Results tagged “environment” from PlanetGreen.org

Edward I: Environmentalist by Accident

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Edward I.jpgEdward the First, the fifth Plantagenet king of England, is famous for clobbering the Scottish and Welsh armies, getting clobbered by the French, banishing the Jews, going Crusading, taxing everybody he could get his hands on, and performing other violent acts.

Tall for the times at 6'2", Edward had a terrible temper. When his son requested an earldom for his friend, the king tore out fistfuls of the boy's hair. When the Dean of St. Paul's entered the throne-room, mustering his nerve to discuss lowering taxes, he was supposedly killed on the spot by the mere sight of the king.

Is it feasible that this ferocious king, represented in medieval allegory not as the "noble" lion but as the "powerful" and "volatile" leopard, had a good side? It's possible. He maintained a good relationship with his parents, and loved his own wife and children. At fourteen, young Prince Edward married Eleanor of Castile, who was about the same age. Unusually, they were dedicated to each other; Edward didn't have affairs, and he didn't lock Eleanor up in a tower! When Eleanor died after thirty-six years of marriage, Edward was devastated, and built Eleanor Crosses wherever the funereal procession stopped. (His second marriage, to the young Margaret of France, also turned out well, despite their fifty-four-year age difference.)

Yet less well known is the fact that if Edward had had his way, coal pollution would never have been an issue.

Coal was so abundant on England's northeast coast that it was collected in wheelbarrows. People could even pick it up on the beach! It had been used since prehistoric times -- in the Bronze Ages, Welsh funeral pyres were fired by coal -- but when the Romans conquered "Britannia," they fell in love with the fuel.  At first, they thought it was very pretty, and fashioned it into ornaments for themselves. They called it gagate; this word would evolve into "jet," a dense variant of coal still used in making jewelry. (However, the Roman artisans often mixed up the higher quality jet with ordinary coal.) They also popularized burning it. After the Romans had cleared out, the Britons forgot about coal and resorted to wood. The early historian, St. Bede, describing the abundant "jet," didn't mention that it was used for heat, but observed that the smoke kept snakes away.

At any rate, until the 12th century, everybody in London burned wood. Soon, however, London began to grow, and the forests dwindled. Wood became expensive and rare. Instead, the Londoners decided to try the cheaper, easily-obtained coal. There was only one problem. Burning wood produced some smoke, but a lot of heat. Burning sea-coal produced a little heat, but a lot of sulfurous smoke. Nevertheless, instead of thinking of a better solution, everyone decided to burn more coal. The thick smoke combined with the natural fog and hung over the city for days.

In 1306, Edward, instigated by a group of prominent noblemen and clerics, passed legislation banning the burning of sea-coal. The king's mother, Eleanor of Provence, had gotten so sick from the smoke surrounding Nottingham Castle that she had had to flee the town. (Edward I's great-grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had had a similar experience with the burning wood around Tutbury Castle.)

Despite the king's commands, the law was disregarded. The poor didn't have the money to buy wood and there weren't any other alternatives. Edward altered his bill. Now, first-time offenders were subject to immense fines. If they were caught a second time, their furnaces were destroyed. Unfortunately, this didn't work either. The atmosphere was getting tense. Edward altered his bill again. This time, a death penalty was installed for burning coal. One person was seized and executed. But everybody kept on burning coal. Edward couldn't execute his whole kingdom. Besides, even if he could have, then he wouldn't have had anybody to tax or beat up, so what's the point of that? Consequently, the law was ignored, although Edward II, Edward I's successor, tortured a few people who were unable to meet its terms. Astoundingly, that didn't help.

princess elizabeth.jpgSubsequently, others tried to exterminate the burning of coal, including the kings Richard II and Henry V, whose palace at Westminster was permeated by the odor. By the time Queen Elizabeth acceded to the throne, the situation was worse than ever. Short beds, which forced sleepers to sit up, were popular, as people had difficulties breathing if they lay down. The queen was reported to be "greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea- coales," and tried to get it banned, at least while Parliament was in session.

Later, in 1661, a prominent Cavalier named John Evelyn was asked by Charles II (whose palace at Whitehall was getting all the fumes from a nearby duke's residence) to write a book against coal. He complied, and the result was Fumifugium: or, The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated, Together with some Remedies humbly proposed by J. E. Esq., to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now Assembled. The title "Fumifugium" was compounded of two Latin words, fumus, meaning "smoke," and fugit, "to escape or get  away from." (It's actually pretty terrible Latin, just for the record.)

John Evelyn.jpgEvelyn's book was one of the first comprehensive studies of the dangers of coal burning, and one of the earliest to discuss air pollution. (It also blamed the English Civil Wars on bad air caused by coal fires, not on any political issues!) Not only did it berate the smell of the smoke, it also attacked it as being unhealthy and aesthetically unpleasing. Evelyn wrote that the fumes were

"...so universally mixed with that otherwise wholesome and excellent Aer, that her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist, accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the Lungs, and disordering the entire habit of their Bodies; so that Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions, rage more in this one City, than in the whole Earth besides."

He also complained that "Whilst these [the "Chimnies of London"] are belching it forth their sooty jaws, the City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Ætna, the Court of Vulcan, [or] Stromboli, ... than an Assembly of Rational Creatures, and the Imperial feat of our incomparable Monarch," adding that the black particles in the smoke ruined the facades of palaces, churches, and houses. Evelyn goes on to say that it killed birds and insects and blighted flowers and fruit trees. He adds that travelers could smell the city long before they could see it.

Evelyn did not advocate the prohibiting of coal-burning; he merely said that trades, such as brewing, dyeing, lime-burning, which put out a significant amount of smoke should be relocated to where the soot would not affect the city. He also proposed moving other noxious businesses, such as butchers and chandlers, out as well. To promote cleanliness, no burials should be permitted in churches or even within the city walls. Not even this approach, however, gained much support.

James Watt.jpgThe Industrial Revolution effectively destroyed any hopes of outlawing this pernicious fuel, as it was considered indispensable to development. Anyone who was opposed to coal was opposed to progress. Factories relied on it to fire their huge furnaces. It heated workers' homes. Worst of all, it provided the steam for James Watt's new steam engine. Getting rid of it was impossible. In fact, coal usage in Great Britain multiplied by 100 between 1800 and 1900.

The coal-produced smog, called "fog" by the Londoners, was familiar to people such as Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Darwin, James Russell Lowell (who was proud to have survived the smoke), Arthur Conan Doyle, Heinrich Heine, and Thomas Carlyle, who called it "fluid ink." Finally, in 1956, four years after a four-day "fog" killed approximately 4,000 people, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act, which reduced coal burning to a large extent.

To this day, coal continues to be one of the worst energy sources on the planet. It is the largest contributor to man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The difference that the success of Edward I's 1306 law would have caused is unfathomable. Even though he was a terrifying warrior and sometimes a cruel king, ironically he deserves to be remembered as one of the earliest environmentalists.

Florida Backyard Birding

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pterydactyl.jpg    On vacation in Florida, we saw a surprising variety of wild birds. There were ospreys, great and little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, white ibises, limpkins, bald eagles, moorhens, coots, vultures abounding, sandhill cranes, and all varieties of egret -- great, snowy, and cattle.

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    Many of our opportunities occurred close to home, like the pier in Venice, which hosted several anhingas and pelicans. One pelican appeared to have a hurt wing, so we rang the local Save Our Seabirds. They took the pelican and we saw him again (looking better but still favoring his hurt wing) in the Sarasota branch.There was also a church very near to our house with a cross atop it which adornment was the favorite haunt of a bald eagle who evidently hadn't been acquainted with the separation of church and state yet. At the nearby Myakka State Park we saw a stray flamingo flying overhead, along with many roseate spoonbills and some black-crowned night herons as well. Magnificent frigatebirds are rare, but we saw them flying overhead twice (they can be easily identified by their throat pouches, while are still conspicuous when not inflated). The crested caracara is harder to identify, but it flew over occasionally.
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  But best of all was the lake back of our house. Almost every evening we would hear our resident pair of sandhill cranes "chortling" across the lake and then flying off to roost. But one day they began to build a nest in a clump of reeds opposite us -- tweaking the grasses with their bills and inquisitively sitting on it. Then, one morning, we found them incubating their eggs, and they never flew away at night again. One chick hatched about a month later, and was quickly nicknamed "Junior." He was at first inside the nest for the most part, but then he gradually began to walk about the lake with his two parents, as viewed with our binoculars. As he grew his appearance changed from that of a small downy chick to a small tawny bird the size of a chicken, with inordinately long legs. One day we decided to go across the lake for a close-up view of the cranes, and we walked across the subdivision to the nest site. They were calmly feeding there, and they showed no signs of being afraid of us. Junior kept running from one of his parents to the other to be fed on the grubs they were digging from the ground, and now and then one of the parents would rise for a moment to see if they detected any intruders, and then resume foraging. The chick gradually grew until his fledging stage arrived -- we would see the two parents walking along the lake and flapping their wings, and Junior following, anxious to keep up with Mom and Dad. By the end, Junior was larger than his mother, and only lacked a red cap to resemble his parents almost precisely.
   The little blue herons and the white ibis seemed to get along relatively well with each other -- we'd see them making rounds across the pond, filing one by one and digging in the Great Blue Heron.jpgpond bed and grass slopes on the bank. Their heads would bob comically up and down. The ibis typically walked much faster than the herons, however, so they would generally end up at least twenty yards away. Juvenile white little blue herons would also sometimes be seen. Little and Great Blue Herons (the latter could sometimes be seen feeding on the lake, occasionally the Wurdemann's or Great White varieties) both flew with their necks bunched up in a comical fashion. Limpkins are relatively rare; they only showed themselves a few times at our pond. They would generally stand near the bank with the herons and ibises.
    Wood storks would sometimes land on the other side of the pond in the late afternoon to feed, and occasionally roost in the tall pines (very seldom, on our side of the pond), but most of the time they would fly off. Also, sometimes we would see a mysterious phenomenon; a group of birds would be flying in the distance, and then they would disappear, often when they went in front of a cloud. We then discovered it was the wood storks flying, and tilting themselves midair until we could not see the black bottoms of their wings.
    Ospreys and eagles frequented a large tree just to the left of our house, and you would sometimes see the ospreys diving for fish, flapping, hovering -- then diving. A juvenile eagle and his parent would sometimes be seen in the tree, attempting to establish authority over a raven that persisted in irritating them. There were regular battles for supremacy (in the bird world, that's the higher branch).
    We also had a chance to view the lives of moorhens, coots, and ducks in detail. In the small-bird world, there was a mockingbird pair who built a nest in our shrub, but theirs was a fussy baby who emitted regular sounds almost like a timer beep when hungry (and sometimes just as irritating). We never got to see much of the chick, who was hidden away in the foliage, but we saw the two parents entering the shrub with food and singing their melodious songs.

Good luck birdwatching and always remember these tips:
-Never get too close to a bird that it might become nervous
-Never at any time litter: a bird might learn to feed in developed places and be run over.
-If you see a hurt bird, always call the nearest wildlife rescue center. Never touch the bird, however.
-Be extra respectful of a bird with a nest.

Less Fog Means Withering Redwoods?

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rdwd1.jpgBesides the obvious issues that global warming introduces, like the melting of the polar icecaps or the rising ocean levels, issues affecting smaller areas are still disastrous. They are determining the future of our everyday lives and the land set aside permanently as national parks. According to a recent National Geographic news article, redwood trees, the world's tallest living things, may go extinct. We might have seen them just in time.

When we were staying in CA, sometimes we would be driving in at night. We lived about 45 minutes away from the beach, so the fog would drift in over the road and make it nearly impossible to see. We would cross over Golden Gate Bridge and look down at the gently rolling mists. While they made it harder to drive, they were also essential to the survival of these botanical giants.

The clouds kept the conifers moist, at exactly the climate they required. A hundred years ago, there was no threat from global warming. A university study said that there has been a 33 percent reduction in the amount of coastal fog produced today when compared to the data from a century ago.

The redwoods only live in the humid areas near the coast, where the fog keeps them watered. Because they have adapted to this ecosystem, they cannot live long in a drought by shutting down their systems to conserve water, as other desert plants do. This means that if there is nothing that can be done, the redwoods may dry out and wither. Some other species of tree, however, can adjust to living with less fog by not growing as quickly as they do in years when water is plentiful.

We went to Humboldt State Park on a mostly overcast, cold day. Logging had thinned many of the forests; the largest existing piece of hewn redwood, made into one person's RV, is on display at the park's visitor center. Early environmentalists had preserved large groves, which have been turned into state parks. To this day, the groves bear names like "Founders Grove," or "Rockefeller's Grove," after these early conservationists.

The tallest tree blew over in a storm a few years before and became a "nurse log." Nurse logs are decaying trees that provide the necessary nutrients for other plants to grow. Saplings, fungi, ferns, and lichen are common plants that sprout from the reddish-brown bark. Insects, like beetles and ants, live in the log's crevices. In places humid enough, these are also home to banana slugs and snails.

As well as being an impressive species themselves, these trees are essential to many other kinds of life. The terrible fact that they are in danger means that if they do not live, their ecosystem will be seriously disrupted. This issue is another reminder that the choices we make in our everyday lives do have consequences and therefore we need to decide to do everything in a manner that will not harm the planet. The fate of these giants is uncertain, the fate even of our planet is uncertain, and it's our actions that will determine it.

Legal Yet Unlawful: Wolf Hunting Begins in Montana

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Wolves in Montana and Idaho aren't going to remain there very long. They have been taken off of the Endangered Species list, and it is now legal to kill them. On September 1, the first wolf (in Idaho) was killed. Today, Montana's wolf hunting season officially opens. Last year, there were 39 pairs of breeding wolves in Idaho, while Montana only supported 34. But that's only 146 wolves, and although the younger ones aren't included, that is not nearly enough. Idaho is allowing 255 wolves to be killed, and Montana 75. According to Earthjustice, an environmental site that reported on this issue, "...the Fish and Wildlife Service authorized Idaho and Montana to reduce their wolf populations from a current population of roughly 1,500 wolves to only 200-300 wolves in the two states."  Earthjustice went to court to reverse the wolf hunting policy and, although the court agreed that taking them off of the Endangered Species list was unlawful, they would not stop it.

But more wolves than that will be killed. Farmers also kill wolves because they are supposedly interfering with their livestock, or because they are merely on their land. In Idaho, there is no limit to how many wolves farmers can kill because of their animals. In the state of Oregon, they had three pairs of wolves. But one pair got into trouble because farmers were upset because the wolves had killed some of their livestock. So they tried putting up fences, but the farmers still viewed them as threats. The wolves were killed, and now Oregon has only two pairs of wolves. The 330 wolves legally permitted to be killed are not including those totals, nor are they counting the wolves that will die naturally. Taking them off of the Endangered Species list would have been terrible, but allowing them to be killed will put them right back on it. It is yet another tragedy which conservationists are trying to stop, but wolves are already dying. Soon it will be too late for the recovery of this disappearing species.

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