Good News: Cities Rebuild Bee Populations + Other Stories

Every week, I round up stories of innovation, science, technology and conservation that are making big strides in creating that better future we are all hoping for. This week: cities rebuild bee populations, 2 billion investment in forests, tiger sharks helping sea grass and hydrogen cars.

Photo: Jason Kay

Photo: Jason Kay

Urban Refuge: How Cities Can Help Rebuild Declining Bee Populations

Yale Environment 360

With bees threatened by habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change, researchers are finding that planting flower patches in urban gardens and green spaces can help restore these essential pollinators. The results are already being seen in cities from Chicago to London to Melbourne.

Brazilian Amazon Rainforest

Brazilian Amazon Rainforest

$2 billion investment in forest restoration announced at COP23

Mongabay

On November 15, at the UN climate talks in Bonn, Germany (known as COP23), the World Resources Institute (WRI) announced that $2.1 billion in private investment funds have been committed to efforts to restore degraded lands in the Caribbean and Latin America.

2-in-1 device also uses supercapacitor to store energy that could power computers and smartphones. Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

2-in-1 device also uses supercapacitor to store energy that could power computers and smartphones. Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Hydrogen cars for the masses one step closer to reality, thanks to UCLA invention

UCLA Newsroom

UCLA researchers have designed a device that can use solar energy to inexpensively and efficiently create and store energy, which could be used to power electronic devices, and to create hydrogen fuel for eco-friendly cars.

A tiger shark swimming above seagrass. Image via Florida International University.

A tiger shark swimming above seagrass. Image via Florida International University.

How tiger sharks are helping seagrass

EarthSky

A heatwave along Australia’s western coast in 2011 killed off many of the region’s treasured seagrass beds. While recovery of the marine ecosystem has been slow, scientists have discovered that tiger sharks are aiding in the regrowth of seagrass beds by scaring off grazers such as dugongs.

Nature camps and adventures

4 fun ways to play, learn, and explore this summer

One of the things I love most about summer is the chance to get my children out in nature with me. The time I spent as a child, in and around the ocean with my father and grandfather, was the foundation for my becoming an explorer and environmentalist. That kind of experience is what I want to give to my kids now—to be in nature with them as they learn, play, discover, and grow. It’s also good for them: Studies show the spending time in nature helps increase children’s concentration, mental acuity, inventiveness, and ability to take part in creative play.

The good news is that there are lots of ways we can help our kids can experience and learn about nature. Here are four ideas—from simple to splurge-y—to consider this summer.

1.     Play at local preserves and parks

Check your local parklands for family and children’s programs. Many offer fun activities like nature crafts, guided walks, and chances to (safely) see and learn about local wildlife. Some might offer one-day programs; others might offer multi-day or even multi-week camps. No matter what, they’re a great—and often economical—way to help your kids learn about nature.

Introductions. Maumee Bay State Park.

Introductions. Maumee Bay State Park.

2.     Volunteer on vacation

When you’re planning your family getaway, check into local nature or environmental organizations that welcome drop-in volunteers of all ages. Going to New York City? Consider joining a one-day “Pitch In, Pick Up” activity to help keep Central Park clean. Heading for Disneyworld? Oakland Nature Preserve, in Orlando, organizes special volunteer activities every Saturday morning.

3.     Take your family camping

Pitching a tent, building a campfire, telling stories as the stars come out—there’s really nothing like camping to get your kids excited about nature. If you’re not experienced, keep it simple and spend just a night or two at a nearby campground. Some outdoor stores rent equipment and have knowledgeable staff to get you set up safely. A growing number of “glamping” destinations have sprung up around the country too, offering ready-made camping experiences ranging from funky-fun, like the retro Airstream trailers at Autocamp in Santa Barbara, California, to the tricked-out safari tents and tipis at Montana’s Yellowstone Under Canvas. 

Finding the joy in the little things. (Jason Pohlmeier/Share the Experience)

Finding the joy in the little things. (Jason Pohlmeier/Share the Experience)

4.     Splurge on a family adventure in nature

If you’re active, there’s a good chance your kids are too. Outfitters have answered the call with a host of unforgettable adventures for families, like kid-friendly river-rafting trips down a stretch of Utah’s spectacular Green River, offered by O.A.R.S. and other outfitters. Backroads offers multisport adventures for families in Hawaii, Nova Scotia, and other destinations.

You can also consider special nature camps, like College of the Atlantic’s multiday family nature camp in Bar Harbor, Maine, with whale-watching, hiking in Acadia National Park, and more.

For a truly immersive experience, check out Green School, an extraordinary 20-acre compound in central Bali that teaches families how to live holistically and sustainably. I am fortunate to be able to visit the school with my family early next year, and I can’t wait to share all that I learn with you. For me, I trust that the ultimate lesson will be one of hope—that together, we can all help preserve, protect, and restore our earth, and make it a better place for everyone.

Finding freedom at Green School in Bali.

Finding freedom at Green School in Bali.

A World Water Day Challenge

Today is World Water Day. Its a day to celebrate the blessings this life giving substance brings to our lives and consider what we can do to protect it. So to mark the occasion, I have three challenges for you...

1. Make a difference in the global clean water crisis. One in eight people -- almost one billion -- on our planet do not have access to safe water. Illnesses resulting from a lack of safe water kill more young children than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Tragically, the United Nations has reported that even more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war. This is one of the great tragedies and challenges of our time and it's something that our generation has the technology and resources to address. There are several outstanding and highly credible organizations that are making a measurable difference for communities throughout the world. I recommend NYC-based charity: water.

Photo charity:water.

Photo charity:water.

2. Manage your personal water footprint. Your water consumption goes far beyond the tap. You can find a simple and robust water footprint calculator HERE. It's amazing how easy and practical it is to cut your water footprint by 10 to 15-percent.

3. Get involved on your own waterfront. Every single one of us lives on the waterfront. Your waterfront may be the storm drain on your street, the creek in your backyard or the ocean that borders your town -- our relationship with water in all of its forms is critical to the health and well being of our families, our communities and our water planet. Taking care of this intergenerational community asset goes beyond what most think of as "environmentalism" and gets to the very heart of how we define healthy communities; how we manage the resources that create jobs and local economy; and how we build local capacity now for the challenges ahead.

Your waterfront may be the storm drain on your street...  Photo: Blue Legacy

Your waterfront may be the storm drain on your street...  Photo: Blue Legacy

My grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau was always baffled when people would ask him why he was such a vocal advocate for protecting water resources. He would usually begin his response with, "When you go and see..." and then paint the picture as only he could of the majesty and importance of the water place in question.

His advice still rings true today. I challenge you to explore your local waterfront. Take a walk along the creek or river in your city and ask yourself if it's the kind of place where you'd let your children swim. Stop for a moment the next time it rains and consider the water you see running off of your property or along a nearby street and ask yourself if you'd eat fish from the waters it drains to. Go and see the places where your drinking water is sourced.

Regardless of backgrounds or political philosophies, I believe we all want to live and raise our families in communities where our local water is safe enough for swimming, drinking and fishing. On this World Water Day, I challenge you to explore and get involved in your own waterfront.

What do we know anyway?

A couple years ago, the appearance of a little rat in Laos (southeastern Asia) made it clear that we don’t know nearly as much about the world as we think we do. Locals call it the kha-nyou and generally eat it for dinner. But, the scientists that observed them in the wild found them to be “a friendly, furry creature, about the size of a squirrel, that waddles a bit like a duck.” Are the experts surprised? Yes! They say that the kha-nyou can trace its line to a rodent family that initial studies suggested became extinct more than 11 million years ago.

Laotian Rock Rat.

Laotian Rock Rat.

Great! Marvelous!! How wonderful that, in an age when we think we know it all, a furry and friendly rat the size of a squirrel that waddles like a duck can come into our lives and reveal to us that mystery still exists on our extraordinary planet.

In fact, scientists believe that millions of species have yet to be discovered and documented in order to complete a comprehensive directory of all life on Earth. Of course, not all life resembles our little rat/squirrel/duck friend from Laos. Life exists high in the atmosphere, deep in the soil, in thermal vents on the ocean floor and within animals themselves. Who knew that over 200 species of yeast live in the guts of beetles?? No one did until recently.

In the animal kingdom alone, there are 15,000 to 20,000 new species identified annually. But though life is abundant, it is also fragile. As quickly as we discover these new species, we are also exterminating them. Scientists confirm that we are living in the age of greatest extinction since the dinosaurs. How many kha-nyous are we exterminating before we get a chance to discover them and marvel at the feat of evolutionary survival that kept them here for millions of years?

But we don't need to travel to Laos to find creatures worth protecting. In every yard, park, pond and river, there are species that are fascinating and worthwhile. Yet too often we run away from them, fumigate them, scatter poison around for them, put out traps to catch them or nets to keep them out. And as hard as we try to get rid of “pests,” we cannot live without them and the role they play in the web of life that surrounds us - all the more so because today everything from a bee to a white-tailed deer is considered a pest.

Modern understanding of biodiversity has taught us that life, in all its forms, is precious and intrinsically valuable. In the words of Wendell Berry, “to treat life as less than a miracle, is to give up on it.” It is a word of caution we would do well to heed, since to give up on life is to give up on ourselves as well.

 

Rethinking What It Means to Be an Environmentalist

I’ve met a lot of people that distance themselves from the term “environmentalist”, probably because they don’t want to be perceived as a granola munching, tree hugging hippie.  And as much as I love granola and trees, I probably don’t qualify as a hippie.  But I am definitely an environmentalist. 

If you look “environmentalist” up in the dictionary, it is defined as “one who is concerned about environmental quality especially of the human environment with respect to the control of pollution.”  What part of that could anyone claim is unreasonable?  What part would anyone not subscribe to?  Who can claim to have no concern for the environment?  Who doesn’t care about clean water?  Or clean air that is free from pollution?  Or food to eat that is free of contaminants and pesticides and heavy metals?  We all want these things because we couldn’t survive without them.  Yet so many of us are unable to make the connection between our own survival and what it means today to be an environmentalist.

The preservationist John Muir said it best: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

The old adage used to be that to make a difference you had to do something.  But the truth is that everything that you do is making a difference. The challenge we all have to confront is this: Is the difference helping or hurting? In a world of finite resources, changing climates and growing populations, there is no such thing as an insignificant choice. 

I know that my grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau grew tired of answering questions about the environment in his later days. He said that he was weary of people ignoring the extraordinary miracles that exist in our world only to ask why we should protect it. He always wanted to know how we as a society got to the point that we could even ask that question.

Perhaps we have forgotten an essential lesson.  As my grandfather once said, "To touch life is to know it and to know of life is to love it.

What does "environmentalist" mean to you?

A Voice for the Appleton Wetland

"So this is the Appleton wetland," Mike O'Malley says to me as we kayak along the Drummond Creek, a side channel of the Mississippi River in Eastern Ontario on our River Mission expedition. Haggard maple trees have fallen or lay dead as far as the eye can see. I can tell that something is deeply wrong with this wetland. "What we're looking at are the dead and dying relics of the soft maple tree canopy that's been decimated by a very small rise in water levels of about 10 cm during their critical summer growing season," explains Mike, who heads up the local Mississippi RiverWatchers.

Mike, along with many others in his community of Almonte, Ontario believe that Enerdu Power System's dam is the culprit for the ecological destruction I see before us. In 2004 the company erected 40cm high flashboards on The Cascade of the Mississippi River to increase their power draw. That small rise in water levels downstream has drowned the upstream wetland, whose tree roots need to be dry during their summer growing season, explains Mike.

My expeditions always remind me that we all live connected to one another. Once we recognize this fact, and truly live by it, then watershed stewardship is no longer a choice but a necessity. In the case of the Appleton Wetland (a textbook example of the provincially significant hardwood maple wetland ecosystem) the dam is operating with little regard for the delicate ecological system upstream, and has thereby endangered what ecologists call the true lungs of the earth, a precious wetland.

Lucky for this dying forest wetland, people like Mike have mobilized to try and save it by trying to find a financially feasible operating model for the dam that also allows the wetland to thrive. "If we manage the water levels so that we have a healthy ecosystem and don't be greedy about how much power we get when, we could have a financially viable hydro operation downstream," he tells me. "We could have a healthy wetland that's accessible to both animals and humans for recreation. It could be very harmonious." Like so many situations where development seems to butt up against the needs of environment, there is a win-win solution to be found. The question is just whether all the people at the table are motivated to find it.

O'Malley first became the voice of his waterway in 2012, when a group of concerned citizens first joined together to become the Mississippi Riverwatchers, part of the Ontario Riverkeeper's River Watch program. Now, that voice has become a chorus of a dozen volunteers who advocate for a balanced approach to development (such as expansion plans for the dam that threatens the cascading waterfalls in the heart of Almonte) that ensures good stewardship of the river and its wetland.

Back on the water, Mike gestures to the landscape, which he has seen transformed from a lush and green canopy to a leafless skeleton of a forest in the span of nine years. As we glide along the river, the duck grass that floats at the surface of the water sounds like sand beneath my kayak. Mike's next words deeply resonate with me. I've heard them uttered over the years of water advocacy at Blue Legacy from the mouths of countless citizens and friends who have taken up the fight for their waterways; who give their rivers a voice; who ensure that governments are held accountable for environmental protection laws and that enforcement is upheld; who do what's right when those around them do not. Even in its denuded state, Mike sees a stretch of wilderness that is poised to take back what it has lost. And he's there to give it all the help he can muster: " This is accessible wilderness and it's worth fighting for."