Europe Removed Dams at a Surprising Rate

Europe Removed Dams at a Surprising Rate

Editor’s note: Dams change the way rivers function and they impact water quality. Slow-moving or still artificial lakes heat up. This results in abnormal temperature fluctuations which affect sensitive species and lead to algal blooms and decreased oxygen levels. Organic materials build up behind dams and start to produce the perfect environment for carbon dioxide and methane producing microbes. Particularly, migratory species are badly affected by the presence of dams.

Although dams are being taken down in Europe and the US because people have begun to realize the dam-age they do to ecosystems, they are not coming down fast enough. Additionally, new ones continue to be built. At this point in the human caused ecological collapse of the planet’s life support systems, it would be best to leave dam building to the beavers. 


By Tara Lohan /The Revelator.

The 1999 demolition of the Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River set off a wave of dam removals across the United States. Since then some 1,200 dams have come down to help restore rivers and aquatic animals, improve water quality, and boost public safety — among other benefits.

Across the Atlantic, European nations have been busy removing thousands of river barriers, too. But until recently the efforts have gone largely unnoticed, even among experts.

Pao Fernández Garrido can attest to that.

An engineer and expert in ecosystem restoration from Spain, Fernández Garrido was finishing her master’s thesis in 2012 when she attend a dam-removal training in Massachusetts that was part of a conference on fish passage.

She was floored to learn about the United States’ widespread dam-removal efforts and returned to Europe determined to learn what was happening with dam removals on the continent — and to be a part of the action.

So did Herman Wanningen, a freshwater consultant  from the Netherlands, who also attended the conference. Fernández Garrido joined him when he founded the World Fish Migration Foundation in 2014. Soon after they helped form a coalition organization called Dam Removal Europe that also includes European Rivers Network, WWF, Rewilding Europe, the Rivers Trust, Wetlands International and the Nature Conservancy.

One of the first things Fernández Garrido and her colleagues wanted to know was the extent of river fragmentation on the continent. That wasn’t easy: While the United States has an exhaustive inventory of its 90,000 dams, not every European country, they learned, had collected similar data.

At the time not much was known beyond the fact that Europe had 7,000 large dams. But as their project to map river barriers, known as AMBER, got underway, they learned the on-the-ground reality included many smaller dams and other barriers — at least 1.2 million river barriers in 36 European countries.

Fernández Garrido and her colleagues spent more than three years on research, including river surveys in 26 countries, to gather the more robust data. Their results, published in Nature in 2020, found that on average river barriers occur almost every half mile.

Two-thirds of these barriers are under seven feet tall, but small doesn’t mean insignificant. Low-head dams and smaller obstructions like weirs and sluices can still block the movement of some fish, as well as aquatic plants, invertebrates, and the flow of sediment and nutrients.

Many of the dams — around 150,000 — are also obsolete and no longer provide any beneficial functions.

The good news, though, is that they also found that 4,000 European river barriers had already come down in the previous 20 years, with France, Finland, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom being the most active.

These efforts, though, had largely flown under the radar.

“Nobody was talking about these, nobody,” says Fernández Garrido. “The United States is celebrating that it has removed 1,200 and nobody’s celebrating in Europe because nobody knows.”

That’s changed as they continued with their work to compile research, organize supporters across the continent, and push policymakers for action.

In 2019 the researchers delivered a report on case studies of dam removals and their benefits to the European Commission. The following year the World Fish Migration Foundation published the first-ever Living Planet Index on the global state of migratory fish. It found that migratory freshwater fish populations in Europe had dropped 93% since 1970, much higher than the already dismal global average of 76%.

The cumulative weight of those findings may have had a big impact on policy.

That same year the European Commission published its biodiversity strategy for 2030.

“For the first time ever in history, it stated that we should free at least 25,000 kilometers (15,500 miles) of river in Europe from barriers by 2030,” says Fernández Garrido.

While that was welcome news, it was still only a guideline — not legally binding.

In May 2022, however, the commission followed up with a proposal called the EU Nature Restoration Law. “In this law, they say we must start removing dams,” she says. And the proposed language calls for restoring 15,500 miles of river to a “free-flowing state by 2030.”

The European Parliament will need to ratify the law in the next couple of years. “In the meantime politicians could work to weaken it,” she says. “That’s why environmental groups are working hard to keep it strong.”

On the ground, the work to restore free-flowing rivers continues.

Last year 239 river barriers were removed in 17 European countries, including more than 100 in Spain. Finland is in the process of removing three hydroelectric dams on the Hiitolanjoki River, which will aid salmon populations. And France is home to the tallest dam removal on the continent yet, the 118-foot Vezins Dam on the Sélune River in Normandy, which was removed in 2020. Demolition began this summer on a second dam on the river, La Roche Qui Boit, which will allow the Sélune to run free for the first time in 100 years. Migratory fish populations like salmon are expected to return, and the dam removals will also reduce toxic algae that pooled in the warm waters of the reservoirs during summer.

Some of this work — and more — is showcased in a new documentary, #DamBusters, by director Francisco Campos-Lopez of Magen Entertainment. The film follows Fernández Garrido across Europe as she meets dam-removal heroes in Spain, France, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland.

“Restoring nature is probably the job of our time, our generation,” she says in the film.

“Construction to remove Centreville Dam” by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

But it’s a process that will also take time.

“There are some river systems, like for example in North America, where the benefits of dam removal are shocking and so amazing because that river system was only blocked for only 100 years,” she tells The Revelator. “But when you are talking about recovering our river systems in Europe that have been controlled and mismanaged for 500 years, 600 years, 1,000 years, we have to be cautious about what we expect.”

But even if ecological restoration comes more gradually, political movement has been swift.

“The progress since we started in 2016 until now — having policies proposed at the European level — it’s amazing,” Fernández Garrido says. “It’s really an achievement.”

The combination of research, policy reports, political pressure and movement-building have kickstarted a river restoration effort that shows no signs of slowing down — and could be a model for other regions.

Photo by Yifu Wu on Unsplash

Environmentalism is Being Mainstreamed at the Cost of Its Soul

Environmentalism is Being Mainstreamed at the Cost of Its Soul

By

David Roberts — a journalist who has written for Vox and Grist and now runs a popular green-tech newsletter — recently shared this on Twitter:

This idea is not new to Mr. Roberts. It actually reflects a decades-long push to make environmentalism mainstream by sacrificing its foundational biocentric values in favor of anthropocentrism.

The organization 350, for example, has released a ‘style guide’ advising activists to “Focus on people. Whenever possible, use visuals to emphasize that climate is a real, tangible human problem—not an abstract [sic] ecological issue.” A later version of the same guide edited the statement to read: “People are the heart of the climate movement … avoid photos of polar bears, icebergs or other images that obscure the real people behind the climate crisis.”

Some see this sort of thing as pragmatic thinking to address a crisis. Others — including me, and despite my love of people — see it as at best a profoundly dangerous mistake, and at worst as enabling colonization of the environmental movement by profit-driven interests.

Last year, me and my co-authors Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith released our book “Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What to Do About It” (thanks to the wonderful folks at Monkfish Book Publishing Company) which we bookend with this topic. This is an excerpt from Chapter 2, which is titled “Solving for the Wrong Variable,” and from the conclusion of the book:

Once upon a time, environmentalism was about saving wild beings and wild places from destruction. “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind,” Rachel Carson wrote to a friend as she finished the manuscript that would become Silent Spring. “That, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.” She wrote with unapologetic reverence of “the oak and maple and birch” in autumn, the foxes in the morning mist, the cool streams and the shady ponds, and, of course, the birds: “In the mornings, which had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, and wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marshes.” Her editor noted that Silent Spring required a “sense of almost religious dedication” as well as “extraordinary courage.” Carson knew the chemical industry would come after her, and come it did, in attacks as “bitter and unscrupulous as anything of the sort since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species a century before.” Seriously ill with the cancer that would kill her, Carson fought back in defense of the living world, testifying with calm fortitude before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and the U.S. Senate. She did these things because she had to. “There would be no peace for me,” she wrote to a friend, “if I kept silent.”

Carson’s work inspired the grassroots environmental movement; the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Silent Spring was more than a critique of pesticides—it was a clarion call against “the basic irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world.”

Today’s environmental movement stands upon the shoulders of giants, but something has gone terribly wrong. Carson didn’t save the birds from DDT so that her legatees could blithely offer them up to wind turbines. We are writing this book because we want our environmental movement back.

Mainstream environmentalists now overwhelmingly prioritize saving industrial civilization over saving life on the planet. The how and the why of this institutional capture is the subject for another book, but the capture is near total. For example, Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute—someone who has been labeled as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” and “the guru of the environmental movement”—routinely makes comments like, “We talk about saving the planet…. But the planet’s going to be around for a while. The question is, can we save civilization? That’s what’s at stake now, and I don’t think we’ve yet realized it.” Brown wrote this in an article entitled “The Race to Save Civilization.”

The world is being killed because of civilization, yet what Brown says is at stake, and what he’s racing to save, is precisely the social structure causing the harm: civilization. Not saving salmon. Not monarch butterflies. Not oceans. Not the planet. Saving civilization.

Brown is not alone. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, more or less constantly pushes the line that “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people…. Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people.”

Bill McKibben, who works tirelessly and selflessly to raise awareness about global warming, and who has been called “probably America’s most important environmentalist,” constantly stresses his work is about saving civilization, with articles like “Civilization’s Last Chance,”11 or with quotes like, “We’re losing the fight, badly and quickly—losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”

We’ll bet you that polar bears, walruses, and glaciers would
have preferred that sentence ended a different way.

In 2014 the Environmental Laureates’ Declaration on Climate Change was signed by “160 leading environmentalists from 44 countries” who were “calling on the world’s foundations and philanthropies to take a stand against global warming.” Why did they take this stand? Because global warming “threatens to
cause the very fabric of civilization to crash.” The declaration concludes: “We, 160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes, call on foundations and philanthropists everywhere to deploy their endowments urgently in the effort to save civilization.” Coral reefs, emperor penguins, and Joshua trees probably wish that sentence would have ended differently. The entire declaration, signed by “160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes,” never once mentions harm to the natural world. In fact, it never mentions the natural world at all.

Are leatherback turtles, American pikas, and flying foxes “abstract ecological issues,” or are they our kin, each imbued with their own “wild and precious life”?

Wes Stephenson, yet another climate activist, has this to say: “I’m not an environmentalist. Most of the people in the climate movement that I know are not environmentalists. They are young people who didn’t necessarily come up through the environmental movement, so they don’t think of themselves as environmentalists. They think of themselves as climate activists and as human rights activists. The terms ‘environment’ and ‘environmentalism’ carry baggage historically and culturally. It has been more about protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places than it has been about the welfare of human beings. I come at it from the opposite direction. It’s first and fore- most about human beings.”

Note that Stephenson calls “protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places” baggage.

Naomi Klein states explicitly in the film This Changes Everything: “I’ve been to more climate rallies than I can count, but the polar bears? They still don’t do it for me. I wish them well, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that stopping climate change isn’t really about them, it’s about us.”

And finally, Kumi Naidoo, former head of Greenpeace International, says: “The struggle has never been about saving the planet. The planet does not need saving.”

When Naidoo said that, in December 2015, it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal at the North Pole, above freezing in the winter.

##

I (Derrick) wrote this for a friend’s wedding.

> Each night the frogs sing outside my window. “Come to me,” they sing. “Come.” This morning the rains came, each drop meeting this particular leaf on this particular tree, then pooling together to join the ground. Love. The bright green of this year’s growth of redwood trees against the dark of shadows, other trees, tree trunks, foliage, all these plants, reaching out, reaching up. I am in love. With you. With you. With the world. With this place. With each other. Redwoods cannot stand alone. Roots burrow through the soil, reaching out to each other, to intertwine, to hold up these tallest of trees, so they may stand together, each root, each tree, saying to each other, “Come to me. Come.” What I want to know is this: What do those roots feel at first touch, first embrace? Do they find this same homecoming I find each time in you, in your eyes, the pale skin of your cheek, your neck, your belly, the backs of your hands? And the water. It is evening now, and the rain has stopped. Yet the water still falls, drop by drop from the outstretched arms of trees. I want to know, as each drop let’s go its hold, does it say, and does the ground say to it, as I say to you now, “Come to me. Come.”

In the 15 years since that wedding, the frogs in my pond have suffered reproductive failure, which is science-speak for their off- spring dying, baby after baby, year after year. Their songs began to lessen. At first their songs were so loud you could not hold a (human) conversation outside at night, and then you could. The first spring this happened I thought it might just be a bad year. The second spring I sensed a pattern. The third spring I knew something was wrong. I’d also noticed the eggs in their sacs were no longer small black dots, as before, but were covered in what looked like white fur. A little internet research and a few phone calls to herpetologists revealed the problem to me. The egg sacs were being killed by a mold called saprolegnia. It wasn’t the mold’s fault. Saprolegnia is ubiquitous, and eats weak egg sacs, acting as part of a clean-up crew in ponds. The problem is that this culture has depleted the ozone layer, which has allowed more UV-B to come through: UV-B weakens egg sacs in some species.

What do you do when someone you love is being killed? And what do you do when the whole world you love is being killed? I’m known for saying we should use any means necessary to stop the murder of the planet. People often think this is code language for using violence. It’s not. It means just what it says: any means necessary.

UV-B doesn’t go through glass, so about once a week between December and June, I get into the pond to collect egg sacs to put in big jars of water on my kitchen table. When the egg sacs hatch, I put the babies back in the pond. If I bring in about five egg sacs per week for 20 weeks, and if each sac has 15 eggs in it, and if there’s a 10 percent mortality on the eggs instead of a 90 percent mortality, that’s 2,400 more tadpoles per year. If one percent of these survive their first year, that’s 24 more tadpoles per year who survive. I fully recognize that this doesn’t do anything for frogs in other ponds. It doesn’t help the newts who are also disappearing from this same pond, or the mergansers, dragonflies, or caddisflies. It doesn’t do anything for the 200 species this culture causes to go extinct each and every day. But it does help these.

I don’t mean to make too big a deal of this.

One of my earliest memories is from when I was five years old, crying in the locker room of a YMCA where I was taking swimming lessons, because the water was so cold. I really don’t like cold water. So, I have to admit I don’t get all the way into the water when I go into my pond to help the frogs. I only get in as far as my thighs. But this isn’t, surprisingly enough, entirely because of my cold-water phobia. It’s because of a creature I’ve seen in the pond a few times, a giant water bug, which is nicknamed Toe-Biter. My bug book says they’re about an inch and a half long, but every time I get in the pond, I’m sure they are five or six inches. And I can’t stop thinking about the deflated frog-skin sacks I’ve seen (the giant water bug injects a substance that liquefies the frog’s insides, so they can be sucked out as through a straw). I’ve read that the bugs sometimes catch small birds. So, you’ll note I only go into the pond as deep as my thighs—and no deeper. Second, I have to admit that sometimes I’m not very smart. It took me several years of this weekly cold-water therapy to think of what I now perceive as one of the most important phrases in the English language—“waterproof chest waders”—and to get some.

What do you do when someone you love is being killed? It’s pretty straightforward. You defend your beloved. Using any means necessary.

##

We get it. We, too, like hot showers and freezing cold ice cream, and we like them 24/7. We like music at the touch of a button or, now, a verbal command. We like the conveniences this way of life brings us. And it’s more than conveniences. We know that. We three co-authors would be dead without modern medicine. But we all recognize that there is a terrible trade-off for all this: life on the planet. And no individual’s conveniences—or, indeed, life—is worth that price.

The price, though, is now invisible. This is the willful blindness of modern environmentalism. Like Naomi Klein and the polar bears, the real world just “doesn’t do it” for too many of us. To many people, including even some of those who consider themselves environmentalists, the real world doesn’t need our help. It’s about us. It’s always “about us.”

##

Decades ago, I (Derrick) was one of a group of grassroots environmental activists planning a campaign. As the meeting started, we went around the table saying why we were doing this work. The answers were consistent, and exemplified by one person who said, simply, “For the critters,” and by another person who got up from the table, walked to her desk, and brought back a picture. At first, the picture looked like a high-up part of the trunk of an old-growth Douglas fir tree, but when I looked more closely, I saw a small spotted owl sticking her camouflaged head out of a hole in the center of the tree’s trunk. The activist said, “I’m doing it for her.”

##

The goal has been shifted, slowly and silently, and no one seems to have noticed. Environmentalists tell the world and their organi- zations that “it’s about us.” But some of us refuse to forget the last spotted owls in the last scrap of forest, the wild beings and wild places. Like Rachel Carson before us, there will be no peace for us if we keep silent while the critters, one by one, are disappeared. Our once and future movement was for them, not us. We refuse to solve for the wrong variable. We are not saving civilization; we are trying to save the world.

[And this part comes from the conclusion of the book:]

… throughout this book, we’ve repeated Naomi Klein’s comments about polar bears not doing it for her. Not to be snarky, but instead because that’s the single most important passage in this book.

Although we’ve spent hundreds of pages laying out facts, ultimately this book is about values. We value something different than do bright greens. And our loyalty is to something different. We are fighting for the living planet. The bright greens are fighting to continue this culture—the culture that is killing the planet. Seems like the planet doesn’t do it for them.

Early in this book we quoted some of the bright greens, including Lester Brown: “The question is, can we save civilization? That’s what’s at stake now, and I don’t think we’ve yet realized it.” And Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy: “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people.” And climate scientist Wen Stephenson: “The terms ‘environment’ and ‘environmental- ism’ carry baggage historically and culturally. It has been more about protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places than it has been about the welfare of human beings. I come at it from the opposite direction. It’s first and foremost about human beings.” And Bill McKibben: “We’re losing the fight, badly and quickly—losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”

Do we yet see the pattern?

And no, we’re not losing that fight because “we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.” We’re losing that fight because we’re trying to save industrial civilization, which is inherently unsustainable.

We, the authors of this book, also like the conveniences this culture brings to us. But we don’t like them more than we like life on the planet.

We should be trying to save the planet—this beautiful, creative, unique planet—the planet that is the source of all life, the planet without whom we all die.

We are in the midst of a battle for the soul of the environmental movement, and I, for one, will not forget the forests, the birds, the fish, the antelope, the bears, the spiders, the plankton — all those beings who hold the world together in their weaving, who share common ancestry with us. Nor will I forget the mountains whose minerals make up our bones, the rivers whose waters flow in our veins, the Earth itself who is our mother. These beings are family, and I will not turn away from them.

David happens to live in my hometown, Seattle. David – if you read this, I’d like to invite you to get a cup of coffee next time I’m in town. I’ll give you a copy of #BrightGreenLies and we can talk.

Postscript: The type of thinking being promoted by David Roberts has profound consequences for the living world. For the past two years, I’ve been fighting to “Protect Thacker Pass” — a beautiful, biodiverse sagebrush-steppe in the northern Great Basin of Nevada — from destruction for a lithium mine.

The Bright Green worldview sees lithium as a necessary resource to transition away from fossil fuels and save civilization from global warming, and so Bright Greens promote lithium mining, vast solar arrays in desert tortoise habitat, and offshore wind energy development in the last breeding ground of the Atlantic Right Whale. And if some endangered wildlife has to be killed, some water poisoned, and some Native American sacred sites destroyed, well, that’s just an acceptable cost to save civilization. And so vast subsidies (see the inflation Reduction Act, for example) are being mobilized to convert yet more wild land into industrial energy and mining sacrifice zones.

Around the world, nature retreats and civilization grows.


Featured image by Max Wilbert: a spring gushing from the rock high in the western mountains.

Solving for the wrong variable

Solving for the wrong variable

This is an excerpt from the book Bright Green Lies, P. 20 ff

By Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert

What this adds up to should be clear enough, yet many people who should know better choose not to see it. This is business-as- usual: the expansive, colonizing, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted, and the nonhuman. It is the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this “environmentalism.1 —PAUL KINGSNORTH

Once upon a time, environmentalism was about saving wild beings and wild places from destruction. “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind,” Rachel Carson wrote to a friend as she finished the manuscript that would become Silent Spring. “That, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.”2 She wrote with unapologetic reverence of “the oak and maple and birch” in autumn, the foxes in the morning mist, the cool streams and the shady ponds, and, of course, the birds: “In the mornings, which had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, and wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marshes.”3 Her editor noted that Silent Spring required a “sense of almost religious dedication” as well as “extraordinary courage.”4 Carson knew the chemical industry would come after her, and come it did, in attacks as “bitter and unscrupulous as anything of the sort since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species a century before.”5 Seriously ill with the cancer that would kill her, Carson fought back in defense of the living world, testifying with calm fortitude before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and the U.S. Senate. She did these things because she had to. “There would be no peace for me,” she wrote to a friend, “if I kept silent.”6

Carson’s work inspired the grassroots environmental movement; the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Silent Spring was more than a critique of pesticides—it was a clarion call against “the basic irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world.”7 Today’s environmental movement stands upon the shoulders of giants, but something has gone terribly wrong with it. Carson didn’t save the birds from DDT so that her legatees could blithely offer them up to wind turbines. We are writing this book because we want our environmental movement back.

Mainstream environmentalists now overwhelmingly prioritize saving industrial civilization over saving life on the planet. The how and the why of this institutional capture is the subject for another book, but the capture is near total. For example, Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute—someone who has been labeled as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” and “the guru of the environmental movement”8—routinely makes comments like, “We talk about saving the planet.… But the planet’s going to be around for a while. The question is, can we save civilization? That’s what’s at stake now, and I don’t think we’ve yet realized it.” Brown wrote this in an article entitled “The Race to Save Civilization.”9

The world is being killed because of civilization, yet what Brown says is at stake, and what he’s racing to save, is precisely the social structure causing the harm: civilization. Not saving salmon. Not monarch butterflies. Not oceans. Not the planet. Saving civilization. Brown is not alone. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, more or less constantly pushes the line that “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of [human] people…. Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to [human] people.”10 Bill McKibben, who works tirelessly and selflessly to raise awareness about global warming, and who has been called “probably America’s most important environmentalist,” constantly stresses his work is about saving civilization, with articles like “Civilization’s Last Chance,”11 or with quotes like, “We’re losing the fight, badly and quickly—losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”12

We’ll bet you that polar bears, walruses, and glaciers would have preferred that sentence ended a different way.

In 2014 the Environmental Laureates’ Declaration on Climate Change was signed by “160 leading environmentalists from 44 countries” who were “calling on the world’s foundations and philanthropies to take a stand against global warming.” Why did they take this stand? Because global warming “threatens to cause the very fabric of civilization to crash.” The declaration con- cludes: “We, 160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes, call on foundations and philanthropists everywhere to deploy their endowments urgently in the effort to save civilization.”13

Coral reefs, emperor penguins, and Joshua trees probably wish that sentence would have ended differently. The entire declaration, signed by “160 winners of the world’s environmental prizes,” never once mentions harm to the natural world. In fact, it never mentions the natural world at all.

Are leatherback turtles, American pikas, and flying foxes “abstract ecological issues,” or are they our kin, each imbued with their own “wild and precious life”?14 Wes Stephenson, yet another climate activist, has this to say: “I’m not an environmentalist. Most of the people in the climate movement that I know are not environmentalists. They are young people who didn’t necessarily come up through the environmental movement, so they don’t think of themselves as environmentalists. They think of themselves as climate activists and as human rights activists. The terms ‘environment’ and ‘environmentalism’ carry baggage historically and culturally. It has been more about protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places than it has been about the welfare of human beings. I come at from the opposite direction. It’s first and foremost about human beings.”15

Note that Stephenson calls “protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places” baggage. Naomi Klein states explicitly in the film This Changes Everything: “I’ve been to more climate rallies than I can count, but the polar bears? They still don’t do it for me. I wish them well, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that stopping climate change isn’t really about them, it’s about us.”

And finally, Kumi Naidoo, former head of Greenpeace International, says: “The struggle has never been about saving the planet. The planet does not need saving.”16 When Naidoo said that, in December 2015, it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit at the North Pole, much warmer than normal, far above freezing in the middle of winter.

 

1 Paul Kingsnorth, “Confessions of a recovering environmentalist,” Orion Magazine, December 23, 2011.

2 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publishing, 1962), 9.

3 Ibid, 10.

4 Ibid, 8.

5 Ibid, 8.

6 Ibid, 8.

7 Ibid, 8.

8 “Biography of Lester Brown,” Earth Policy Institute.

9 Lester Brown, “The Race to Save Civilization,” Tikkun, September/October 2010, 25(5): 58.

10 Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Robert Lalasz, “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility,” Breakthrough Journal, Winter 2012.

11 Bill McKibben, “Civilization’s Last Chance,” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2008.

12 Bill McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, August 2, 2012.

13 “Environmental Laureates’ Declaration on Climate Change,” European Environment Foundation, September 15, 2014. It shouldn’t surprise us that the person behind this declaration is a solar energy entrepreneur. It probably also shouldn’t surprise us that he’s begging for money.

14 “Wild and precious life” is from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” House of Light (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992).

15 Gabrielle Gurley, “From journalist to climate crusader: Wen Stephenson moves to the front lines of climate movement,” Commonwealth: Politics, Ideas & Civic Life in Massachusetts, November 10, 2015.

16 Emma Howard and John Vidal, “Kumi Naidoo: The Struggle Has Never Been About Saving the Planet,” The Guardian, December 30, 2015.

The Colorado River Runs Again

The Colorado River Runs Again

This article originally appeared in Yes! Solutions Journalism.

Featured image: Local residents and kids enjoy the recreational benefits of the flowing river resulting from the planned water releases. PHOTO COURTESY OF RAISE THE RIVER, JESÚS SALAZAR

“It’s not only about wildlife, or birds and trees. It’s also about the people.”


By Lourdes Medrano

In late spring, Antonia Torres González’ tears rolled freely at the rare sight before her: the Colorado River flowed again in what is usually a parched delta.

Torres González, a member of the Cucapá tribe who grew up in the river delta, couldn’t help but relive memories of childhood romps in the once-lush waterway in northwestern Mexico. “It was like seeing the river come back to life,” she says.

Public News Service · Colorado River Flows Once Again to Gulf of California

On May 1, 2021, the river once again flowed in its delta thanks to an agreement between the United States and Mexico dubbed Minute 323. Through Oct. 11, a total of 35,000 acre-feet of water (11.4 billion gallons) will be released downstream from Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border to quench the thirst of this long-withered ecosystem.

The mammoth endeavor to rejuvenate the river delta was years in the making and involved dozens of people, including water managers, policymakers, scientists, conservationists, and nonprofits from both sides of the border.

In March 2014, a planned release from Morelos Dam sent water into the dry Colorado River Delta, connecting this river to the sea for the first time in many years. Photo courtesy of Raise the River, Peter McBride.

“We provide a lot of brainpower and blood, sweat, and tears, and commitment to this,” says Nancy Smith, Colorado River Program conservation director at the Nature Conservancy.

A History Dried Up

The decadeslong deterioration of the Colorado River Delta began with the diversion of most of its water to farms and growing city populations in the United States, and by the early 1960s, very little flow made it to the river’s lower reaches. Under a 1944 treaty, 1.5 million acre-feet of water—about 10% of the river’s annual flow—was required to reach Mexico each year, though most of that drenches farmland in the valley of Mexicali, Baja California, without ever reaching the delta that should reconnect the river to the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.

From the air, the green of a restored site provides a stark contrast to the arid landscape of today’s Colorado River Delta. Photo courtesy of Raise the River, Jesús Salazar.

Recent agreements between the countries, including this year’s pulse as well as another eight-week pulse of water back in 2014, ensure collaboration in restoring the delta and managing river water, sharing surpluses and shortages.

The restoration work that grassroots organizers jump-started in the delta region some two decades ago—including the removal of nonnative vegetation and reforestation of thousands of acres of willow, cottonwood, and mesquite trees—would in time become a key factor in the cross-border undertaking. “We had a vision that someday the Colorado River could be connected again to the sea and to local communities,” says Francisco Zamora of the Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Arizona. The nonprofit, which also has offices in Mexicali, works with communities to revive dying ecosystems.

Beginning in May 2021, strategic releases of water into the network of restoration sites in the Colorado River Delta were designed to maximize the impact of limited resources. Photo courtesy of Raise the River, Jesús Salazar.

To see the river flowing into the delta today, albeit temporarily, gives him hope that local communities may one day again rely on it for sustenance and recreation. Over the years, restoration work not only has provided local residents with jobs, but also inspired them to believe that the delta can flourish again. Zamora says seeing the river flowing has reinforced that notion, even for young people who had never seen it happen before.

“It’s not only about wildlife, or birds and trees,” he says. “It’s also about the people.”

People-Centered Conservation

Torres González remembers the Colorado River delta as an abundant source of water that sustained multiple generations of Cucapá families living on its banks. “When I was a child, the river was still flowing,” she says. “We bathed in it, we played games, we fished there. We used to drink water from the river, and most of our families used the water to do the wash and for other household chores.”

Gradually, the fish and the water flows diminished, as did the lush, native trees, and other vegetation that families traditionally used for food and medicine, recalls the tribal elder who now lives in a Mexicali neighborhood. “We no longer consume what grew naturally in the wetlands that were there,” Torres González says.

This year’s water delivery will allow nearby communities to enjoy the river again for five months, and directly benefits about 700 acres of restored landscape, Zamora says. “This is an area where you can find many species of birds and some are what we call target species, like the yellow-billed cuckoo.” To thrive, target species require mature cottonwood and willow forest, so their presence in the delta is a good indicator that the habitat is improving and suitable for such birds, he says.

The Laguna Grande Interpretive Center explains the strategic restoration process implemented at this site by the Sonoran Institute. Photo courtesy of Raise the River, Lynne Bairstow.

The Sonoran Institute and the Nature Conservancy are part of Raise the River, a coalition of environmental groups from Mexico and the U.S. working to restore the river delta. “The Colorado River Delta used to cover 2 million acres,” Smith says. “It was this vast, watery landscape teeming with birds—really quite extraordinary.”

Smith has no doubt the delta can make a comeback. “One of the really wonderful things we learned from the 2014 pulse flow is that with water, the ecosystem responds,” she says. “The birds return, the cottonwoods and willow trees return, the local and migratory birds have increased—many of which are endangered.”

The 2014 pulse flow released downstream, known as Minute 319, was roughly 105,000 acre-feet of water (about 1% of the river’s annual flow) and transformed the dry delta into a river again for eight weeks. Subsequent scientific studies showed the water release was a boost to vegetation, greening restoration areas and increasing certain bird species—at least for a while. Even though the abundance of birds later diminished, levels remained higher than before 2014, according to a 2018 report from the International Boundary and Water Commission.

By mid-June 2021, the strategic releases of water enabled the Colorado River to once again connect with the Gulf of Mexico, reviving its dormant estuary. Photo courtesy of Raise the River, Jesús Salazar. 

Lessons learned from the first water surge helped design the current water delivery to maximize benefits to the delta, Smith says. To keep the water from seeping into the ground early on, which happened in 2014, existing irrigation canals are being used to direct the flow toward restoration sites. Nonprofits and grassroots groups also fund on-the-ground projects in the delta and contribute donor resources to match those of the U.S. and Mexico governments.

“We work hand in hand with the government to do all the science necessary to make sure that we keep making progress and to make sure that whatever environmental water comes across the border is put to the best use,” Smith says.

A Hopefully Wetter Future

For Torres González, seeing the river flowing again, if only briefly, restores her hope in the delta’s resiliency—just like it did her mother, Inocencia González, before she died in June 2021.

“It would benefit us a lot if the water reaches the delta regularly again,” she says. “In this water flow we saw that there were a lot of small fish that could have grown in this river, and it would’ve meant good fishing for the Cucapá.”

As drought and climate change further strain a dwindling Colorado River and other natural resources around the globe, Smith says, international agreements may become more important. She hopes the U.S.-Mexico collaboration will bring about similar arrangements elsewhere.

“If we can restore the river, it will benefit a lot of people, but it also shows that we can protect nature, we can restore nature,” she says. “And if we can do it in the Colorado River, we can do it in other parts of the world.”


LOURDES MEDRANO is an independent writer covering the U.S.-Mexico border. She focuses on illegal immigration, underserved communities, the environment, health, and matters of importance in both the U.S. and neighboring Mexico. She previously worked for daily newspapers, including the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. She is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, NAHJ, and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Lourdes is based in Tucson, Arizona, and speaks English and Spanish. She can be reached via Twitter direct message or LinkedIn.

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Net zero targets are fossil fuel greenwashing

Net zero targets are fossil fuel greenwashing

Friends of Earth International (FoEI) published a report revealing the greenwashing of net zero emissions of the fossil fuel industries. In this piece, Kim Hill writes about the problems with the concept of economic growth that the report does not acknowledge.

Originally published at Medium.

Featured image: Headline on World Coal Association website, March 2017


By Kim Hill

A recent report from Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) unpacks the greenwashing of fossil fuels in the term ‘net zero emissions’. Net zero is a scheme for expanding the oil and gas industry, that does nothing to address the causes of climate change, and indeed exacerbates ecological collapse.

This is how FoEI describes net zero targets: “‘Greenwashing’ hardly suffices as a term to describe these efforts to obscure continued growth in fossil emissions — ‘ecocide’ and ‘genocide’ more accurately capture the impacts the world will face.”

FoEI joins the many environmental activists and groups campaigning against net-zero, in defence of the ecosystems, indigenous peoples, peasants and third-world communities that are being harmed by fossil fuel expansion and offset trading.

The climate movement has adopted net zero emissions as its core demand, and continues to mobilise many thousands of people around the world to join protests in support of this goal. By endorsing the fossil fuel companies’ campaigns for net-zero pledges and targets, rather than taking the side of environmental groups organising against it, the climate movement and Extinction Rebellion are complicit in genocide and ecocide. While individual climate activists may have other motives, the movement as a whole is controlled by corporate interests, and has been co-opted into marketing the goals of its funders.

While climate activists have been inspired by the celebrity status of Greta Thunberg in coalescing around the net zero target, Greta herself has said in recent months “we must forget about net zero” and calls these schemes “empty words, loopholes and greenwash.”

Just a few of the many headlines to be found via a web search of the term net zero emissions.

Two recent articles in The Guardian also expose the net zero spin. One titled Global oil companies have committed to net zero emissions. It’s a sham. says “many companies and countries are using “net zero” to justify expanding the production of fossil fuels…All that the major oil companies have done (with tacit support from many governments) is shift their public narrative about the climate crisis from denial to delusion. They’re no longer insisting there’s no problem, because they lost that argument. “Net zero” is their attempt to continue business as usual without addressing what they’re doing to people and the planet.”

A second article, The climate crisis can’t be solved by carbon accounting tricks, states “Net zero increasingly involves highly questionable carbon accounting. As a result, the new politics swirling around net zero targets is rapidly becoming a confusing and dangerous mix of pragmatism, self-delusion and weapons-grade greenwash.”
The FoEI report, titled Chasing Carbon Unicorns, opens with: “Powerful actors, particularly those most responsible for emissions, such as the fossil fuel industry and agribusiness, continue to obscure the need for the phase-out of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions with the distractions and seductions of the carbon market. “Net zero” pledges are a new addition to the strategy basket of these actors who are fighting hard to maintain the status quo. And the status quo will certainly worsen the climate catastrophe.”

A few more excerpts:

“These deliberate corporate strategies distract attention from the undeniable and urgent need to eliminate fossil fuel emissions…”

“‘Net zero’ is a smokescreen, a conveniently invented concept that is both dangerous and problematic…” (p4)

“engineered “negative emissions” technologies, such as bioenergy carbon capture and storage(BECCS) or direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), are untested.” (p8)

“There are no saviour ecosystems around the planet, nor fairy godmother technologies, that will suck up continued fossil fuel emissions.” (p8)

at best there are no overall emission reductions from an offset” (p11, emphasis in original)

“financial interests are not giving up on the profit-making opportunities they see in markets for carbon and for financial assets, such as securities and derivatives, based on carbon.” (p13)

“There are no surprises among the members of the TSCVM [Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets]. BP, Shell, and Total represent the oil majors; Bunge, Nestlé, and Unilever are there for agribusiness; Boeing, easyJet, and Etihad, the aviation sector. Bank and finance industry members include Bank of America, BlackRock, BNP Paribas, Goldman Sachs, Itaú Unibanco, and Standard Chartered…Major big green conservation organisations are also engaged in the effort to rehabilitate offsetting and help to dramatically increase the supply of “nature-based” offset credits. Four organisations sit on the consultative group of the TSVCM: Conservation International (CI), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and World Wildlife Fund (WWF). All four are prominent advocates for “nature-based” solutions / offsets. All four have active projects in the developing world that are set to generate carbon-offset credits, sometimes including direct alliances with fossil fuel majors.” (p15)

“Government “net zero” targets also obscure fossil emissions and the responsibility for reducing those emissions, as do the “net zero” pledges of the private sector.” (p16)

The report ends with no realistic plan of action, but instead lists vague demands comprising meaningless buzzwords, and calls for “real zero”, a target cooked up in an equally murky shade of greenwash. At no point does FoE acknowledge the reality that infinite economic growth will rapidly destroy all life on Earth, regardless of how the economic system is powered. It takes no account of the physical impossibility of powering a globalised growth economy without continued extraction of fossil fuels, nor the enormous expansion of mining and land-grabbing required to manufacture wind turbines and solar panels at scale. The necessity of scaling back and localising economic activity, and prioritising the needs of people and nature over corporate profits, is never mentioned. Despite sincere efforts to expose the distractions marketed by corporate actors, FoE reveals its own reliance on corporate funding as a serious limit on what it can achieve.

A movement that can genuinely bring down the fossil fuel industry and stop the destruction of nature needs to extract itself from corporate funding, and be completely independent of business interests. It needs to abandon the tactic of making nebulous demands that can be twisted around by governments and corporations to promote ecocidal economic growth. Merely marching in the streets, and expecting governments and corporations to represent the interests of the people, is a failed tactic. Activists will need to be strategic, and take personal responsibility for organising the direct dismantling of fossil fuel infrastructure. The movement must take an eco-centric rather than business-centric view, and unite around the goal of permanently shutting down all extractive and destructive industries, and regenerating damaged landscapes and communities.