up the trail for another 20 minutes, peaking a good distance from Whymper Hut (16,400 feet). The hut is used by serious climbers, who must rest before beginning their 12 a.m. ascent of Chimborazo. The early departure helps climbers avoid slipping on wet snow during the heat of midday.

My time on the volcano did not provide a clear view of Chimborazo’s glacier-coated peak, but at least I caught a glimpse of it when entering and leaving the park. Here are some photos from my visit (Remember they are best viewed by clicking on the first image to initiate a slide show):

Behind the Seafood

By Becky W. Evans

Since I have yet to visit Ecuador’s coast, this fisheries post will focus on my consumption of seafood here in Quito, where I’m studying Spanish. Seafood restaurants abound in this Andean city despite its distance from the Pacific coast (about a 5-hour drive down to sea level, I am told.) To date, I have sampled spicy garlic shrimp (camarones a la diabla), fried sea bass and shrimp in coconut sauce (corvina frita y encocado de camarones), and mahi-mahi (dorado) in a plantain sauce. Each heaping dish was worthy of at least four stars for taste, but likely fewer for sustainability.

A brief study of these three fisheries (mahi-mahi, sea bass and shrimp) raises some red flags. For starters, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reports there is little scientific information and no effective management plans for Ecuador’s mahi-mahi and sea bass species, which are imported by the United States and other countries. An artisanal fleet uses longlines to catch these fish along the country’s 1,400-mile coast and in deeper, offshore waters. Rules governing the mahi-mahi fishery are not well enforced, according to FishSource, a database of global fisheries research. Environmental advocacy groups, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, warn that unregulated longlining can injure or kill sea turtles, sharks, seabirds and marine mammals that are unintentionally caught or entangled in fishing gear. Some Ecuadorian fishermen are experimenting with special hooks designed to limit the incidental catch of sea turtles.

Shrimp farming in Ecuador has led to the deforestation of 70 percent of the country’s coastal mangrove swamps, said Cecilia Cherrez of Accion Ecologica Ecuador, an environmental group. Mangroves provide an important habitat for young fish, shellfish and birds. Huge tracts of mangrove forests were cut down to create massive  shrimp farms that have polluted the environment and displaced local fishermen. In the mid-1980s, Ecuador was the largest shrimp exporter in the world. In the late 1990s, the environmental groups Greenpeace and Fundecol led a campaign protesting the expansion of shrimp farming in Ecuador’s northern coast. More recently, private and public stakeholders have been working together to reduce the industry’s environmental impacts. Some companies are now certified as organic shrimp farms.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California publishes a seafood guide, called  Seafood WATCH, which helps consumers choose seafood that is caught or farmed in ways that do not harm the environment. The guide advises U.S. seafood consumers to avoid imported, farmed shrimp in addition to imported mahi-mahi caught with longlines.

Sustainable seafood guides have yet to reach consumers in Ecuador, says nutritionist Michelle O. Fried, who writes and teaches about Andean cuisine here. While fish and shellfish provide an important source of protein, more education is needed to inform consumers about their seafood choices. “Nobody is aware at all,” Fried said.

Some photos of seafood in Ecuador (click on an image for a larger slideshow.)

Finding Life in the Land

By Becky W. Evans

“A people that does not have land, does not have life,” said Luis Alberto Bautista, an indigenous Ecuadorean pastor who serves as the indigenous ministry coordinator for the Latin Council of Churches. He spoke last week to visiting U.S. divinity school students about the spirituality and political involvement of Ecuador’s indigenous communities, which make up 21 percent of the country’s 14.6 million population.

Many of Ecuador’s indigenous people, including those living in the Andean highlands, lost their land during the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. They were forced to work as slaves on large farms, or haciendas, owned by Spanish landlords. Political organization of indigenous Ecuadorians during the 1940s led to agrarian reform, which restored some land to indigenous communities. But sociologist Luis Alberto Tuaza is quick to point out that indigenous people were given ownership of high-altitude land with poor, sandy soil rather than the fertile valleys below.

I recently traveled to the small Andean town of Guamote, where 95 percent of the population is indigenous. Campesinos wandered through the cobblestone streets wearing felt hats with peacock feathers, turquoise, green and magenta shawls (women), red ponchos (men) and other traditional dress. The town, located in one of the poorest counties of Ecuador, is surrounded by terraced hillsides planted with corn, barley and potatoes. Some of the land is held by individuals and some by the community.

Modern indigenous Andean spirituality and philosophy incorporates a profound respect for land. “There must be harmony between humans, between nature and between communities,” said Julian Guaman, an indigenous Ecuadorian theologian. He described a circular, not linear, concept of progress. “Advancement without hurting people or nature,” he said. “Our philosophy, wisdom, and way of thinking and living are all built on the foundation of parity, or equilibrium.”

Here are some photos of indigenous people living in Guamote and its surrounding villages. (Note: Click on an image for an enlarged slide show. It is best to view these photos at the ThreeBeats web site, rather than in your email inbox.)

Bienvenido a Quito

By Becky W. Evans

Welcome to Quito, Ecuador where I awake each morning to trilling songbirds, barking dogs and rumbling jet engines. This capital city of 2.1 million people sits at nearly 10,000-feet in a narrow valley bounded by Andean volcanoes, some of which are capped with snow year-round. The dense city measures about 29-miles long and 5-miles wide. The chaotic streets play host to cars, buses, motorcycles, four-wheelers, pedestrians, vendors and entertainers, including jugglers trying to earn some cash (U.S. dollars) before the traffic light turns green.

Speaking of lights, they get shut off for about two hours each day in different sections of this city due to a country-wide electricity rationing program, which began in November.

A severe drought has kept Ecuador dry since September. “It is the first time in forty years that the climate is so, so dry,” said economist Franklin Canelos of the Latin American Council of Churches.

A handful of hydropower plants produce about 60 percent of the country’s electricity, Canelos said. But now the plants are running at low capacity due to the rain shortage. In southern Ecuador, reservoir water levels have dropped significantly at the Paute River dam, which supplies Quito’s electricity.

The rolling blackouts, designed to conserve electricity, darken apartments, schools, churches and some business offices (many have generators.) When the traffic lights dim, policemen take to the bustling streets to direct traffic. For the most part, life in this city goes on, though not everyone is happy about it. The blackouts are likely to continue until March, when steady rainfall should return.

Here are some faces of Quito:

Looking Back as I Step Forward

By Becky W. Evans

NEW BEDFORD, Mass.– After six years reporting on fisheries, environment and immigration, I am leaving The Standard-Times to explore life outside the newsroom and SouthCoast. First stop, Ecuador. I invite you to follow me as I continue to cover these three beats. Simply sign up in the right hand sidebar to follow this blog.

Meanwhile, here’s a sampling of my favorite ThreeBeats-themed stories published in The Standard Times, where my colleagues will continue to “deliver your life daily.”

1. As a novice reporter, this was my first story to win a hard to come by “congratulations” from then editor Ken Hartnett. He described the story as “rich with emotion and character” in an email that I have saved ever since. Nine months into my career at The Standard-Times, this story of a fishing vessel’s near-sinking crossed my desk. I recall interviewing widow Celeste Pereira and being surprised by her honest sharing of grief.

Widow Nearly Loses Second Son to the Sea (12/15/04)

NEW BEDFORD — As John Pereira prepared to leave on a scalloping trip to Georges Bank yesterday, his mother, Celeste Pereira, begged him to stay home. Two weeks earlier, Mr. Pereira, 35, and his mates were rescued at sea after the fishing vessel Montreal sank about 150 miles east of Cape Cod, near the Hague Line in Georges Bank. Yesterday, the Montreal’s seven crewmen boarded the scalloper Paula Michelle to return to the fishing grounds that swallowed their ship but not their courage. Mr. Pereira refused to stay home.  Click here to read the full story.

2. Even as the newspaper industry started its slippery slide, The Standard-Times remained committed to telling the full story of Mayan immigrants who were deported following an immigration raid at a New Bedford military backpack factory.  The newspaper sent me and photojournalist Peter Pereira to Guatemala in search of the deportees. We had no names or addresses. A lucky encounter and a steep, dirt road led us to a remote and beautiful village. Here we met 20-year-old Gaspar, a former New Bedford resident.

Deported After Raid, 20-year-old Makes the Best of it in Guatemala (3/6/2008)

POTRERO VIEJO, Guatemala — A framed, pink certificate from New Bedford Public Schools sits on the small nightstand beside the single bed Gaspar Francisco Lopez Suar, 20, shares with his little brother. Since being deported to Guatemala in early September, the former Michael Bianco Inc. employee has become the head of his household, which includes a 95-year-old grandfather, 10-year-old brother and four sisters, ages 12 to 19. His father and older brother live illegally in New Bedford. His mother died two months after his father immigrated to New Bedford in 1999. Click here to read the full story.

3. It had been years since I went to a library to conduct research in front of a bulky, microfilm-reading machine. The Internet had allowed for swift info searches in the comfort of my own cubicle.  However, an investigation into the history of hazardous waste disposal at a local dump-turned-high school sent me trekking to the New Bedford Free Public Library. Genealogist Paul Cyr supplied me with an index of newspaper archives dating back to the late 1800s. And I reconnected with microfilm and the virtue of patience.

Digging Up the Past (12/13/09)

NEW BEDFORD — The Parker Street dump was a household name in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, especially for residents living in the growing West End neighborhood. Richard Paul, 70, grew up on Vine Street and remembers riding his bike to the sprawling dump where he and friends would shoot rats and cans with their air rifles. Fires frequently broke out at the dump, sending thick, foul-smelling smoke through the neighborhood. “The whole area, I tell you, was just a mess,” said Paul. “Everybody brought trash there. There were no restrictions.” Click here to read the full story