In the fifth century B.C., the playwright Sophocles begins "Oedipus Tyrannos" with the title character struggling to identify the cause of a plague striking his city, Thebes. (Spoiler alert: It's his own bad leadership.)
As someone who writes about early Greek poetry, I spend a lot of time thinking about why its performance was so crucial to ancient life. One answer is that epic and tragedy helped ancient storytellers and audiences try to make sense of human suffering.
From this perspective, plagues functioned as a setup for an even more crucial theme in ancient myth: a leader's intelligence. At the beginning of the "Iliad," for instance, the prophet Calchas — who knows the cause of a nine-day plague — is praised as someone "who knows what is, what will be and what happened before."
This language anticipates a chief criticism of Homer's legendary King Agamemnon: He does not know "the before and the after."
The epics remind their audiences that leaders need to be able to plan for the future based on what has happened in the past. They need to understand cause and effect. What caused the plague? Could it have been prevented?
The Spartan general Lysander orders the walls of Athens be destroyed, as part of the Athenian capitulation to Sparta. The Illustrated History of the World / Wikimedia Commons
Myths help their audiences understand the causes of things. As narrative theorists like Mark Turner and specialists in memory like Charles Fernyhough emphasize, people learn how to behave from stories and concepts of cause and effect in childhood. The linear sequence of before, now and after communicates the relationships between things and how we, as human beings, understand our own responsibility in the world.
Plague stories provide settings where fate pushes human organization to the limit. Human leaders are almost always crucial to the causal sequence, as Zeus observes in Homer's "Odyssey," saying, as I've translated it, "Humans are always blaming the gods for their suffering / but they experience pain beyond their fate because of their own recklessness."
The problems humans create go beyond just plagues: The poet Hesiod writes that the top Greek god, Zeus, showed his disapproval for bad leaders by burdening them with military failures as well as pandemics. The consequences of human failings are a refrain in the ancient critique of leaders, with or without plagues: The "Iliad," for instance, describes rulers who "ruin their people through recklessness." The "Odyssey" phrases it as "bad shepherds ruin their flocks."
Plagues were common in the ancient world, but not all of them were blamed on leaders. Like other natural disasters, they were frequently blamed on the gods.
But historians, like Polybius in the second century B.C. and Livy in the first century B.C., also frequently recount epidemics striking armies and people in swamps or cities with poor sanitation. Philosophers and physicians also searched for rational approaches — blaming the climate, or pollution.
When the historian Thucydides recounts how a plague with alleged origins in Ethiopia hit Athens in 430 B.C., he vividly describes patients suffering a sudden high fever, shortness of breath and an array of sickly discharges. Those who survived the sickness had endured such delirious fevers that they might have no memory of it all.
Athens as a state was unprepared to meet the challenge of that plague. Thucydides describes the futility of any human response: Appeals to the gods and the work of doctors — who died in droves — were equally useless. The disease wreaked havoc because the Athenians were massed within the city walls to wait out the Spartan armies during the Peloponnesian War.
Yet despite the plague's terrible nature, Thucydides insists that the worst part was the despair people felt from fear and the "horror of human beings dying like sheep."
Sick people died of neglect, of the lack of proper shelter and of disease spreading from improper burials in an unprepared and overcrowded city, followed by looting and lawlessness.
Athens, set up as a fortress against its enemies, brought ruin upon itself.
Making Sense out of Human Flaws
Left out of plague accounts are the names of the multitudes who died in them. Homer, Sophocles and Thucydides tell us that masses died. But plagues in ancient narratives are usually the beginning, not the end of the story. A plague didn't stop the Trojan War, prevent Oedipus' sons from waging civil war or give the Athenians enough reasons to make peace.
For years after the ravages of the plague, Athens still suffered from in-fighting, toxic politics and selfish leaders. Popular politics led to the disastrous Sicilian Expedition of 415 B.C., killing thousands of Athenians — but still Athens survived.
A decade later, the Athenians again broke into civil factions and eventually prosecuted their own generals after a naval victory in 406 B.C. at Arginusae. In 404 B.C., after a siege, Sparta defeated Athens. But, as we learn from Greek myth, it was — again — really Athens' leaders and people who defeated themselves.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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A powerful earthquake struck near Athens, Greece and shook the capital city for 15 seconds on Friday, causing people to run into the streets to escape the threat of falling buildings, NBC News reported.
The U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors seismic activity around the world, announced that the quake measured 5.3 on the Richter scale when it struck at 2:13 p.m. in Greece. The epicenter was just outside of Magoula, which is 14 miles northwest of Athens.
The Athens Institute of Geodynamics measured seven aftershocks. The largest was felt an hour after the initial tremor and registered a 4.3 magnitude, according to the BBC.
Several neighborhoods around the city lost power, but major tourist sites, including the Acropolis Museum, remained open but short-staffed since many employees were allowed to leave early, according to ABC News.
"There are no reports of serious injuries," said Stelios Petsas, a spokesman for the Greek government, as the AP reported. "I urge members of the public to remain calm, in Greece we are well acquainted with earthquakes."
He did say that one abandoned building collapsed in a western district of Athens. Several other abandoned buildings were damaged in other parts of the city.
"There is no reason for concern," said Efthymios Lekkas, the head of the anti-quake protection agency. "The capital's buildings are built to withstand a much stronger earthquake," he said, as the BBC reported.
Petsas also noted that cellular networks were temporarily jammed due to overloading, but they were restored to normal operation, which allowed several people to call the fire department to ask for help evacuating people stuck in elevators.
Greek reports noted that a woman was injured slightly by falling plaster, according to the BBC.
Videos posted to social media showed the quake happening, knocking bottles off of a dresser and shaking fans and lights.
Abigail Hill, a teacher at the British Council in Athens, said that she and her colleagues ducked under the tables.
"The room started trembling and we all realized that it wasn't stopping, so we got under tables, and the trembling continued for maybe another 30 seconds," she said, as the Independent reported.
"Then I heard sirens and everyone in the building, once it stopped swaying, started going down the stairs and everyone was in the streets, waiting to find out what was going on," she continued. "Now there's a big sense of relief that it seems there are no casualties and everyone is okay."
Gerasimos Papadopoulos, the senior seismologist at the Geodynamics Institute said Friday's quake was felt across the southern part of the country, according to the AP.
"It had a very shallow depth and that's why it was felt so strongly," he said. "It is too early to say whether this was the main earthquake, but there have been aftershocks of magnitude 3.5, 2.5 and 3.2 and that is encouraging. But we need more time and data to have a clear picture."
Residents who feared the worst might have memories of the last major earthquake to hit Athens — a 6.0 magnitude quake in 1999, which killed 143 people and caused extensive damage to Athens' infrastructure.
Greece is one of Europe's most earthquake-prone countries, due to its unique location at a meeting point for three massive plates of Earth's crust. The Eurasian, Arabic and African plates grind together under Greece, causing a network of fault lines.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Arachnophobes beware. A shoreline by the Greek town of Aitoliko has been swamped by a mass of mating spiders and 1,000 feet of their cobwebs.
Earlier this week, a local named Giannis Giannakopoulos uploaded a YouTube video and posted several pictures of the spectacle on his Facebook page, showing shrubs, palm fronds and other greenery completely veiled by spider webs.
The webs were likely made by spiders of the Tetragnatha genus, which are sometimes called "stretch spiders" for their elongated bodies.
These insects tend to live by water and are excellent web builders, LiveScience reported, noting that their webs are used for nesting and to capture prey such as mosquitoes.
How did all those webs get there? Turns out, a bout of hot, humid weather as well as an increase in the mosquito population this year created favorable conditions for the spiders to reproduce and for their population to explode, an expert explained.
"The spiders are taking advantage of these conditions, and are having a kind of a party. They mate, they reproduce and provide a whole new generation," Maria Chatzaki, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Democritus University of Thrace, told the local publication Newsit (translated from Greek).
Chatzaki noted that massive cobwebs have been seen before in 2003.
"The phenomenon we observed in Aitoliko is not unprecedented," she said. "It is a seasonal phenomenon that occurs mainly at the end of the summer and early autumn."
The spiders do not harm humans and will not cause any damage to the environment. Eventually, the bugs will die off and their web will naturally degrade.
"The spiders will have their party and will soon die," she said.
The final tests of a new system that will allow the island to power itself with batteries recharged by a solar park and 800-kilowatt wind turbine are taking place this summer, and the system is expected to go live later this year.
"The innovation of this program and its funding lies in the batteries—the energy storage—that's what's innovative," project manager Spyros Aliferis told The Associated Press. "The energy produced by the wind turbines and the photovoltaics will be stored in batteries, so that this energy can be used for the grid when there is demand."
The switch is practical as well as sustainable. Tilos is a small island with an outdated, costly power system that is strained when its winter population of 400 expands to 3,000 in the summer.
It currently gets its power from a diesel plant on the island of Kos, which is 69 kilometers (approximately 42.87 miles) away. Tilos is the last of three islands connected to the plant by an underwater cable, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported.
The system is vulnerable to outages, which can last as long as 12 hours, making life difficult for hotel owner Andreas Lardopoulos, since it can lead to spoiled food and appliance failures.
"Hopefully the renewable energy will help us solve these problems and save some money," Lardopoulos told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Which is not to say that environmental concerns aren't also part of the island's motivation.
The island's late mayor Tassos Aliferis was an environmentalist. In addition to first proposing the idea of going renewable, he also banned hunting and expanded eco-tourism.
His successor, Maria Kamma, also hopes green energy will provide a better future both for the island's human residents and its rich biodiversity—it boasts more than 150 bird species and around 350 plant varieties.
Kamma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the island's population shrunk to 200 in the 1990s and was only increased due to infrastructure and transportation updates. She said she hoped the green energy initiative would continue this trend and ensure residents "have a very good standard of living."
The European Commission also hopes Tilos can be a model for other islands with similar power woes, The Associated Press reported. The EU funded the 13.7 million-euro ($15.7 million) project to the tune of 11 million euros ($12.5 million).
The EU's goal is one shared by Zisimos Mantas, the chief business development officer of the Greek company in charge of the project: Eunice Energy Group.
"We hope that the Tilos project will be replicated in many more islands," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
By Andy Rowell
If Justin Trudeau didn't know before, he does now. If Canada's prime minister could blame ignorance before, he can't now.
Every day brings reports of new deaths and disasters as the intense heat wave which has gripped much of the Northern Hemisphere continues.
The numbers do not lie. Some fifty dead in Greece, at least 44 dead in Japan, at least 70 dead in Canada. Sweden alight. Numerous other parts of the world are scorching, too.
Let's start with Greece. Many people awoke this morning to the distressing news that at least 50 people have been killed, including a six-month old baby and many children, with dozens more injured and hundreds rescued as devastating wildfires swept through a small resort near Athens. The authorities have called a state of emergency, and has asked for international help.
Twenty-six people had reportedly died huddled together close to a beach in a town called Mati. Nikos Economopoulos, head of Greece's Red Cross, told the country's Skai TV, "They had tried to find an escape route but unfortunately these people and their kids didn't make it in time."
One Mati resident, Kostas Laganos, said that he escaped by diving into the sea: "Thankfully the sea was there and we went into the sea, because the flames were chasing us all the way to the water, it burned our backs and we dove into the water."
Greek authorities urged residents at the coast west of Athens to abandon their homes as the tinder dry conditions continued, with temperatures over 40°C (104°F).
Greece is not alone. Yesterday I blogged on the heatwave in Japan. Today, the country's weather agency has declared the heatwave a natural disaster, saying that at least 65 deaths had been recorded in the past week. Experts believe there will be many more.
In Canada, the hot weather has reportedly caused the deaths of at least 70 people in Quebec alone. Earlier this month, in Ottawa, in Ontario, the humidity index—the method used there to measure the combined humidity level and temperature—hit 47°C (116.6°F) on July 2.
But the hot temperatures are back. Early this morning, the Canadian government issued another heat warning for the Montreal area, advising people that the so-called humidex values are expected to reach the high thirties.
"Heat warnings are issued when very high temperature or humidity conditions are expected to pose an elevated risk of heat illnesses, such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion," it said.
Parts of Canada too are alight. As of last weekend, there were more than one hundred fires burning in British Columbia, and a further 118 burning in Ontario, with 29 of them considered "out of control."
Finally, some in the media are waking up. One BBC journalist tweeted: "Climate change. It's here. It's catastrophic. This month alone: — '50 dead' in Greece wildfires — Arctic Circle ablaze — Japan heatwave, flooding and landslides kill hundreds — Record temperatures in Algeria, Morocco, Oman — Drought squeezes US lemons."
Climate change. It's here. It's catastrophic. This month alone: — '50 dead' in Greece wildfires — Arctic Circle a… https://t.co/mEQ5iMMupj— James Cook (@James Cook)1532415848.0
But not, it seems, Justin Trudeau, who is asleep in the heat. All he has to do is switch on the news to see what is happening. As people die across the globe, his government was searching for a buyer for the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline, which will triple the amount of dirty tar sands exported from Alberta to Vancouver to 890,000 barrels a day.
The pipeline has become the most toxic political issue in Canada. It is vehemently opposed by the government of British Columbia and by a coalition of First Nations, community and environmental groups.
Despite all the warnings about the climate impact of the pipeline, Trudeau's government offered to buy it from Kinder Morgan after the company froze investment, to keep construction continuing. They had hoped to sell the pipeline quickly to a new buyer.
But that has not happened and no buyer could be found before the deadline, which was on Sunday. So Trudeau's government has no option now but to be the full-time owner of the tar sands pipeline.
As the Canadian Star stated: "But with that date set to pass without a deal, it was expected the pipeline company will now take Ottawa's $4.5-billion offer to purchase the project to its shareholders."
On Saturday, the day before the deadline, protesters amassed in Parliament Hill wearing hazardous-materials suits and carrying a fake pipeline. One of the protesters, Aaron Thornell, said, "I think that this investment sets us down a completely wrong and long path that will not lead to the [clean energy] transition. Another, Pat Taylor, added, "It's just crazy. And you know, I have a son. I think about my grandchildren to come and it just breaks my heart."
The formal sale now looks likely to be approved next month, or in September. It is undoubtable that more people will die from the global heatwave in the meantime. But that won't worry Trudeau who is on holiday. Ironically, in British Columbia.
236 Civil Society Groups to Justin Trudeau: 'The Time for Investment in New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Is Over'… https://t.co/MYATeBUbyc— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1527213627.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate Oil Change International.
Wildfires that ignited in Greece Monday have killed at least 60 people in the area around Athens, prompting Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to declare three days of national mourning, BBC News reported.
The fires, which have injured at least 150, are the worst Greece has seen in more than a decade.
"Today Greece is mourning, and in memory of those who were lost, we are declaring a three-day period of mourning," Tsipras said, as ABC News reported. "But we mustn't let mourning overwhelm us, because these hours are hours of battle, unity, courage and above all solidarity."
The Spanish government sent two planes to help fight the blazes, ABC News reported. France, Italy, Germany and Poland also answered Greece's request for help with equipment and firefighters, BBC News reported. The firefighters need to work quickly, since temperatures in the area are expected to rise later this week.
Greece is prone to wildfires in the hot, dry summer months, according to BBC News, but this year's are the worst since 2007 blazes killed dozens. There is some speculation among officials that the fires could have been sparked by arsonists looting old homes.
A dry winter also helped create the conditions that allowed the current blazes to spread, Al Jazeera reported.
A 2009 World Wildlife Fund and National Observatory of Athens assessment on the near-future impacts of climate change in Greece projected increased temperatures and drier winters would augment fire risk.
One fire that started Monday especially devastated the village of Mati in the Rafina region, which is a popular holiday destination, according to BBC News.
It subsided with lower winds on Tuesday, but was not entirely under control, Al Jazeera reported.
Villagers ran towards the sea for relief from the flames, but some did not make it, according to BBC News.
In one tragic incident, the bodies of 26 adults and children were found hugging each other feet from the sea.
Those that did make it to the water's edge, where they were rescued by both government and private boats.
"We're talking about a biblical catastrophe in this wonderful area of Mati," fire survivor George Vokas told BBC News. Vokas and his family survived, but the flames destroyed their car and home. Two women he had tried to help had died, Vokas told BBC News.
Vokas wasn't the only one to lose his possessions. The streets of Mati were lined with burned out cars, Al Jazeera reported.
"Mati doesn't even exist as a settlement anymore," Al Jazeera reported that a woman told Greece's Skai TV. "I saw corpses, burned-out cars. I feel lucky to be alive."
In Greece, today, people are jumping into the ocean to escape rapidly advancing wildfires. So far, this is Greece'… https://t.co/uMbrDc5LqD— Eric Holthaus (@Eric Holthaus)1532438036.0
The sinking of a tanker carrying 2,200 tons of fuel oil and 370 tons of marine gas oil has coated some of Greece's most popular beaches in thick, black sludge, leading to health authorities to ban swimming along shorelines in Athens.
The Agia Zoni II tanker sank Sunday off the coast of Salamina island and left behind "a huge environmental and financial disaster," Salamina mayor Isidora Papathanasiou told local news, adding that the "smell is intense and our eyes are stinging."
The mayors of Salamina, Piraeus and Glyfada warned they might take legal action over the pollution "against whoever is responsible."
Greece's government has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent the oil slick from spreading to the Saronic Gulf in Athens, a region home to a wide variety of marine life including dolphins, turtles, fish and sea birds.
Oil kills! The huge #OilSpill polluting the coast of Athens & Saronikos Bay is an environmental crime.… https://t.co/Eih0nP4Ruw— Demetres Karavellas (@Demetres Karavellas)1505371113.0
"If a small relative leak causes such a disaster next to the country's largest port and the operational center of the Ministry of Mercantile Marine, what exactly is the country's ability to cope with spills and accidents from large-scale oil activities in the Ionian Sea and the Cretan Sea?" said Takis Gregoriou, the head of the campaign for climate change and energy at Greenpeace Greece, in a statement.
World Wildlife Federation Greece also called the spill an "environmental crime."
After touring affected areas, shipping minister Panagiotis Kouroumblis insisted that the situation is improving. He said that cleanup is underway and also suggested Thursday he would resign if asked by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, according to Greek Reporter.
The Associated Press reports that Greece has requested help from the European Union's Civil Protection Mechanism and deployed a specialized cleanup vessel.
A federal court has ruled that National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) failed to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.
In an opinion released late Wednesday, Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas, U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California, found that NMFS’s approval of the Navy’s training activities in its Northwest Training Range Complex failed to use the best available science to assess the extent and duration of impacts to whales and other marine mammals. The decision requires the federal agency to reassess its permits to ensure that the Navy’s training activities comply with protective measures in the Endangered Species Act.
“This is a victory for dozens of protected species of marine mammals, including critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises,” said Steve Mashuda, an Earthjustice attorney representing a coalition of conservation and Northern California Indian Tribes. “NMFS must now employ the best science and require the Navy to take reasonable and effective actions to avoid and minimize harm from its training activities.”
The Navy uses a vast area of the West Coast, stretching from Northern California to the Canadian border, for training. Activities include anti-submarine warfare exercises involving tracking aircraft and sonar; surface-to-air gunnery and missile exercises; air-to-surface bombing exercises; and extensive testing for several new weapons systems.
In 2010 and 2012, NMFS authorized the Navy to harm or “take” marine mammals and other sealife through 2015. The permits allow the Navy to conduct increased training exercises that can harm marine mammals and disrupt their migration, nursing, breeding or feeding, primarily as a result of harassment through exposure to the use of sonar.
New science from 2010 and 2011 shows that whales and other marine mammals are far more sensitive to sonar and other noise than previously thought. In permitting the Navy’s activities, NMFS ignored this new information. The Court found that the agency violated its legal duty to use this “best available data” when evaluating impacts to endangered whales and other marine life.
The Court also rejected the agency’s decision to limit its review to only a five-year period when the Navy has been clear that its training activities will continue indefinitely. The Court held that NMFS’s limited review “ignores the realities of the Navy’s acknowledged long-term, ongoing activities in the [Northwest Training Range],” because “a series of short-term analyses can mask the long-term impact of an agency action. … [T]he segmented analysis is inadequate to address long-term effects of the Navy’s acknowledged continuing activities in the area.”
“This is an important win for the environment and for the tribes’ traditional, cultural and subsistence ways in their ancestral coastal territories,” said Hawk Rosales, executive director of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council. “Marine mammals now stand a better chance of being protected from the Navy’s war testing and training off our coastline.”
According to the ruling, NMFS must now reassess the permits using the latest science, which could trigger a requirement that the Navy do more to protect whales and dolphins in its ongoing training exercises.
“The Navy’s Northwest Training Range is the size of the state of California, yet not one square inch was off-limits to the most harmful aspects of naval testing and training activities,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council. “NMFS relied on faulty science when approving the Navy’s permits and thousands of marine mammals suffered the consequences.”
“Today’s ruling gives whales and other marine mammals a fighting chance against the Navy,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This ruling means that the Navy must take greater precautions to protect marine life.”
The Navy’s mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in, among other places, the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands and Spain. In 2004, during war games near Hawai’i, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay. In 2003, the USS Shoup, operating in Washington’s Haro Strait, exposed a group of endangered Southern Resident killer whales to mid-frequency sonar, causing the animals to stop feeding and attempt to flee the sound. Even when sonar use does not result in these or other kinds of physical injury, it can disrupt feeding, migration and breeding or drive whales from areas vital to their survival.
“In 2003, NMFS learned firsthand the harmful impacts of Navy sonar in Washington waters when active sonar blasts distressed members of J pod, one of our resident pods of endangered orcas,” said Kyle Loring, staff attorney for Friends of the San Juans. “The use of deafening noises just does not belong in sensitive areas or marine sanctuaries where whales and dolphins use their acute hearing to feed, navigate and raise their young.”
Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director at Friends of the Earth, added, “Recent research confirms that the 82 remaining endangered Southern Resident orcas use coastal waters within the Navy’s training range to find salmon during the critical fall and winter months. NMFS must do more to assure that the Navy is not pushing these critically endangered orcas and other endangered marine mammals even closer to extinction.”
Earthjustice represents the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Friends of the San Juans and has partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council in the lawsuit.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
By Dave Levitan
As municipal food composting programs spread across North America and Europe, no city faces a more daunting task than New York. Its Department of Sanitation collects more than 10,000 tons of trash every day, and another 1,700 tons of recyclable materials. A large portion of that waste, though, may soon have a future other than the landfill: Food scraps and other “organics” have long been just a part of New York’s trash pile, but a pilot program in the city is aimed at rolling out collection of that material and composting it, a far more environmentally friendly method.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
“It’s the next new thing in terms of municipal waste handling in the 21st century,” says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York. “Right now ... there are over 150 communities throughout the United States that are collecting organics at curbside. It’s a national trend. It’s revolutionary.”
Many of those programs are still voluntary, and the bulk are in small cities and towns. But larger cities in North America—including San Francisco, Seattle, San Antonio, Toronto and Portland, OR—are moving rapidly ahead. And municipal composting efforts in many European countries are far advanced and steadily growing. In 2011, the 27 states in the European Union composted on average 15 percent of municipal waste, with Austria composting 34 percent, the Netherlands 28 percent, and countries like France, Spain, and Germany each composting about 18 percent.
In New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City address this past February, he called food waste the city’s “final recycling frontier,” which holds true for the rest of the U.S., as well. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the country as a whole produced 250 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2011, and compostable materials—which include yard trimmings, paper and paperboard, as well as food waste—comprised the largest component of that at 56 percent.
The environmental benefits of recycling that material are significant. As it decomposes in landfills, food and other organic waste produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the U.S., behind industry and agriculture. Shipping waste long distances from cities to landfills produces even more greenhouse gas emissions. Composting, meanwhile, takes that waste and turns it into something usable: fertilizer. If cities like New York want to cut emissions, cut waste and even cut costs, composting is a proven way to go about it.
The good news is that of the 87 million tons of “recovered” waste in the U.S. in 2011—meaning waste that did not end up in a landfill—organic material accounted for the largest component. But most of that material was paper; food waste accounted for only 1.6 percent of the recovered total versus 14.5 percent of the generated total, the EPA says. The U.S. does a reasonably good job of keeping paper out of landfills thanks to recycling programs, but food almost universally still goes where it shouldn’t.
New York is trying to change that with its new program. So far, compost collection is being offered in one neighborhood of Staten Island, and city officials say that after only a few months participation rates are above 40 percent. Contamination rates—meaning, the presence of non-compostable material in the compost bin—are at 1 percent or below. In Manhattan, about 100 city schools are also participating, with a goal of spreading to 400 schools by the end of the year. Two high-rise apartment buildings are included as well, with more to follow this fall.
“We spend over $85 million a year sending food waste to landfills, so there’s a major cost,” said Ron Gonen, New York City’s deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability, who heads up the composting program. He said so far the program is collecting at a pace on the order of “tens of thousands” of tons per year. “It’s growing every day,” said Gonen. “We’re going to continue to expand, in all five boroughs.” By 2014 the program will cover around 100,000 households.
Goldstein says that if New York demonstrates the economic and logistical viability of its program it could be a “bellwether” in the push to expand composting nationwide. But a few cities—in general, the green, progressive ones you might expect—have already taken the lead over the last decade. San Francisco—the second-densest large city in the U.S. after New York—is considered the frontrunner, thanks to legislation in 2002 that set a goal of diverting 75 percent of its waste from landfills by 2010 and achieving “zero waste” by 2020.
San Francisco’s composting program began with restaurants and other businesses, and in 2009 an ordinance made it mandatory for all residents to separate organic material for collection. Instead of two bins to set out on the curb for trash and recyclables, there are now three. The green compost bins can include all food scraps, no matter how spoiled, along with vegetation from yards like leaves and flowers, and solid paper products including coffee cups, waxy paper, milk cartons and related items. The city collected its millionth ton of organic waste for composting last fall. Overall, 78 percent of San Francisco’s waste is now diverted from landfills.
Seattle has a similar program, as does Portland; the latter went a step further and scaled back residential garbage pickup to only once every two weeks when the weekly compost pickup began.
Despite some early resistance and confusion—much of it related to every-other-week garbage collection—a survey in Portland found that 66 percent of residents rated the city’s recycling and composting program as “good” or “very good” after one year, with another 20 percent neutral on the issue. Along with the positive reception, there has been clear progress. In the 12-month period prior to the October 2011 start of the composting program, 94,100 tons of garbage were collected. In the following 12 months, that figure fell to 58,300 tons. Meanwhile, collections of compostable material rose from 30,600 tons to 85,400 tons, a figure that includes yard waste.
There were questions early on about vermin, but moving the scraps from the garbage can to the compost bin doesn’t change much, said Bruce Walker, Portland’s solid waste and recycling program manager. The organic material in Portland travels to one of two facilities that are 15 and 90 miles from downtown. Walker said regular garbage gets trucked much farther, about 140 miles from the city, so the environmental savings are compounded. The composting facilities produce fertilizers that are sold to farms, tree nurseries and to the general public.
In Europe, the European Landfill Directive requires European Union member states to reduce “biodegradable municipal waste” sent to landfills to 35 percent of 1995 amounts by 2016. In the EU, 40 percent of waste is now composted or recycled, with 23 percent incinerated and 37 percent landfilled. Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Germany now send less than 3 percent of their waste to landfills. Copenhagen, one of the greenest cities in the world, stopped sending organic waste to landfills as far back as 1990.
Other European countries lag far behind, with Greece and eastern European nations such as Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania doing almost no composting. Still, some of the swiftest progress has come from some former eastern bloc countries like Estonia. The capital city of Talinn has been collecting biodegradable kitchen waste separately since 2007, part of the reason why landfill rates in Estonia have dropped from close to 100 percent 15 years ago to below 60 percent today. Europe is also much farther along than the U.S. in using anaerobic digestion, a process that takes organic waste and turns it into biogas, which can be used to generate electricity.
In New York, the question of where to bring collected organic material is unresolved. The city has a request for proposals to build a new composting plant in or close to the city, but until then there aren’t nearby facilities that can handle large amounts. Goldstein, of the NRDC, said that one possibility is to site facilities outside the city or partner with farms in the Catskills—sending the material 75 miles or so is still a huge improvement on the current system, which involves exporting to landfills sometimes many states and hundreds of miles away.
“The city has been really slow in terms of going through this process,” said Christine Datz-Romero, co-founder and executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which has worked on composting in New York for two decades. “If we wanted a facility here in New York City we should have started that process a long time ago. For building a facility we’re talking years. I see that as the biggest stumbling block because right now we have very limited capacity.”
Should New York and numerous other U.S. cities and towns establish vibrant composting programs, the environmental benefits will be enormous, advocates say. “Ultimately, there’s going to be very little left in the traditional garbage can,” said Goldstein.
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