For the love of God, refugees aren’t the reason people are homeless

No, I really don’t think that’s the case, person who has never been homeless or a refugee.

In the week – God, has it seriously only been a week? – since President Donald Trump signed his despicable, potentially illegal Executive Order (EO) kneecapping the refugee resettlement program and temporarily suspending all entry from seven Muslim-majority countries, I’ve seen a lot people sharing memes, videos, and posts similar to the ones above and below.

The faux outrage struggle is real, I guess.

These items express faux outrage that refugees, who are apparently storming into this country, according to the Tweeter-in-Chief, are taking food and shelter away from homeless Americans, particularly veterans.

I know I shouldn’t treat these entreaties as sincere, because they aren’t. Most, if not all, of the people sharing this type of content have never met a refugee. They don’t view refugees as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. They instead caricature them, as our President does, as barbarians at the gates who are somehow uniquely violent and dependent.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, let’s take these claims at face value. Because, when you do that, my God do they fall to pieces.

During the first seven years of the Obama administration (FY 2009-2015), the United States government spent an average of $1.47 billion per year (page 11) on Migration and Refugee Assistance, once you subtract out the money spent on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCOs); OCO spending is essentially money spent abroad to stem the flow of migrants/refugees at the source by helping to address the push factors driving people to flee their homes.

For FY 2016, the State Department estimated the federal government would spend a total of $1.48 billion, while this number was set at $1.54 billion for FY 2017. We know that, due to this EO slashing the number of refugees the US intends to resettle by more than half from 110,000 to 50,000, this latter number for FY 2017 will necessarily decrease.

But here’s the thing – the US is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Refugees are not preventing the federal government from spending money on homeless veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has invested billions to tackle the homelessness among veterans since 2009. In FY 2017, for instance, the VA allocated $1.6 billion – more than the government would have spent on refugee resettlement – on programming for homeless veterans. Fortunately, this investment is paying dividends, as the VA estimates that homeless rates among veterans have fallen by at least one-third since 2010. This is excellent news, though much work remains. But if you only decided to care about homeless among our military veterans as a justification to support this EO, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

The same sentiment holds if you are only raising budgetary concerns now, but never said a word when Republicans forced President Obama to implement sequestration, which cut discretionary funding to the VA. Or if you don’t seem to object to Congress forcing the Department of Defense to spend money on technology and materiel the military doesn’t want. If you said nothing about the $1.4 billion spent on defunct and unnecessary Abrams tanks since FY 2015, refugees aren’t the problem. You’re the problem. The same goes for the $30.7 billion spent since FY 2015 on the F-35, which President Trump scored via tweet about during the transition.

If you supported a candidate for President who grandstanded to avoid a primary debate by claiming he was hosting a grand fundraiser for veterans, then only donated money to veterans groups after the Washington Post called him out on it, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

Perhaps you supported President Bush’s ill-conceived adventure into Iraq, which destabilized the Middle East and set the stage for the growth of ISIS. This war is one of the major drivers of the current refugee crisis and many of the ongoing challenges our veterans face. If so, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

Do you support the President’s intention to repeal the financial reforms enacted under Dodd-Frank? You know, the reforms put in place to help guard against the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession? That Great Recession that was built upon a housing bubble that left thousands of people homeless? If so, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

But we haven’t really even begun talk about homelessness writ large yet. Homelessness, at least among non-veterans, is not an issue that the federal government addresses. It’s tackled primarily at the local level, where your vote and your input is even more important.

So, do you vote in local elections? Do you vote for candidates who support effective policies to tackle homelessness, chiefly those that seek to actually provide affordable rental units directly to homeless individuals? If not, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

Do you support local officials and nonprofit organizations that provide housing, whether temporary or permanent, to homeless individuals regardless of whether or not they have substance abuse issues? Or do you force homeless people to go through treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues before gaining access to housing support? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

Perhaps you voted for a Republican governor that refused to expand Medicaid in his or her state. Do you support the current effort by Congressional Republicans to turn Medicaid into a voucher program, which would slash benefits and prevent people from taking advantage of it at the times it is most needed, like during recessions when homeless rates increase? What about Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded mental health coverage to millions of Americans? That same ACA which bent the cost curve for healthcare expenses, which are the single largest reason for personal bankruptcies in the US? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

One of the myriad causes for homelessness in many cities is the rising cost of housing. There are a number of factors that affect housing prices, but none is more important than supply. We can help to mitigate price spikes by building more, denser housing units. Even if these units do not sufficient include low-income units – which they should – they can relieve stress on other properties, opening them up for new residents. But local residents, particularly homeowners who stand to benefit from ever-increasing property values, often fight these types of projects. Others still promote zoning restrictions to ensure that “those people” cannot live in their neighborhoods.

Are you a NIMBYist? Do you support exclusionary zoning policies like minimum lot size, height restrictions, and mandatory parking minimums? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

It’s a time-tested American tradition to blame the Other for our problems. If we don’t have enough money to solve all of our social issues, it must be the fault of the last person through the door. But that’s bullshit, and you know it’s bullshit.

Refugees are entitled to our help, support, and investment. They earned it with their blood, sweat, and tears. We have an obligation to defend, support, and care for them. That does not mean that we are unable to protect other vulnerable populations, like military veterans and homeless children. It never has, and, hopefully, never will.

So stop pretending otherwise. If the people sharing these stupid memes want to know whom to blame for our homeless population, maybe they should look in the damn mirror for once.

Happy 3rd birthday to my site

groundhog day
groundhog day

No, it honestly did not dawn on me that I started this site on Groundhog Day until last week. I’m kind of oblivious (courtesy of Columbia Pictures).

Three years ago today, I officially launched this website. That came after I spent nearly a month trying to figure out how to get all the details squared away on the back end to ensure that the site would actually function, everything from selecting a host to choosing a CMS to creating a MySQL database. After a while, I was beginning to wonder if I should have just started a blog on another host site, rather than creating a standalone one, but it eventually came together and went live on February 2, 2013.

A lot has changed in the past three years. I finished grad school, moved back to Cleveland, got a couple of different jobs, got engaged, and lost two cats (RIP Snowball and Daisy). I also think the site has come a long way since that point. This is my 120th post, meaning I’ve averaged 40 per year, plus those housed on different sites that I never cross-posted. Of course, that number also conceals the fact that this site reflects my personality – I get bursts of energy and write four posts in a week, then get lazy and don’t produce anything for three months. I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a bit better at all of this since I wrote my first lame ass post in 2013.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to get a lot out of this site since then. I think I have developed something of a tiny niche for myself in this space and have gotten chances to write for a number of great sites, including Climate Home, Grist, New Security Beat, Scientific American, and Vox. I’ve also been able to use the site to stay engaged in the fields about which I am passionate and interact with a lot of people with whom I probably never would have known otherwise.

It’s been a long, complicated three years, but I think this site has served me fairly well. Hopefully I don’t screw it up all up in the next 36 months, and I can continue to grow this site and produce worthwhile posts in that time. Thanks to the handful of people who inexplicably read the esoteric crap I write.

Condoms are key for promoting responsible consumption

community health worker
community health worker

A community health worker talks to women in SIerra Leone (courtesy of H4+ Partnership).

At first blush, the idea that one action to reduce conspicuous consumption could bring about a sustainable future seems far-fetched. Sustainability is all-encompassing. There is no silver bullet; we need a thousand silver BBs. But not all actions are created equally. Some are so central that, without them, we cannot hope to bring about the future we want. Ensuring that all 7 billion people have the access to and education needed to properly use condoms is one such action.

Worldwide, more than 200 million women have an unmet need for contraception. This gap has startling consequences. In 2012, at least 85 million pregnancies were unintended. If every woman who wanted to avoid pregnancy could access modern contraceptives, there would be 22 million fewer unplanned births and 15 million fewer unsafe abortions each year.

The condom is perhaps the most important tool for tackling this issue. This simple piece of latex tackles a host of problems that undermine sustainability.

First, condoms help fight the scourge of HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). More than 1.5 million people died of AIDS-related diseases in 2013, while 35 million people live with HIV/AIDS. In turn, people contract nearly 350 million cases of STIs, like gonorrhea and syphilis, each year. These preventable infections make life far more challenging and can even be deadly. One such disease, HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which kills hundreds of thousands of women annually.

Second, condoms are vital for curbing population growth and addressing climate change. If contraceptive use increased by 14%, we could prevent 1 billion births by 2050. This step will be key for keeping global temperatures below 2ºC. Curbing population growth could, on its own, produce 16-29% of the emissions reductions we need to stave off dangerous climate change. This issue will be particularly important in the developed world, where each person’s carbon footprint is far larger. Here in the United States, where half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the average person uses 25 times more resources in his/her lifetime than one in a developing country. Clearly, condoms can reduce carbon emissions and tackle conspicuous consumption in tandem.

Third, ensuring that everyone can use condoms will increase our level of resiliency. Pregnant women and infants are uniquely vulnerable to a number of threats, like natural disasters and diseases. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, women were four times more likely to die. And, because mosquitoes are attracted to pregnant women, malaria hits them especially hard. Infection during pregnancy causes 10,000 maternal and 200,000 infant deaths every year in Africa. Reproductive health, particularly contraceptive use, needs to be a centerpiece of health and disaster management planning.

Fourth, the condom can be a key tool for women’s empowerment. Every day, millions of women are trapped by the issues related to unprotected sex. Giving them the ability to choose when and how they reproduce is essential to putting their destinies in their hands. Condoms can help reduce the amount of time a woman spends pregnant, curb postpartum depression, and slash maternal deaths. As the WHO noted, “Without fertility regulation, women’s rights are mere words. A woman who has no control over her fertility cannot complete her education, cannot maintain gainful employment…and has very few real choices open to her.”

Clearly, while the condom is not a sufficient tool for a sustainable future, it is a necessary one. Condoms help liberate men and women alike from illness, vulnerability, environmental harm, and a lack of choice.

Perception isn’t reality, reality is

Perhaps you have heard that a certain fellow named LeBron James has decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers basketballing organization. To take his talents to the North Coast, if you will.

Now, I had no plans to write about this episode, if for no other reason than I think my experience has been so very ordinary and in line with that of many Northeast Ohioans. I was ecstatic when the Cavs won the draft lottery in 2003 and kept LeBron here, and I was a huge fan throughout his seven years in the wine and gold. When he left for Miami in 2010, I was dejected and pissed. I openly cheered against him and found the Heat’s loss in the 2011 NBA Finals extremely cathartic. He had failed on the biggest stage, just like he couldn’t single handedly will a mediocre Cavs team to beat the best franchise of the last 15 years in the 2007 Finals. Suddenly all of those things that people said about him not performing in the clutch, which I vociferously denied for seven years, were instantly true. It was petty, and I reveled in it.

I thought I had moved beyond that crap after that series, but a certain level of resentment remained. I don’t know why. I started to get my hopes up last summer, when all of the local talking heads started speculating that LeBron could return this summer, though I was certain it would never happen. I mostly wanted the Heat to lose the Finals this year to see what might happen, and I was overjoyed when he announced he was coming back to Cleveland last week. I had slowly come to realize that he did what was best for him in 2010, both personally and professionally, and I couldn’t really fault him for that.

I also always knew that LeBron had a clear, intimate connection to this region, something which I’ve always respected. And he was probably the first person I’ve ever seen to bring national light to the strange, unproductive tension that simmers just below the surface between Cleveland and Akron. It’s an issue that I have become acutely aware of in my professional life over the past year. At this point, I just want to put all of this nonsense behind me and move on with my life.

So, like I said, my experience was completely unremarkable and not worth commenting upon. I also found much of the national media narrative as dull as it was predictable. LeBron acted as the bigger man to forgive and take back his jilted former lover. His return to this strange little corner of the universe that he inexplicably loves will bring a little light and validation into our otherwise dreary, unremarkable lives. Yawn.

What does irritate me are the posts from locals who attempt to present themselves as somehow above the fray, who seem to view this spectacle like an anthropologist observing some “primitive” tribe, confused as to how sports can actually matter to people. Then there are those who have tried to turn this story into a Christmas tree, hanging whatever their pet issue or cause may be on it like one more tacky ornament your mom bought at the Hallmark store in 1993.

The latest version of this came from an unexpected source, Jeopardy! champion and Cleveland-area transplant Arthur Chu, who has picked up on the argument that life in Cleveland is difficult, because we’re pessimists. As he writes at The Daily Beast,

It’s the reason well-meaning Cleveland PR reps can’t win when they try to throw up “positive messages” about the growing Cleveland tech market or the beautiful Metroparks or the local music scene against the image of Cleveland as one big decaying slum—that image is coming from Clevelanders.

Unsuprisingly, Richie Piiparinen, perhaps the most vocal advocate of this theory, praised the piece. Now, I generally have nothing against Arthur or Richie; both of them are obviously intelligent, thoughtful people (Arthur’s winning streak would suggest he’s a hell of a lot smarter than me), and I read their work with interest. But I take great umbrage with this line of reasoning. Richie had previously outlined it in a guest column for The Plain Dealer, writing

Cleveland’s negativity is a challenge to the city’s future.

…For Cleveland to change, it needs a critical mass of people who aren’t blinded by the city’s past failures. Whether they are newcomers, like our Texas friend, or folks who are pulled in by the prospects of a Rust Belt revitalization, the effects are the same: new voices and ideas that will help create a new reality.

…As a born and bred Rust Belter, you tend to get used to the narrative of decline. It’s oral tradition. The problem with that is when the social norm is to accept decline as fate, there’s less agency to help change your city’s destiny.

At best, this argument is a gross oversimplification of the real issues that we face as a region. Not to mention that it seems to suffer from some real analytical issues. If we are to assume that pessimism is the independent variable in this equation, and it leads to neglect, abandonment, and poverty, then we have to conclude that Cleveland’s pessimism is a completely exogenous variable; that is, we have to pretend it exists in a vacuum. Am I honestly supposed to believe that negative outlook is completely distinct from decades of population loss, shuttered factories, rising unemployment, a decade-long foreclosure crisis, and – yes – the added fact that our sports teams have endured 50 years of almost comical futility? It’s fallacious to argue that A lead to B, when we know that A has been inherently shaped by B.

At worst, this argument amounts to (as Arthur even admitted in his piece) victim blaming. It’s tantamount to telling a child growing up at East 79th & Grand Avenue, where the poverty rate is 79.1%, that all she needs to do is smile harder, and she can overcome her debilitating circumstances. Ignore the fact that poverty is expensive, that it lowers your IQ, that it increases your risk of suffering a chronic illness, that economic mobility has evaporated in the US and is nearly nonexistent in Cleveland. Just keep on the sunny side of life.

poverty e 79th & woodland

More than half of Cleveland’s children live in poverty. In this census block, located near East 79th & Woodland, an astonishing 87.1% of all households live below the poverty level (courtesy of The New York Times).

But it’s gauche to point out these problems in Cleveland. LeBron’s decision and the earlier selection of the city for the 2016 RNC prove that Cleveland is undergoing something of a renaissance. New businesses are opening; the city is getting positive press; certain neighborhoods are in-demand, driving up rental prices; we’re seeing an influx in younger, educated residents.

These positive developments have seemingly given rise to a new trend in Cleveland – the shameless boostering. There has been a clear shift in the past decade away from decrying the real and perceived issues in the region to relentlessly celebrating everything that is new and, therefore, good.

In a lot of ways, this trend isn’t entirely new; it’s actually an offshoot of our very real inferiority complex. The notion seems to be that we need to act as cheerleaders for every new project, idea, or business that pops up, no matter how impractical or pointless it appears. And don’t dare get caught questioning the practicality or utility of any of these projects; if you do, you’re the real problem.

Cleveland apparently exists in some strange metaphysical ecosystem where perception is reality. The inferiority complex is so deeply ingrained in our DNA that people are convinced that confronting our issues is more dangerous than ignoring them. The problem isn’t that we have actual problems, but that people always talk about them.

We’re told, time and time again, to stop bringing up our problems, because the real issue is that “the city is suffering from a marketing and recruitment strategy letdown.” I guess that this region works on the theory of quantum entanglement: if you observe a problem, it automatically becomes manifest.

But the idea that in order to truly love a city, you must never criticize it is ridiculous. That’s not love; that’s some childish infatuation. The people who espouse this argument don’t live in the real Cleveland. No, these boosters only focus on the part of Cleveland in which they reside or travel. Their infatuation with this tiny sliver of Cleveland amounts to little more than narcissism. It provides people with the ability to delude themselves into thinking they are single-handedly saving Cleveland every time they visit Market Garden or Fahrenheit.

I love microbreweries and food trucks as much as the next guy, but pretending that piling more of these into the confines of Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway will cure what ails us is preposterous. Cleveland is 77.7 square miles in area, not just the 4-5 square miles certain people frequent.

All of this is not to say that there aren’t good projects going on in Cleveland. There are. These include the Uptown development in University Circle, the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative, and the new proposal to redevelop East 55th around St. Clair/Superior. And I am cautiously optimistic that these recent positive trends – yes, including LeBron’s return – may help add some additional momentum to the city’s slow rebirth. But they still represent a drop in a much larger bucket, and we have a lot of ground left to cover.

Unfortunately, too many Clevelanders seem to have convinced themselves that we can save this city by dancing around on the margins. But that’s never going to work. When you’re dealing with problems this big, you need systemic change. The first step in that process is to acknowledge that the problems exist in the first place, which is exactly what we’re not doing. The world is changing quickly; if you don’t keep moving, you’re bound to fall behind. But it’s even worse to stand still while continually reassuring yourself that you’re keeping pace.

In Cleveland, we’re told not to rock the boat, for you might get wet. Well, the boat has been sinking for more than 5 decades at this point. We can either get a little wet now, or we can all drown later.

What Kelly Blazek’s cyberbullying tells us about policymaking in Cleveland

kelly blazek twitter profile
kelly blazek twitter profile

Kelly Blazek’s now-defunct Twitter profile (courtesy of the Cleveland Scene).

**Update (7:52pm): Apparently Ms. Blazek apologized in a statement to while I was offline. I hope she learns from this episode, is humbled by it, and works to make herself a better, more considerate human being. I can only imagine this will haunt her for a while. Now that this is over, hopefully we can back to focusing on issues that actually matter tomorrow.**

For those of you who (luckily) don’t know who Kelly Blazek is, let me give you a quick primer. Ms. Blazek is a “senior communications executive with nearly three decades of experience in global diversified industrials, professional services, PR agencies and economic development nonprofits” and the principal partner of Gemba Communications.

Among other things that she lists as accomplishments, she notes that she “earned her Six Sigma Green Belt” and is “a frequent speaker on creating a gamechanger resume, interviewing, maximizing LinkedIn during a job search and boosting one’s professional presence.” Whatever that means.

Anyways, in addition to being a self-described superstar communications expert, she also hosts a Yahoo Group/email listserv for approximately 7,300 people that aggregates job openings “in the marketing, PR, events, fundraising, non-profit management, media, journalism and graphics industry.” For the nominal fee of $150, she will deign to send out an email with your job posting to this listserv; it is surely a worthwhile investment.

Now, because she is a busy and important professional, Ms. Blazek has established a firm set of rules to be included on her listserv. Every email includes the following disclaimer:

kelly blazek dislaimer

From the February 10, 2014 Cleveland Job Bank email.

She has clearly built up quite a following, and she even won the 2013 “Communicator of the Year” award from the Cleveland Chapter of of the International Association of Business Communicators.

Yet, despite her public persona as a communications expert, Kelly Blazek does not always communicate in the most, shall we say, appropriate way. When a young job seeker who was moving back to Cleveland tried to connect with her on LinkedIn, she received this in reply:

blazek email

Courtesy of the email recipient, @PettieBettie

Lest you think this email was something of an aberration and does not reflect Ms. Blazek’s character, writ large, there are several other instances which, taken together, begin to present a clear pattern.

Interestingly, despite supposedly being a crisis communications consultant, Ms. Blazek has chosen to reply to this controversy with complete radio silence. She shut down her Twitter account (which, as she notes, has 2500+ followers) and closed her personal blog, opting to house it under a new name, at least for the time being.

A few other outlets have examined how this episode may affect Ms. Blazek professionally. But I would argue there are larger issues at play here. First, we should judge people based not upon how much power or prestige they have, but, rather, upon how they treat those with less power. As Immanuel Kant wrote in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

By deviating so grievously from this dictum, Ms. Blazek’s actions were not simply unprofessional; they were immoral.

But, regardless of her actions, Kelly Blazek is not the only person at fault here. We must also point the finger at the people in power throughout Northeast Ohio who have built her up to the point where she holds herself in such esteem that she believes she can – and should – behave this way.

For some reason, a large (and seemingly increasing) number of well-connected people throughout Greater Cleveland have chosen to place all of their faith in the hands of self-appointed marketing and communications professionals to resurrect the region. We continue to pay these individuals ever larger salaries and provide them with increasing amounts of taxpayer money so that we can live under the delusion that all this region needs to grow and thrive once more is to change our PR campaigns, not our policies.

This viewpoint frequently graces the pages of The Plain Dealer, where writers spill ink over the details of these new marketing campaigns, rather than focusing on more important issues. Somehow the debate over whether or not Cleveland “rocks” or is a “plum” matters more than our insanely high infant mortality rates, our 1960s-era transportation policies, or the air pollution that routinely sends poor black and brown children to the ER with asthma attacks.

Those with the most significant platforms breathlessly hype ever project or concept as the “next big thing” that will save us, regardless of how expensive, impractical, pointless, or destructive they may be.

As a result, we end up undervaluing people with real policy expertise and fresh ideas that people in much of the rest of the country would value. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a job bank like Kelly Blazek’s could exist and, it appears, even thrive in Northeast Ohio’s economic ecosystem, yet we have nothing comparable for public health, environmental issues, alternative transportation, affordable housing, etc.

We have purposefully and intentionally decided, as a region, that we would rather pay people to repackage crappy ideas than think critically and develop good ones. That’s not to say that there aren’t good, hardworking, intelligent people focusing on these issues; there are. But the fact that we don’t know their names and tend to undervalue their work is no accident.

Ultimately, we will need to come together as a region and rethink our priorities. Because when you put policymaking authority in the hands of marketing professionals, you end up with terrible public policy, regardless of the spin.

6 takeaways from the ODNR fracking memo scandal

fracking well
fracking well

A fracking well looms large above eastern Ohio’s rolling hills (courtesy of Inhabitat).

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has found itself in hot water after the Ohio Sierra Club obtained a document that showed the agency planned to actively promote oil and gas drilling in Ohio’s state parks. The memo details ODNR’s plans to actively counter opposition from environmental groups, which it labels as “eco-left pressure groups” and “skilled propagandists,” by collaborating with industry allies and like-minded third parties, including the Ohio Oil and Gas Alliance, Halliburton, and the US Chamber of Congress.

I don’t feel like spending an entire post responding to the document; there are plenty of stories about it already. Plunderbund has an excellent piece on the scandal, which is well worth reading in full:

While the document displays a startling collusion between the fossil fuel industry and the agency that’s supposed to regulate it, one should expect little more from the Kasich administration and its allies in the Statehouse. The Ohio GOP has devolved into little more than a mouthpiece for the industry at this point.

Just last month, Tony Stewart, the president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, told the Dispatch that it “came up with the methodology” behind HB 375, the GOP bill to rewrite Ohio’s tax laws for the industry. The bill, which makes Gov. Kasich’s original proposal look downright progressive, guarantees that Ohio would continue to give away its natural resources for pennies on the dollar.

Despite the inherent risks associated with fracking, the Ohio GOP seems far more interested in colluding with the industry that protecting the health and well-being of its constituents and the environment of our state. The state has bent over backwards to import fracking wastewater from Pennsylvania – trucking in more than 100 million gallons in 2011 alone – despite the fact that injection wells have caused more than 100 earthquakes near Youngstown. ODNR also allows fracking companies to dispose their waste, which can contain the radioactive element radium, in municipal dumps; the Ohio Environmental Council has labeled this practice “dump and glow.”

I just have a few additional thoughts to share on this story:

  1. This story does not reflect well on John Kasich, who has consistently tried to position himself as a “compassionate conservative” and seems to fancy himself a Republican leader in the model of Ronald Reagan. Having your administration actually develop a list that demonizes environmental groups and Democratic State Senators as “adversaries” who are attempting to “create public panic” and must be taken down comes off as a hell of a lot more Nixonian than Reaganesque.
  2. Memo to Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols, part 1: If you are trying to distance yourself from a politically damaging story by claiming that the Governor’s office was unaware of what ODNR was up to, maybe it’s a bad idea to call the environmentalists who raised this issue “extremist groups.” It’s tough to distance yourself from a document by parroting its language and implicitly endorsing it.
  3. Memo to Rob Nichols, part 2: Oh, and you’re probably going to need to do a better job explaining why 8 members of the administration were invited to a meeting to discuss the strategy that exact same day that the document was drafted. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.
  4. If the Ohio GOP honestly believes that moderate environmental groups like the Ohio Environmental Council and NRDC are “extremists” and “propagandists,” they really need to get their heads checked. I guess when you’re that far to the right, all center-left environmentalists look like “enviro-socialist rent seekers,” to quote Senator Bill Seitz.
  5. I have my doubts that administration is only pushing drilling in state parks “to ensure a balance between wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all,” as the memo claims. It’s hard to believe that the same elected officials who are going out of their way to keep Ohio’s oil and gas severance taxes substantially lower than any other drilling state – willingly forgoing at least $800 million in tax revenues – are pushing fracking because “it will provide millions of dollars to restore deteriorating park and forest infrastructure.” It’s all about better bathrooms, folks.
  6. Lastly, it’s laughable that ODNR lists friends of parks/forests groups and communities who live near state parks/forests as “allied audiences” who would share the same goals as the administration. As I’ve noted in the past, the people who bear the greatest burden from natural resource extraction are those communities sitting on the front lines. Yet, despite the fact that fracking has damaged at least 360,000 acres of land nationally since 2005 (including more than 1,600 in Ohio), neither Governor Kasich’s bill nor HB 375 specifically sets aside a single dollar from severance taxes on the industry for affected communities. I’m just a tad bit skeptical that a group of lawmakers who ignore perhaps the single most important tenet of good natural resource governance is going to oversee fracking in a way that will cause no “disturbance” to our common, public heritage as Ohioans.

The restoration of wetlands is a major victory for the Great Lakes

9 mile wetland restored
9 mile wetland restored

Restoration of the Nine Mile Wetland in the Euclid Creek watershed (Source: Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District)

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Given the spate of bad news for the Great Lakes recently – from declining lake levels to toxic algal blooms to microplastic pollution to the threat of an Asian carp invasion – it may be hard for people to find any good news on the health of these vital bodies of water.

Fear not. The US Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a census of the nation’s wetlands every five years, and the latest report includes great news for the Great Lakes region – total wetland extent in the region expanded by 13,600 acres. As Sarah Goodyear wrote at Next City:

[S]ome 13,610 acres of coastal wetlands were added to the eight-state Great Lakes region between from 2004 and 2009. Given that the total wetlands acreage in the Great Lakes watershed is 8.5 million, that may not seem like a lot. Plus, some of that acreage comes from receding water that has exposed land. But it nevertheless represents a positive trend that stands in contrast to the rest of the country. During the study period, 360,720 acres of such wetlands disappeared across the nation at large.

History of wetlands destruction

The recent effort to conserve wetlands has reversed a centuries-long trend. When Europeans reached North America in the early 1600s, approximately 221 million acres of wetlands covered much of what would become the United States. Due to rapid clearing of these ecosystems to make room for settlements and provide timber for the expanding country, Americans cleared 118 million acres (53.4% of the total wetland area) by the early 1980s.

Unfortunately, Ohio stood at the forefront of wetland destruction. From the 1780s to the 1980s, the state lost 90% of its total wetlands, trailing only California’s 91% loss. This number includes the astonishing destruction of the Black Swamp, which once spanned much of the northwestern corner of the state. In just 25 years (approximately 1860-1885), a wetland that covered an area roughly the size of Connecticut completely disappeared.

This wave of wetland degradation and destruction has its roots in our consistent tendency to undervalue the important services wetlands provide. As The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History notes, early settlers in the Western Reserve (present day Cleveland) viewed their initial settlement along the Cuyahoga River as “a miasmic, disease-ridden swamp.” This view of wetlands was eventually codified into law; from 1849-1860, Congress passed a series of Swamp Land Acts, which gave 15 states control over all wetlands in their territories – a total of 64.9 million acres – for reclamation projects.

Benefits of wetlands conservation

As time has passed and more research has been done, however, it is increasingly clear that wetlands are among the most important ecosystems on Earth.

Wetlands provide a myriad of benefits. They serve as crucial refuges for fish species; research suggests wetlands can have fish populations that are 4-10 times more abundant [PDF] than other ecosystems. They also improve water quality. The degradation of coastal wetlands significantly compromises the quality of water in the surrounding areas, creating $16 billion in losses from pollution every year. Additionally, wetlands act as important buffers against coastal storms and floods. The conservation of the wetlands along the Charles River near Boston prevents $40 million in flood-related costs annually. Overall, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the economic value of the world’s wetlands [PDF] at $17 trillion.

Clearly, the addition of 13,600 acres of wetlands to the Great Lakes region represents a major victory, particularly in light of their continued destruction worldwide. Since the 1980s, for instance, human activities have destroyed 35% of remaining mangroves, a form of tropical coastal wetlands.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Much of the success in this are stems from the work of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a federal initiative that President Obama established in 2009. The GLRI has provided more than $1 billion to enhance the Great Lakes region over the last five years. These funds have and continue to go to protecting wetlands throughout the area, including the restoration of wetlands along the Euclid Creek.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. recognizes the important services that our wetlands provide, particularly the role they play protecting the quality and quantity of our water resources. We celebrate the expansion of coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes region in recent years and support ongoing efforts to strengthen our coastal ecosystems through programs like GLRI, and we remain committed to educating people on the vital role that wetlands play in keeping our Great Lakes great.

Africa’s Great Lakes were central to human evolution

victoria falls

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

great lakes of africa map

The Great Lakes region of Africa (courtesy of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).

If you’ve ever felt inexplicably drawn to Lake Erie or any of the other Great Lakes, you’re not alone. In fact, that attraction is hardwired into your genes.

Last month, two UK researchers published an article titled “Early Human Speciation, Brain Expansion and Dispersal Influenced by African Climate Pulses” in the online, open-source journal PLOS One. The piece explores a variety of close linkages between climatological variability and human evolution throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It focuses, in particular, on the East Africa Rift System (EARS, for short), which is home to the bodies of water that make up the Great Lakes of Africa.

Africa’s Great Lakes region is home to several of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. The lake system includes Lakes Victoria, Tanganyika, and Malawi, along with several other smaller bodies of water. These lakes are the lifeblood of the region and are home not only to the world’s largest waterfall, Victoria Falls, but also to the headwaters of the Nile River.

In the article, researchers Susanne Shultz and Mark Maslin sought to determine what factors contributed to the punctuated nature of human speciation and dispersal from East Africa. They focus, in particular, upon a particularly important period for human evolution, which occurred roughly 1.9 million years ago. This period gave rise to the Homo genus and witnessed a series of major migration events from East Africa into Eurasia.

Schultz and Maslin noticed that several of these major “pulses” in human evolution corresponded closely to the appearance and disappearance of the East African Great Lakes. As a result, their research probed this connection more deeply. Their results suggest a close relationship between the growth and decline of the EARS lakes and significant steps forward in human evolution:

Larger brained African hominins colonised Eurasia during periods when extensive lakes in the EARS push them out of Africa. Taken together, this suggests that small steps in brain expansion in Africa may have been driven by regional aridity. In contrast, the great leap forward in early Homo brain size at 1.8 Ma [million years ago] was associated with the novel ecological conditions associated with the appearance and disappearance of deep-freshwater lakes long the whole length of the EARS.

As this article suggests, Africa’s Great Lakes are more than simply natural resources that serve economic, social, political, cultural, and ecological purposes. They are, quite literally, engrained in our DNA.

victoria falls

Victoria Falls lie along the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Yet, tragically, these lakes and the people who depend upon them face a host of threats. The region has experienced extremely high rates of deforestation in recent decades due to unsustainable economic development, ongoing conflict, illicit logging, and dam construction. Annual rates of deforestation in the Congo River Basin doubled during the period from 2000-2005.

The ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has displaced millions, forcing many of them to encroach upon protected areas. In Africa’s oldest park, Virunga National Park, rates of illegal logging have reached 89 hectares (220 acres) per day (PDF). And the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia is drying up Lake Turkana, threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples.

Despite being home to 27% of the world’s freshwater, less than two-thirds of people in the Great Lakes region have access to improved water sources. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this issue even further. The IPCC projects that the total number of Africans facing water stress will climb to 75-250 million by the 2020s and 350-600 million by the 2050s.

But you don’t need to sit by and watch these Great Lakes dry up. Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ has been working to provide access to clean water for children in Uganda for the last three years. This winter, the organization will undertake three new projects to ensure that the children at St. Bonaventure Primary School and the Family Spirit AIDS orphanage can take advantage of their human right to clean water.

Just as East Africa’s Great Lakes are a part of our DNA, so too is access to clean water and sanitation an integral part of human development. We can all take small steps to ensure that we are protecting this human right for people at home and around the world

Bringing Natural Resources to the Table: ELI, UNEP Launch New Environmental Peacebuilding Platform

sierra leone artisinal mining
sierra leone artisinal mining

Artisinal mining provides livelihoods for roughly 150,000-200,000 people in Sierra Leone (courtesy of UNEP).

I have a guest post up at the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat on environmental peacebuilding and the work that the UN Environment Programme and the Environmental Law Institute are doing in this area. [Full disclosure, I interned at ELI working on this program from late 2011-early 2013].

Here’s a snippet:

Moreover, UNEP found in 2009 that, although natural resources played a role in roughly 40 percent of all civil conflicts since 1960, new natural resource management schemes have been included in just one-quarter of peace agreements.

The evidence clearly indicates that if we hope to end violent conflict around the world, the environment must be a part of the process. As UNEP noted in its landmark report, From Conflict to Peacebuilding, “integrating environmental management and natural resources into peacebuilding…is no longer an option – it is a security imperative.”

Go read the rest and check out the rest of the great content housed on the blog.

Recent court case could help address toxic algae issues in Lake Erie, around the country

dead fish algae bloom
satellite image algae lake erie

Satellite image of algal blooms on Lake Erie from October 30, 2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.:

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a decision (PDF) on Friday, September 20 that could have wide-reaching implications for waterways all across the United States. The case, which pitted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against a coalition of environmental groups, may change the way that surface runoff and nutrient pollution are regulated.

In effect, the district court ruled that EPA had acted improperly in 2011, when it refused to formally determine whether or not federal action was necessary to regulate the types of nutrient runoff and surface pollution that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the court gave EPA 180 days – until Wednesday, March 19 – to determine whether or not the federal government should intervene to address the increasing threat that the algae blooms behind such dead zones pose to the health and well-being of humans, ecosystems, and coastal economies.

While the decision did not require EPA to begin regulating the sources of algal blooms – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater – it does mandate the agency to determine whether the threat posed by these blooms necessitates action under the Clean Water Act. Accordingly, the ruling could force the agency’s hand, much like the US Supreme Court’s endangerment finding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) has led to recent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains unclear whether or not EPA will decide to intervene to control nutrient pollution discharges. As I noted earlier, the agency balked on the same issue in 2011, due perhaps to aggressive lobbying from various industry groups. However, the substantial increase in the number and scale of algal blooms throughout the US in recent years could motivate the agency to act.

At least 21 states battled blooms of the toxic, blue-green algae this summer (though this number likely understates the impact of the phenomenon). According to reports collected by Resource Media, there were at least 156 different reports of algal blooms around the country from May 5-September 15. Of these, 10 occurred in Ohio, while 5 affected the Lake Erie watershed.

dead fish algae bloom

Algae blooms create anoxic environments in bodies of water, reducing the available oxygen for other aquatic life (courtesy of Tom Archer, University of Michigan).

Lake Erie is perhaps the most significant waterway in the country facing such an ongoing, acute threat from toxic algae. It is both the shallowest and most densely populated of the Great Lakes, helping to concentrate the levels of harmful nutrients. The western edge of the Lake Erie watershed is also home to a large number of industrial-scale corn farms, which rely heavily upon phosphate fertilizers. Because Lake Erie is a phosphorus-limited environment, when the rain washes over the surface of these fields, it delivers large loads of phosphate runoff into the Lake. These phosphates overcome the naturally-occurring phosphorus deficit in the Lake and provide the fuel needed for algae growth.

Communities in the Maumee River watershed, the largest tributary in the Western portion of Lake Erie, have suffered the effects. This summer, the 2,000 residents of Carroll Township were told not to drink their tap water when dangerous levels of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by the algae, was found in municipal water supplies. The city of Toledo, which is located in the Maumee watershed, has been forced to spend an additional $1 million to battle toxins in its water supply.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ is committed to protecting and enhancing the well-being of our Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. While it is too early to tell how this court case will play out in the coming weeks and months, let alone to forecast its implications for waterways around the country, DLDT continues to encourage government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to take proactive measures to ensure the health of our most precious natural resource.

DLDT supports measures to tackle the growing algae problem, including recent steps by the Ohio EPA to actively monitor nutrient pollution levels and work with farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. The organization also continues to work to address the myriad challenges facing Lake Erie, including minimizing both plastic and nutrient pollution through its beach cleanups.