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The Truthiness of America’s Changing Driving Habits

no-driving

Good news, everyone: Americans are driving less. Not only are fewer people driving now than a decade ago, those who do drive are accumulating fewer miles behind the wheel. Praise Mother Earth: we’re finally doing something environmentally responsible. Just like we’re also eating less sugar and tracking our daily movements via FitBit. I don’t know why we’re still so collectively overweight.

I’ve looked at the data from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a reputable organization, and while I don’t necessarily dispute their data or their conclusions, the whole report gives off a distinct aroma of truthiness.

truthiness

According to the PIRG study, “the average American drives 7.6 percent fewer miles today [2011] than when per-capita driving peaked in 2004.” This trend isn’t isolated, PIRG says; the downshift has taken place in the 100 largest urban areas across the country. The decrease in driving is coupled with an increase in the number of people working at home, a decrease in the percentage of two-car households, and an increase in public transportation use and bicycle commuting. So it’s a multi-pronged sea change. There do seem to be an awful lot of bikes on the road these days.

Source: (Augusta Quirk/IFC)

Source: (Augusta Quirk/IFC)

Look: I want it to be true, but it pays to be cautious. The study looks only at urban areas, not the exurban areas that are now booming again thanks to cheap oil and a resurgence in the stock market and new housing starts after the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009. It also doesn’t factor in changing demographics, such as the graying of America. The baby boomers are retiring, ergo, they are not driving to work every day. Generation X is a smaller cohort, and the millennials are mostly out of work or still in college. Also, since the study was published a year ago, the price of gas has plunged and it looks like it’s going to stay low for awhile.

Still. Let’s give the study a chance.

Source: PIRG

Source: PIRG

I can’t help but think the decline in car ownership may also correlate with the rise in poverty:

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/12/17/the-49-states-of-rising-child-poverty/

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/12/17/the-49-states-of-rising-child-poverty/

Overlap: Mere coincidence, or evidence of something nefarious going on—as in people driving less because they can’t afford to?

Moving on. Let’s get to the details:

What’s the city with the largest drop in vehicle-miles traveled per capita between 2006 and 2011? New Orleans! Doesn’t take a climate scientist to surmise that a mitigating factor in this statistic goes by the name of Katrina.

Source: 85th Civil Support Team.

Source: 85th Civil Support Team.

However, the second and third largest drops took place in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. One a blue-collar bastion with a surprisingly walkable downtown, the other a hotbed of liberal activism teeming with thousands of fresh-faced and optimistic students. Spots four and five belong to Pennsylvania: Harrisburg and Pittsburgh respectively. Again, one a blue-collar bastion and the other a walkable urban area with lots of students. Milwaukee will be getting a high-speed rail system in 2016 and Pittsburgh already has light rail, so props to PA and WI. Credit where credit is due.

And I don’t have a problem with PIRG’s conclusion:

“The time has come for cities and states to shift their transportation priorities away from investments in expensive, unnecessary new highways, and toward the maintenance and repair of our existing infrastructure and the development of new transportation choices for Americans.”

Add to all of this the meteoric rise of Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, Megabus, and Citi Bike: Young people are finding it cost-effective to ride-share and use pedal power. Maybe America’s transportation habits are finally, really changing.

Source: Lyft.

Source: Lyft.

Think about it: Americans are buying different cars today than 10 years ago, when Hummers were status symbols and super-sized SUVs were barrelling down the freeway, guzzling unleaded like it was free beer at a frat party. Nowadays, even your grandmother drives a Prius, and you can find a plug-in parking spot for your Nissan Leaf or your Chevy Volt in any public library parking lot.

Source: Nathan Bernier, KUT News.

Source: Nathan Bernier, KUT News.

But this is where the truthiness creeps into the equation.

We all know consumers are more conscious than ever about fuel economy and their carbon footprint. Right? In 2004, Ford sold 939,511 F-Series pickup trucks—a record that still stands for the venerable make and model. The next top-selling cars were the Chevy Silverado and the Ford Explorer—both models with plenty of testosterone and bad gas mileage (about 15 mpg for the Ford truck, 16 mpg for the Silverado, and 15 mpg for the Explorer).

Fast forward to 2013. What are the top-selling vehicles in the U.S. of A? The Ford F-150, the Chevy Silverado and the Toyota Camry. In this case, I think people got perturbed with the Explorer’s constant tire blow-outs and rollovers. But trucks remain the sales winners.

Okay, I’m pessimistic about this new “trend,” but you don’t have to believe me. Even the New York Times agrees with PIRG in their article “Young Americans Lead Trend to Less Driving”:

“Younger people are less likely to drive—or even to have driver’s licenses—than past generations for whom driving was a birthright and the open road a symbol of freedom. Research by Michael Sivak of the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan found that young people are getting driver’s licenses in smaller numbers than previous generations.

Online life might have something to do with the change, he suggested. ‘A higher proportion of Internet users was associated with a lower licensure rate,’ he wrote in a recent study. ‘This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people.’”

Here’s a chart to back that up:

74518_600x450-cb1387302373

However, young people are less likely to have after-school jobs now than in previous generations and more likely to have parents willing to play taxi. What happens when these young people grow up and have children who need to go to daycare? Theoretically, you can do this on a bike, but I just don’t see it happening in Butte, Montana, in the middle of winter. There simply wouldn’t be enough cup holders for everyone, not to mention the lack of heated seats.

All of this is to say, I’ll be happy to be proved wrong, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. I’m a long-time fan of mass transit and ready for the sea change.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: November 11, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , ,

Plastic Bags: The Answer Is Blowin’ in the Wind

Nobody likes plastic bags. Sure, maybe you’ve got a dog and you use them on your morning and evening walks. But is that reason enough to flood the landscape with them? I can’t think of a single item of contemporary American life that better represents our throw-away society.

Source: Jefferson Public Radio.

Source: Jefferson Public Radio.

Maybe it’s time for me to move to California, because Governor Jerry Brown* just signed SB270 into law, which bans single-use plastic bags in grocery and convenience stores. This makes California the first state to enact a ban, although many municipalities in the state—including Los Angeles and San Francisco—have already passed anti-bag ordinances. Nationwide, other Cities on the Edge of the Zeitgeist, from Washington, DC, Chicago, IL, and Portland, OR, to Austin, TX, and Seattle, WA, have banned the bag. I’m thinking that Michael Bloomberg, were he still mayor of New York City, would have hopped on this bandwagon too.

Source: www.portland.surfrider.org

Source: www.portland.surfrider.org

Let’s take a look at what the SB270 law actually entails:

  • Bans plastic bags at supermarkets and large grocery stores beginning on July 1, 2015.
  • Bans plastic bags at convenience stores beginning on July 1, 2016.
  • Does not ban plastic bags for fruits, vegetables, or meat.
  • Does not ban plastic bags at other retailers.
  • Allows grocery stores to charge at least 10 cents per paper bag.
  • Allows businesses to charge at least 10 cents per compostable bag.

What I don’t know is what happens when you buy your groceries at Target or Wal-Mart, which are the types of retailers exempt from the ban. Do cashiers stuff all your shoelaces, batteries, Halloween decorations, and hand towels in plastic bags and leave your milk and Campbell’s soup for you to figure out? I assume most retailers will simply plastic bag everything and tack on the plastic bag charge unless you tell them otherwise.

Source: http://bagsnaggers.com.

Could the BagSnagger become obsolete? Source: http://bagsnaggers.com.

Regardless of the details, the ban seems like a step in the right direction. Soon there will be no need for Ian Frazier’s bag snagger, a device designed to untangle plastic bags from trees, which was so lovingly profiled in the New Yorker back in 2004. We will all be carrying our reusable bags on the subways, in our cars, or while scoring rides on Lyft. Before you know it, we’ll all be riding bicycles to the farm market and eating locally grown quinoa and vegan chili after converting our houses to solar power.

Source: Indiana Public Media.

Source: Indiana Public Media.

Not so fast, granola hipster. Plans are afoot to repeal California’s law, on account of the fact that it will hurt the environment, fer cryin’ out loud. Who would repeal such a sensible law? Why, the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), which believes the ban will “jeopardize thousands of California manufacturing jobs, hurt the environment and fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets.” (Paging George Orwell.) The APBA’s website states that the plastic bag industry employs 30,800 American workers at 349 plants across the country.

A typical plastic bag factory. All the workers must be on break. Source: www.lindamarindustries.com/

A typical plastic bag factory. All the workers must be on break.
Source: www.lindamarindustries.com/

I really want to know where all these giant plastic bag factories are, and why they employ more people than ALL EIGHT OF THE FORD MOTOR COMPANY’S ASSEMBLY PLANTS IN THE UNITED STATES COMBINED. (Total hourly workers = 30,513). Either someone is lying, or the plastic bag industry is in serious need of process improvement.

Even assuming that the 30,800 number is anywhere near reality, it still begs the question: Should we continue to employ people whose jobs are now irrelevant and/or actively harmful to the environment? According to the APBA’s logic, we should never shut down any factory because it would eliminate jobs, dammit, nevermind the fact that the product the factory makes is unnecessary.

Source: Wikipedia. Just think of all those poor workers who used to make slide rules. How could we have turned our backs on them?

Just think of all those poor workers who used to make slide rules. How could we have turned our backs on them? Source: Wikipedia.

The Bag the Ban campaign, funded by bag maker Hilex Poly, painstakingly outlines the arguments raised by the APBA, in which they are cast as the good guys who are working to save jobs, invest in green technology, and keep costs down for consumers. As a lobbying organization, of course, they can say whatever they want and back it up with statistics lovingly crafted from their own delusions.

 Source: www.bagtheban.com. Greenwashing at its finest.  "Plastic shopping bags made in the United States are made from natural gas." Really? I thought they were made from plastic, with natural gas.

Source: www.bagtheban.com. Greenwashing at its finest. “Plastic shopping bags made in the United States are made from natural gas.” Really? I thought they were made from plastic.

One of the arguments SB270’s detractors make is that paying for plastic or paper bags amounts to an unnecessary tax on the beleaguered American consumer. You can call the law’s 10 cent fee for bags a “tax” if you want, but I prefer to call it paying for something. Only in America do people assume we have the “right” to free plastic bags, but not basic healthcare.

It is true, of course, that plastic bags can be recycled, and it’s great when they are. And it’s true that they take up a small amount of space in landfills. But ultimately, isn’t it better if something unnecessary (like a bag for a $1.29 tube of Chapstick) doesn’t exist at all?

________

*Fun fact: When Jerry Brown (aka “Governor Moonbeam”) ran for president in 1992, I spent many hours in his Milwaukee campaign office painstakingly hand-painting a red, white, and blue poster that read “Nihilists for Brown.” I proudly displayed the sign in my apartment window for months. And then I voted for Clinton.

Source: www.ronstadt-linda.com

Source: www.ronstadt-linda.com

 

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: October 30, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , ,

Saskatchewan: The Cutting Edge of Carbon Capture

What do we really know about Saskatchewan, those of us who don’t live there? Lots of cold and snow, perhaps, and if you’re like me you also picture Sasquatch, simply because I have a tendency to mix-up similar sounding words.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

What you probably don’t know about Saskatchewan is that the province is also a world leader in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Additionally, residents have reported very few sightings of Sasquatch.

Carbon capture—the process of pumping carbon emitted from coal-burning power plants to permanent underground reservoirs, thus preventing it from contributing to climate change—has been a somewhat pie-in-the-sky idea for a decade or more. But casual news readers may believe these carbon storage plants have been in business for a long time, such is the sorry state of public discourse about reducing carbon emissions. Politicians talk about them like they’re on every corner. Theoretically, carbon capture has been possible for a long time—like 100 years, give or take. In practice, not so much.

Different methods of Carbon Capture and Sequestration: 1. CO2 pumped into disused coal fields displaces methane which can be used as fuel.  2. CO2 can be pumped into and stored safely in saline aquifers. 3. CO2 pumped into oil fields helps maintain pressure, making extraction easier.

Different methods of Carbon Capture and Sequestration:
1. CO2 pumped into disused coal fields displaces methane which can be used as fuel.
2. CO2 can be pumped into and stored safely in saline aquifers.
3. CO2 pumped into oil fields helps maintain pressure, making extraction easier.

But good news—Canada just opened the world’s first large-scale carbon capture plant at the Boundary Dam power station in Estevan, Saskatchewan, on the border with North Dakota. You can watch a video of the CCS apparatus at the Boundary Dam project here. This is a retrofit of an existing power plant, and when I say “retrofit,” I mean “wildly expensive public works project.”

The CCS updates to the already-functioning Boundary Dam plant cost $1.2 billion, but I’m guessing that’s in Canadian dollars. Given the current exchange rate, the same project in the United States would be a bargain at only $1.07 billion. The Boundary Dam plant will annually divert approximately 1 million tons of carbon dioxide to underground reservoirs, which is “the equivalent of taking 250,000 cars off the road.” Please, nobody read that as a license to add 250,000 more cars to the road!

 

Source: Reuters. SaskPower’s Boundary Dam power station. The world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage facility at a coal-fired power plant.

Source: Reuters. SaskPower’s Boundary Dam power station. The world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage facility at a coal-fired power plant.

With the logistics of carbon capture having been so long known in engineering circles, why has it taken so long to get such a system up and running? I mean—could we have been doing this all along?

No, because there’s a catch. Carbon capture itself requires lots of energy. In the Saskatchewan plant, run by SaskPower, the storage process requires a whopping 20 percent of the electricity the plant generates—enough to power 25,000 homes (so I guess that’s really only 225,000 cars off the road—or something like that). The percentage of a power plant’s energy devoted to CCS is called the “energy penalty.” If there’s anything a red-blooded American capitalist doesn’t like, it’s a penalty. But, with current technology at least, that’s the price we’ll need to pay.

Source: Progressive Radio Network.

Source: Progressive Radio Network.

But back to Canada. The Boundary Dam plant is only the latest in Saskatchewan’s history of dedication to CCS. Previously, the Weyburn Project was the largest CCS test project implemented in the world. The project, which ran until 2011, involved the Weyburn and Midale oil fields in southern Saskatchewan, close to the U.S. border and not far from the Boundary Dam plant, and will permanently sequester 40 megatons of CO2 in the dark recesses of Mother Earth. Over the course of the project’s 11 years, scientists studied the practicalities of CCS in an effort to develop best practices guidelines for future CCS projects around the world.

Oh—Weyburn, not Weymouth. Nevermind.  Source: Rottentomatoes.com

Oh—Weyburn, not Weymouth. Nevermind.
Source: Rottentomatoes.com

In the United States, CCS development has been spearheaded by the Department of Energy’s National Carbon Capture Center. The first commercial plant to come online with CCS technology in the United States will most likely be one belonging to Southern Company in Kemper County, Mississippi. The plan is to capture 65 percent of the plant’s CO2 emissions. It is slated to open in May, 2015.

In true American fashion, we plan to outdo the Canadians: The Kemper County plant will cost $5.5 billion. Holy smokes! That’s more than the Hubble Space Telescope and just a tad less than the Large Hadron Collider. It’s these high costs that have effectively prevented the development of a market for carbon capture facilities. At a buy-in this big, fiscal responsibility will trump environmental stewardship every time.

The Kemper County Energy Facility. Source: Wikipedia.

The Kemper County Energy Facility. Source: Wikipedia.

Ultimately, when it comes to carbon capture as of 2014 (and most likely 2015 and 2016 too), “there’s no market,” according Edward S. Rubin, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, unless governments impose “a requirement to substantially reduce emissions.” Even if carbon capture becomes mandatory on new plants, the incentive will be for power companies to invest more heavily in natural gas, which is cleaner than coal but not a panacea.

Of course, carbon capture comes with its own dangers. Like fracking, it may cause small earthquakes or contaminate drinking water. Or the CO2 could simply find its way back to the atmosphere through some poorly understood mechanism. Truth is, modern civilization doesn’t seem amenable to large-scale environmentalism, but some great minds out there are doing what they can.

Until then, Canada, thank you for your exports.

Source: http://weknowmemes.com/2013/07/happy-canada-day-meme/

Source: http://weknowmemes.com/2013/07/happy-canada-day-meme/

 

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: October 15, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Torpedo the Dams: Returning Wildlife to Washington State

The Glines Canyon Dam, just west of Seattle, is the largest dam removal project in the world so far; it’s the poster child for the growing trend in North America to blast away ancient, hulking, concrete structures and revive riparian environments. Elsewhere, many countries are still in the midst of a hydroelectric power building boom. The world’s largest dam, Three Gorges in Hubei, China, became fully operational only two years ago, and Itaipu Dam on the border between Brazil and Paraguay was most recently expanded in 2007. Many major dams are in the works for the Mekong River in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Perhaps what’s good news for the North American fish is also emblematic of the decline and fall of Western industrialization.

Deconstruction of the Glines Canyon Dam. Source: http://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery.htm?id=F26ECB86-155D-4519-3E7D240CBB14BD03.

Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park was built in 1927 under the auspices of the Olympic Power Company. The dam created Lake Mills and blocked the mass migration of salmon to the upper reaches of the river and its tributaries, leading to a tremendous decline in the fish population of the region. Back then it was hard to foresee just how many salmon fillets it was going to take to keep the restaurant industry afloat in the coming century. Could the final blast, which was ignited on August 26, 2014, be a harbinger of a salmon glut to come?

Source: Elwha River Restoration Project.

 

For decades, all was well and good (for people, not fish) at Glines Canyon Dam until the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992 called for the deconstruction of the dam and a rehabilitation of the aquatic habitat. I’m guessing the issue was as much economic as it was environmental; after all, nobody blows up a perfectly good dam that’s busy providing power to area homes. However, you can scour the literature all you want and not come up with any good statistics on the changing power needs of the Elwha River watershed between the 1920s and now.

Bottom line: If the dam wasn’t necessary, it needed to disappear—call it environmental stewardship if you want. The really cool thing is that the undamming was documented extensively on video (go here, here, or here), like a how-to guide for a civilized Monkey Wrench Gang. Environmentalists, rejoice!

Source: Wikipedia.

Despite the 1992 proclamation, the effort to dismantle Glines Canyon Dam didn’t get underway until 2011. It took three years to do it, but now the process is complete. The Glines Canyon Dam and the Elwha Dam (further upstream and even older than the Glines Dam, having been completed in 1914) are now history and the spawning salmon are returning to their long-lost homes. Steelhead, coho, and Chinook salmon swim and spawn happily and unimpeded; populations are expected to surge. The reservoir is gone and indigenous foliage is spreading throughout the drained basin. Large deposits of sandy sediment grace the Elwha’s estuary at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, providing a haven for clams, smelt, and Dungeness crab.

A restored Elwha estuary. The sandy sediment is the way it’s supposed to be. Source: http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/sept-through-dec-2012-blog-entries.htm

The restoration owes much to the tireless lobbying of the region’s Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, who for years decried the dams’ environmental costs and safety risks. Other wildlife, terrestrial, avian, and aquatic, should soon follow. Some 46,000 seedlings have been planted in the drained reservoirs, and the Penstock Tunnel, which used to carry water from the reservoir to the powerhouse, has a new bat gate: Keeping nature in, people out.

Source: National Park Service.

One of the hold-ups in eliminating the dams was determining the short-term damage to the ecosystem from the increased turbidity of the water. Decades of pent-up sediment would now be washing down the river to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The health effects of contaminants in the soil, from years of upstream industrial practices, needed to be considered, on both the human and wildlife populations. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Ultimately, the dismantling of the Glines Canyon Dam is an important test case for what promises to be a trend. As the United States drifts ever more certainly into a post-industrial age, many of its dams—hulking and crumbling after a century or more—may suffer a similar fate. According to the nonprofit American Rivers, more than 850 out of the 75,000 dams listed in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers National Inventory of Dams have been removed since 1994.

Source: American Rivers, http://www.americanrivers.org/initiatives/dams/dam-removals-map/

Public opinion against dams began to shift with the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam along the Colorado River in the 1960s, which bolstered the nascent environmental movement. Once seen as an Ayn Rand-ian triumph of humans′ dominion over nature, dams are now seen as a short-term solution with very high long-term stakes for surrounding ecosystems. It’s a fascinating story that encapsulates every facet of environmentalism in one issue. We all need to know more. I’ll leave you with a few book recommendations:

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: September 30, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Is the Monarchy Over? The Butterflies Are Homeless

Researchers at the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona report a 90 percent decrease in the monarch butterfly population in the past 20 years and have just petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. These researchers blame the decline on genetically modified seed and loss of habitat, but I think it could just be artist Damian Hirst’s penchant for making huge collages from thousands of butterfly wings:

Source: Photo: EPA/KERIM OKTEN

Of course, that’s absurd. Hirst doesn’t discriminate against monarchs—he kills all sorts of species to make his lepidopteristic masterpieces.

But think about it—how many monarchs have you seen this summer, compared to previous summers? My backyard butterfly bush died in the last barbaric Michigan winter, so I didn’t see any monarchs this year. However, I can’t say that 20 years ago I saw 90 percent more than none. But my evidence is anecdotal, not scientific, and if respected scientists say there are 90 percent fewer monarchs, I believe them. You should too.

Source: Kathy Wilson Peacock, 2012.

But let’s get back to the two main reasons for the monarch decline:

  • A decrease in the milkweed plant that serves as the monarch’s breeding ground and food source. This is linked to increased herbicide use, which itself is linked to the rise of genetically modified (GM) corn. GM corn is modified to withstand harsh herbicides, so it can be sprayed liberally and still grow vigorously. Meanwhile, the surrounding weeds die. Milkweed is—you guessed it—a weed, in farmers’ eyes. The herbicide kills the milkweed, and the monarchs have nothing to eat and nowhere to call home. Starvation ensues; generations fail to reproduce. Before you know it, the end is nigh. For those that do survive the hatching of their eggs, their growth into caterpillars, their transformation into monarchs, and their migration to Mexico, a second disaster awaits them.
  • Extreme habitat destruction in the monarch’s Mexican winter hideaway, which has altered the ecosystem to be inhospitable to the butterfly. The great monarch migration is a wonder of the biological world. Each year millions of butterflies born late in the season travel thousands of miles from their homes in North America to warmer climates, kind of like retired people. Monarchs in the western United States find secluded spots in California. East of the Rocky Mountains, most land near Angangueo, Michoacán, Mexico. In 2003 the Mexican colony covered roughly 22 acres; by 2013 the colony covered only 2.9 acres. Most of this decrease was caused by illegal logging, which stripped the region of the oyamel fir trees the insects prefer. Without the protective forest, they are more exposed to the elements. Take a look at this:

Source: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/spring2002/species/monarch/Update021402.html.

This photo was taken after a severe winter storm in January 2002 killed 75 percent of the monarchs that overwinter in Mexico. The loss of the oyamel fir trees changed the ecosystem, making the storm worse and leaving the butterflies unprotected. In some places the dead butterflies were up to 18 inches deep; many on the bottom layer survived initially because they were kept warm by those on top. How many were able to escape from the morass is unclear.

Back in North America, the loss of milkweed is proving to be just as serious as the loss of the oyamel fir. According to Karen Oberhauser, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, the amount of milkweed in the Midwest has fallen by more than 80 percent in the past decade or so. This is due to the popularity of GM corn and soybeans and the fact that a million acres of grassland, formerly a friendly environment for the monarch, have been converted to corn and soybean cropland as the market for products derived from these crops expands. Milkweed that used to grow on the fringes of these fields is now eliminated by the liberal use of herbicides that protect the crops.

Does this mean that big, bad Monsanto, the maker of the most popular brand of GM corn (Round-Up Ready), is to blame? The issue isn’t that simple, says Monsanto. In a statement published in the Vancouver Columbian, a Monsanto spokesperson said that

“Scientists think a number of inter-related factors are contributing to the decline and year-to-year variation of monarch butterfly populations. While weather events (snowfall and frost) at mountaintop overwintering sites and logging in Mexico continue to be factors, experts are also focusing on agricultural practices and land use changes that have reduced milkweeds along the migration path in central regions of North America.”

This sounds as noncommittal as those who claim that there is no evidence for anthropogenic climate change. They can proclaim that the jury is still out simply by virtue of the fact that their own dissenting opinion prevents a unanimous consensus on the issue.

Nevertheless, coming and going, the monarchs are screwed. Various conservation groups (and even Monsanto) have called upon farmers and others to voluntarily plant milkweed in an effort to revive the monarch species. Sounds like a great idea. Milkweed comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors, and no doubt you can find one that’s right for your growth zone. You can even get free milkweed seeds online from LiveMonarch.com.

Common milkweed; Asclepias syriaca. Source: Wikipedia.

Lincoln Brower is one of the scientists leading the fight for the monarch, the species to which he has devoted his career, and is the principal researcher that called for the petition to save the monarch. According to Brower, the monarch is “the canary in the cornfield” because its decline may be foreshadowing other problems, such as colony collapse disorder with bees, which may ultimately imperil our food supply.

As Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones, so succinctly says:

“the story here is about more than the decline of a butterfly species. It’s also about the unintended consequences of subjecting millions of acres of our best farmland to a single chemical-dependent technology, one literally designed to wipe out plant biodiversity in farm fields. We know about the plight of the monarch only because it’s a fascinating, beloved creature that attracts scrutiny from researchers.”

The monarch is worth saving. Even if you’re not a butterfly fan (although, really, why wouldn’t you be?), how can you look at this little guy and not fall in love?

Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: September 16, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , ,