Hi. My name is Zack Turner. I’m starting a new weekly series, This Week Outside, which features a round-up of climate and environmental news from the past week. Since this is the first entry in the series, let me tell you a little about myself.
The world feels like it’s ending, albeit slowly. While there are some days when I wish it would end a little quicker, I mostly try to preserve our planet and the myriad species that inhabit it. Everything from the spider that’s doing the Lord’s work eating gnats, flies, and mosquitos in your ceiling corner to the verbose puppy you’ll never find the time (or energy) to train — they’re all worth cherishing while they’re here.
Unfortunately, we — humans, resident terrorist species of the planet — have a primarily antagonistic relationship with nature. We consume more than we replenish, we waste what we take, and we throw our garbage into the environment as if Earth was the sidewalk next to your apartment’s trash compactor. That the world is ending is the natural consequence of a wrestling match our species has been waging since the industrial revolution. Congratulations, humans, you pinned a planet.
In the meantime, there are acts of rebellion we can partake in. The very least of which, and the reason you’re reading me now, is staying informed. I hope by reading this, you will feel less susceptible to the long con that “everything is going to be fine” or, even worse, “there’s nothing we can do; it’s too late.” In my casual analysis, I will try my best to shift the focus from the individual to the systems that are responsible for this slow creep of imminent doom. I will not exonerate through ambiguity the wardens of our fate we are rebelling against.
So, who am I and why am I writing you? In short, I am a human who enjoys playing music, writing stories, and spending time in the woods. I grew up on a beautiful, swampy parcel of land in New Hill, North Carolina. For over two decades, I have watched pine trees fall and give way to neighborhoods I might never afford to join. Otherwise, I’m just another animal who happens to write and read a lot of news, whatever that means.
DISCLAIMER: This is by no means an exhaustive list of the week’s environment and climate news. There is always so much more out there to learn.
Don’t Feed the COVID-Infested Deer
If you have not read David Quammen’s Spillover, I encourage you to do so. Besides being an excellent read, the book provides prescient coverage of diseases that originate in animals and spread to humans in a process called spillover.
The transmission of disease from animal to human is a two-way street. Illnesses can jump from monkey to mosquito to human, as malaria does, and back again. This species-hopping makes the disease almost impossible to eradicate. For viruses, spilling over into a new species gives them more time to mutate and evolve before returning to wreak havoc.
Research suggests that a spillover event in the Huanan market in Wuhan, China, caused the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re all familiar with how that story played out across the world, but now COVID-19 appears to be preparing for the next phase in its successful career as a global pandemic. Scientists are swabbing North Carolina deer for COVID, and they have received six positive results.
North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission is still processing the samples, so it is too early to say conclusively if the deer have COVID. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed infections in 13 other states.
What this means for COVID is unclear, but it does serve as a reminder: Spillover events increase when the barriers between people and wild spaces break down. When we push animals out of their native habitats, we open ourselves up to new catastrophic pathogens. Ultimately, the story of COVID is also the story of climate change.
Fossil Fuels Have Feelings, Too
Omicron wasn’t the only outbreak to sweep the country this winter. Kate Aronoff, of The New Republic, noticed a wave of anti-climate legislation that is sweeping the lower 48. Republican lawmakers have latched on to a template for legislation that “punishes financial institutions for divesting from or choosing not to invest in fossil fuels,” despite no evidence that banks are moving to greener pastures.
One of my favorite things, after raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, is when state and federal governments treat corporations better than people. That’s why I adore the title of this model legislation, “The Energy Discrimination Elimination Act.”
State officials would enact this policy by monitoring the portfolios of financial institutions and inquiring about any suspicious moves away from oil and gas companies. If they suspect the bank is — ahem — discriminating against a company on the basis of them fucking up the environment beyond repair, then states are required to pull money from those institutions.
So far, the only state to enact such a bill is — wanna guess? — Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott signed S.B. 13 into law last June. Utah, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and West Virginia have introduced similar bills.
It’s enough to make you wish republicans really did support a freer market.
Read “Republicans Respond to World-Historical Drought by Propping Up Fossil Fuels” by Kate Aronoff.
Maybe it’s not surprising that some of the biggest names in conservation were racist assholes. While John Muir was hiking through the valleys of the American West, waxing poetic about the “heart of the wilderness,” he also enjoyed disparaging the original stewards of these lands, the Native Americans.
In last week’s episode of Citations Needed, a podcast on “media, power, PR and the history of bullshit,” hosts Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi draw a line from Muir and John Audubon, through eugenics and the gatekeeping of pristine natural spaces via the national park system, to modern-day conservationism and its emphasis on preserving land at the expense of indigenous people.
We see a similar story today in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ruth Maclean wrote “What do the Protectors of Congo’s Peatlands get in Return?” for the New York Times, featuring Nanna Heitmann’s stunning photography.
The article zeroes in on a conflict between two neighboring villages in the Congolese rainforest. Researchers traveled to Lokolama, one of the two villages, to study a special type of mud, called peat, that stored carbon more efficiently than, say, regular mud. These researchers flew in from across the globe to petition the Congolese people to do what their countries would never dream of doing: stop developing.
The people of Lokolama agreed. They even ceased hunting, fishing, and gathering food from the bog where the peat lay. But as time went on, they began to wonder if they made the right choice.
“It was perhaps understandable that the people of Lokolama,” writes Maclean, “the bearers of oral histories about exploitation across generations, would be suspicious of the motives of foreigners.” The villagers began to suspect that the researchers were secretly mining a precious resource from the bog, though what that resource might be, they did not know.
Of course, the researchers are taking something. Parachute science, a hallmark of neo-colonialism, relies on researchers extracting information from a developing country and leaving without materially benefiting the indigenous population. The practice also plagues journalism, and Maclean’s reporting walks that line.
Listen to “Episode 155: How the American Settler-Colonial Project Shaped Popular Notions of ‘Conservation” by Citations Needed.
Thank you for reading the first installment of This Week Outside. Let me know in the comments what you think! You can also reach me via Twitter or email if you have article suggestions or feedback about the series. I would love to hear from you!