The names we call plants say more about us than they do about the greenery that surrounds us.
Steve Brill’s first stop was the greenery behind the bike racks. Brill, who is known as Wildman Steve, picked up a weed with heart-shaped seed pods and a small, four-petalled white flower. About thirty of us were gathered for a three-hour foraging tour through Prospect Park, in Brooklyn.
Illustration by Karlotta Freier
The plant was shepherd’s purse, a name that references the seed pods’ resemblance to the containers shepherds used to make from the bladders of sheep. “It’s in the mustard family,” Brill said. “Most all of the flowers in the mustard family are four petals in the shape of a cross.” He encouraged everyone to take a bite, and to tell him what vegetable it tasted like. Continue reading →
Early in the morning of May 25, 2020, I biked from my apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Central Park to go birding in the Ramble. Despite the uncertainties of the time — New Yorkers were living in a hot spot of the raging Covid pandemic, with no vaccine in sight — I strove to start this warm, sunlit Memorial Day on a happy note by wandering my favorite urban woodlands in search of migrating songbirds.
I was focused on the end-of-season hunt for a mourning warbler, a small yellow and gray skulking bird that’s difficult to spot and relatively rare. I hadn’t yet seen one that year.
Visiting the park in the morning to look for birds has long been a springtime routine for me. I wake before sunrise and grab my Swarovski binoculars — a 50th-birthday present from my father — and head out the door. Continue reading →
Seafood farm operators are breeding and deploying sea cucumbers to vacuum up the massive amounts of fish waste that pose a major problem for their industry. It is part of an effort to redesign fish farms with multiple species so that they work more like natural ecosystems.
Sea bass at a fish farm in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Slovenia. WATERFRAME / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Off the coast of the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, an underwater metropolis bustles. Sea turtles glide lazily through the surf while schools of fluorescent yellow butterflyfish weave between basketball-size sea urchins and sharp corals.
But Dave Anderson isn’t distracted by the otherworldly charm of the coral reef — he’s here on a mission. Around 70 feet below the surface, he finds his prize: a red sea cucumber. Continue reading →
Per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) have been getting a lot of negative publicity. And with good reason. Classified as “forever chemicals,” they’ve been found in food, water, soil, animals and even our blood. Although the extent of their effects is not fully understood, they are known to negatively impact human health in a variety of ways. But while many are calling for an overall ban on the chemicals, pushback from the industry seeks to simply switch out the PFAS we already know are harmful with lesser-known ones that likely have the same — or possibly even worse — effects. Continue reading →
WHAT MIGHT DONALD RUMSFELD have in common with Frederick Barbarossa, Mormons, and Queen Elizabeth I’s rotting teeth? The answer is simpler than you might expect: the power and influence of sugar, a crystalline specimen of world-historical significance dissolved in your morning coffee or tea. A warmongering neocon, a Holy Roman emperor, pious Utahns, and a heavily cavitied pair of Tudor gnashers are part of an expansive cast of characters in Ulbe Bosma’s new work on the sweet stuff, The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years. This book is a tour de force of global history, one that helps us better understand the genesis of both modern capitalism and globalization. Continue reading →
Forests fed us, housed us, and made our way of life possible. But they can’t save us if we can’t save them.
The woods I know best, love best, are made of Northern hardwoods, sugar maple and white ash, timber-tall; black and yellow birch, tiger-skinned; seedlings and saplings of blighted beech and striped maple creeping up, knock-kneed, from a forest floor of princess pine and Christmas fern, shag-rugged. White-tailed deer dart through softwood stands of pine and hemlock, bucks and does, the last leaping fawn, leaving tracks that look like tiny human lungs, trails that people can only ever see in the snow, even though, long after snowmelt, dogs can smell them, tracking, snuffling, shuddering with the thrill of the hunt and noshing on deer scat for dog treats. Continue reading →
In “The Bathysphere Book,” Brad Fox chronicles the fascinating Depression-era ocean explorations of William Beebe.
Wildlife Conservation Society Archives
Consider the siphonophore. An inhabitant of the lightless ocean, it looks like a single organism, but is actually a collection of minute creatures, each with its own purpose, working in harmony to move, to eat, to stay alive. They seem impossible but they are real. In 1930 William Beebe was 3,000 feet underwater in a bathysphere, an early deep-sea submersible, when he spotted a huge one: a writhing 20-yard mass whose pale magenta shone impossibly against the absolute blackness of the water. As you can imagine, it made an impression.
Wildlife Conservation Society Archives
“The siphonophore mind, Beebe thought, asks us to rethink our individuality, to consider our epidermis as only one way to measure the extent of our bodies,” writes Brad Fox in “The Bathysphere Book,” a hypnotic new account of Beebe’s Depression-era underwater exploration. “In that light, our furious competition, our back-stabbing and fights over resources, is nonsense. Better we work together, getting closer and closer, more finely attuned to each other’s needs until we are indistinguishable.” Continue reading →
Adrienne Buller is Director of Research at the think tank Common Wealth, where she leads investigative projects about building a democratic economy. She previously researched the intersection of finance and the climate crisis at InfluenceMap, and has also written for The Guardian and the Financial Times, among other publications. Continue reading →
Engineers might be able to protect Arctic ice by coating it with tiny glass bubbles. Should they?
An aerial view of the glass-bubble-covered ice, at left, and the bare ice. Photograph by Doug Johnson
On a clear morning in late March, in rural Lake Elmo, Minnesota, I followed two materials scientists, Tony Manzara and Doug Johnson, as they tromped down a wintry hill behind Manzara’s house. The temperature was in the high thirties; a foot of snow covered the ground and sparkled almost unbearably in the sunlight. Both men wore dark shades. “You don’t need a parka,” Johnson told me. “But you need sunglasses—snow blindness, you know?” At the bottom of the hill, after passing some turkey tracks, we reached a round, frozen pond, about a hundred feet across. Manzara, a gregarious man with bushy eyebrows, and Johnson, a wiry cross-country skier with a quiet voice, stepped confidently onto the ice. Continue reading →
Invasive Burmese pythons are devastating wildlife but one firm believes turning snake leather into accessories could be a win-win
The fight to eradicate Burmese pythons from the Florida Everglades has intertwined with New York’s haute fashion scene in a project launched by a group of environmental activists who have already experienced success working with the skins of other invasive species. Continue reading →
A blue morpho butterfly sits on a leaf. A new study finds that butterflies likely originated somewhere in western North America or Central America around 100 million years ago. Kristen Grace/Florida Museum
It is almost a certainty that if you visit Costa Rica you will see the blue morpho fluttering by somewhere. And you may be in the location of its origin story:
Akito Kawahara remembers being eight years old when he went on a special tour of the insect collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He marveled at the vast array of pinned bugs before stopping in front of a large picture of the butterfly family tree.
A red lacewing butterfly perches on a plant. Rachit Pratap Singh
A number of spots on that tree, he saw, were curiously blank.
“Just looking at it, realizing that scientists at these museums still don’t know these basic things — I’ll never forget that day,” Kawahara says.
That moment sparked a lifelong passion in Kawahara to fill in those blanks and determine where these charismatic insects originated. Now, he’s gotten a little closer to an answer. His latest research shows that butterflies probably first flapped their wings in present-day western North America or Central America. Continue reading →
They crowd streets, belch carbon, bifurcate communities, and destroy the urban fabric. Will we ever overcome our addiction?
The Honeymooners” (1955-56), the greatest American television comedy, is—to a degree more evident now than then—essentially a series about public transportation in New York. Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) is a New York City bus driver, deeply proud to be so and drawing a salary sufficient to support a nonworking wife in a Brooklyn apartment, not to mention a place in a thriving bowling league and membership in the Loyal Order of Raccoon Lodge. Continue reading →
It is indisputable that the climate emergency requires the United States to rapidly transform its majority fossil energy system to 100% clean and renewable energy.
Distributed solar on rooftops alone can generate a significant portion of our energy demands while also bringing key benefits like resilience, local job generation, and avoided wildlife impacts. Once distributed energy is maximized, building renewables on top of parking lots and canals as additional built surfaces can fill the remaining gap in our current energy demand. Prioritizing these sites for renewable energy can avoid the community impacts and bottlenecks associated large-scale transmission construction.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent sixth synthesis report makes absolutely clear that an unprecedented bold transition to renewable energy with an equally aggressive effort to halt new fossil fuel development and phase out existing fossil fuel usage is absolutely vital to avoiding the most catastrophic consequences of climate change (1). This necessary transformation presents a tremendous opportunity to pursue a far more just path forward—one that ends the status quo entrenchment of the fossil fuel industry; empowers federal agencies to use their authorities to accelerate the transitions to a justly sourced, justly implemented, resilient, and equitable power system; actualizes the principles of environmental justice; and preserves our core environmental laws. Continue reading →
An aerial view shows a deforested area during an operation to combat deforestation at the Cachoeira Seca indigenous reserve, in Uruara, Para State, Brazil January 19, 2023. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
What counts as good news now in one part of the world is simply a reversal of absurd destruction trends of recent years. Without minimizing its importance we can acknowledge that a positive reversal is a low bar for what needs to be accomplished:
SAO PAULO, May 12 (Reuters) – Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest fell 68% in April from the previous year, preliminary government data showed on Friday, a positive reading for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as it represents the first major drop under his watch. Continue reading →
This year’s rains reversed, temporarily, more than a decade of catastrophic drought. Some of the seeds that caused the bloom have lain dormant for years.
This winter, it rained in California. Ten inches in San Francisco in the ten days after Christmas alone. Thirty-one atmospheric rivers—columns of vapor that move water from the tropics. Record-breaking snow at Mammoth Lakes. Los Angeles measured its wettest year on record since 2004-05, the year I moved here.
Carrizo Plain National Monument. April, 2023.
My memories from that first winter are of driving in a rental car on slick gray roads, weaving around Jurassic-looking fallen palm fronds; my elderly neighbor calling, terrified, as the water rushed from my basement office toward her house; a picture on the front page of the paper showing a swimming pool sliding off a hill.
Pinnacles National Park. April, 2023.
People hunkered down; red tags went up, flagging damaged buildings. I had left all my sweaters in New York, and froze. I learned the city through a veil of rain. Looking at the mountains, downtown is to the right, and the coast is to the left.
By April, the rain had stopped, and nasturtiums, not muddy rivers, were cascading down the hillsides. Seussian red bottlebrush trees and violet jacarandas made the days vivid, and at night the white blooms emanated perfume.
So this was Los Angeles: abundant, intoxicating, unmoored. It must have been a Superbloom, though I don’t remember anyone calling it that then. I didn’t know that it would be eighteen years before I would see this Los Angeles again. Continue reading →
Giant tubeworms take up chemicals from a hydrothermal vent 6,200 feet deep in the Gulf of California (the Girguis lab is world-renowned for research on these worms). Photograph courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute
Top: a remote dive at Emery Knoll, a deepwater reef off Southern California, reveals crabs, sponges, and corals. Bottom: a rare sighting of the massive seven-arm octopus, Haliphron atlanticus. Photographs courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute
Peter Girguis on terra firma in the lab. Photograph by Jim Harrison
In a cavernous underground space behind Harvard’s Biological Laboratories, biochemist Peter Girguis frowns at the pressure vessel in his hand. The machined titanium cylinder, about the size of a French press, gleams as he works to release the cap, and he chuckles at his own stubbornness. He could probably find a tool to loosen it, he remarks. Continue reading →
Alarmed by the pollution produced by the Konkola Copper Mines operation in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia, Chilekwa Mumba organized a lawsuit to hold the mine’s parent company, Vedanta Resources, responsible. Chilekwa’s victory in the UK Supreme Court set a legal precedent—it was the first time an English court ruled that a British company could be held liable for the environmental damage caused by subsidiary-run operations in another country. This precedent has since been applied to hold Shell Global—one of the world’s 10 largest corporations by revenue—liable for its pollution in Nigeria.
Chilekwa Mumba led a court battle to hold a U.K.-based company responsible for the gross pollution from a copper mine it owns in Zambia. In an interview, he talks about how he and local villagers faced arrest to overcome long odds and finally win a landmark legal victory.
The southern African nation of Zambia is home to a wealth of minerals — in particular, lots of the copper and cobalt that the world will require to power a green economy. Continue reading →
Progress on solar power generation in India is a big deal. The country’s reduction in poverty, remarkable as it has been, is counterbalanced by its environmental impoverishment. Thanks to Reuters for this article by Sarita Chaganti Singh and Sudarshan Varadhan:
NEW DELHI/SINGAPORE, May 4 (Reuters) – India plans to stop building new coal-fired power plants, apart from those already in the pipeline, by removing a key clause from the final draft of its National Electricity Policy (NEP), in a major boost to fight climate change, sources said. Continue reading →
Pavagada Ultra Mega Solar Park, a clean-power plant the size of Manhattan, could be a model for the world—or a cautionary tale.
Ashok Narayanappa drives a bullock cart carrying hay, along a stretch of road lined with pylons, in Pavagada Solar Park.
Every morning in the Tumakuru District of Karnataka, a state in southern India, the sun tips over the horizon and lights up the green-and-brown hills of the Eastern Ghats. Its rays fall across the grasslands that surround them and the occasional sleepy village; the sky changes color from sherbet-orange to powdery blue. Eventually, the sunlight reaches a sea of glass and silicon known as Pavagada Ultra Mega Solar Park. Here, within millions of photovoltaic panels, lined up in rows and columns like an army at attention, electrons vibrate with energy. The panels cover thirteen thousand acres, or about twenty square miles—only slightly smaller than the area of Manhattan. Continue reading →