The Renewable Energy Transition Is Failing

Not sustainable: Vast quantities of minerals and metals are required for the renewable energy transition. (Photo credit: AleSpa/Wikimedia Commons)

Renewable energy isn’t replacing fossil fuel energy—it’s adding to it.

By Richard Heinberg, Independent Media Institute

8 min read

Despite all the renewable energy investments and installations, actual global greenhouse gas emissions keep increasing. That’s largely due to economic growth: While renewable energy supplies have expanded in recent years, world energy usage has ballooned even more—with the difference being supplied by fossil fuels. The more the world economy grows, the harder it is for additions of renewable energy to turn the tide by actually replacing energy from fossil fuels, rather than just adding to it.

The notion of voluntarily reining in economic growth in order to minimize climate change and make it easier to replace fossil fuels is political anathema not just in the rich countries, whose people have gotten used to consuming at extraordinarily high rates, but even more so in poorer countries, which have been promised the opportunity to “develop.”

After all, it is the rich countries that have been responsible for the great majority of past emissions (which are driving climate change presently); indeed, these countries got rich largely by the industrial activity of which carbon emissions were a byproduct. Now it is the world’s poorest nations that are experiencing the brunt of the impacts of climate change caused by the world’s richest. It’s neither sustainable nor just to perpetuate the exploitation of land, resources, and labor in the less industrialized countries, as well as historically exploited communities in the rich countries, to maintain both the lifestyles and expectations of further growth of the wealthy minority.

From the perspective of people in less-industrialized nations, it’s natural to want to consume more, which only seems fair. But that translates to more global economic growth, and a harder time replacing fossil fuels with renewables globally. China is the exemplar of this conundrum: Over the past three decades, the world’s most populous nation lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, but in the process became the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal.

The Materials Dilemma

Also posing an enormous difficulty for a societal switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is our increasing need for minerals and metals. The World Bank, the IEA, the IMF, and McKinsey and Company have all issued reports in the last couple of years warning of this growing problem. Vast quantities of minerals and metals will be required not just for making solar panels and wind turbines, but also for batteries, electric vehicles, and new industrial equipment that runs on electricity rather than carbon-based fuels.

Some of these materials are already showing signs of increasing scarcity: According to the World Economic Forum, the average cost of producing copper has risen by over 300 percent in recent years, while copper ore grade has dropped by 30 percent.

Optimistic assessments of the materials challenge suggest there are enough global reserves for a one-time build-out of all the new devices and infrastructure needed (assuming some substitutions, with, for example, lithium for batteries eventually being replaced by more abundant elements like iron). But what is society to do as that first generation of devices and infrastructure ages and requires replacement?

Circular Economy: A Mirage?

Hence the rather sudden and widespread interest in the creation of a circular economy in which everything is recycled endlessly. Unfortunately, as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen discovered in his pioneering work on entropy, recycling is always incomplete and always costs energy. Materials typically degrade during each cycle of use, and some material is wasted in the recycling process.

A French preliminary analysis of the energy transition that assumed maximum possible recycling found that a materials supply crisis could be delayed by up to three centuries. But will the circular economy (itself an enormous undertaking and a distant goal) arrive in time to buy industrial civilization those extra 300 years? Or will we run out of critical materials in just the next few decades in our frantic effort to build as many renewable energy devices as we can in as short a time as possible?

The latter outcome seems more likely if pessimistic resource estimates turn out to be accurate. Simon Michaux of the Finnish Geological Survey finds that “[g]lobal reserves are not large enough to supply enough metals to build the renewable non-fossil fuels industrial system … Mineral deposit discovery has been declining for many metals. The grade of processed ore for many of the industrial metals has been decreasing over time, resulting in declining mineral processing yield. This has the implication of the increase in mining energy consumption per unit of metal.”

Steel prices are already trending higher, and lithium supplies may prove to be a bottleneck to rapidly increasing battery production. Even sand is getting scarce: Only certain grades of the stuff are useful in making concrete (which anchors wind turbines) or silicon (which is essential for solar panels). More sand is consumed yearly than any other material besides water, and some climate scientists have identified it as a key sustainability challenge this century. Predictably, as deposits are depleted, sand is becoming more of a geopolitical flashpoint, with China recently embargoing sand shipments to Taiwan with the intention of crippling Taiwan’s ability to manufacture semiconductor devices such as cell phones.

To Reduce Risk, Reduce Scale

During the fossil fuel era, the global economy depended on ever-increasing rates of extracting and burning coal, oil, and natural gas. The renewables era (if it indeed comes into being) will be founded upon the large-scale extraction of minerals and metals for panels, turbines, batteries, and other infrastructure, which will require periodic replacement.

These two economic eras imply different risks: The fossil fuel regime risked depletion and pollution (notably atmospheric carbon pollution leading to climate change); the renewables regime will likewise risk depletion (from mining minerals and metals) and pollution (from dumping old panels, turbines, and batteries, and from various manufacturing processes), but with diminished vulnerability to climate change. The only way to lessen risk altogether would be to reduce substantially society’s scale of energy and materials usage—but very few policymakers or climate advocacy organizations are exploring that possibility.

Climate Change Hobbles Efforts to Combat Climate Change

As daunting as they are, the financial, political, and material challenges to the energy transition don’t exhaust the list of potential barriers. Climate change itself is also hampering the energy transition—which, of course, is being undertaken to avert climate change.

During the summer of 2022, China experienced its most intense heat wave in six decades. It impacted a wide region, from central Sichuan Province to coastal Jiangsu, with temperatures often topping 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and reaching a record 113 degrees in Chongqing on August 18. At the same time, a drought-induced power crisis forced Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., the world’s top battery maker, to close manufacturing plants in China’s Sichuan province. Supplies of crucial parts to Tesla and Toyota were temporarily cut off.

Meanwhile, a similarly grim story unfolded in Germany, as a record drought reduced the water flow in the Rhine River to levels that crippled European trade, halting shipments of diesel and coal, and threatening the operations of both hydroelectric and nuclear power plants.

A study published in February 2022 in the journal Water found that droughts (which are becoming more frequent and severe with climate change) could create challenges for U.S. hydropower in Montana, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, California, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, French nuclear plants that rely on the Rhône River for cooling water have had to shut down repeatedly. If reactors expel water downstream that’s too hot, aquatic life is wiped out as a result. So, during the sweltering 2022 summer, Électricité de France (EDF) powered down reactors not only along the Rhône but also on a second major river in the south, the Garonne. Altogether, France’s nuclear power output has been cut by nearly 50 percent during the summer of 2022. Similar drought- and heat-related shutdowns happened in 2018 and 2019.

Heavy rain and flooding can also pose risks for both hydro and nuclear power—which together currently provide roughly four times as much low-carbon electricity globally as wind and solar combined. In March 2019, severe flooding in southern and western Africa, following Cyclone Idai, damaged two major hydro plants in Malawi, cutting off power to parts of the country for several days.

Wind turbines and solar panels also rely on the weather and are therefore also vulnerable to extremes. Cold, cloudy days with virtually no wind spell trouble for regions heavily reliant on renewable energy. Freak storms can damage solar panels, and high temperatures reduce panels’ efficiency. Hurricanes and storm surges can cripple offshore wind farms.

The transition from fossil fuel to renewables faces an uphill battle. Still, this switch is an essential stopgap strategy to keep electricity grids up and running, at least on a minimal scale, as civilization inevitably turns away from a depleting store of oil and gas. The world has become so dependent on grid power for communications, finance, and the preservation of technical, scientific, and cultural knowledge that, if the grids were to go down permanently and soon, it is likely that billions of people would die, and the survivors would be culturally destitute. In essence, we need renewables for a controlled soft landing. But the harsh reality is that, for now, and in the foreseeable future, the energy transition is not going well and has poor overall prospects.

We need a realistic plan for energy descent, instead of foolish dreams of eternal consumer abundance by means other than fossil fuels. Currently, politically rooted insistence on continued economic growth is discouraging truth-telling and serious planning for how to live well with less.

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Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival.


Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture, and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters, and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

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Across Africa, Water Conflict Threatens Security, Health, and the Environment

Bone dry: Usually submerged by water, tree stumps and sand are exposed as South Africa’s Theewaterskloof Dam ran dry in 2018. (Image credit: Zaian/Wikimedia Commons)

A changing climate and population growth are fueling water-based conflicts across the African continent

By Robin Scher, Independent Media Institute

5 min read

Water is a finite resource on our planet. We can only rely on what we have, which translates to about 2.5 percent of drinkable fresh water. Of that amount, only 0.4 percent currently exists in lakes, rivers, and moisture in the atmosphere. The strain of this limited supply grows by the day and as this continues, the detrimental impact will continue to be felt in places least equipped to find alternative solutions—in particular, the African continent.

The global population is estimated to reach around 9.6 billion people by 2050. This is triple the number of humans on the planet just a few decades ago, having to exist with the same amount of water, not taking into account the nonhuman animals and plants that also rely on water to survive.

More than a third of the planet’s population living without access to clean, safe water live in sub-Saharan Africa. And nearly two-thirds—some four billion people—live in water-scarce areas. With this number set to steadily rise, the United Nations predicts that around 700 million people across the world might be “displaced by intense water scarcity” by 2030.

Scarcity-Led Conflict and Crisis

Each year, the world is seeing extreme water-related events including heatwaves and droughts. In 2021 on the African continent alone, Madagascar, Kenya, and Somalia experienced severe water shortages. And with scarcity, conflict tends to follow.

A number of African conflicts are being fueled by competition for dwindling natural resources. At a state level, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have been engaged in a continuing dispute over fresh water in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Similar issues are playing out across every level of society.

Cameroon, for instance, experienced a violent dispute over water between fishermen and herders in a town near the border of Chad in December 2021. The disagreement over rights to water found in a shrinking Lake Chad led to the death of 22 people and a further 100,000 people displaced from their homes as the two groups fought.

“Once conflicts escalate, they are hard to resolve and can have a negative impact on water security, creating vicious cycles of conflict,” said Susanne Schmeier, senior lecturer in water law and diplomacy at IHE Delft.

This negative feedback loop fueled by conflict is further compounded by the effect on water quality, agriculture, and forced migration. “With very rare exceptions, no one dies of literal thirst,” said Peter Gleick, head of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute. “But more and more people are dying from contaminated water or conflicts over access to water.” 

This insight speaks to the complex interplay between water shortage and conflict. According to research from the Pacific Institute, the impact of water on agriculture plays an even greater role in contributing to conflict—a view backed up by the fact that agriculture accounts for 70 percent of fresh water use in Africa.

Another conflict-causing factor is the social impact of water shortages. With up to a quarter of the world’s population facing serious water scarcity at least one month of the year, people are being forced to migrate. In 2017, at least 20 million people from Africa and the Middle East left their homes due to food shortages and conflict caused by serious drought.

Food Insecurity Due to Impact on Wildlife and Agriculture

Food insecurity caused by water shortages is being compounded by the loss of wildlife. With a drop in their rainy seasons, Kenya’s sheep, camels, and cattle have been in decline. This has led to a threat of 2.5 million people potentially going without food due to drought, according to the United Nations.

The impact of drought is taking a severe toll on agriculture, particularly in counties where this forms the mainstay of their economy. In South Africa, for instance, agriculture is key to the functioning of the country when it comes to job creation, food security, rural development, and foreign exchange.

Water shortages in the country impact both commercial and subsistence farmers. But it is the subsistence farmers who are hardest hit by the droughts, according to a 2021 paper published by a group of international scientists in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

While commercial farmers are able to offset a lack of rain through alternative water supplies, as well as storage and irrigation technologies, subsistence farmers who are reliant on rain, the scientists write, “are particularly susceptible to drought as they highly depend on climate-sensitive resources.” They also point out that the impact is worsened by the fact that this form of farming is tied to farmers’ own food security.

Adaptation

There is no way to avoid the impacts of water scarcity and drought. The best thing to do is manage and mitigate risk where possible. A tool proposed by the group Water, Peace and Security is an early warning monitor capable of tracking information on rainfall, crop yields, and political, economic, and social factors. According to the group, this tool would “predict water-related conflicts up to a year in advance, which allows for mediation and government intervention.”

Another common de-risking approach to conflict is water-sharing agreements. Since the end of World War II, 200 of these agreements have been signed. Despite this, the UN has consistently failed to introduce a Water Convention that would see over 43 countries sharing transboundary rivers and lakes.

A good example where a water-sharing agreement helped avoid conflict can be found in Southern Africa. In 2000, with tensions rising over shared resources, an agreement was reached between Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia that helped avoid further issues.

Reducing water loss remains the most recommended method countries should adopt to avoid future catastrophes. Agriculture and mining, in particular, are two industries that could do more to limit their water wastage. Another policy, suggested by Iceland, is to increase the price of water in relation to its supply, as a way to help curb water wastage.

Desalination is also a popular method used to free up more water, using seawater to increase supply. Saudi Arabia, for instance, uses desalination to supply the country with at least 50 percent of its water supply. Water recycling, known as “gray” water is another low-cost alternative used by farmers to offset the impact of drought.

As water scarcity continues to become more commonplace, so too will these mitigation and adaptation strategies. The question is, will they be enough?


Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture, and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters, and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

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Healthy Ecosystems Need Birds, but Billions Fatally Strike Our Windows Every Year

Transparent threat: Sheet glass is useful for human buildings but deadly for birds. This songbird survived a window strike, but billions of others a year are not so lucky. (Photo credit: Andria Lavine/Flickr)

Birds cannot see glass windows, fatally crashing in alarming numbers. That’s bad for them, humans, and the environment.

By Daniel Klem Jr., Independent Media Institute

7 min read

Glass windows have existed since as long ago as 290 CE, if only in a limited supply of small sheets. It seems fair to say that window glass has enriched human aesthetic, cultural, physiological, and psychological well-being for at least 16 centuries. Even one small pane is enough to admit a bit of the sun’s light and warmth into an enclosed space. The tendency of builders—and the willingness of their clients—to use this product in large quantities apparently resulted from the need of human society to seek safety within the solid walls of dwellings away from the reach of marauders. Sheet glass permitted viewing the out-of-doors from the comfort and protection of indoors. In the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical interests led to the lavish use of both tinted and clear panes. These windows were used in the cathedrals of Europe and then in the domestic dwellings of the rich, especially in Tudor England. The technical ability to manufacture large sheets of glass was developed at the turn of the 20th century. With the building boom that followed World War II, 1945 to the present, flat glass has become a prominent, even dominating, construction material used in the majority of human dwellings and other structures. In 2009, 6.6 billion square miles (17 billion square kilometers) ) of flat glass was manufactured worldwide, which is about the area of the U.S. state of Delaware, at a value of $23.54 billion. The amount of glass used in construction has continued to increase annually.

The history of window glass as a source of bird fatalities is similarly ancient and progressive. The confirming obituaries, however, do not begin to appear in the literature until well after 1800, with the development of modern ornithology in Europe and North America. Thomas Nuttall published the first scientifically documented window fatality in his 1832 “A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada.” He described how a hawk in pursuit of prey flew through two panes of greenhouse glass only to be stopped by a third. The next account was by Spencer F. Baird and his colleagues Thomas M. Brewer and Robert Ridgway in Volume 1 of their 1874 three-volume work “A History of North American Birds.” They described how a shrike struck the outside of a clear pane while attempting to reach a caged canary.

To put the scale of losses by various human-related bird killers in perspective, my speaking and writing, starting in the late 1980s, included “sound bite” tactics. The purpose was to capture the attention of anyone who might be moved to listen and take action. One such tactic involves comparing bird losses at windows to those from higher-visibility oil spills. Prominent oil spills that have captured international attention as environmental disasters include the Exxon Valdez disaster and the more recent Deepwater Horizon fire and spill in the Gulf of Mexico. By any assessment, the Exxon Valdez oil spill was a horrific environmental disaster. The oil tanker Exxon Valdez released 260,000 barrels of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. The spill was estimated to have killed 100,000 to 300,000 marine birds. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill is estimated to have caused as many as 2 million bird deaths. By contrast, in the 1970s my original and lowest estimate of losses from window collisions in the U.S. alone was 100 million bird kills a year. This minimum window-kill number equals the toll from 333 annual Exxon Valdez disasters and 100 Deepwater Horizon oil spills every year. Yet those writing in the media about assaults on the Earth’s environment are either unaware, unconvinced, or willing to overlook the horrific loss of bird life occurring at windows.

In 2013, expressing concern and emphasizing the interconnectedness of life, Travis Longcore and P.A. Smith, writing in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology, warned that avian deaths from windows and other human-associated mortality factors pose a growing deleterious effect on the world’s ecosystems and the goods and services birds provide them.

In a money-centered world, those goods and services are getting increased attention, especially considering what it might cost to have humans try to do the same work. Pest control is one service birds provide that contributes to productive yields of valuable crops such as coffee and grapes. They also provide public health benefits such as consuming insect disease vectors and scavenging the dead. They play a role in pollination and seed dispersal and provide high-quality fertilizer from seabird guano. Birds also serve as ultra-sensitive indicators of environmental health on the local, regional, and global levels. The “web of life” that Alexander von Humboldt described as essential to the health and very existence of humankind is as relevant today as it was when he wrote about it two centuries ago. Like every other living being, birds are an essential part of that complex, interacting super-organism that encompasses all life.

One of the most dramatic pest control events occurred in 1848, in what is now the city of Great Salt Lake, Utah. To many, the event was a true miracle. California gulls (Larus californicus) descended on the so-called “Mormon crickets” (Anabrus simplex), an insect that is not actually a cricket but a katydid that grows to 8 centimeters (3 inches) and voraciously consumes vegetation. Crops and even their own are on the menu during their swarming phase that can see them move across 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of agricultural fields in a day. These gulls were credited with saving about 4,000 Mormon pioneers by eating the katydids and preventing them from consuming their second harvest. As a grateful tribute, a monument to the California gull today stands prominently in Salt Lake City, commemorating the life-saving service of this bird to people.

The services of mosquito-eating birds contribute to limiting the spread and prevention of malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases. This is a particularly important aid in tropical climates, where several species, but especially martins and swallows, have protected Indigenous people from the earliest times until now. Vultures the world over are specifically adapted to removing the dead and with them the accompanying organisms that spread diseases among humans and other animals. At the turn of the 21st century, the dramatic disappearance of vultures in India virtually eliminated the service they provided in scavenging livestock carcasses. The consequence of this loss was an estimated 48,000 human deaths between 1992 to 2006 from rabies and a cost of $34 billion to the national economy. Other vulture-connected health-related costs of $24 billion were linked to the increase in scavenging feral dogs and rats that carry rabies and bubonic plague, respectively, in addition to other human-susceptible diseases.

Hummingbirds offer pollinating services for commercial flowering plants and many human foods. The dispersal of seeds by fruit-eating birds ensures reforestation and with it ecological succession that consists of a chain of changes in habitat that provides homes to variously adapted life—including diverse bird species and the food and shelter they require to survive and sustain healthy populations.

One practical service birds provide is preying on insects across the boreal and temperate forests of North America. Given the number of species preying on insects, collectively the presence of birds can have meaningful consequences for the health of the trees in these forests. Martin Nyffeler and his colleagues, writing in the journal the Science of Nature in 2018, estimated that the world’s insectivorous birds annually consume 400 to 500 million metric tons of insects per year. Forest birds account for 70 percent of this amount, or greater than 300 million tons a year. Especially for forests, the ecological and economic importance of birds eating harmful insect pests has tangible worldwide value.

This excerpt is from Solid Air: Invisible Killer—Saving Billions of Birds from Windows by Daniel Klem Jr. (Hancock House, 2021) and was edited and produced for the web by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Daniel Klem Jr. is the Sarkis Acopian Professor of Ornithology and Conservation Biology at Muhlenberg College.


Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture, and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters, and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

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Questions, comments, suggestions, submissions? Contact EFL editor Reynard Loki at [email protected]. Follow EFL on Twitter @EarthFoodLife.

Is the Energy Transition Taking Off—or Hitting a Wall?

Forecast cloudy: Solar panels are wiped off for peak performance at The Wash Basket Laundromat, in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, in 2011. The business qualified for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Energy for America Program assistance to add 72 photovoltaic panels to reduce electrical demand by a third. (Photo credit: Lance Cheung, USDA/Wikimedia Commons)

With the Inflation Reduction Act, the federal government is illogically encouraging the increasing use of fossil fuels—in order to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

By Richard Heinberg, Independent Media Institute

7 min read

The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) constitutes the boldest climate action so far by the American federal government. It offers tax rebates to buyers of electric cars, solar panels, heat pumps, and other renewable-energy and energy-efficiency equipment. It encourages the development of carbon-capture technology and promotes environmental justice by cleaning up pollution and providing renewable energy in disadvantaged communities. Does this political achievement mean that the energy transition, in the U.S. if not the world as a whole, is finally on track to achieving the goal of net zero emissions by 2050?

If only it were so.

Emissions modelers have estimated that the IRA will reduce U.S. emissions by 40 percent by 2030. But, as Benjamin Storrow at Scientific American has pointed out, the modelers fail to take real-world constraints into account. For one thing, building out massive new renewable energy infrastructure will require new long-distance transmission lines, and entirely foreseeable problems with permitting, materials, and local politics cast doubt on whether those lines can be built.

But perhaps the most frustrating barriers to grid modernization are the political ones. While Texas produces a significant amount of wind and solar electricity, it is unable to share that bounty with neighboring states because it has a stand-alone grid. And that’s unlikely to change because Texas politicians fear that connecting their grid with a larger region would open the state’s electricity system to federal regulation. Similar state-based regulatory heel-dragging is pervasive elsewhere. In a report posted in July, the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center noted that, so far this year, Texas regulators have approved only $478.7 million out of the $12.86 billion (3.7 percent) in grid modernization investment under consideration, due to fears of raising utility bills for local residents.

But grid modernization is only one area in which the energy transition is confronting roadblocks in the U.S.

Certainly, as a result of the IRA, more electric vehicles (EVs) will be purchased. California’s recent ruling to phase out new gas-powered cars by 2035 will buttress that trend. Currently, just under 5 percent of cars sold in the U.S. are EVs. By 2030, some projections suggest the proportion will be half, and by 2050 the great majority of light-duty vehicles on the road should be electric. However, those estimates assume that enough vehicles can be manufactured: Supply-chain issues for electronics and for battery materials have slowed deliveries of EVs in recent months, and those issues could worsen. Further, the IRA electric-vehicle tax credits will go only to buyers of cars whose materials are sourced in the U.S. That’s probably good in the long run, as it will reduce reliance on long supply chains for materials. But it raises questions about localized environmental and human impacts of increased mining.

Many environmentalists are thrilled with the IRA; others less so. Those in the more critical camp have pointed disapprovingly to the bill’s promotion of nuclear, and note that, in order to gain Senator Joe Manchin’s vote, Democrats agreed to streamline oil and gas pipeline approvals in a separate bill. In effect, the government will be encouraging the increasing use of fossil fuels … in order to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Despite the flaws of the Inflation Reduction Act, it is likely the best that the federal government can accomplish in terms of climate progress for the foreseeable future. This is a country mired in institutional gridlock, its politics trapped in endless culture wars, with a durable Supreme Court majority intent on hampering the government’s ability to regulate carbon emissions.

Climate leadership is needed in the U.S., the country responsible for the largest share of historic emissions and is the second-biggest emitter (on a per-capita basis, the U.S. ranks far ahead of China, the top emitter). Without the U.S., global progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be difficult. But the American political system, pivotal as it is in the project, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of problems with the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. The barriers to meeting climate goals are global and pervasive. 

Global Inertia and Roadblocks

Consider Germany, which has been working on energy transitionlonger and harder than any other large industrial nation. Now, as Russia is withholding natural gas supplies following its invasion of Ukraine and NATO’s hostile reaction, German electricity supplies are tight and about to get tighter. In response, Germany’s Green Party is leading the push to restart coal power plants rather than halting the planned shuttering of nuclear power plants. And it’s splitting environmentalists. Further, the country’s electricity problems have been exacerbated by a lack of, well, wind.

Unless Russia increases natural gas supplies headed west, European manufacturing could largely shut down this winter—including the manufacturing of renewable energy and related technologies. UK day-ahead wholesale electricity prices have hit ten times the last decade’s average price, and Europe faces energy scarcity this winter. French President Emmanuel Macron recently warned that his people face the “end of abundance.”

Inadequate spending is also inhibiting a renewables takeoff. Last year, EU member states spent over $150 billion on the energy transition, compared to about $120 billion by the U.S. Meanwhile, China spent nearly $300 billion on renewable energy and related technologies. According to the China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute, the country will install 156 gigawatts of wind turbines and solar panels this year. In comparison, the U.S., under the Inflation Reduction Act, would grow renewable energy annual additions from the current rate of about 25 GW per year to roughly 90 GW per year by 2025, with growth rates increasing thereafter, according to an analysis by researchers at Princeton University.

The recent remarkable increase in spending is far from sufficient. Last year, the world spent a total of about $530 billion on the energy transition (for comparison’s sake, the world spent $700 billion on fossil fuel subsidies in 2021). However, to bring worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to be net zero by 2050, annual capital investment in the transition would need to grow by over 900 percent, reaching nearly $5 trillion by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. Bloomberg writer Aaron Clark notes, “The one thing public climate spending plans in the U.S., China, and the EU all have in common is that the investments aren’t enough.”

There’s one other hurdle to addressing climate change that goes almost entirely unnoticed. Most cost estimates for the transition are in terms of money. What about the energy costs? It will take a tremendous amount of energy to mine materials; transport and transform them through industrial processes like smelting; turn them into solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, vehicles, infrastructure, and industrial machinery; install all of the above, and do this at a sufficient scale to replace our current fossil-fuel-based industrial system. In the early stages of the process, this energy will have to come mostly from fossil fuels, since they supply about 83 percent of current global energy. The result will surely be a pulse of emissions; however, as far as I know, nobody has tried to calculate its magnitude.

The requirement to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels represents the biggest technical challenge humanity has ever faced. To avoid the emissions pulse just mentioned, we must reduce energy usage in non-essential applications (such as for tourism or the manufacture of optional consumer goods). But such reductions will provoke social and political pushback, given that economies are structured to require continual growth, and citizens are conditioned to expect ever-higher levels of consumption. If the energy transition is the biggest technical challenge ever, it is also the biggest social, economic, and political challenge in human history. It may also turn out to be an enormous geopolitical challenge, if nations end up fighting over access to the minerals and metals that will be the enablers of the energy transition.

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Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. His previous Earth | Food | Life article, “Can We Abandon Pollutive Fossil Fuels and Avoid an Energy Crisis?” was published earlier this year.


Take action…

Promises, promises: President Biden delivers remarks at the Innovation event at the international COP26 climate talks in Glasgow on November 2, 2021. (Photo credit: COP26/Flickr)

President Biden: Declare a climate emergency

“Climate change is here, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The recent Supreme Court decision limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate coal- and gas-fired power plants makes it abundantly clear that President Biden must declare a climate emergency,” says the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Officially declaring the climate crisis a national emergency would unlock the tools needed to steer the economy away from fossil-fueled climate catastrophe toward a sustainable, just future. Biden needs to hear from you.”

Urge President Biden to declare a climate emergency.


Parting thought…

Screenshot via @Dolphin_Project/Twitter

Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

Click here to support the work of EFL and the Independent Media Institute.

Questions, comments, suggestions, submissions? Contact EFL editor Reynard Loki at [email protected]. Follow EFL on Twitter @EarthFoodLife.

The Aerodynamics of Velvet: What Owls Can Teach Humans

Silent night: A barn owl in flight. (Photo credit: Jerry Skinner/Flickr)

Owl physiology can help advance technology to address noise pollution—and maybe even help the deaf hear.

By Jackie Higgins, Independent Media Institute

4 min read

This excerpt is from Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses, by Jackie Higgins (Atria Books, 2022) and was produced for the web by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

To the ancient Greeks, the owl symbolized wisdom, but the Romans saw it as an evil omen. Their myths tell of an owl-like strix that stalked the night and preyed on human flesh. Ovid’s poem Fasti describes how such a demon slipped into the nursery of the sleeping prince Proca and was found hunched over the cradle, sucking the newborn’s blood. This supernatural owl changed over time. In Italian, strix became strega, meaning witch; in Romanian, strigoi is a vampire; and, in Macbeth, Shakespeare once more recast the owl as ‘the fatal bellman’ whose shriek summons King Duncan’s death. Like its legendary counterparts, the great gray owl, Strix nebulosa, inhabits the shadows. It lives in the icy north, in the dense, dark conifer forests of Russia, Alaska, and Canada. By night, it hunts. Scythe-like tal­ons and hooked, knife-sharp beak make the great gray owl a fearsome predator. By day, it stays hidden. Although one of the largest of its kind, its dusky and mottled plumage blends with the tree branches to atomize the bird’s silhouette, making it as nebulous and insubstantial as mist. Moreover, on a still moonlit night where snow blankets the landscape and deadens sound, the owl swoops on its quarry and barely breaks the silence.

The quietness of the owl’s flight is unrivaled; its wing beat makes a sound so soft that it is nearly imperceptible. “While we’ve known this for centuries,” said Professor Nigel Peake of the University of Cam­bridge, “what hasn’t been known is how owls are able to fly in silence.” His laboratory is one of a few around the world trying to learn from this avian acoustic stealth. For years, the focus had been the feathers along the wing’s leading and trailing edges. Those at the front have tiny stiff barbs that point forward like the teeth of a comb, whereas those at the back are flexible and fringed. They work together to break up, then smooth the air currents as they flow over and off the wing, damping down any noisy turbulence. Recently Peake homed in on a third ele­ment: the wing’s luxuriant touch. “We were among the first to think about the aerodynamics of this velvet,” he told me. In 2016, he collabo­rated with scientists in America for a closer look at the smooth surface of wings from various owl species, including the great gray. They saw that the birds’ primary feathers were covered with a millimeter of fine fluff.

“Microscope photographs of the down show it consists of hairs that form a structure similar to that of a forest,” Peake explained. “The hairs ini­tially rise almost perpendicular to the feather surface but then bend over in the flow direction to form a canopy.” This Lilliputian ‘forest’ reduces pressure fluctuations and turbulence dramatically as the air flows over the wing. The researchers, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Office of Naval Research, recreated this topography in plastic. Testing their prototype in a wind tunnel, they found it reduced sound so well that they patented the de­sign. This discovery promises not simply stealthier surveillance aircraft or submarines but also a significant drop in everyday noise pollution from, say, wind turbines, computer fans, and even the passenger planes daily crisscrossing the planet.

“Owls have much to teach us about mak­ing our own world quieter,” said Peake. “No other birds have wings that scatter sound so their prey can’t hear them coming.” The great gray is neither seen nor heard, and this natural specter also seems endowed with a supernatural sense. From a distance of some 30 meters (100 feet), it can pinpoint mice or voles with uncanny precision, even those hidden beneath mounds of virgin snow.

…Scientific research has coaxed the owl from the shadows and restored her to Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Through this creature, we learn what it means to hear: not simply to detect sounds but to create rich and perspectival soundscapes. We discover our talent for discerning whispers of whispers, then locating and layering them to build cathedrals of sound. The silent bird also guides us toward making this world a better place: whether through redesigning technology to subdue unwanted noise or improving the lives of those less fortunate. “I am just as deaf as I am blind,” wrote the American deaf-blind activist Helen Keller to her doctor in 1910. “The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune.” The owl sits on the shoulder of the blind, bearing the gift of earsight. One day, alongside her wider avian family, she may also offer others the gift of sound.

Jackie Higgins is a graduate of Oxford University in zoology and has worked for Oxford Scientific Films for over a decade, along with National Geographic, PBS Nova, and the Discovery Channel. She has also written, directed, and produced films at the BBC Science Department.


Take action…

Look, don’t touch: A barn owl stares into the lens at the World Bird Sanctuary, a nature preserve that treats injured birds, located in Valley Park, Missouri. (Photo credit: Mike T/Flickr)

Owls are being tortured and killed at Johns Hopkins for ADHD ‘research’

“Try saying it aloud: ‘An experimenter at Johns Hopkins University is holding barn owls captive in his laboratory, cutting into their skulls, poking electrodes around in their brains, and forcing them to watch dots on a screen—all so he can purportedly learn something about humans with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,’” writes PETA’s Katherine Sullivan. “Sounds absurd, right? Yet that’s exactly what experimenter Shreesh Mysore is doing in his torture chamber at Johns Hopkins University.”

Join nearly half a million people and sign this petition urging Johns Hopkins to stop abusing barn owls for “ADD research.”



Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

Click here to support the work of EFL and the Independent Media Institute.

Questions, comments, suggestions, submissions? Contact EFL editor Reynard Loki at [email protected]. Follow EFL on Twitter @EarthFoodLife.

Why Are Wild Horses Brutally Uprooted From Public Lands While Private Livestock Can Stay?

Taken: Healthy, sleek wild horses in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area during a Bureau of Land Management roundup on July 19, 2022. (Photo credit: Ginger Fedak/In Defense of Animals)

The Bureau of Land Management is misleading the American people about the nation’s wild horses and burros.

By Ginger Fedak, Independent Media Institute

6 min read

Every year, thousands of wild horses and burros are chased by helicopters and ripped from their native land in terrifyingly brutal, and often deadly, roundups. After capture, they are corralled in crowded dry lot holding pens, where many contract diseases or injuries and some then die or are killed. Some of the captured wild horses and burros are adopted out or sold to questionable buyers. Many of these horses are in turn sold to slaughterhouses. These horrendous actions are perpetrated by the U.S. government while using taxpayer dollars to protect the vested interests of cattle and sheep ranchers.

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the government agency responsible for “managing” public lands and the wild equids who live on them. It practices cruel and egregious methods of removing wild free-roaming horses and burros from public lands, even though these lands have been set aside by law for their “principal use.”

The roundups are physically tortuous and indiscriminate. Young, old, and heavily pregnant mustangs are forced into a violent stampede over rocky and dangerous terrain. Low-flying helicopters chase the terrified horses into traps. Young animals collapse in exhaustion or are rendered helpless from injury as they run in fear for their lives. Spontaneous abortions and stillbirths can occur among pregnant mares. Bonded family bands are shattered in the chaos marking the end of their freedom.

Many of these federally protected wild horses are eventually shipped to the killing floor of horse slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. The federal protections afforded to these horses in the U.S. are stripped as soon as they become the property of a buyer or adopter with the transfer of title from another country.

The unanimously passed Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was meant to protect these “living symbols of historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Yet, instead, the government seems more interested in protecting the interests of cattle and sheep ranchers. Wild horses and burros are scapegoated by private ranchers for the degradation of public lands caused by their own exploited livestock. Ranchers blame the wild equids so that these absurdly unnecessary roundups will leave more resources for their private use. After wild horses are rounded up, more cattle and sheep are put on the public land.

Terror from above: A helicopter chases wild horses into a trap at the Piceance-East Douglas roundup on July 17, 2022. (Photo credit: Ginger Fedak/In Defense of Animals)

Many Americans might be disturbed by the plight of wild horses and burros on our public lands for various reasons. Not only are helicopter roundups inhumane and deadly, but they are also costly to American taxpayers. Every year several millions of taxpayer dollars are paid to helicopter contractors and private holding facility contracts. If that wasn’t bad enough, many more millions are lost in the subsidized grazing leases that corporate ranchers insidiously benefit from.

The BLM acknowledges that public land livestock grazing leads to the loss of millions of dollars every year. Corporate ranchers currently pay only $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM). An AUM is the amount of forage that would be consumed by one cow-calf pair, or five sheep in one month. Meanwhile, the average going rate for grazing leases on private land is about $22.60 per AUM. This constitutes a taxpayer subsidy of approximately $21 for feeding every cow-calf pair per month. During the 2015 fiscal year, the BLM’s grazing program lost $22 million, without even counting the costs of other management activities. The agency spent $36 million on administration costs for the grazing program, while only bringing in $15 million in grazing fees.

Many United States citizens might say that the country needs to subsidize these livestock ranching operations to provide affordable meat products for Americans. However, while more and more Americans are including plant-based proteins in their diets, large taxpayer-subsidized livestock operations are selling the vast majority of their product to foreign markets where meat prices are much higher. There is no economic sense to be found in a grazing program that destroys our public lands to ensure profits for the large corporate ranchers selling meat abroad while losing millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money every year.

It has been widely proven in scientific studies and research by various government agencies that cattle and sheep are highly destructive to public lands due to the grazing practices private ranchers use. Cattle and sheep are non-native species to North America, who came from moist, humid climates in Europe and elsewhere. They are not suited for arid and semi-arid landscapes. A 1977 report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) titled “Public Rangelands Continue to Deteriorate” stated, “The Nation’s public rangelands have been deteriorating for years and, for the most part, are not improving. Deterioration can be attributed principally to poorly managed livestock grazing.” Even though the report was a scathing rebuke of the BLM’s policies, which allowed the overgrazing of public lands, and called for additional and updated management plans, little has been done in the 45 years since this report was published. Required management plans are sorely lacking.

Conversely, wild horses are a native species to North America because they evolved on this continent, beginning 55 million years ago. Over the millennia, they evolved on this continent from a small deerlike figure to what we now see as the modern horse. They are well suited to the climate and topography of the Western states.

We should also be concerned because livestock contributes significantly to global warming and the climate crisis. The digestive systems of wild horses and burros do not contribute to greenhouse gases. According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation.”

Wild horses and burros have also been shown to improve their habitat and range. Their simple digestive tracts allow whole seeds to be deposited in their manure whereas cows’ four-stomach system destroys any ability to reseed the land. Wild equids can also help the land in other ways, such as naturally maintaining grass and brush at safer levels and acting as a mitigation to potential wildfire occurrences, thus saving lives and millions or even billions of dollars in destruction.

With all the positive effects that wild horses and burros have on public lands, their contributions to local economies from wild horse viewing eco-tourism and photography, and their beloved status among American citizens and people all over the world, why are they then so harassed and mismanaged by the BLM? Especially when it is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sadly, the livestock and extractive industries have a stranglehold on the BLM and Congress. Taxpayer subsidies enrich these private companies allowing them to make political contributions to maintain their influence. Backed by big Ag, gas, oil, and mining, the BLM scapegoats wild horses instead of removing ranchers whose cattle and sheep degrade the land and vastly outnumber horses; often by 30 to 1 in many places. Disinformation and carefully selected partial information are fed to the American public in a profuse propaganda campaign. This is done to purposely present misleading information to justify “emergency” roundups in many wild horse herd areas, including the world-famous Onaqui and Sand Wash Basin herds in Utah and Colorado, respectively. This propaganda campaign seems to be continuing.

Now the BLM is claiming that the herd from Colorado’s Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area must be drastically reduced due to the health of the horses and the rangeland. With prolific amounts of photographic evidence and testimonials to the contrary, the BLM ignores it all and has forged ahead with the roundup. Despite evidence showing these horses and their range are in good condition and calls from the public and political figures to stop this roundup, the agency moved forward with its plans. It is Colorado’s largest roundup to date. The BLM removed more than 800 horses, dangerously running them down with helicopters during the hottest days of summer.

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Ginger Fedak is the wild horse and burro campaign director at In Defense of Animals. A lifelong animal welfare advocate and horse professional, Fedak has spent decades teaching about and advocating for domestic and wild horses.


Take action…

This land is their land: Wild horses amidst flowers in Mt. Crested Butte, Colorado. (Photo credit: Larry Lamsa/Flickr)

America’s wild horses and burros deserve justice ​​​​

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) wild horse and burro program has recently come under fire due to the extraordinarily large number of wild horse deaths occurring at its Cañon City holding facility. Experienced advocates know, however, that these kinds of deaths are nothing new. For decades, wild horses and burros have been suffering and dying under this inhumane “management” system.

The plight of wild horses and burros is rapidly worsening because the BLM has become more empowered by getting away with its misinformation campaigns and deceitful practices. The purposeful misrepresentation of facts from the BLM to the American public, media, and Congress is disgraceful. The agency refuses to take responsibility for its monumental failures and consistently changes the narrative to place the blame elsewhere.

What can we Americans do to help wild horses and burros and the planet? We can continue to call and write to our congressional legislators and advocate for truth, science, and our wild equids.

Urge your federal legislators to order a full and independent investigation leading to the overhaul of the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse and burro program.


Parting thought…

(Photo credit: David DeHetre/Flickr)

“If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man.” —Chief Seattle


Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

Click here to support the work of EFL and the Independent Media Institute.

Questions, comments, suggestions, submissions? Contact EFL editor Reynard Loki at [email protected]. Follow EFL on Twitter @EarthFoodLife.

Zoo Troubles: The Plight of Two Pandas Lays Bare the Flaws

False advertising: Under the guise of education and conservation, animals in zoos—like LeLe (above), a giant panda held captive at the Memphis Zoo—suffer greatly and are exploited for entertainment. (Photo credit: Panda Voices)

Vested interests and hidden agendas often determine the treatment of animals in zoos, which heavily impacts the animals’ welfare, mentally, physically, and emotionally.

By Florence Foo, Si Cheng, Taciana Santiago, and Brittany Michelson, Independent Media Institute

9 min read

Zoos are often viewed as places of entertainment where humans can appreciate the beauty of the various species that can be found in different ecosystems on the planet. Many parents take their children to visit these facilities to let them experience being close to animals, educate them about the species, and emphasize the importance of protecting them. The reality of this seemingly ideal scenario is, however, much more complex and appalling. Animals in zoos suffer greatly and are exploited for entertainment under the guise of education and conservation.

While zoos claim they help to educate the public by giving people an opportunity to observe diverse animals and are also commonly seen as having a role to play in species conservation since they often conduct research and breed animals, at the end of the day they are businesses, and like any other business, they are mainly driven by profits. Vested interests and hidden agendas often determine the treatment of animals in zoos, which heavily impacts the animals’ welfare, mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Animals in captivity do not face the challenges and the different stimulations that their counterparts who live in the wild encounter daily. Consequently, they need special enrichment such as toys, different foods and smells, and artificial challenges—like food hiding—to mentally stimulate their senses, deal with boredom, and help these animals live as happily and comfortably as they can in captivity.

Apart from the requirement of providing high-quality food and nutrition for the animals, the quality of enclosures and yards is also extremely important, as small areas and the lack of enrichment leads to stress, suffering, and the development of a mental illness calledzoochosis among animals living in captivity. This is commonly seen in zoos when animals display stereotypical behaviors. These are abnormal and repetitive behaviors such as pacing, walking in circles, banging their heads, excessive licking, playing with their own tongues, walking backward, self-harm, and other atypical habits. These behaviors are the ways in which zoo animals cope with the stress of captivity, be it related to small enclosures, long hours of caging, insufficient quality/palatable food, and several other factors.

In the case of pandas who are confined in small enclosures that often lack enrichment or any kind of stimulus or challenge for long periods, are often kept in the enclosures without access to larger external yards where they can roam, and are not given the opportunity to meet and interact with others from their group, these circumstances often lead to challenges in mating and therefore breeding. Consequently, zoos often use invasive methods like artificial insemination to maintain breeding programs.

The consequences of depriving animals of their natural habitats and forcing them to face experiences that go against their instinctive behavior can cause great harm to them, which can sometimes be irreversible. In the name of human entertainment, these zoo animals are deprived of everything “that [makes] life interesting and enjoyable” for them.

Moreover, like humans, the diet requirements, health needs, and even tastes of these animals may change as they get older. If the costs of caring for the animals are high, zoos may not be able to meet these requirements for aging animals. Consequently, it is common that these facilities do not follow the age-appropriate diet/nutrition required, resulting in animals appearing thin and malnourished, which leads to serious health problems as shown in a video of the female giant panda YaYa at the Memphis Zoo. YaYa is one of a pair of giant pandas both suffering from zoochosis and malnourishment; the other panda is a male called LeLe.

YaYa and LeLe’s heartbreaking agony and distress in Memphis Zoo has received enormous media attention, especially in February 2022 when Oscar-winning singer Billie Eilish tweeted her support for animal protection organizations who are asking for the immediate return of the pandas to a sanctuary in their home country of China. The vegan singer and songwriter’s support, followed by an official statement released by Memphis Zoo claiming that their pandas are given excellent care “and were both in good health,” brought on heated debates on social media with many questioning the definition of “good” treatment for captive animals, and whether zoos really are the best place to keep them.

The female giant panda YaYa, born in August 2000, and the male giant panda LeLe, born in July 1998, were sent to Memphis Zoo in 2003, and ever since then, for almost two decades, they have been living in small internal enclosures and sharing just one external yard. As pandas are solitary animals, YaYa and LeLe take turns using the yard.

Over the years, panda lovers have noticed a significant deterioration in both pandas’ appearance as a result of the zoo’s negligent treatment. It is apparent to visitors that their enclosures are lacking in enrichment. Interactions between the keepers and YaYa and LeLe are rarely seen. They are both very thin and often show signs of mental distress. YaYa has mites all over her body and patches of shedding fur. She has experienced several artificial inseminations over the years and had at least three miscarriages. As far as food is concerned, the quality of bamboo given to them is often yellow and dry. Consequently, they refuse to eat it and keep begging for food every day. Pandas tend to be very particular about their food as they have a good sense of smell and only eat selective types of fresh bamboo. Ninety-nine percent of pandas’ diet is bamboo so the bamboo has to be fresh; “[P]andas turn up their noses at dry or wilted leaves and discolored stalks.”

In a statement released by the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG), one of the institutions responsible for the loan contract of pandas between Memphis Zoo and China, the association raised important concerns related to the pandas’ health. The text stated that after medical examinations conducted in 2021 and January 2022, it was concluded that both pandas are underweight, especially YaYa; the female also has fur loss due to chronic Demodex mites, and Lele has several broken molars.

There are signs of stereotypical behaviors displayed by both animals, which is their way of expressing their mental suffering. It is not hard to witness YaYa pacing around her enclosure over and over while shaking her head and displaying self-harming behavior, or LeLe sitting and playing with his tongue and even roaring in anger after a long wait without any response. More alarming is how long both pandas’ suffering has lasted. A clip on YouTube shows that the pandas’ mental distress and abnormal behaviors began as early as 2007. With no mention of actual intervention and in-depth in situ investigations having been conducted into these behavioral patterns, the inaction of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) contributes to the zoo’s neglect of the animals’ natural demands and well-being.

Memphis Zoo claims that the pandas have aged, and therefore, their appearance and problems are normal as per their age since YaYa is 21 years old and LeLe is 23 years old. However, YaYa and LeLe are actually among the youngest pandas among the six adult pandas in the U.S., and there are many examples of older pandas in China who look much healthier than YaYa and LeLe.

Compared to their counterparts in the wild, pandas in captivity have much longer life spans. The oldest captive panda lived to 38 years of age. This, therefore, demonstrates that YaYa and LeLe’s age does not justify their frail health. This raises questions about whether Memphis Zoo has at any point customized their diet according to the age, health, and dietary needs of both pandas. For example, elderly pandas in China who have dental issues are provided with a nutritious soft diet, such as a certain amount of bamboo shoots, a salad-like combination of vegetables, grains, bamboo leaves, dietary supplements, and pre-cut bamboo culm, which is easier to bite. On the contrary, at Memphis Zoo, most times the bamboo given to both pandas is non-preprocessed bamboo culm which is hard and thick and sometimes even yellow and dry. Not only is the bamboo hard to bite, especially for LeLe who has dental issues, but also the yellow bamboo also appears stale.

YaYa and LeLe will, no doubt, have a better life at the Dujiangyan base of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, their home country, which features the best environment for pandas, the best bamboo for them, and hosts the best panda vets and experts. In one video, it is possible to see that pandas are treated with love, kindness and respect in this sanctuary, which is the world’s largest nursing home for pandas. The indoor enclosure is merely an indoor room that has bars as a barrier to protect the keepers while they feed the pandas. The pandas have spacious external yards located near their natural habitat in the mountains.

The absence of suitable enclosures, enrichment, proper customized diets, and health care for these aging animals in the Memphis Zoo calls into question any benefits that the zoos claim they bring to species conservation and education. More often than not, animals in zoos are merely on display for human entertainment. The animals pay the price to entertain humans.

Animals who are born and bred in captivity, unfortunately, may not have the skills to survive in their natural habitats in the wild. However, instead of caging them and merely allowing them to survive, humans have the responsibility to help them feel at home and be themselves, so that they can thrive. This is even more important when they age and experience more challenges in their daily activities. Therefore, the animal sanctuaries that care for them with love and respect, and simply let them be themselves, are a better home for elderly animals and the ones who show obvious signs of not coping within the zoo environment. Rescued animals are given space in natural sanctuaries to heal in their own time and at their own pace.

Memphis Zoo is not necessarily representative of every zoo; however, it is a telling example of how much these animals suffer in these kinds of facilities. Captive animals need appropriate enclosures that are as natural as possible and provide plenty of space, a proper diet, good health care, and plenty of enrichment. Animals are much happier and healthier in places that focus on these aspects instead of profits. For example, enrichment is part of the experience at Gengda Wolong Panda Center, another sanctuary in Sichuan, China, which is near their natural habitat. Sanctuaries seem to provide the best environment for captive animals, as they respect animals, care about their mental and physical health, and customize their food according to age and dietary needs. Sanctuaries are where YaYa, LeLe, and other captive animals need to be to enjoy a life catered to their happiness instead of one meant to ensure their use for human entertainment.

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Florence Foo, Si Cheng,and Taciana Santiago are members of Panda Voices, created in early 2021 by an international group of panda fans from Asia, Europe, and the Americas, brought together by concerns over pandas YaYa and LeLe. The organization is committed to giving voice to the voiceless and promoting the humane treatment of animals in captivity through advocacy and services.

Brittany Michelson is the captive animals campaigner at In Defense of Animals. She is a dedicated animal rights activist, the founder of Desert Oasis Turtle & Tortoise Sanctuary, and the author/editor of the anthology Voices for Animal Liberation: Inspirational Accounts by Animal Rights Activists (Skyhorse Publishing, 2020).


Take action…

#FreeYayaLele: More than 85,000 people have signed a public petition calling for the release of two giant pandas who have been held captive under inhumane conditions for nearly two decades at the Memphis Zoo. (Photo credit: Panda Voices)

“In 2003, giant pandas YaYa and LeLe were sent to Memphis Zoo in Tennessee as lovely, impressionable little fur-balls. After 19 years of serving the zoo, they are extremely malnourished and sickly. YaYa’s fur has been shedding profusely. Yet Memphis Zoo claims they are perfectly healthy,” said Panda Voices and In Defense of Animals.

“YaYa and LeLe not only suffer physically from disease and hunger, which is already incredibly heartbreaking, but they also suffer psychologically from being caged in a small ‘den’ every day for up to 18 hours. … Consequently, both show severe signs of stereotypical behaviors, a mental impairment caused by an abnormal environment.”

Sign the petition then write to Matt Thompson, the president and CEO of Memphis Zoo, to return YaYa and LeLe back to their hometown where food is abundant and medical care is accessible.


Letter to the editor…

Standing with Ukraine: Anti-war protesters gather in Hanover, Germany, on February 26, 2022. (Photo credit: pix-4-2-day/Flickr)

Dear Earth | Food | Life,

Thank you for the excellent article on U.S. military spending and the devastation of the war in Ukraine on the environment and contribution to (ignoring) increasing climate change (“As the War in Ukraine Devastates the Nation’s Ecosystems, the World Reaches Record-High Military Spending,” by Erika Schelby, August 5, CounterPunch). I doubt our descendants will do or be any better than us. They may look back with horror at our present behavior but will repeat it in their own way.

Karen Davis
Machipongo, Virginia


What we’re reading…

Unforgettable: A wild fox started showing up on the author’s property every day at 4:15 pm, and sat next to a lone forget-me-not. (Photo credit: Catherine Raven)

How I Found Myself Befriending a Wild Fox

By Catherine Raven

For 12 consecutive days, the fox had appeared at my cottage. At no more than one minute after the sun capped the western hill, he lay down in a spot of dirt among the powdery blue bunchgrasses. Tucking the tip of his tail under his chin and squinting his eyes, he pretended to sleep. I sat on a camp chair with stiff spikes of bunchgrass poking into the canvas. Opening a book, I pretended to read. Nothing but 2 meters and one spindly forget-me-not lay between us. Someone may have been watching us—a dusky shrew, a field mouse, a rubber boa—but it felt like we were alone with the world to ourselves.

On the 13th day, at around 3:30 and no later than 4 p.m., I bundled up in more clothing than necessary to stay comfortably warm and went outside. Pressing my hands together as if praying, I pushed them between my knees while I sat with my feet tapping the ground. I was waiting for the fox and hoping he wouldn’t show.

Read the full excerpt from Catherine Raven’s Fox & I: An Uncommon Friendship (Spiegel + Grau, 2021).


Parting thought…

All the world’s a stage: Three six-spot burnets (Zygaena filipendulae), a species of day-flying moths, gather on ragwort flowers in the United Kingdom’s North Norfolk District. (Photo credit: It’s No Game/Flickr)

“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature


Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

Click here to support the work of EFL and the Independent Media Institute.

Questions, comments, suggestions, submissions? Contact EFL editor Reynard Loki at [email protected]. Follow EFL on Twitter @EarthFoodLife.

Dinner Versus the Truth: The Problem With Facebook’s Content Warnings

Brutal irony: Facebook’s “sensational content” policy underscores how desensitized we have become to the suffering of nonhuman animals—especially those bred for human consumption. (Photo credit: Christoph Scholz/Flickr)

The decision to prioritize our own comfort and convenience by looking away might feel easier, but it comes at a terrible cost.

By David Marten

6 min read

Facebook’s algorithm is considering two sponsored posts that feature the same chicken. In the first post, she is alive and struggling, confined in a tiny cage, on her way to her premature death. In the second, she is dead, beheaded, and roasted. Can you guess which post was approved? It turns out that Meta, the parent company of Facebook, is deceiving its consumers in more ways than one.

There’s a strange and troubling disconnect between the food we’re happy to see on our plate and the true story of the living animal who eventually becomes that food—often under painful and distressing circumstances. A drumstick was once the leg of a living chicken who did not want to die. But Facebook only allows one of these images to be advertised. A clue: It’s the one intended to appeal not to your head or your heart, but rather to your stomach.

Ads are placed on Facebook feeds by animal rights organizations like The Humane League, the group I work for, to raise awareness about the reality of factory farming. These ads depict chickens raised for food (commonly known as broiler chickens) and their experiences on factory farms. But Facebook’s algorithm often rejects those ads under its “sensational content” policy. Facebook requires posts that share “violent” or “graphic content” information and images to come with a content warning, which cannot be included in paid ads.

The miserable, tortured lives endured by chickens raised for human consumption are upsetting from beginning to end. Broiler chickens live under some of the most brutal conditions experienced by any nonhuman animal. When they hatch, chicks are packed on conveyor belts leading to forced immunizations as well as mutilations, which often include severing beaks, toes, and combs without pain relief. They live in indoor sheds among hundreds of thousands of other birds, in cramped and often filthy conditions.

Over the years, the meat industry has bred birds to grow unnaturally large, all so that consumers can get more meat per meal. The birds grow so large, so fast that their bodies can’t support their own weight, resulting in painful conditions and broken bones. Finally, chickens suffer through their final moments in a slaughterhouse, usually after only 47 days of life—drastically shorter than their typical lifespan of up to seven years. Slaughterhouse deaths are frequently haphazard and inhumane. The techniques used to knock out a bird before her death often fail, and many chickens venture wide awake and conscious to their own slaughter.

It’s not a surprise that telling these animals’ stories provokes horror and sadness—it’s not exactly the kind of content you might be excited to see on a morning scroll of your social media feed. I understand the rationale behind Facebook’s sensational content policy. But isn’t it ironic that while Facebook rejects The Humane League’s ads, companies selling chicken products are free to advertise the final result of a broiler chicken’s tragic life?

Cheerful young people celebrate over meals of chicken sandwiches; a family digs into a fried chicken bucket. These ads aren’t just limited to Facebook—you’ll find them everywhere both online and off, from a YouTube ad to a billboard at a bus stop. Facebook and companies like it deem these images as harmless advertising. But underneath the happy feasting lies the grim story of an animal in pain.

The painful truth is that behind the everyday images of meat consumption that most people barely register, cruelty and violence prevail. If more people knew about the reality behind the chicken they eat every day—whether purchased at a fast-food chain or bought from the supermarket—they could play a more active role to end this suffering by making more conscious food or life choices.

If this were to happen, for example, then some people might consider a vegan lifestyle; others could campaign for serious change and reform in the way broiler chickens are raised. It’s part of the reason why animal protection organizations work to open people’s eyes to the ways animals are treated to end up on the table. But the very nature of the violent treatment means that social media algorithms like the ones used by Facebook restrict the ability of organizations like mine to inform people about the cruelty suffered by animals behind the meat they eat for their meals. It’s a catch-22 that chickens and other farm animals are paying for.

It also reveals a broader problem that goes beyond the sponsored posts that Facebook’s algorithm allows animal rights organizations like ours to promote. It’s about the choices we make around our food consumption. Most people are kind and empathetic: Of course, we don’t want to see a chicken in pain over our morning coffee. But that chicken is in pain, whether or not we choose to see her. The decision to prioritize our own comfort and convenience by looking away might feel easier, but it comes at a terrible cost.

If a chicken experiences enough violence that we have to flag her story with a content warning, doesn’t that make it obvious that we should not be putting her through the experience in the first place? Unlike other upsetting content that might be flagged with a warning, the way we treat animals farmed for food is not a failure of the system of industrial agriculture, but rather is a feature of it—one baked right in with the herbs and spices.

That means that it’s not simply Facebook’s algorithm that needs review, nor the question of what makes content palatable. After all, consider the flip side of this coin: Those who understand the truth about how chickens raised for meat are typically treated before their deaths might consider an ad featuring a chicken dinner to be worthy of a content warning. But content warnings alone won’t change anyone’s mind or lead to productive conversations between the two groups triggered by the finished meat product or the story behind it. It also raises larger questions about how we can take more responsibility for the food we consume by being aware of the torture animals go through because of the flawed system that is the meat industry. It will take work to get more people to reconnect those two images—the chicken before her death and the chicken after. And that work is an essential part of reforming the system that encourages cruelty and pain in the name of profit and convenience.

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David Marten is a senior web developer at The Humane League.


Take action…

Bleak future: A hen looks out from a plastic transport crate as she waits her turn to be unloaded into a factory farm. (Photo credit: Julie LP/We Animals Media)

Starbucks sources eggs from suffering, abused chickens

“Starbucks is supposed to stand for more than just coffee. It claims to care deeply about its community and social issues. Yet Starbucks doesn’t extend this care to the millions of egg-laying hens suffering in its global supply chain,” writes the Humane League.

“Starbucks refuses to end its support of farms that confine hens in tiny, filthy cages. These cages are so small and packed with birds that the hens can’t do anything that is natural or important to them. Often, their body parts are caught in the caging, which results in fractured or broken bones, deformities, and severe feather loss. Some hens, exhausted or unable to move, are trampled to death by their cage mates.

“Hundreds of companies around the world are ditching cages. Global commitments to end cruel cages are being made by some of the largest companies in the world, including General Mills, Unilever, Nestle, Lidl, Aldi, Wyndham Worldwide, InterContinental Hotels, Aramark, Sodexo, Mondelez, and Compass Group. Even low-end fast food companies and U.S. prisons are moving away from this horrible practice. Starbucks, however, has failed to join this movement towards better treatment of animals globally.”

Urge Starbucks to stop sourcing eggs from abused hens.


ICYMI…

Friends, not food: Lina Lind Christensen, who runs the Danish sanctuary Frie Vinger (“Free Wings”), with a rescued hen. Frie Vinger rescues and re-homes battery hens saved from the egg industry. (Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/#unboundproject/We Animals Media)

The call of the wild has always been in the chicken’s heart

By Karen Davis

Though chickens are polygamous, mating with more than one member of the opposite sex, individual birds are attracted to each other. They not only “breed”; but they also form bonds, clucking endearments to one another throughout the day. A rooster does a courtly dance for his special hens in which he “skitters sideways and opens his wing feathers downward like Japanese fans,” according to Rick and Gail Luttmann’s bookChickens in Your Backyard. A man once told me, “When I was a young man I worked on a chicken farm, and one of the most amazing things about those chickens was that they would actually choose each other and refuse to mate with anyone else.”

Sadly, the eggs of these parent flocks are snatched away and sent to mechanical incubators, so the parents never see their chicks. “Breeder” roosters and hens are routinely culled for low fertility, and also because “if a particular male becomes unable to mate, his matching females will not accept another male until he is removed,” explains the book Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production.

Little more than a year later, the parents who have survived their miserable life are sent to slaughter just like the chicks they never got to see, raise or protect, as they would otherwise have chosen to do if they were free.

[Read the full article…]


Parting thought…

Yes, sir: Sir Paul McCartney is the narrator of “Glass Walls,” a short documentary that exposes the physical and mental horrors experienced by the nonhuman animals trapped in our industrialized food system. (Photo credit: darioferrini/Flickr)

“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” —Sir Paul McCartney


Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

Click here to support the work of EFL and the Independent Media Institute.

Questions, comments, suggestions, submissions? Contact EFL editor Reynard Loki at [email protected]. Follow EFL on Twitter @EarthFoodLife.

How the USDA Fails to Enforce the Animal Welfare Act

USDA Fail: USDA inspectors documented extensive animal suffering at a USDA-licensed supplier of chinchillas for research, but for years the agency did nothing. (Photo credit: gehantao971031/Flickr)

The agency has neglected its federally mandated responsibilities—even in the face of years of their own inspectors’ reports of abuse.

By Nancy Blaney, Independent Media Institute

6 min read

For years, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors dutifully documented extensive animal suffering at Moulton Chinchilla Ranch (MCR), a chinchilla breeding facility in Minnesota. In 2021, MCR was the only USDA-licensed supplier of chinchillas for research, according to National Geographic and Science. Meanwhile, USDA inspections of MCR reported seeing chinchillas, many destined for experimentation, with eyes swollen, weeping, and sealed shut; a thin, unresponsive chinchilla, missing part of her leg, brutally “euthanized” by breaking her neck; a dead chinchilla left on top of a cage for so long that her decaying body had to be peeled off of it.

After failing to confiscate a single chinchilla from MCR—even as the USDA’s own inspectors issued citation after citation for Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations over a period of five years from 2013 to 2018—the department finally filed a case in November 2018 against MCR’s owner, dealer Daniel Moulton. Following even more incomprehensible delays, the case finally went to court in 2021.

In October 2021, USDA Administrative Law Judge Jill Clifton ruled from the bench—a highly unusual move—that Moulton’s dealer license must be permanently revoked, calling his 213 “willful” violations “absolutely astounding.” Nevertheless, he was fined a mere $18,000—less than 1 percent of the amount allowed under the law. To make matters worse, he was permitted to keep nearly 700 chinchillas languishing on his ranch for months while he decided whether or not he would file an appeal (and was even granted multiple extensions to do so).

In November, less than a month after the judge’s ruling, the USDA once again documented multiple failures to comply with the law as the chinchillas at the ranch continued to suffer from a lack of adequate veterinary care and staffing. The following month in December, my organization, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), sent a letter to the USDA, copying three Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys, noting that Moulton continued to place his chinchillas “in serious danger.” One of the unambiguous statutory remedies for his violations is confiscation. Again, however, the USDA confiscated none of the ailing animals.

In Judge Clifton’s ruling, she expressed regret “that it took this many years for me to get to this complaint, which was filed November 29, 2018” and explained that the “very, very long delay” was caused by government shutdowns, the COVID-19 pandemic, and “some other difficulties.” Notably, Judge Clifton added, “It should not have taken this long for us to get to this point.”

It took until February 2022 before Moulton stated that he no longer held any chinchillas, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Meanwhile, last fall, the USDA finally revoked the license of Iowa dog breeder Daniel Gingerich, who amassed an unprecedented number of citations for horrific animal mistreatment. Inspectors documented multiple dogs under severe heat stress with no access to drinking water, even as the heat index soared to 119 degrees Fahrenheit; one was in an emaciated state. Another report noted a severely neglected one-month-old poodle puppy crying out and dying before the inspectors’ eyes. Under a settlement, Gingerich was forced to surrender more than 500 dogs and puppies, but only after the DOJ obtained a historic injunction against the breeder after indefensible USDA delays.

These two high-profile cases graphically illustrate how the USDA continues to drag its heels instead of jumping into action to protect animals from immense and avoidable suffering. AWI and other animal advocacy organizations have long documented the department’s inexcusable failure to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, the primary federal law intended to afford basic protections to certain animals that are bred for commercial sale.

The AWA applies to animal dealers, breeders, exhibitors, handlers, and carriers in addition to research laboratories, and sets minimum standards of care that must be provided for animals—including housing, handling, sanitation, food, water, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather. The law covers warm-blooded species, but expressly excludes mice, rats, and birds bred for research, as well as most farm animals.

It is the responsibility of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service administrator, its animal care officials, and its general counsel to urgently act on inspectors’ disturbing reports of cruelty, seize animals in need of rescue, and ensure that such appalling mistreatment doesn’t continue. The situation has reached a tipping point.

From 2016 to 2020 (while former President Donald Trump was in office), there was a 67 percent drop in the number of AWA inspections where citations were documented, according to AWI’s research. New investigations plunged by nearly 90 percent during this period. In a July 2021 article about Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, National Geographic pointed out that the USDA under the Trump administration had been hamstrung when it came to enforcing animal welfare law. But the USDA’s failure to adequately enforce the AWA predates the Trump administration and has persisted for decades, as National Geographic later reported in October 2021.

Gingerich, the former dog breeder, was permitted to continue operating after he hid dogs from USDA inspectors, destroyed required acquisition records, and operated “facilities in 10 different locations throughout Iowa, several of which are unlicensed,” stated the Iowa Capital Dispatch, citing federal records. In 2021 alone, before the USDA took action, inspections of Gingerich’s operation yielded 25 reports and more than 200 citations.

In the case of MCR, the USDA has known about the abysmal conditions since at least 2013. Yet the department never followed through on what its inspectors conscientiously recorded by confiscating a single chinchilla or notifying the DOJ, as mandated by the AWA, once it determined that the chinchillas’ health was in serious danger. Since 2014, Moulton has racked up more direct citations (the most severe type of critical citation) than any of the other 10,000-plus AWA-regulated licensees and registrants. The USDA documented direct citations each year from 2014 through 2021, including a 2018 announced inspection, which found 22 chinchillas needing veterinary care.

Chinchillas have large ears, and their hearing is similar to humans, so they are often used for invasive and terminal research on ear diseases. Moulton Chinchilla Ranch has supplied chinchillas to studies affiliated with the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Navy, Harvard Medical School, and more—even though lab animals with unaddressed health issues can compromise the integrity of the research. Taxpayers’ money has not only been used to fund potentially flawed research but also to support Moulton’s operations.

On the first full day of testimony during Moulton’s administrative hearing, veteran inspector Brenton Cox—discussing inspections from 2014—stated that MCR was the worst facility he had ever seen, that it gave him nightmares, and that he used MCR as a training tool for what a facility should not be. During the hearing (which AWI monitored), the USDA stated that some chinchillas suffered from swellings the size of eggs or golf balls and indicated (over Moulton’s objections) that they were in pain.

But where was this outrage and validation of the inspectors’ vital work years ago, when the department could have acted on their findings and saved so many chinchillas from this ongoing abuse? Instead, in 2019, the USDA helped Moulton with the paperwork to renew his license to operate as a dealer.

Moreover, the research industry enabled Moulton’s cruelty. The Laboratory Animal Science Buyers Guide, published by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), listed MCR as the only chinchilla supplier despite knowing about the USDA citations. In July, National Geographic stated that the guide also included MCR in its vendor showcase, which touts reaching customers within the “trusted network” of AALAS. Prominent research figures, including Sanford Feldman, director of the Center for Comparative Medicine at the University of Virginia, testified for Moulton and were actively involved in his defense.

It is clear that there needs to be political will to ensure that the USDA will stop allowing facilities to remain persistently and egregiously out of compliance with the AWA regulations and start taking action sooner—not merely when a case becomes highly publicized. In May 2021, U.S. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois reintroduced the Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act, which would protect animals from unscrupulous dealers and exhibitors and close existing loopholes in the USDA’s licensing process that endanger animals and allow chronic violators to escape punishment. These violators include marine theme parks, roadside zoos, and exotic wildlife operations such as the infamous Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park featured in the Netflix series “Tiger King,” which has now been closed to the public.

Additionally, legislation introduced in December 2021 by Iowa Representative Cindy Axne would require USDA inspectors to document and report all AWA violations, confiscate suffering animals, and impose penalties against dog dealers. The bill has been named Goldie’s Act in memory of a golden retriever who was one of the hundreds of dogs neglected and abused at Gingerich’s USDA-licensed facility.

Both these bills demand greater accountability from a department that, for many years, has been unwilling to enforce even basic AWA standards for animal care. Moulton and Gingerich are simply the latest well-publicized egregious examples. If the USDA continues to neglect its responsibilities, then the only way to adequately protect nonhuman animals may just be for Congress to empower another federal agency to safeguard animal welfare.

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Nancy Blaney is the director of government affairs at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.


Take action…

The show must not go on: Circuses like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (above, in Tampa, Florida, in 2010), have long been guilty of violating the Animal Welfare Act. In 2022, Ringling Brothers said that their new revamped show will no longer feature any animals. (Photo credit: Cindy Schultz/Flickr)

“For too long, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has failed the animals Congress intended to protect under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). In fact, it appears that oftentimes the department is more interested in helping the licensed or registered operation than it is in helping the animals. Lackluster enforcement, combined with loopholes, has resulted in egregious animal abuse by puppy mills, roadside zoos, circuses, and others,” writes the Animal Welfare Institute, a nonprofit animal welfare group that has repeatedly documented governmental failures to enforce the AWA. “[I]t is only thanks to annual instructions from Congress that certain dealers are no longer able to supply pets to laboratories.”

Urge Congress to make the USDA enforce the Animal Welfare Act.


ICYMI…

Targeted: A long-tailed macaque netted by the “Team Monkey,” the author’s research crew in Cambodia. He was sedated and blood, feces and saliva samples were collected by the team as part of a project to look at how infectious diseases move between humans and monkeys. He was then allowed to wake up and was released back into the forest to rejoin his troop. If he had been trapped for use in biomedical research he would never again see the forest, family or friends. (Photo credit: Lynn Johnson)

Experimenting on Monkeys is Cruel … Keeping Them is a Threat to Public Health

By Lisa Jones-Engel

[Macaque] monkeys have been relentlessly trapped in urban and semi-urban areas. They’ve been grabbed as their sleeping trees were cut down and netted as they tried to swim away. Entire troops have been captured after being isolated in the one tree that remained in a crop field. Untold numbers of adult macaques have been beaten to death as they tried desperately to hold onto their infants or protect their friends while they were being captured to be used for experimentation. More deaths followed as they were stuffed into rice sacks, wire bags or wooden boxes after they were captured.

The 1.5 million macaques exported were the “survivors” of this ordeal. The actual number of macaques extracted from Asia and Mauritius is much larger; captive-born and wild-born macaques form the “breeding stock” on the “monkey farms” of Asia and Mauritius. The stress of capture, the horrific conditions in which the macaques are kept in after their capture, and the exposure to pathogens while in captivity have led to many of them dying from disease. These monkeys are then “replaced” with more wild-caught macaques. ​​​​​…

Pause for a moment and consider the magnitude and cost of this monkey madness: In January, the disaster involving the truck transporting monkeys took place in Danville, next month, it could be in your community. No one is safe—the monkeys are on the move the moment they arrive in the United States. Packed into small wooden crates, separated from their family and friends, they’re terrified, cold and hungry. In this vulnerable and stressed condition, they are likely immunocompromised, which increases the risk that they will shed pathogens that can cause diseases in humans. Even the experimenters themselves have acknowledged that the large colonies of monkeys at their facilities—in places such as Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina  and California—are a threat to public health.

[Read the full article…]


Parting thought…

Unlawful imprisonment: With five dexterous toes on each of their front paws, raccoons have very human-like “hands.” They are also incredibly smart. On the mammal IQ scale, raccoons have higher IQs than cats and score just below monkeys. (Photo credit: xazzz/Flickr)

“We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.” —William Ralph Inge


Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

Click here to support the work of EFL and the Independent Media Institute.

Questions, comments, suggestions, submissions? Contact EFL editor Reynard Loki at [email protected]. Follow EFL on Twitter @EarthFoodLife.

The Plastics Paradox Facing Humanity

Necessary evil: Plastics are used to fabricate a wide array of tools and devices used by the medical, health and laboratory industries, including surgical gloves, syringes, insulin pens, IV tubes, catheters, inflatable splits and other products made to be used only once to prevent contamination and the spread of disease. (Photo credit: Fernando Vega/Flickr)

Properly addressing the plastics problem involves not only interrogating corporate tactics but also understanding that some plastics provide societal benefits.

By Alice Mah, Independent Media Institute

6 min read

Over the past few years, the paradox of plastic as both a miracle for and a menace to society has become a platitude. There are countless stories in the media and popular culture about our fraught relationship with plastic, focusing on our addiction and dependence. However, this way of framing the problem actually serves to perpetuate it. Plastics are plural. There are tens of thousands of plastics, each with different physical properties, including not only flexibility or durability, but also toxicity. By lumping plastics together into a singular entity with both beneficial and harmful features, the double-sided narrative assumes that the two sides can never be separated. By blaming us all for our dependence on plastic, questions of corporate responsibility and unequal toxic risks are avoided. Ultimately, the paradox of plastic conveys a sense of inescapability that the industry can tap into.

“Let’s talk realistically about plastic” is the title of a campaign launched in October 2020 by the Danish Plastics Federation, featuring short videos with plastic reality-check messages: “Without plastic… cars would use more fuel”; “No plastic… no bike helmet.” The punchline: “Frankly, we need plastic where it makes sense. But a world without… creates more problems than it solves.” The U.S.-based Plastics Industry Association regularly tweets and blogs similar messages. For example, one blog post decried the public’s “knee-jerk reaction” of proposing plastic bans and substitutions to deal with plastic litter as “overly simplistic,” “outlandish,” and “impractical… like when a child proposes that the solution to global warming is eliminating cars.”

While this line of argument is “overly simplistic” itself, the industry is right in some ways. Plastic cannot be separated neatly into different piles of societal value: essential versus wasteful, or desirable versus toxic. Many plastics are indeed essential for health and safety, transport, and connectivity, yet are also toxic and wasteful. There are no easy solutions to such a complex problem. However, we can stop the plastics crisis from spiraling even further out of control. Many plastic products can and should be banned or substituted to protect health, the environment, and the climate. Policymakers, researchers, and activists have rightly focused on the need to eliminate or substitute the production of toxic plastic products (to protect health), single-use plastics (to stop the plastic waste crisis), and virgin (fossil fuel-based) plastics (to address the climate crisis). There are many barriers and dilemmas involved in such proposals, but reducing harmful plastics production is not an unrealistic goal. On the contrary, it is both possible and necessary. An important start is to interrogate corporate half-truths as well as untruths.

The industry’s “realistic versus impractical” narrative is a pragmatic twist on a related narrative that has long been popular with the industry: “reality versus fiction,” used to make truth claims about the benefits and nontoxicity of plastics. Since the beginning of the plastic age, the industry has tirelessly promoted the essential and desirable characteristics of plastic products, while denying their harmful effects. The discovery of synthetic plastics more than a century ago was seen as miraculous, saving animals by replacing ivory and tortoiseshell, and natural resources by replacing wood, silk, and glass. More importantly for a capitalist system, plastics were cheap. After World War II, new plastic household products entered the market, fostering the growth of mass consumer society. Steadfastly, the industry extended its reach into other markets, to building materials, shopping bags, medical equipment, toys, electronics, water bottles, and food packaging. People were sold not only plastics but also the idea of disposability.

Yet the public has never been fully sold on plastics. From the start, labor, consumer, and environmental groups have questioned the production and use of plastics. In fact, the petrochemical and plastics industries have often been accused of using the playbook from Big Tobacco by manufacturing doubt and uncertainty about the hazards of their products. I wish that I could say that these accusations are exaggerated, or oversimplify a more complicated situation, but if anything, they are understated. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the American and European petrochemical industries conspired to conceal scientific links between vinyl chloride, cancer, and other illnesses, in order to protect their markets. The news about vinyl chloride and cancer broke in 1974, leading to public alarm and swift regulations, but it took decades for researchers and lawyers to expose the corporate lies and cover-ups. Meanwhile, the plastics industry learned how to anticipate regulations, refining its “deceit and denial” tactics in later controversies over carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting plastics.

Beyond high-stakes battles over truth, corporations often ignore issues of toxicity altogether, especially given that the burden of proof for harm rests on communities, not corporations. In spite of decades of environmental justice struggles around the world, toxic hazards from plastics remain disproportionately located in minority, low-income, and working-class communities. In Canada, my home country, the Indigenous Aamjiwnaang First Nation is located next to a number of toxic polluting petrochemical plants in “Chemical Valley” in Sarnia, Ontario, and local residents have reported a number of illnesses. This parallels the infamous case of “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, an 85-mile stretch of former plantation land along the Mississippi River with a high concentration of petrochemical facilities and oil refineries situated in close proximity to rural Black residential communities. Indeed, around the world there are hundreds of “cancer villages” and cancer clusters related to plastics production, incineration, and disposal. Some corporations have been held to account for negligent toxic waste, and air quality regulations have been introduced in many places, but most companies have continued with business as usual. Despite the risks and negative social and environmental impacts, corporations across the plastics value chain will deploy whatever tactics they can in order to create, protect, and expand plastics markets.

This excerpt is adapted from Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations Are Fuelling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It by Alice Mah (Polity Books, 2022) and was edited and produced for the web by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Alice Mah is a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick.


Take action…

Amazon fail: All of this plastic was used to pack a single bread knife. (Photo credit: Kari Sullivan/Flickr)

Amazon is polluting the planet with its overuse of plastic packaging

A 2021 report by Oceana investigated Amazon’s use of plastic and found that “up to 23.5 million pounds of the company’s plastic packaging polluted the world’s waterways and oceans in 2020.” The report also found that the company’s “recycling promises do not help to reduce plastic pollution.”

“Our report found that Amazon’s plastic packaging pollution problem is growing at a frightening rate at a time when the oceans need corporate leaders like Amazon to step up and meaningfully commit to reducing their use of single-use plastic. Amazon has shown it can do this in large markets like India and Germany,” said Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives. “It now needs to commit to do so worldwide.”

Urge Amazon to stop using plastic packaging.


From the EFL archives…

Catching plastic: There are nearly 40,000 commercial fishermen in the United States, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The fish they catch are increasingly contaminated by microplastic. (Photo credit: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

Microplastics are contaminating the global seafood supply, but major news outlets are silent

By Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff​​​

According to a pair of recent scientific studies, microplastics and a class of toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS) are becoming increasingly prevalent in the world’s oceans and have begun to contaminate the global seafood supply.

According to a July 2020 study published in the scholarly journal Environmental Science and Technology, PFAS—a family of potentially harmful chemicals used in a range of products, including carpets, furniture, clothing, food packaging, and nonstick coatings—have now been found in the Arctic Ocean. This discovery worries scientists because it means that PFAS can reach any body of water in the world and that such chemicals are likely present in water supplies across the globe.

Meanwhile, researchers at the QUEX Institute, a partnership between the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and the University of Queensland in Australia, have found microplastics in crabs, oysters, prawns, squid, and sardines sold as seafood in Australian markets, findings that were also first published in Environmental Science and Technology. As Robby Berman reported for Medical News Today in August 2020, the second study’s findings suggest that microplastics—small pieces of plastic “less than 5 millimeters in length, which is about the size of a sesame seed”—that are a consequence of plastic pollution have “invaded the food chain to a greater extent than previously documented.”

[Read the full article…]


Parting thought…

Screenshot via Oceana/YouTube

“There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.” —Annie Leonard


Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture and nature/animal rights, and champions action; specifically, how responsible citizens, voters and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

Click here to support the work of EFL and the Independent Media Institute.

Questions, comments, suggestions, submissions? Contact EFL editor Reynard Loki at [email protected]. Follow EFL on Twitter @EarthFoodLife.