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“Unjust laws exist.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1849 essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” The naturalist and pacifist asked, “Shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” His answer was simple: “I say, break the law.”
One hundred and sixty-four years later, on May 15, 2013, Ken Ward Jr. and Jay O’Hara did just that. They navigated a small lobster boat, named “The Henry David T.,” to a point off the Massachusetts coast near the enormous Brayton Point Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built in 1963 that is the largest source of carbon emissions in the region. They dropped anchor and blocked access to the pier, preventing a cargo ship from unloading 40,000 tons of coal. They suspended banners from their boat reading “#CoalIsStupid” and “350,” a reference to the international climate action group 350.org. Three hundred fifty parts per million (ppm) is the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists feel is the maximum level that will allow the planet to avoid catastrophic human-induced climate change. Ward and O’Hara succeeded in blocking the coal shipment. From the boat, they reported themselves to the local police and were later arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard.
O’Hara, a Quaker and a sailmaker on Cape Cod, explained, “We were charged with ... disturbing the peace, conspiracy to disturb the peace, negligent operation of a motor vessel and a failure to act to avoid a collision of a boat.” They faced years in prison. They decided to mount a “necessity defense,” admitting that they broke the law, but claiming that they did so only to prevent a much greater harm, i.e., the burning of coal that increases global warming. Last Monday, Sept. 8, they finally went to court. Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter offered them a deal. He dropped all criminal charges against them in exchange for a guilty plea to a civil offense and a fine. D.A. Sutter then went a step further—a few steps, actually, to the plaza in front of the courthouse, where he shocked the two defendants and close to 100 of their supporters with a short speech:
“The decision [we] reached today ... certainly took into consideration the cost to the taxpayers in Somerset, but was made with our concern for their children, the children of Bristol County and beyond, in mind. Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced. In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking ... we were able to reach an agreement that symbolizes our commitment at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office to take a leadership role on this issue.”
Sutter’s incredible demonstration of political leadership is timely, indeed. This week, the World Meteorological Organization released its latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, packed with dire statistics about the accelerating threat of climate change. “The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013,” the WMO reported, with current concentration of carbon dioxide at 396 ppm. The WMO also warned, ominously, “The current rate of ocean acidification appears unprecedented at least over the last 300 million years.” Defendant Ken Ward, a former deputy director of Greenpeace USA, noting the urgency he feels for the climate, told me, “We should ... be taking emergency actions everywhere we can. And the very first emergency action is to stop burning coal.”
Henry David Thoreau is best known for his book “Walden,” in which he describes the year he spent living in a cabin he built on Walden Pond, near Concord, Mass. Thoreau opposed the 1847 U.S. invasion of Mexico. He was a staunch opponent of slavery. To protest these violent policies, he decided he would not pay taxes. When he was jailed for his protest, he was visited by his friend, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is said that when Emerson asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there,” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?” Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience was one of the first modern articulations of the resistance tactic of nonviolent noncooperation. His words and actions have inspired millions, among them Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
The People’s Climate March will happen in New York City on Sunday, Sept. 21. Organizers expect it to be the largest march for the climate in history. The march’s slogan: “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone.” Sam Sutter says he’ll be there, as will the two activists he prosecuted. I asked the district attorney and the defendants if they would be marching together. They all smiled. Prosecutor Sutter said, “It’s certainly possible.” Jay O’Hara concurred, “Sounds like a plan.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,200 stations in North America. She is the co-author of “The Silenced Majority,” a New York Times best-seller.
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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.
Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.
Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.
SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.
It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.
Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.
In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.
The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).
"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.
The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.
"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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