Thursday, July 27, 2006

Women Rising VIII: International Changemakers

Women are gaining influence as leaders throughout the world, fighting for peace, justice, the environment and civil society.

Listen to the program here

Clockwise from upper left: Anne Kajir,
Olya Melen, Dana Rassas and Ilana Meallam.

On this edition, we profile four courageous young ecology activists, going to court for environmental justice and leading regional cooperation to rescue precious natural resources and indigenous cultures. Anne Kajir is an indigenous lawyer fighting for the rainforest and the people of Papua New Guinea. Olya Melen is a Ukrainian lawyer who stopped her government from destroying the Danube Delta. Dana Rassas is a Palestinian activist on trans-boundary water policy issues in the Middle East. Ilana Meallam is an Israeli advocate for the indigenous Bedouin people of the Middle East.


Anne Kajir, Papua New Guinea indigenous lawyer and Goldman Environmental Prize recipient; Olya Melen, Ukrainian lawyer and Goldman Environmental Prize recipient; Dana Rassas, Palestinian activist; Ilana Meallam, Israeli advocate.

Host: Sandina Robbins
Producer/Writer:Lynn Feinerman
Mixing Engineer:Stephanie Welch

For more information:

Contact info for Ilana Meallem and Dana Rassas:

  • In Israel: The Arava Institute for Environmental StudiesKibbutz Ketura D.N. Hevel Eilot 88840 ISRAEL972-8-6356618; fax 972-8-6356634
  • In the U.S.: The Arava Institute North America293 Barnumville RoadManchester Center, VT 052551-866-31-ARAVA;

by NRP The National Radio Project
Greener Magazine

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Cat Trap Stops House Cat Predation of Birds and Small Animals

adult bullfrog

Over the years, we've put up with three neighborhood cats hunting in our yard. The cat next door cleaned all the bullfrogs out of our little pond, one by one. They were big frogs, 6 or 7 inches long not counting their legs. I loved the sound of their croaks on summer evenings. We live on a quarter-acre lot in suburbia, but the frogs migrated in to the pond on their own. We were so happy to have them. When they croaked, I could shut my eyes and pretend to be in the country. I loved them.

I had "trained" one of the bullfrogs to snatch crickets out of my hand. I started by tossing a cricket from the yard onto the surface of the pond. The frog would launch himself from his rock with his mouth wide open, engulfing the cricket as he hit the water. Gradually I began tossing the cricket closer to myself. Then I just held onto the cricket at water level, and the frog would jump and grab it while I still held it. Eventually, as I held it higher, he learned to leap a foot or more from the water and snatch it from my hand. Frogs have rudimentary teeth in the roof of their mouth - his "teeth" would rake the top of my fingers, but it didn't really hurt. I loved that old frog. I was only able to train one, the others were too timid.

I often saw the white cat from next door crouched by the pond, watching the frogs. I hoped the frogs were safe since they mostly sat on rocks surrounded by water. But they weren't safe. One day I found the chewed up remains of one of the frogs in the yard. Just the legs were left. After that, the white cat was on the prowl around the clock until all the frogs were gone. Even my cricket-eating frog. I was so mad!

Then the neighbors across the street got two Siamese cats. The slinky cats were only occasional visitors until fairly recently. The wildlife has been increasing on our street, I don't know why. More neighbors have gotten birdfeeders - that's part of it. Birdfeeders support small mammal populations too, who eat the seed that falls out. Our bird list for our end of our street is 109 species, not bad for a suburban land-locked area with no extensive woods nearby. We have a lot of rabbits, eastern chipmunks, gray squirrels, short-tailed shrews, and cotton rats in the yards on our end of the street. We have hawks and owls too, and it's fine with me if they eat all the wildlife they want. They're native predators and they were here before we were. Unlike the house cats.

A few months ago, the Siamese cats became a daily fixture in our yard. I work at a desk in the front bay window that faces out over the lawn. I spotted the cats stalking chipmunks and baby birds in the front yard this spring - which always sent me blasting out the door after them, a couple of times chasing the cats back home in my pajamas. More than once I banged on the neighbors' door to protest.

But finally I asked the cat owners if I could talk to them in a calm moment. We've had cordial relations with them for years, if not cozy. I printed out a bunch of articles to take with me and met them on their front steps. As I described in a May 13 post, I started by telling them about an article from HSUS, the Humane Society, about dangers for free-roaming cats. HSUS' most compelling point is that free-roaming cats have an average life span of less than three years, compared to 15-18 years for indoor-only cats. Most roamers are killed by cars. Two-thirds of vets recommend keeping cats indoors at all times.

I also printed out for the neighbors a document from the American Bird Conservancy called "Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats." It's a really interesting paper full of cat stats, such as:

35% of cat owners keep their cats indoors all the time
53% of cat owners are concerned about cat predation
64% of survey respondents believe putting bells on cats keeps them from killing (untrue)
70% of respondents believe cats should be regulated to prevent roaming

I gave my neighbors these printouts, then I cut to the chase - the wildlife issue. Songbirds in the U.S. are threatened by the growing human population in lots of different ways. The most serious threat is habitat loss. Second is collision with windows. And third is predation by house cats. A recent Wisconsin study cited by the US Fish & Wildlife Service estimated that house cats kill more than 39 million birds every year in Wisconsin alone. Nationwide estimates are as high as a billion songbirds per year killed by domestic cats.

Lots of people will say that cats killing prey is "just Mother Nature." But there's nothing natural about house cat predation. They're not native to the U.S., for one thing. They're an introduced species, like kudzu or pigeons. The European colonists brought them here and they're increasing like crazy in the U.S. - from 30 million in 1970 to 60 million in 1990 (according to a University of Maine paper).

Most people don't make the distinction between house cats and native predators like hawks, owls, bobcats, foxes, weasels, etc. Populations of native predators are in balance with their prey. If prey numbers decrease, then predator populations decrease too, giving the prey population a chance to rebound. Plus, wild predator populations struggle with other challenges, such as parasites, disease, harsh winters. They’re not always in prime condition, not always efficient at catching prey. They may be able to catch only the sick, the weak, the old, the very young.

House cats operate totally outside of that balance of nature, because they're sustained artificially by their owners. They’re usually well fed, in good health. They’re very efficient predators, able to easily catch small mammals and birds in prime breeding condition. Being well-fed does not diminish cats’ hunting instinct – hunger and hunting are controlled by different parts of the brain. Not only that, but domestic cats prowl in much higher densities than natural predators. There might be a single Great Horned Owl in 10 square miles, but there’s a healthy house cat in every third house.

So back to the neighbors. I laid out my arguments in as brief and friendly a manner as I could, and gave them the articles. "So what is it you want us to do?" asked the wife of the family politely. “I’m asking you to keep the cats out of our yard,” I said, as nicely as possible. "We can't do that," she said. She explained that the cats have been outside for years, and they like it outside. I knew that. But I had said my thing, it was time to give it a rest. So I thanked them for listening to me and, leaving my articles behind, I walked back across the street, back home.

After our talk, the kitties' tours of the neighborhood and the wildlife killings continued unabated. A talk with five other neighbors revealed that other people on the street objected to the cats' marauding habits too.

So I called Animal Control and the county Conservation Science office. Both county offices said they would bring me a live cat trap. Animal Control said if I caught one of the cats, they would come pick it up and take it away, and the neighbors could retrieve it unharmed. So I had a trap delivered, for free. The cat-owning neighbors saw the trap being delivered. They were not happy about it, and came over to tell us so. But it had its effect. I never actually set the trap. Rather I left it in the yard for a few days. I also took every opportunity to chase the cats noisily out of the yard, slamming the door on my way out to startle them.

A couple of weeks after our first conversation, I noticed that the neighbors had put bells on the kitties' collars. I know bells aren't effective, but it was a sign that the neighbors were making an effort. I began to see the kitties less and less. I think they were gradually keeping the kitties inside more. I'm happy to say that I rarely see the cats now. Maybe twice a week I see them in their own yard in late afternoon. I haven't seen them on my side of the street for three or four weeks. I also haven't seen any dead birds or wounded mammals on our end of the street for weeks. Yay!!

I know cats are at the mercy of their instincts, but cat owners are able to make choices. There is no good reason to let house cats roam freely. A 2006 paper by ecologists in Wisconsin lists a number a resources and other papers that will be useful to anyone researching this topic.

I would love to hear from readers any other stories of neighborhood cats on the prowl, with good endings or bad.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Corn ethanol, super fuel or hype

Corn is one of those all around workhorse crops, which we are able to grow successfully under a variety of circumstances over a wide range of terrain and climate. It can be popped, boiled, barbecued and turned into flour, deep fried used as fodder and decorated for Halloween so it is little wonder that so much hope has been pinned on the future of this super cob turned ethanol as answer to the current energy crisis.

Ethanol is the main component of E85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline and the E85 revolution has begun according to a recent story by the New York Times in which they report that as many as 39 ethanol production plants will be built in the coming year. Ethanol plants powered by corn have the folks who trade in commodities all "fired up" by the prospect for the future of their 'futures' as well as ours. The farming industry, in particular mid-western farm states like Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, are ready to declare an economic boom comparable to the heady days of the space program in the 60s. And everywhere consumers are ready to believe in the holy grail of salvation through corn - what could be more American?

And so we blithely head off to the showroom to seek out the newest and most cunning hybrid flex fuel guzzlers on the market and raise the standard for imports already promising 30, 40 60 miles per gallon and still the petroboomers are pushing for increases in off-shore drilling while Congress enacts huge tax incentives for ethanol production and continues to increase subsides for ethanol research and no one's gettin' fat 'cept mamma gas.

Turns out ethanol, while a great concept on paper, is not the fountain of truth for the oil industry. In fact, most researchers have for some time understood that producing ethanol from corn produces more emissions from the oil required to fuel the process than it saves in the end. Oil and gas are the fuel needed to grow, cook and transport the ethanol and there in lies the paradox, corn is simply not the best raw material from which to produce biofuel alternatives, sugarcane would be far better - it has more sugar content. Alas, sugar is also more expensive due to artificially high prices designed to protect a few domestic growers from foreign competition.

And so the debate rages as more Americans, some 2 million of us, drive our shiny new flex fuel cars, fueled by standard gasoline, while some corn producers worry that shifting so much of their crop to ethanol production will have a detrimental impact on the nation's food supply.

We are not likely to hear much from congress either. Facing mid-term elections members are not likely to vote against any part of the $2-billion in subsidies granted to giant agri-conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland whose share last year fueled a 100 percent increase in their stock price.

Still, ethanol from some source, no doubt will be a significant part of the alternative energy that ultimately weans our economy off mamma gas. For now it is important only that Congress must attempt to spend our tax dollars on a variety of alternatives and not sinply rely so heavily on the corn solution.

by Harlan Weikle

:: 6/23/06 - A Greener media video discussion about corn ethanol and its market potential in the production of E85.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

People Taking Power with a Grassroots Fuel

Filtering waste vegetable oil
Photo courtesy of No End Press at

Events in Middle East Fan our Fuel Worries
Recent events in the Middle East have many of us thinking once again about our dependency on foreign oil. Thinking about alternatives. Thinking about biofuels.

Vegetable oil and biodiesel are the most popular biofuels among the local folks in my neck of the woods. But vegetable oil and biodiesel (both for diesel engines only) are not on the front burner for either government officials or the media right now. No, the currents news is all about corn ethanol - both Detroit and the federal government are pushing it as the savior fuel. The production of corn ethanol (for gasoline engines) is surging. Archer Daniels Midland, one of the biggest corporations genetically modifying our crops, is also the biggest manufacturer of corn ethanol.

But who’s using ethanol? No one I know, except for the standard 5% in all gasoline to make it burn better. Corn ethanol reminds me of the faddish education philosophies that used to ripple through the school system during my teaching days. Some new idea, like “cooperative grouping,” would come along, and the school system would latch on like that was the solution to all of our instructional difficulties. All the teachers would be sent to workshops to learn the new methodology and software. Then a couple of years later, some other new bandwagon would come along, and “cooperative grouping” would be forgotten.

Corn ethanol is the energy bandwagon of the moment. Just a year ago, when Sara Kate and I began researching our new book, everyone was all excited about the promise of fuel-cell cars. Now, fuel-cells are passé. They’re not going to work and everybody seems to know it. They cost too much, and the production of their fuel uses too much energy.

Detroit in Trouble over Slumping SUV Sales
Even George Bush, the oil industry's best friend, is promoting corn ethanol. Why? Because Detroit is in trouble, and the automakers, as well as Bush, see corn ethanol as a potential savior. Sales of Detroit’s cash cows – the SUVs and pickup trucks – are slumping as gas prices rise. Consumers are seeking better fuel economy, but Detroit can’t compete with Japanese automakers for hybrid business. The Japanese hybrids have too big of a headstart – their factories are all laid out for hybrid technology, no retooling required. And Toyota’s Prius hybrid has been around for a decade now, long enough to have all the kinks worked out. The Japanese Prius is the gold standard for hybrids - it is by far the most popular hybrid.

So Ford has announced plans to focus on “flex-fuel” cars, which can burn a gasoline blend that’s up to 85% ethanol. No competition from Asian automakers. And Bush is supporting the development of corn ethanol as a gasoline supplement – to help Detroit automakers with their “flex fuel” dreams. To meet the clamor from consumers for fuel efficiency. To promote car sales. To keep GM and Ford from declaring bankruptcy.

Bush’s promotion of corn ethanol has little or nothing to do with tailpipe emissions and global warming. It’s about the automakers’ financial insolvency, and the economic dangers of their potential downfall.

Oil Profits Break Records
You might wonder, as I did, how George and Dick’s beloved and coddled oil industry might feel about the promotion of ethanol as a displacement for gasoline. Oil and gas companies go to great lengths to keep Americans addicted and slurping ever more gas and diesel. Between 1998 and 2004, the oil industry spent more than $420 million on politicians, political parties and lobbyists in order to protect its interests in Washington, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity. So oil companies are not too happy about the idea of corn ethanol. But not to worry. ExxonMobil reported $36 billion in profits in 2005, a record for an American company of any kind. George apparently feels he can afford to divert some of his attention to baby number two, Detroit, who is sick at the moment.

Fatal Flaws for Corn Ethanol
And yet, how can corn ethanol possibly be the solution for automakers in crisis? At least 3 major obstacles stand in the way, some of which were outlined in more detail in our July 8 post.

1) The U.S. has only 600 filling stations (out of 180,000 stations nationwide) that are equipped to deliver a fuel blend that’s 85% ethanol.

2) Corn ethanol requires more energy to produce than it yields, for a net energy loss, according to Cornell scientist David Pimentel and many others. (This particular point is irrelevant for our eco-indifferent president.)

3) Corn ethanol requires more land than we have to spare for it, given that corn is our nation’s biggest crop and 56% of it goes to livestock already.

Corn ethanol is going to fizz out, probably sooner rather than later. Just like the fuel-cell idea did. (Cellulosic ethanol is another matter – as we wrote about in the July 8 post. We don’t yet have the technology to make cellulosic ethanol commercially viable, but probably will in coming years. And that could be a major part of a widespread solution to our gas dependency. I hope that it is.)

Question Authority
Meanwhile, do-it-yourselfers and entrepreneurs in my area are turning to waste vegetable oil as a fuel source. They’re the kind of folks who might have a “Question Authority” button on a bookbag - mavericks and free spirits, independent and frugal types. Some are forming coops to convert waste vegetable oil to biodiesel. Others are buying conversion kits to install in their diesel cars, so they can fill their tanks with straight vegetable oil.

I would like to get a diesel car. If I actually do, and I get a conversion kit to allow me to use straight vegetable oil as a fuel, I won’t have to buy any more gas, period. I can get used vegetable oil for free. Plenty of folks are doing just that, and restaurants seem to like donating the waste oil – they get to feel like a piece of the solution at no expense or trouble to themselves.

Using waste vegetable oil is sort of like dumpster diving. It’s the ultimate in recycling, reusing, reducing. Like vintage clothes and straw-bale houses and day-old breads donated by a bakery, using waste veg is making use of materials that would otherwise be entering the waste stream. And after the initial outlay for the conversion kit, burning waste veg costs nothing.

I interviewed a woman named Kim last month, a waste-veg user in North Carolina. She gets all her oil from a nearby Mexican restaurant. Her exhaust smells like tortilla chips! If our oil supply from the Persian Gulf countries completely evaporates next week, it won’t affect Kim’s use of her car. She’ll just head to her donating restaurant to get her weekly ten gallons of used vegetable oil. She’ll filter it herself, pump it into her fuel tank, and away she’ll go. Kim has a green and purple hand-lettered sign on the back of her VW Golf that reads, “This car runs on vegetable oil.” Wouldn’t that be fun? I want one. My neighbors would be puzzled. “What?” they’d say. “You know, donated restaurant grease,” I’d reply with a friendly smile. “Here, let me explain….”

It Feels Good
I realize that waste veg is probably not going to be the big replacement for disappearing petroleum fuels. After all, only 3% of cars in the United States have diesel engines that can burn vegetable oil. But still, for right now, it’s an exciting option.

Unlike ethanol, vegetable oil is not being promoted by politicos and billionaires and corporations with ulterior motives. Veg oil is a grassroots effort; it’s in the hands of the middle-class working stiffs like myself. A year ago, I didn’t know a single person using biodiesel or waste veg. I don’t think anyone in Charlotte was doing it. Now I know too many veg-users to count. Now, there are two biodiesel coops right here in my hometown! There’s a biodiesel coop in Pittsboro too, and in Statesville, and in Asheville…..the numbers are growing in the real world. Maybe there’s a limit to how far we can go with vegetable oil, I don’t know. But right now it feels like people taking power, and it feels good.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Is It 2008 Yet? Bush Still Says Global Warming Uncertain

photo courtesy of

Best bumper sticker spotted this week: "Is it 2008 yet?"

I read in the NY Times this morning, July 8, that Mr. Bush continues to argue "that the science on global warming is too 'uncertain' to justify anything more than a voluntary effort to deal with it."


What does he need to convince him? NYC under water? For George's 6oth birthday this past week, Laura should have strapped him into his seat and forced him to watch Al Gore's movie on the subject, An Inconvenient Truth.

On the subject of climate change, I see that our administration is heavily in pursuit of corn-derived ethanol as an alternative to oil from the Persian Gulf. That's nice. E85, a fuel that's 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, creates far fewer greenhouse-gas tailpipe emissions than straight gasoline. But not just any car can use E85. Only "flexible fuel" cars can at present, and they are relatively rare today. Of course, that can be solved. The technology exists. New incentives could get flex-fuel cars on the road, if we had the fuel.

But even if we could all use E85 right now, there's another more serious problem. Using corn ethanol does not actually reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. Rather, many scientists argue, using ethanol actually increases fossil-fuel reliance. According to the calculations of Cornell environmental-engineer David Pimentel, 29% more fossil fuels are needed to grow corn and produce corn ethanol than are saved by using ethanol as a fuel. In a "best case" scenario, says Pimentel, the trade-off is even.

How can growing and processing corn use so much fuel? Corn is fertilizer-intensive; fossil fuels are used in the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer. Farm machinery used to till, plant, harvest, shuck, etc., burn fossil fuels. The trucks that haul fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, harvested corn, etc., burn diesel fuel. And so on.

cartoon courtesy of Peaceworks Monitor,

Corn ethanol has yet more problems. In order to replace the 1.6 million barrels of oil a day we're currently getting from the Persian Gulf, half of our country's farmland would have to be planted in corn destined for ethanol factories. Since 56% of our corn already goes into livestock that would be difficult. An economic forecaster cited in the NY Times predicts "a food fight between the livestock industry and this bio-fuels or ethanol industry" by mid-2007, over a limited corn supply.

I'm glad we're pursuing ethanol, but ethanol from corn is not the solution. Brazil is currently the world's leading producer of ethanol - from sugar cane - for a cost that's 30% less. But I don't know that sugar cane uses less land or less fossil fuels than corn, per gallon of ethanol produced. The real answer is cellulosic ethanol, produced ideally from waste plant matter, from farm waste.

At present we don't have the enzymes needed to produce cost-effective ethanol from cellulose. Cellulose is a structural molecule whose function is to hold plants upright, so it's a rigid and complex molecule, and it's tough to break down into the components of ethanol. Corn on the other hand is largely starch to feed the embryonic plant. It's soft and easily broken down.

Research continues for the purpose of developing new enzymes to break down cellulose, and we'll get there. Meanwhile, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 calls for the use of at least 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol in 2012. Although corn ethanol is not the ultimate solution, at least using corn ethanol now is creating an infrastructure for ethanol production and delivery, so that when the difficulties with cellulosic ethanol are unraveled, we can get it on line fast. Hopefully. Biodiesel and straight veg are great options for diesel cars, although only 3% of U.S. cars can use diesel.

In the mean time, I'm tapping my foot for 2008. Please, oh please, let us have an election where the person who actually gets the most votes can take the helm and guide us with some sense through treacherous waters. Imagine a president who would take responsibility for our role in creating the world's greenhouse gases, and lead the world in turning things around.