The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!
The EFM Notebook
A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy
by Susan Holloway | Bio
NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone. EFM Notebook Index
Let’s linger on the national and state news just long enough to say yippee for the Inflation Reduction Act! This legislation allocates $370 billion from the feds to producers of clean electricity. The law is expected to help bring U.S. greenhouse gas emissions about 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030!
It took a while, but the dogged persistence of advocates and elected officials finally resulted in a big win. Extra credit points for the agile pivoting from taxing carbon emissions to incentivizing clean energy use! For more, take a look at this excellent article from Inside Climate News.
And at the state level, we can celebrate the new rule issued by the California Air Resources Board that requires all new cars sold in the state by 2035 to be free of greenhouse gas emissions. The rule also defines an interim target, specifying that at least 35% of new cars sold by 2026 produce zero emissions. This is HUGE, particularly since California is the largest consumer of cars in the US and because many states are likely to follow California’s lead. Read up on the details here.
OK, on to the local news…
Celebration One: Sale of Tropical Milkweed Banned in Marin County
You may have heard that the western monarch population is in serious decline, hovering at the extinction level. In California, the population dwindled from approximately 1.2 million in 1997 to only 2,000 in 2020. Environmentalists raised the alarm and conservation efforts began falling into place. Indeed, the latest census found that more than 247,000 butterflies overwintered in the state during 2021.
While the reasons for the monarch’s decline are complex, one factor pertains to their reliance on milkweed plants to complete their life cycle. Milkweed is the monarch’s only host plant. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed and the resulting caterpillars eat the leaves. In Marin, there are two kinds of native milkweed, and both are recommended for cultivation: Narrow Leaf Milkweed, and Showy Milkweed. These types will continue to be sold by nurseries in the county.
A third type of milkweed, tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is not native to California. This is the one that has been banned. Unlike native milkweed species, tropical milkweed does not die back in winter. Because it lasts year-round and has attractive flowers, it has become an increasingly popular choice for homeowners seeking to attract monarchs to their yards. However, the fact that it doesn’t die back in winter like native milkweed means that diseases harmful to monarch butterflies, such as the parasite OE, can persist on its evergreen leaves and infect future monarch generations.
Last year the California Department of Food and Agriculture designated tropical milkweed as a noxious weed known to cause harm to the environment or the economy. This type of designation allows county agricultural commissioners to ban the sale and propagation of the plant. And Marin Agricultural Commissioner Stefan Parnay has done just that. Tropical milkweed is no longer allowed to be sold in nurseries in Marin County!
Marin is the second county in California to ban tropical milkweed, joining Ventura County, which enacted a similar ban earlier this summer. Read all about it here.
A huge thanks goes to Stefan Parnay along with the hardworking, brilliant local advocates in the Marin Monarch Working Group who have pushed hard to get this plan in place!
Celebration Two: Single Use Plastic Foodware Banned in Marin County
For years, the petrochemical industry has promoted a gigantic lie, namely that plastic waste gets recycled in the US. Nope! This waste often ends up in landfills, along roadsides, and in rivers, lakes, and oceans. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade for decades. Instead it gradually breaks into tiny particles that enter and contaminate the air, water, and soil.
These microplastics accumulate in the bodies of marine mammals, sea birds and humans. One recent study found ten times as many plastic particles in the poop of one year olds as in that of adults — thanks a lot, plastic baby bottles!
Evidence continues to mount concerning the pernicious effects of ingesting the chemicals in plastics. A newly published study by researchers at UCSF and Johns Hopkins found dangerously high amounts of chemicals such as melamine and cyanuric acid in the bodies of the participants, who were pregnant women. Particularly high levels were found in women of color. These chemicals are found in plastic products as well as in dishware, hair products, and pesticides.
And plastic is definitely not going away; rather, it is being produced in greater amounts than ever. Barring radical action, plastic production is expected to jump three- to fourfold by 2050.
OK, OK, but let’s get to the good news!
The good news is that in May of 2022, the Marin County Board of Supervisors adopted a Reusable Foodware Ordinance that bans the use of plastic containers, plates, cups, straws, and utensils in restaurants and other take-out food establishments in all of unincorporated Marin.
What does the ban mean, practically speaking? First of all, reusable foodware and utensils must be provided if a customer is dining in a restaurant. So no munching from a plastic-lined paper box of fries.
Second, all take-out disposable foodware must be natural-fiber compostable or aluminum. So, no plastic or plastic-lined paper containers. And no bio-plastic foodware — the stuff may be colored green and plastered with pictures of trees and little arrows chasing each other, but it is not necessarily compostable or degradable. And some of it may contain toxic materials. So it is also banned.
This ordinance applies to all entities selling prepared food to the public including restaurants, grocery stores and delis, bakeries, carry-out, quick services, farmers markets, and food trucks.
Customers are allowed to bring their own containers for take-out. But come on people, they need to be empty, clean, and big enough to contain your food! Bring your own cup to avoid a $.25 charge for a disposable one.
This is a big victory, and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jinesse Reynolds, Barbara Bogard, Renee Godard, Chance Cutrano, and Susan Hopp along with all the others who have devoted countless hours to this battle. Read more about Jinesse Reynolds and her fight to ban plastic foodware here.
Closing Note: What Motivates Us to Act on Behalf of the Environment?
These big wins are hugely important for protecting our planet. And when we see people coming together to solve problems it gives us the motivation and impetus to continue the struggle. Big successes are very rewarding and energizing!
From seeds to seedlings
It all started 18 months ago in February, when I planted some milkweed seeds. For a few weeks they lived in seed containers on my kitchen counter. When the seeds sprouted, I transplanted the seedlings into pots and eventually I planted them in the ground.
I then waited expectantly for hordes of caterpillars to arrive for a feast. But no one showed up until July, when I finally spied a lone caterpillar scaling a milkweed stem. I knew that this caterpillar faced stiff odds; only a small percentage of them make it to the butterfly stage. But I nevertheless allowed myself to become attached, assigning him a gender and naming him Chuck.
I watched with pride and alarm as Chuck quickly consumed nearly all the leaves on the plants I had reared. Like the Hulk, Chuck was expanding before my eyes, weighing down the few remaining milkweed leaves on which he perched. Worried that he didn’t have enough food to get through the 18-day caterpillar phase, I went out and bought two pots of native milkweed.
Weirdly, Chuck showed no signs of interest in these fancy new plants. I watched and waited but he just kept wandering around on the barren stems of the old plants. I finally couldn’t stand it any longer, plucking him off a bare stem and placing him in the verdant paradise I had purchased. As I pulled him off the stem, I felt resistance from the little suction cups at the ends of his legs. Then he curled up in a protective spiral and didn’t move.
I freaked out — what if I had ripped out the suction cups when I pulled him off? Was he in agony? When I came back later, he had straightened out but still didn’t seem interested in the new plants. The next morning, I went out to check on him…but he had vanished. I could only hope that he had wandered off to a more private place to form a chrysalis.
Two weeks later I saw a monarch fluttering around near the milkweed. Had Chuck beaten the odds and managed to make it to the butterfly stage? After all, he was the only monarch caterpillar in my yard, and this was the ONLY monarch butterfly I had seen there all summer. He didn’t dip a wing in salute or give me a knowing wink as he fluttered by, so I will never know if it was indeed Chuck.
What is my point? First, it is really challenging to “fix” a complex system that had been disturbed by human activity. The journey from egg to caterpillar to butterfly is amazing and hard to manage from the outside.
I also learned that connecting with another living creature, even a caterpillar, is unexpectedly rewarding. It was almost as rewarding to me as the big environmental wins that have cascaded down upon us this summer. I suppose the ultimate lesson is that environmental action begins with caring.
Yeah, or maybe, as my Missouri grandmother would say, I am just “kinda screwy.”
That’s it for this installment of the Notebook. Spread the good news by clicking on the share button below!
Source: Sarah Platt, National Park Service
The risk of wildfires is also extremely high. The Washburn Fire came perilously close to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees in Yosemite this July but was ultimately contained without the loss of any of the 500 sequoias. The McKinney fire continues to rage in Northern California, killing four people and clogging the Klamath River with soil and debris.
Overall, the state has fallen far short of Governor Newsom's goal from last year of a 15% decrease in water use. Conservation efforts picked up in June, with the statewide savings at 7.6% over the baseline year of 2020. So far, the Bay Area is conserving far more than other parts of the state, particularly Southern California. Not to brag, but Marin is among the top conservers, having reduced water use by 25.3%.
Marin is doing relatively OK in terms of reservoir capacity, thanks to the rainfall we had this spring. The seven reservoirs that provide most of Marin's water are at 81% of capacity, a big improvement over last year at this time, when they were at 40%.
Despite some bright spots, the severity of these problems can feel overwhelming, and sometimes it's hard to believe that any individual's effort to save water is worth a hill of beans. We clearly need proactive political leadership and systemic change with respect to water conservation as well as to climate change in general. To that end, the Marin Municipal Water District has implemented a number of strategies for bolstering our supply.
But when the situation is as dire as ours, individuals and communities need to organize in order to preserve and protect the environment as well as our own health, safety, and comfort.
What Can You Do?
I imagine that you know the actions needed to conserve water in daily life. It all comes down to one basic idea: Try not to use it! So that means take short showers, flush the toilet sparingly, don't use the dishwasher or washing machine until it is full, cover your swimming pool if you have one, water outdoor sparingly, let your lawn go brown, and so on.
BUT there is a big difference between knowing what you should do and then actually doing it...consistently. The novelty of collecting the cold water that emerges from the shower while you are waiting for the hot stuff and then using it to water your houseplants probably wore off during the first month of the first year of the drought. So how do we keep ourselves going?
I want to tout the benefits of getting a gadget, one that will provide specific information about how much water your household is using, and that will let you know how much you have reduced your consumption relative to previous periods. So, information and motivation!
Before you stop reading let me assure you that I am not a gadget aficionado. For instance, I am OK with Google Maps but mainly because I have set the instructions to be delivered in a delightful Irish brogue. But there really are user-friendly tools that provide extremely useful information for water conservation. Say hello to my little friend, the Flume Smart Water Home Monitor.
What is a Flume Smart Home Water Monitor?
Feline leak monitoring
This monitor allows you to track how much water you are using minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day etc. It also provides details on how much water you are using from various sources like the dishwasher, shower, or outdoors. For me, it was revelatory to get a sense of what my biggest water-using activities were, and it can provide useful ammo if a family member seems to be, for example, taking frequent baths or overly long showers.
Another great feature of the Flume monitor is that you can compare how much water you used yesterday, for example, with how much you used in one day exactly a month ago or a year ago.
If I had a Flume monitor, I would have been able to see right away that something was off.
OK, but what is it, exactly?
The Flume monitor was developed by three students at California Polytechnic State University in response to the 2014 drought in California. In subsequent years they have built this product into a highly successful company, with tens of thousands of these devices installed across the United States.
The Flume water monitor has three components. First, there is a water sensor that you strap to your water meter. The sensor measures the water flow and sends this information to the bridge, a little box that you plug into a power outlet inside your home. It connects to your Wifi network and sends data from the sensor into the Cloud. You can access the data using the Flume app. You can read a very detailed, technical review of the Flume system here.
Is it hard to get the thing up and running?
Plugging in the bridge and downloading the app was a piece of cake. I'd estimate the total installation time at 15 minutes if you know where your water meter is....and a bit more if you need to go on a treasure hunt.
Does using the Flume monitor actually decrease consumption?
Studies of pedometer apps like Pacer show that many people give up on them within a few months (and a few people become unhealthily addicted to them). One problem is that when we start expecting some kind of external reward (like the pleasure of being told by Pacer that you have walked 10,000 steps) for something that you used to think was just intrinsically fun, interesting, or meaningful (like walking), you lose your internal motivation to take a nice walk. This is a well-documented phenomenon in the field of psychology. It's called the over-justification effect. Read more about it here.
Luckily the over-justification effect doesn't really come into play with the Flume, because few people find water conservation to be intrinsically fun or interesting. And once you can see clearly how much water you are wasting in certain specific ways, it becomes possible to focus on that problem area and modify your behavior. In fact, data collected by Flume shows an average 10% reduction in water usage within two weeks, a decrease that remains consistent as time goes on. Moreover, 66% of users receive a leak notification within the first month of using their monitor.
Detecting leaks and reducing consumption on the residential level may not change the world overnight, but it enables customers to grasp and control something that they never before understood. Most people don't know if a shower uses 5 gallons or 50 gallons. Flume educates them and encourages a change in habits. - Eric Adler, co-founder of Flume
How much does the Flume water monitor cost?
Marin Municipal Water District is offering residents a nice rebate for the Flume water monitor. Click here to find out how to get one for $49...that's 75% off the regular price.
To be honest, I will say that you can also monitor your consumption and check for leaks by consulting your water meter. But the Flume monitor makes it much easier and faster to accomplish these objectives. So go for it!
That's it for this installment of the Notebook! We've upgraded the website to make it easier for you to share posts on social media…so go for it!
In the immortal words of Miley Cyrus: "We’re getting handed a piece-of-shit planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child. Until I feel like my kid would live on an earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that."
Miley is not the only person to question the morality of bringing children into a world that seems poised on the brink of environmental disaster. This question looms large in the minds of many women and men in their 20s and 30s.
There are two basic questions at hand. As Katie O'Reilly wrote in a recent essay entitled Dispatches from One Millenial's Uterus: "I'm worried that if I procreate, I will contribute to melting ice caps, rising seas, and extreme weather. Worse, I might create brand-new victims of climate change — people who never asked to be part of this human-made mess."
It's not just a fringe group of pop stars and intellectuals who are debating these topics. In a 2020 poll of over 2,000 adults without kids, close to half of the Millenials and Gen Zers cited climate change as a major or minor reason why they do not have children. The number citing climate change was even higher for respondents of color than for white non-hispanic respondents in these two generations.
Certainly, climate change is entwined with the economic insecurity faced by people in these generations, including student loan debt, wage deflation, inflated housing prices, health insurance, and childcare costs. Add in the fact that political polarization is impeding movement on any of these issues at the national level, and Miley begins to make more and more sense.
Don't Have Children, Save the Planet?
Let's start with the argument that children are bad for the planet. People consume resources, leading to the emission of greenhouse gases (primarily methane and carbon dioxide). The amount of GHG a person emits is referred to as a carbon footprint. The average annual carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons. To have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tons by 2050.
Curious about your own carbon footprint? Check out this calculator from the Nature Conservancy.
And shouldn't we consider that a child born is likely to have children, grandchildren, and so on? So the climate impact of today's baby is likely to increase exponentially. Egad! The case for not having children begins to sound tempting...
Fertility and the Environment: The Fraught History of Population Control
The contemporary arguments about childbearing remind me of the anti-reproduction movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, which was stimulated in large part by Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Focusing primarily on food insecurity rather than climate change, Ehrlich argued that it was essential to limit reproduction across the globe and increase food production to ensure the survival of the human race. He suggested a number of possible remedies, including putting "temporary sterilants" in the water supply, imposing a luxury tax on childcare goods, and ending food aid to countries that had not implemented successful plans to limit their population.
The book sold over two million copies, and many mainstream environmentalists were supportive of the book's assertions. Indeed, Ehrlich had written the book partly at the urging of David Brower, Executive Director of the Sierra Club.
In the decade following its publication, population control became a salient part of US policy at home and abroad. According to Mytheli Sreenivas, a professor specializing in reproductive politics, "Beginning in the mid-1960s, the U.S. government made controlling population growth a priority of its foreign policy...President Lyndon B. Johnson linked international development aid to population control, for example, and declared that he was 'not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems.'”
In the US, serious and widespread abuses of population control practices were carried out in Native American, Black, and Latino communities. The Indian Health Service threatened Native American women with loss of their children or their welfare benefits if they refused to be sterilized. As a result, at least 25% of Native American women were sterilized between 1970 and 1976, with percentages as high as 50% in some communities. Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri, a Native physician who kept track of these statistics noted that sterilizations reflected the "thinking of warped doctors who think the solution to poverty is not to allow people to be born."
The focus on population control began to wane in the mid 1970s. Public concern over forced and nonconsensual sterilization played a role in this policy shift. Additionally, passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 as well as increased access to birth control increased women's power to make personal reproductive decisions on their own. The US population began to decline as female education rates and per capita income when up, two factors associated with lower birthrates. And, in spite of the many environmental initiatives passed in the 60s and 70s, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, the dangers of climate change became ever more apparent, and public attention moved away from population pressures on food security.
Contemporary Perspectives on Efficacy of Population Control
In addition to the possiblity of abuse, another fundamental problem with population control solutions is that they take too long. We need to cut greenhouse gases in half within the next decade. Check out this thought-provoking interview with Kimberly Nicholas, a climate scientist who has studied these issues intensively. She basically argues that even if we could reduce the birth rate in the US or abroad without being coercive and racist, we do not have enough time to wait for the expected reduction in carbon emissions. from not having children. Nor can we depend on the next generation to solve the problems that prior generation have failed to address successfully.
As she argues, "In the case of climate change, we should not be planning for somebody else to save us. We actually have to save ourselves."
"To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all." Sophocles
One heartwrenching aspect of the antinatalist upsurge is how many "ordinary" people are now convinced that children born into this world in contemporary times are doomed to live horrible lives.
In 2020, researchers Schneider-Mayerson and Leong surveyed 656 individuals between the ages of 27 and 45 selected because they were "connecting climate change to their reproductive choices." The goal of the study was to learn more specifically what it was about climate change that was causing concern. Respondents described an imagined future of "overlapping and reinforcing climatic, ecological, epidemiological, social, economic, political, geopolitical, and migration crises." As a 30-year-old software engineer in California wrote, “I strongly believe that children alive today are going to live through a long period of trauma, violence and devastation on a global scale that will rival World War I in its sheer terror unleashed on an unprepared population.”
Throughout history women experiencing severe hardship have taken steps to limit their childbearing. In the US, some enslaved women resisted bearing children that would themselves be enslaved by terminating pregnancies. Those working on cotton plantations chewed the roots of the cotton plant as an abortifacient.
But wait, can't we assume that future generations are going to get smarter about reducing carbon emissions?
Enter David Benatar, philosopher and prominent advocate of antinatilism, one of whose books is called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Benatar argues that pain is inevitable in life and that no amount of pleasure will outweigh it. To those who argue that humans will eventually learn how to make life less painful Benatar says: “It’ll never happen. The lessons never seem to get learnt. They never seem to get learnt. Maybe the odd individual will learn them, but you still see this madness around you".
Well, whether or not we are smart enough to learn these lessons about climate change is indeed hard to forecast with any certainty. But before you sink into despair and intertia, let's consider some options for action.
Personal Narratives, Emotional Connection, Effective Action
From an organizing perspective, the question is how to take this deep pessimism and channel it into collective action. I guess there is still an optimistic part of me that thinks we still have time to turn things around, and I am interested in exploring how to motivate a sense of hope and agency to energize action.
Find a group of allies with whom you can share your story, find common goals, and make an action plan. In Marin, a great option is to join a climate action team through Resilient Neighborhoods and get step-by-step support for making important household choices.
Make a personal action plan. Check out the Nature Conservancy's informative website and learn how to calculate your carbon footprint. Then commit to having an impact. Here are two of the fastest and most effective things you can do.
That's it for this installment of the Notebook. Look for us at marinefm.org or on Facebook and Instagram.
We'd love to hear your thoughts!
YIKES! Earth Month is almost over!
Can you do one more thing this month to fight climate change?
It will take 10 minutes of your time and likely save you money!
Here's what to do: Switch over to a Community Choice energy program!
What are Community Choice programs?
Community choice programs are administered by local governments to provide a competitive alternative to investor-owned utilities like PG&E. They provide cleaner power and deliver benefits locally rather than to PG&E shareholders.
Residents of Marin are served by a community choice program called MCE. MCE, a not-for-profit public agency, offers renewable power at stable, competitive rates in four Bay Area counties. Started in 2010, it has eliminated 700,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions and saved customers $68 million to date.
PG&E handles service delivery and billing for MCE customers. All you have to do is sign up!
As an MCE customer, you have choices among programs. For the biggest environmental impact, sign up for Deep Green or Local Sol!!
Renewable sources: bioenergy, geothermal, wind, solar, eligible hydroelectricNonrenewable sources: Coal, large hydroelectric, natural gas, nuclear
READY TO GO GREEN? If you live in Marin, Contra Costa, Solano, or Napa County call MCE at 1 (888) 632-3674
or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Have your PG&E account number handy.
That’s it for this installment of the Environmental Forum of Marin Notebook!
Learn more about EFM and the Notebook at marinefm.org.
Opponents of natural gas stoves are vociferous. “Kill your gas stove” is the headline on a 2020 article in the Atlantic. “It’s bad for you, and the environment.” Not so fast, counters the New York Times in their headline: “Why you don’t need to ditch your gas stove (yet).”
What are the dangers to the environment of powering your home with natural gas? And what about health effects? And given what we have learned, what should you do? Pull money out your child’s college tuition fund and buy an electric stove? Or should you prioritize a new furnace? And what is all this about heat pumps?
I want to dig into the issues, but first let’s go back in time to the days before anyone even had a choice, much less a preference, between natural gas and electricity. In fact, let’s witness the miracle of electrification through the eyes of my grandmother, Mildred Bowles.
Born in 1906, my grandmother lived on a watermelon farm in Missouri with her parents, four brothers, and four sisters. Like most rural families at the time, they had no electric power. When she was a child, one of Mildred’s chores was to check the family’s game traps every morning before school. She used to tell me that she hated that chore because her clothes would get dirty while she was tramping around in the bushes. It was embarrassing to wear dirty clothes to school. But in those days of washing by hand (not to mention pumping water by hand too), she had to wear the same dress, clean or not, for at least a week.
Fun, 1950s style
Life took a turn for the better in the 1920s, when her family moved to Northern California where electricity was already available in most homes. She met and married my grandfather and they settled in Sacramento. My grandparents’ running water, lights, and a radio were conveniences unavailable to her friends and neighbors back in Missouri.
No wonder Mildred was a steadfast proponent of all that modernity had to offer! In the 1950s, cooking newly invented convenience foods on her electric range was part of the fun. She was an early adopter of Jiffy Pop, which was invented in 1958. Jiffy Pop ads claimed it was “as fun to make as it is to eat.” It was all part of happy suburban family life.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, however, the conformist, sexist, and racist values of the 1950s “ideal” life came under scrutiny, especially in the Bay Area. Images of a suburban woman in pearls and high heels smiling over her stovetop were beginning to disappear.
From another angle, some people criticized the 1950s lifestyle as insufficiently sophisticated. Learning to make Crêpes Suzette from Julia Child became more interesting than making Jiffy Pop. Gas stoves, in particular, became — and continue to be — “a coveted kitchen symbol of wealth, discernment, and status.”
Marketing by the natural gas industry (Artist: Vrinda Manglik for Sierra Club)
During these decades, natural gas became widely appreciated as an inexpensive source of “clean energy” for powering stoves, furnaces, and water heaters. The share of gas stoves, for instance, in newly constructed single-family homes climbed from below 30 percent in the 1970s to around 50 percent in 2019.
But the times they are a-changin’ (again). Realization of the enormous contribution of natural gas to climate change and its toxicity to humans has occasioned a return to electricity. Let’s look at the issues.
Natural Gas Extraction
Like oil and coal, natural gas is a fossil fuel and is non-renewable. A naturally occurring mixture of methane and other gases (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, or helium), it is formed when layers of decomposing plant and animal matter are exposed to intense heat and pressure under the surface of the Earth over millions of years.
Methane is released unintentionally in the form of leaks during the extraction, transportation, and storage processes. It is also released intentionally by simply allowing unwanted methane gas to enter the atmosphere during the extraction of coal and crude oil (“venting”) or by burning it (“flaring”).
Natural Gas in Your Home
Burning natural gas in homes releases dangerous toxins including nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ultrafine particles. In many homes, this level of air pollution would be illegal if measured outside.
Health risks from inhaling the fumes released by natural gas stoves include asthma, allergies, respiratory disease, and heart disease. Children are particularly at risk; children living in a home with a gas stove are 42% more likely to have asthma than who are not exposed to natural gas in this way.
And as the California Air Resources Board points out, people spend 87% of their time indoors, so it is particularly important to consider the effects of indoor pollution.
I am convinced to go electric! But I am overwhelmed! What do I do next?
IMPACT OF MCE TO DATE: IMPRESSIVE!!
700,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions eliminated since 2010
$68 million+ saved by customers
49 MW new renewable projects built locally
5,000 California jobs supported
You can do it!
Step 1: Sign up for MCE so your electricity is generated from clean renewable sources like wind and solar instead of natural gas, coal, and nuclear.
In many parts of the Bay Area, PG&E customers can opt for MCE, a public, not-for-profit electricity provider that gives them the choice of having 60% or 100% of their electricity supplied from clean, renewable sources (i.e., solar and wind).
Opting for 100% renewable energy is less expensive than the conventional PG&E service, which is based 29% on renewable resources.
It's easy to make the switch. PG&E continues to provide all gas services, electric delivery, billing, and power line maintenance. To get started with MCE give them a call or go to their website.
Unless you have a peculiar love of appliances, it may not sound very fun to go through the transition to electric furnaces and water heaters. But I am here to tell you that you do not have to walk this path alone.
Enter BayREN! Not the most euphonious of names, but a great organization.The Bay Area Regional Energy Network (BayREN) is a coalition of nine counties with the goal of promoting resource efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases at the regional level.
Contact BayREN and speak with a Home Energy Advisor to learn about rebates for switching to electric appliances, get advice on options, and get a referral for a certified contractor. Call them at (866) 878-6008 or contacting them via their website.
For an even more thorough assessment, set up an appointment with a Home Energy Score Assessor for a home inspection walk-through. The assessor will make recommendations on how to improve your home’s energy efficiency.
Then contact one of the certified contractors to do the installation and submit the rebate paperwork for you. Rebates range from $1,000 (for a heat pump water heater) to $300 (for an induction cookstove).
One Crazy Idea: Get a Heat Pump
By far the biggest proportion of home energy goes to air and water heating. To get the biggest bang for your buck, consider getting an integrated heat pump that works for indoor air and water. To warm up your home, it pulls whatever heat it can get from outside and transfers it indoors. To cool down the air indoors, it sucks heat out of the indoor air and releases it outdoors. In addition to heating and cooling indoors, they can heat water for homes or swimming pools, and they can heat the air used in dryers. When the heat pump is doing all of this, it is a very efficient use of electricity.
Artist: Vrinda Manglik for Sierra Club
While switching out existing gas appliances for electric ones is effective and important, the fastest way to remove the threat of methane and carbon dioxide is to ban — or reduce — the use of natural gas in new buildings. The Sierra Club reports that 50 cities and counties in California have committed to such a reduction. And the California Energy Commission recently passed a building code that encourages the use of electric heat pumps for space and water heating in new construction.
Coming Full Circle
My grandmother never switched to a gas stove, and she probably thought anyone who did so was “kinda screwy” (her epithet of choice). She experienced electrification as an all-out win and it is increasingly clear that she was right. Electric stoves (or induction stoves, their spiffed-up cousins) along with electric furnaces and water heaters have significant power to protect the planet as well as our health. So it is up to us consumers to bend the curve in the right direction.
That’s it for this installment of the Notebook! Special thanks to Guy Ashcraft for helping me make sense of electricity, and to Annette and Jan Holloway for sharing their memories of Mildred Bowles Holloway.
The western monarch butterfly has been disappearing so fast that extinction has become a real possibility. But recently we have had good news of a resurgence of monarchs overwintering on California’s coast!
Thanks to the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, we know how many western monarchs were overwintering in coastal sites in November of 2021. The Thanksgiving count is a truly great example of community science, with over a hundred volunteers observing in 283 sites from Mendocino to the Mexican border. And we can compare the 2021 numbers to similar counts that have occurred every year since 1997.
The Life and Loves of the Western Monarch
Before getting into the numbers, let’s look at the amazing life of western monarchs. During the winter months they typically find a resting site within 1.5 miles of the ocean or the San Francisco Bay. They seek out dappled sunlight, high humidity, and access to fresh water. No dummies, they don’t like freezing temperatures or high winds. They cluster in dense groups on the branches and leaves of eucalyptus, oak, redwood and other trees, doing relatively little besides sunning and sipping nectar and water.
When the weather warms up in February and March, they head up toward Oregon or east into Nevada and Idaho.
While overwintering monarchs live for months in somnolence, the migrating monarchs don’t have too much time on the planet, just 2-6 weeks. After mating, the female lays her eggs on a milkweed leaf. After hatching, the caterpillars remain on the milkweed plants, devouring the leaves for nutrition. They eventually form a chrysalis and emerge as an adult butterfly.
During the rest of spring and summer, successive generations of butterflies continue their eastward dispersal. In the fall, they head back to the west coast, with the final generation arriving at an overwintering site in September or early October.
Snatched from the Headlines
The Good News! Compared to last year, the number of monarchs observed in overwintering sites in California increased 100-fold! This year’s count of 247,237 butterflies has caused considerable excitement among monarch lovers.
As usual, the majority of this year’s monarchs was found along the central and southern coast from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles counties. The highest count was in Santa Barbara county, where over 95,000 were reported.
Fewer monarchs typically overwinter in the Bay Area, and this year was even more skewed to the south than usual. In all, there were fewer than 600 butterflies counted from Mendocino to San Mateo county.
This chart summarizing data collected since 1997 shows a pattern of sharp and sudden decline between 1997 and 1998, plunging from over 1.2 million to just under 600,000. Between 1999 and 2017, the number remained low but relatively stable, dropping again in 2018 to a mere handful until this past year when the population returned to the place it had been throughout most of the past two decades.
Zooming in on Marin
But what about Marin county in particular? Thanks to the Xerces Society, who made the data public, I was able to see that only 75 monarchs were observed across the Marin county sites.
I graphed the counts obtained at the two most popular overwintering sites in Marin, Chapman Ravine in Stinson Beach and Purple Gate in Bolinas. Due to the limitations of my graphing skill, counts under 100 are not actually visible as a bar. Please use your imagination – there have typically been at least a handful of butterflies at these Marin sites, even in the lean years.
The Marin graph allows us to see “bounciness” as the counts at both sites bumped up and down across the years. For instance, 1999 was quite low compared to 1997, but then the numbers jumped all the way back up in 2000. Counts in 1998, 2004 and 2015 were moderately high, with intervening periods where the monarchs were approaching the “extinction vortex.”
Some Reasons for the Rebound
Monarchs are fertility goddesses. Monarchs in the West produce multiple generations a year and a female monarch can produce 12 adult daughters in ideal conditions, with four or so being typical under normal constraints!
Small in number, rich in resources? When animal populations are small, they are more vulnerable to random fluctuations in the environment such as a bad winter. On the other hand, these reduced populations experience less competition for resources like food and may rebound quickly.
Weather patterns. Monarchs generally prefer mid-range temperatures and it is possible that the warm dry summer and relatively cool winter we experienced in 2021 hit a sweet spot.
Winter breeding monarchs. Native milkweed dies back in the colder months, prompting the monarchs to take off for their overwintering sites. In recent years, urban gardeners have planted large quantities of non-native tropical milkweed, which is evergreen. The abundance of year-round milkweed may have enticed some monarchs to stay longer in the Bay Area, engaging in “extra” winter breeding. (But bear in mind that consuming tropical milkweed also makes monarchs more susceptible to parasites.)
Influx from eastern monarchs. Another proposal is that eastern monarch butterflies that overwintered in Mexico are coming to the western states in spring rather that going back to their original territory.
On the Other Hand…Reasons that Overall Numbers Remain Low
Before we break out the champagne, we should remember that the monarch population remains more than 98% below its size in the 1980s. What are some of the ongoing threats?
Parasite poisoning and predators. During the summer of 2021, local organizations and residents noted that monarch eggs were being laid and larvae are hatching, but then not surviving more than a few days. Predators such as the paper wasp and yellow jacket are among the suspects.
Another theory is that caterpillars were ingesting spores from a common parasite called Ophryocystis elektroschirra (OE). OE spores can fall from an infected adult butterfly onto a milkweed leaf and take up residence in the caterpillar’s gut when the leaf is eaten.
Pesticide poisoning. A persistent risk to monarchs is posed by neonicotonoids (AKA neonics), a class of insecticides applied to mature plants or to seeds. Neonics can live in the environment for months or even years after being applied to plants. They also leach into subsurface water and they contaminate soil which can then be dispersed by wind. When absorbed by plants, neonicotinoids can be present in the leaves that the caterpillars eat as well as on the pollen and nectar ingested by the butterflies.
This year’s [western monarch] total is a step in the right direction, but still indicates a severe population decline. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to double-down on our conservation efforts. Acting quickly to harness the momentum of this upswing is our best chance at preventing western monarchs and other at-risk butterflies from being lost forever.
Isis Howard, Endangered Species Conservation Biologist, Xerces Society
To Learn More…
…about the reasons for the 2021 surge, check out this report from KQED or this one from Nova.
…about the life and loves of the Western Monarch, read this interesting article or check out these Notebook posts: The Disappearing Monarch and Midsummer Monarch Update.
…about neonics and their effects on insects, read this excellent thesis by Kendra Mann.
To Be Completely Amazed…
Watch some videos of monarchs. In this one, witness how a newly emerged monarch inflates its wings with liquid from its abdomen.
To Do More…
Don’t plant tropical milkweed!
Get involved in data collection. Community scientists provide important information about monarch breeding and survival. You don’t have to be an expert to make a big contribution. Check out this Western Monarch Count website to learn how to get involved.
Here’s a good site to learn more about ecologically sound pest management.
Make a spot to splash around. Monarchs can’t land on water or drink from a dripping fountain, but they do need moisture and they obtain important minerals from mud. Channel your inner child and create a little monarch play area in a shallow dish. Just add rocks and a little bit of soil, along with just enough water to keep everything wet.
Keep your eyes peeled. The Western Monarch Mystery Challenge is about to get underway. Running from February 14 (Valentines Day) to April 22 (Earth Day), the challenge is a call to action to report a monarch if you see one. You can even win a prize! Read about it here.
Make some noise! Contact your elected officials and ask them to support the MONARCH Act which would provide critical funding for habitat restoration for the western monarch. Introduced in the House of Representatives in March of 2021 by Jimmy Panetta, it remains in the first stage of the legislative process.
Insects can be amazingly resilient if we give them a chance. Everyone has a role to play, whether that’s adding pollinator plants and avoiding pesticides in your home garden or advocating for monarch-friendly policies within our neighborhoods, public lands and plant nursery and agriculture providers.
Xerces Director Scott Hoffman Black.
What are these tiny black ants doing in my kitchen?
It may come as no surprise to you that, excluding bacteria, there are more ants on this planet than any other animal. Estimates put the number at about ten billion billion (i.e., a one with 18 zeros), compared to seven billion human beings. There are 13,000 species of ants sprinkled across the globe. California is home to more than 270 species. The most common one in urban and suburban areas of Northern California is the non-native Argentine ant, whereas native ants are dominant in wild areas of the state.
Why are some of these billion billion ants trying to gain entry to your house? In the summer, they come inside to find food and water. In the winter, heavy rains such as those we are experiencing may drive them out of their underground nest. They are searching for a place to take shelter. In other words, contrary to the children’s song, the ants are marching out of — not into — the ground to get out of the rain!
This is an ordinary phenomenon, but how do ants actually undertake the monumental task of coordinating a campaign to retrieve bagel crumbs from your kitchen counter, much less that of moving an entire colony after a flood?
Ants: Taking Care of Business
Ants are highly social but have few ways of communicating with each other. They have very poor eyesight and can’t hear, although they can detect vibrations associated with sound. Their superpower is a highly developed sense of smell. Each ant generates chemicals that create an aroma unique to that ant. One ant uses her antennae to sniff the aroma of other ants, which in turn gives her information about what the others are doing.
Ants live in a caste system, so the ants’ responsibilities depend on the caste to which they belong. The queen is the founder of the colony, and her role is to lay eggs. Being the queen may sound good, but she is basically confined to an underground chamber where she does little but lay eggs.
Then there are the male ants, called drones. Male ants have cool wings, but they stay in the nest and do little besides eat, have sex once with the queen, and then die. Their lives are over in as little as one week.
Each type of ant is genetically predisposed to do what is necessary for the nest to function properly. Although, as I have mentioned, they can communicate by smell, no one ant has knowledge of the big picture or acts as a coordinator of the others. How do they get things done? Check out this video in which Dr. Deborah Gordon, a professor of biology at Stanford, answers this important question.
Do Ants Help Anyone Outside Their Own Colony?
One amazing contribution ants make to the plant world is through a special kind of seed dispersal. Some ants are attracted to certain plants whose seeds are connected to a little packet of tasty (to the ants) nutrients. The ants carry the seeds with the packets, called elaisomes, back to the nest. They feed the elaisomes to the ant larvae and toss out the seeds, which then have an opportunity to germinate at some distance from the parent plant. This plant-ant interaction is true mutualism in the sense that it benefits the ants and the plants equally.
A second contribution of ants derives from their attraction to honeydew, a sugary excrement produced by many sap-sucking insects including caterpillars and aphids. Ants defend these insects from their natural enemies in order to protect the delicious honeydew. This “tending” behavior benefits the sap-sucking insects, including the endangered Mission Blue butterfly for example, but can pose a problem for gardeners who don’t want aphids on their plants.
E. O. WILSON: The Ant Man
“I honestly cannot understand why most people don’t study ants.” E.O. Wilson
In terms of research on ants, his most important work was showing through both observational and experimental studies how ants function as an organized community. One of his main findings was that ants communicate through the release of chemicals called pheromones. For instance, ant scouts leave a pheromone trail that leads their foraging friends right to sources of food.
Wilson’s intensive study of the social organization of ant colonies led him to formulate the field of sociobiology, which addresses the biological basis of social behavior in animals. Sociobiology is based on the premise that some behaviors (not just physical traits) are at least partly inherited. Animals whose behavior helps the survival of the group (not just that of the individual) are particularly likely to survive and breed, thus ensuring the continuation of the predisposition to be a team player. Although the theory has been well received with respect to less complex animals like ants, it remains quite controversial when applied to humans.
As an environmentalist, Wilson was an untiring advocate of strategies for addressing climate change and for preserving biodiversity. His 2016 book “Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life” argues for conserving half the land and seas for biodiversity in order to prevent mass extinction at the level last experienced by the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
“If we allow the living part of the environment to disappear, for me, it would be by future generations regarded as one of the most catastrophic, even evil periods in human history, for our descendants to look back and say, they wiped out half or more of all of the rest of life on Earth, the variety of life on Earth.” E.O. Wilson
Some people think ants are disgusting, but I think they are relatively unobjectionable insects. I feel bad wiping them out with a wet sponge as they trudge across my kitchen countertop. I do so anyway, taking some comfort in the scientific consensus that they feel neither pain nor fear.
Other than physically squashing them, how else can we control them in the home? In a recent essay Alison Hermance, a writer affiliated with WildCare, made a strong case against using pesticides and rodenticides, arguing that these poisonous substances always affect animals other than those being targeted.
“Because the thing about rodenticides — and pesticides in general — is that the person using the poison thinks on some level that they are the only ones putting out poison…People don’t realize that every other person has come to the same conclusion, and that in fact, these poisons are everywhere.” Alison Hermance
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Special thanks to Dr. Paul da Silva for his helpful comments and suggestions.
Sufficiently freaked out? Don’t stop reading…help is on the way! Federal, state, and county governments — prodded by advocates — are finally developing a system for regulating these bad boys.
Detlef Knappe and the Cape Fear River
Let’s take a look at one example of how industrial interests, local officials, scientists, and journalists have handled a serious contamination problem in one region. This is the case of the Chemours Chemical Company and the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. The Cape Fear River feeds into a watershed that provides drinking water for 1.5 million people.
Nearly 10 years ago, North Carolina State University environmental engineer Detlef Knappe conducted research finding that the Cape Fear River was heavily contaminated with PFAS and other industrial chemicals.
In 2016 he reported these findings in scientific articles and he wrote directly to local and state officials about the problem. But his persistent efforts yielded zero returns until Vaughn Hagerty, a reporter at the Wilmington-Star News, published an article in 2017 on Knappe’s report.
Finally shamed into action, local agencies discovered that the source of the chemicals was a manufacturing plant owned by Chemours, an offshoot of DuPont.
It turns out that Chemours and DuPont had been dumping GenX, a very powerful chemical in the PFAS family, into the river for over 30 years.
"This 'emerging contaminant' GenX has actually been in the water since 1980. It's mystifying why Chemours, and before that DuPont, wasn't more careful in capturing chemicals in waste streams. For Fortune 500 companies, the cost of proper wastewater treatment and air pollution control would not be a big burden." Dr. Detlef Knappe
The state was finally able to pressure Chemours to stop polluting the Cape Fear River, which is great. However, the chemical contamination problem is far from solved for North Carolina water drinkers. Subsequent studies by Knappe and colleagues have identified PFAS and other industrial pollutants in many waterways in the state.
What are the key characteristics of this class of chemicals?
How, specifically, do PFAS get into our bodies? The most common way is through our drinking water.
“Based on our tests and new academic research that found PFAS widespread in rainwater, EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water. Source: Environmental Working Group
We ingest PFAS in other ways besides drinking contaminated water. For instance, PFAS are also used to coat the paper in fast food packaging. The chemicals leach into the hamburger and fries that we then scarf down. We also ingest PFAS when we eat fish that have lived in contaminated water, and when we eat fruits and vegetables irrigated with contaminated water. Children may absorb PFAS by crawling around and playing on PFAS-treated carpet. Nursing mothers exposed to PFAS pass along the chemicals to their infants, although the CDC considers the benefits of breastfeeding to outweigh the hazards of PFAS exposure.
Workers involved in processing PFAS and PFAS-containing materials may be exposed by inhaling them or absorbing them through their skin. Evidence compiled by the CDC found, for example, that a sample of workers at the 3M Company had nearly 1000 times as much PFOA (a very harmful category of PFAS) in their blood than did a community sample.
A major source of PFAS contamination is the firefighting foam often used on military bases and at commercial airports. A Department of Defense report released in March 2020 showed that many bases and surrounding communities are contaminated with PFAS.
Finally, several recent studies have shown a link between COVID-19 and PFAS, suggesting that PFAS exposure may increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases like COVID-19.
Industry response (or lack thereof)
For the past 60 years, chemical manufacturers have covered up evidence of the human and environmental impacts of PFAS. US industries have stopped manufacturing some dangerous kinds of PFAS but they nevertheless remain in the environment and our bodies because they were made and used domestically for decades, and biodegrade at an infinitesimally slow rate. And some products imported from other countries continue to contain them.
Industry scientists have developed replacement PFAS that they claim have improved safety profiles, but emerging studies suggest that replacement PFAS are similarly dangerous, equally persistent, and even more mobile than the older ones.
State governments step up
California has stepped up significantly in the last two years, adopting several PFAS-related policies including the following:
EPA: MIA on PFAS until last month
In contrast to individual states, the federal government has done little to regulate PFAS, sometimes acting with reckless-seeming disregard for public safety. One of the more shocking examples of this? Plans by the Department of Defense (DOD) to incinerate toxic firefighting foam.
“For years DOD used toxic firefighting foams containing PFAS during drills and fires in bases across the country. PFAS from these foams polluted the soil and water of neighboring communities. Facing multiple lawsuits and billions of dollars in potential liability from past releases, DOD chose to incinerate its unused firefighting foam. However, DOD failed to conduct any environmental review before approving this incineration, bringing into new communities the risk of PFAS emissions and other pollution that are proven to harm public health.” Source: Earthjustice
When Earthjustice and other environmental organizations found out about it through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, they sued the DOD to put a halt to this lethal practice.
DOD isn't the only problematic agency. The Environmental Protective Agency’s approval requirements for new chemicals are riddled with loopholes, and companies are often allowed skip notification requirements for PFAS.
Finally, however, on Oct. 18 of this year, the EPA announced steps to study and, to some extent, regulate PFAS. In its roadmap, the EPA described a plan to set drinking water limits on some toxic chemicals, require manufacturers to provide detailed reporting, and designate two of the most well-known PFAS as hazardous under Superfund law.
Marin County still working on disposable foodware ban
The Board of Supervisors just closed the public comment period but if you would like to follow the next steps, subscribe for updates!
What can you do?
Be a careful consumer: You can learn a lot more about PFAS in this excellent but rather technical article. In general, avoid items described as “nonstick”; reduce or eliminate fast food; check beauty product labels for the term “fluoro,” which indicates a fluorinated chemical; and use granular activated carbon or reverse osmosis filters for your drinking water. Oh, and don’t let any firefighters spray your children with foam!
Get some help from your friends: Why should the onus be on the consumer to avoid being poisoned by everyday products we buy in good faith? This month the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and Clean Production Action (CPA) unveiled a new certification standard for disposable foodware. Their certification helps consumers know which disposable plates and bowls do not contain PFAS and other harmful chemicals.
PFAS-laden rugs are not acceptable!
Be a feisty consumer and advocate: Consumers can also contact brands to tell them to stop using PFAS in their products. IKEA, H&M, and Crate & Barrel are already eliminating highly fluorinated chemicals like PFAS from their product lines. Some restaurant chains like Chipotle and Taco Bell have pledged to remove PFAS from their food packaging. Hold their feet to the fire!
Support advocacy groups: As we have seen, we cannot yet depend on the federal government to take action to protect citizens from these life-threatening substances.
That’s why we need advocacy groups like the Center for Environmental Health, the Environmental Working Group, the Green Science Policy Institute, Earthjustice and other organizations to do the research, tell us what is going on, and put pressure on elected officials! Think about their good works when you figure out your year-end giving in December!
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future Notebook topics? Send me your thoughts at email@example.com.
Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website for more stunning images of wildlife.
I have moments when my personal actions to fight climate change seem pathetically ineffectual. I stand in my kitchen wondering whether the top of my plastic spray bottle is recyclable, or is just the bottle itself? Or neither? What difference does it make anyway, if the seas are already awash in plastic?
You may also experience this overwhelmed feeling at times. The challenge of addressing extensive, systemic problems like climate change can leave you feeling worried or hopeless.
How do environmental advocates effectively stimulate hope and commitment to action? I recently learned about the public narrative framework, which uses the power of narratives, or stories, to evoke positive emotions that spur people’s motivation to make things better. Remember the amazing speech then-Senator Obama gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention? That speech is a masterpiece of public narrative! Let’s find out about the framework and then see how Obama and others use it so effectively.
The public narrative framework is the brainchild of Marshall Ganz, an activist, leadership consultant, teacher, and writer. More about his amazing story later…but let’s focus on his ideas first. If you want to read more about his framework, please refer to the articles listed at the end of this post.
Ganz emphasizes the importance of two ways of knowing, the kind with the head and the kind with the heart. No offense to rational, analytic thinking based on evidence but I am going to focus here on what he has to say about emotion!
The main point is this: Narratives engage people in experiencing the emotions that arise during a challenging circumstance, a process that also brings their values into focus and motivates them to meet the challenge with action.
Let’s take an example to illustrate this web of feelings, beliefs, and actions. I feel very sad when I see a picture of a seagull tangled in a plastic fishing line. That strong emotion signals the value I place on the wellbeing of wildlife, as well as my belief that people have a responsibility to help other living creatures. When these emotions and beliefs are activated, I am motivated to do something about plastic pollution, including recycle plastic bottles.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I don’t have any particular response to the trapped seagull. None of my values are particularly called to the fore. So I am unlikely to do anything to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean.
Is there a connection between action and other emotions besides sadness? Absolutely! Ganz groups emotions into two categories. Emotions that inhibit action include inertia, fear, self-doubt, isolation, and apathy. Those that facilitate action are urgency, hope, the sense that you can make a difference (known by its acronym, UCMAD), solidarity, and anger. The goal for advocacy leadership is to highlight stories that are action motivators.
Why Focus on Narratives?
The challenge presents the characters (pigs, in this case) with an urgent need to pay attention to the danger and choose an action. You probably remember the kind of house each pig decides to build to protect himself from the wolf. The pigs' housing choices signal to the reader their respective values. Only one pig is hardworking enough to put the effort into building a solid house. So that pig’s values (hard work) lead to an action (building a brick house), that leads to a positive outcome (not being eaten).
This tale, which has been around for centuries in various guises, engages the reader’s emotions, and in doing so, it painlessly encourages reflection on how to best survive in a dangerous world!
Enough about pigs! What about the environment?
Ganz describes three kinds of narrative. In a story of self you recount how you have responded to a challenge by making choices to act in a certain way. An effective story of self focuses on choice points, moments when our values become clear to us. In the words of Ganz and his colleagues: “We all have stories of pain, or we wouldn’t think the world needs changing. We all have stories of hope, or we wouldn’t think we could change it.”
The third kind of narrative is the story of now. The story of now focuses on the next action that is required. For instance, you might ask the Supervisor to join you and other residents in the fight against plastic food ware, and urge her to author a bill outlawing its use.
The Story of an Unlikely Hero
The story of Marshall Ganz is inspirational. Born in 1943, Ganz grew up in Bakersfield, the son of a rabbi and a teacher. His family moved to Germany for three years following WW II, where his father served as an army chaplain working with Holocaust survivors. While the young Marshall did not understand the complexity of the war at an intellectual level, he experienced the deep emotional trauma of those survivors who passed through his home.
In the summer of 1964, then a college student at Harvard, Ganz became involved in the Mississippi Summer Project, and stayed on to work for SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). As he writes in his book, Why David Sometimes Wins, “Mississippi had taught many of us that it was not an exception, but rather a clearly drawn example of how race, politics, and power work in America.”
Nearly 30 years after dropping out, Ganz return to Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree and earn a PhD in sociology. He became a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he developed (and still teaches) courses on the role of public narrative and leadership. Ganz has also contributed his expertise to many initiatives outside the University, including a project addressing leadership in the Sierra Club, and the formation of Camp Obamas to organize volunteers in Barack Obama’s 2007-8 campaign for president.
In his writing, Ganz often sums up his ideas with a quote from Rabbi Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem during the first century BCE: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”
The Supreme Master of Public Narrative
In the beginning of his speech Obama introduces himself, addressing the ways in which his upbringing is unconventional while also reframing it as actually consistent with the American story. His narrative frames his grandfather and father’s story as an inspiring one of personal effort while also showing how it synchs with the American story of opportunity, linking his story of self with a story of us.
Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack….But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place: America, which stood as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before…I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.
But does Senator Obama allow us to bask in the glow of American awesomeness? No, he continues by describing the urgent need for action to preserve America’s values and commitments, stimulating our emotional responses towards people who have not yet benefited from those commitments.
I say to you tonight: we have more work to do. More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that's moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour.
And finally, the story of now! Elect John Kerry, a man who understands and embodies those shared values.
Want to Learn More about Public Narrative?
Read these articles by Ganz and his colleagues:
Comprehensive essay on public narrative
Participant guide to Public Narrative for organizers
Report on the organizational effectiveness of the Sierra Club’s Groups and Chapters
Take a look at two examples of Public Narrative:
Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention
Tom Hank’s op-ed persuading us to make community college tuition-free for two years; did you know that he attended Chabot College?
Check out this fresh take on the Three Little Pigs:
Green Jelly’s weird musical version (not for little children) of the story. It adds an important twist to the story by making the third pig an A student who can afford to study architecture at Harvard because his father is a famous rock star. Kudos to Green Jelly for including the role of resources in responding to the challenge of building a sturdy house.
That’s it for this installment of the Notebook! I give special thanks to Trevor Stevenson, whose EFM class on Persuasive Strategies for advocates introduced me to these powerful ideas.
Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website for more stunning images of wildlife.
In this post I want to change that habit and focus on an inconspicuous and unappreciated plant, the pickleweed, which exists in an underrated ecosystem, the salt marsh. I think the example of the pickleweed can illustrate how every element of an ecosystem is an essential part of an interdependent network. The pickleweed not only illuminates the meaning of biodiversity but also points to ways we can support, protect, and restore the biodiversity of local ecosystems.
The scientific name for the pickleweed is Salicornia. It is a widespread genus of succulent, salt-tolerant plants that grow in salt marshes, on beaches, and among mangroves. Pickleweed is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as well as in southern Africa.
Pickleweed takes salt water up through the roots and stores salt in the top “pickles.” In the fall this part turns red and falls off, ridding the plants of the salt.
What is a salt marsh?
Marsh plants are distributed across different tidal levels depending on their ability to withstand the stress of daily immersion in saltwater. Eelgrass beds often grow in channel bottoms. They are essential in preventing erosion, increasing water clarity and quality, sequestering carbon, and proving food for other marine life.
Other vegetation occurs in at various levels above the mean sea level. For instance, cordgrass is found at the lowest elevations, while pickleweed typically grows on slightly higher ground. Not surprisingly, higher marshes are home to a greater number of plant species than the lower ones. Bay Area salt marshes are also home to the Ridgway’s rail and the California black rail, both endangered.
Why are salt marshes important?
Let’s recall that removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a crucial way of slowing climate change. In general, plants are carbon factories. They take CO2 from the air and make it into leaves and roots. It’s magic!
The only hitch is that plants typically release carbon when they decompose. However, certain plants are less problematic in this respect. For instance, large trees like Coastal Redwoods don’t release the carbon ensconced in their deeply buried roots.
Plants living in salt marshes are also great at retaining carbon. Marsh plants like the pickleweed decompose and stay locked in the watery environment of the marsh, where their carbon cannot be released into the atmosphere.
The complex relations linking carbon, the pickleweed, the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, and the Ohlone peoples illustrate a crucial fact about biodiversity.
Bothin Marsh: Restoration in Progress
Over 90% of the Bay Area’s salt marshes have been developed over the last 100 years. However, restoration has become increasingly common as marshy areas are acquired by environmentalist groups and state agencies.
Bothin Marsh is a 106 acre preserve along Richardson Bay between the Highway 101 bridge and the communities of Tam Valley and Almonte. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and Marin County Parks are collaborating on a restoration of the marsh, the Evolving Shorelines Project.
A brief glimpse of the history of Bothin Marsh can lend insight into challenges to preserving and restoring a biodiverse ecosystem.
Students waiting for commuter train at the new train stop on the Mill Valley line fronting the high school. November 1908.
Shell middens dating from over 5,000 years ago confirm the longstanding presence of indigenous communities in the marsh area. At that time the marsh was much larger than it is today, extending into what is now Tam Valley. After incursion by the Spanish in the 1700s, the resident indigenous communities were nearly wiped out by widespread disease, forced labor, and other forms of mistreatment. In subsequent years, cattle were introduced to the area, competing for grazing space with deer and elk, which were also hunted by the settlers. Controlled fires, used by Coast Miwoks for fire suppression, were discontinued. And commercial logging began on Mt. Tamalpais. These activities altered the shape of the marsh, changed the tidal patterns, and upset the usual routes through which sedimentation occurred. In turn, these changes diminished the plant and animal life supported by the marsh.
In the 1840s homesteading was established along the marshes, and water was diverted for farms and household use. In the 1870s, a 4,000-foot-long railroad trestle was constructed across Richardson Bay, followed by a second trestle near Coyote Creek. Berms were built to contain fill intended to create space for development. The development never occurred but the berms and fill remain. Additionally, two creeks feeding into the marsh were re-routed into engineered channels, dramatically altering its hydrology. By the 1960s, the marsh was completely disconnected from the tides, and sediment from the watersheds was channeled into Richardson Bay instead of nourishing the marsh.
In recent years, a new threat to the marsh has arisen in the form of sustained sea level rise. Changes in the depth and movement of water in Richardson Bay have caused wave-induced erosion along the edges of the marsh, causing much of it to be inundated during king tides.
The history of Bothin Marsh illustrates what happens when the balance of an ecosystem that evolved and flourished for thousands of years is radically disrupted. In the case of Bothin, the mutually beneficial relationships of human communities with plant and animal life became a casualty of the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants followed by subsequent expansionist goals of developing the land for housing and financial gain.
Restoration in progress
At Bothin Marsh, efforts are underway to address the challenges posed by past alterations of the marsh ecosystem as well as rising sea levels. The project goals are to increase sedimentation to provide habitat for diverse plant and animal life and to prevent the marsh from inundation as the sea level continues to rise. In addition, the plan will preserve and enhance the recreational opportunities afforded by the Bay Trail.
In phase one, trail resurfacing and bridge repairs are in progress to improve access to the existing Bay Trail. Small-scale adaptation measures such as creating marsh mounds are also underway, creating habitat for vegetation in high marsh areas.
The second phase is still in the planning stages. The Bay Trail will either be elevated or moved to the edge of the marsh. Coyote Creek will be “unstraightened” and returned to a natural meandering waterway in order to increase the amount of sedimentation in the marsh. These measures and other are intended to accommodate two to four feet of SLR, currently projected to occur by 2060.
Read the adaptation concepts report for all the project details, including plans for subsequent phases of the restoration project. A second report provides a detailed account of the history of the marsh, including old maps documenting all the changes that have occurred in the past two centuries.
Ecosystem change is inevitable, and we cannot expect the natural world to revert to a prior state. One comfort is that plants, animals (and people) have an amazing ability to adapt to new conditions. The pickleweed’s ingenious system for adapting to a salty environment by absorbing salt water into its expendable pickles is a case in point. Sometimes, however, extreme adaptation fails to maintain a balanced and viable ecosystem, necessitating human intervention. Finding this balance is one challenge for restoration efforts at Bothin Marsh.
Nobody wants to stay locked in a place of pain. We want to see reconciliation. We want to see a world where we can see our culture uplifted even by institutions in the past haven’t done right by our people.
Support the Cafe Ohlone
Here’s your chance to sample pickleweed! Cafe Ohlone is slated to open in November in the Phoebe A.Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. In addition to sharing the Ohlone culture and storytelling, the cafe will feature dishes using native ingredients like smoked trout with bay laurel-blackberry sauce.
Cafe owners Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino are eager to engage with the campus community, while also acknowledging the irony of locating their restaurant in a building named after a member of the Hearst family, whose acquisition of tremendous wealth in the mid-1800s came at the expense of local indigenous communities.
Support a local organization
Become a member of one of the organizations engaged in the restoration of Bothin Marsh, such as the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The Parks Conservancy is active in fundraising, community engagement, and co-project management. Some of their projects include restoring the Crissy Field tidal marsh, and extending the trail system in Marin, including at Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands. In addition to the Bothin Marsh restoration they are presently working on a multi-year Redwood Renewal project at Muir Woods.
Learn more about biodiverse regions of South America
Just 5% of the world’s population occupies 24% of the land surface that is home to 80% of global biodiversity. Although biodiversity is primarily supported in lands occupied by indigenous people, they are rarely included in global efforts to protect these fragile areas. This National Geographic article about the indigenous community living in the Yasuni National Park in northeastern Ecuador is particularly informative concerning efforts to support indigenous rights to self-determination, well-being, traditional knowledge, and a healthy environment.
Sign up for EFM classes on biodiversity
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks very much to the participants at the September 9 EFM webinar called Biodiversity and Climate change: David Ackerly, Justin Robinson, and Mark Hertsgaard. Their inspiring presentations shaped the contours of this blog post! Thanks also to the great presentations by Rob LaPorte and Veronica Pearson on the recent EFM fieldtrip to Bothin Marsh. To view the webinar, contact Kim Rago (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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