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  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Archive for the ‘Environmental Issues’ Category

Bill McKibben: Green Mountain Man

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2018

Bill McKibben (Photo: Mark Teiwes / Lesley University)

by Richard Conniff/Yankee Magazine

It’s a mid-September afternoon, and Bill McKibben—author, climate change activist, nemesis of the fossil fuel industry, cross-country skiing addict, devotee of small-town New England life, and drinker of local beers, in more or less that order—is at the wheel of his electric-blue plug-in hybrid, heading north out of Providence.

He and his wife, writer Sue Halpern, have been away from their home in the Green Mountains outside Middlebury overnight, on a trip to promote his first novel, Radio Free Vermont. It’s a funny book, and McKibben is not known for funny books. Well, it’s funny unless you happen to be a Walmart manager: McKibben starts his fable with small-town renegades flooding a new Walmart store knee-deep with the contents of the local sewer system. (Oh, come on, that’s funny.) And it’s funny unless you think there is something deeply alarming about Vermont seceding from the bigness and manifold badness of the United States at large. McKibben says the independent Republic of Vermont is just a plot device, not a movement. But his passion for his home state is genuine. As he hits the on-ramp out of Providence, he is almost quavering in anticipation of getting back.

McKibben is, of course, better known for books that are genuinely alarming. Climate change is his subject, both as an author and an activist. Fellow climate journalist Andrew Revkin describes him as “the ultimate endurance athlete of climate campaigning.” In a series of books and articles beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, McKibben has meticulously laid out the evidence that the rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from our massive burning of fossil fuels, is destroying the world as we once knew it. “The basic issue of the planet right now,” he told Revkin in a recent interview, “is that it’s disintegrating.” He refers to “my last grim book,” as if grim books were a genre, and has described his life after The End of Nature as 25 years of “sadness” and of “looking for ways out, for places that work.”

For McKibben, Vermont is one such place. Even in his grim books, he writes yearningly, sentimentally, about the maple cream cookies that a neighbor brings to the annual town meeting, about stopping to visit “the farm of the six Dutch brothers,” about “the sun shining through the winter-bare ridge at dusk,” and about the consoling mantra of local names—Camel’s Hump, Bread Loaf Mountain, Otter Creek—with which he lulls himself to sleep while on the road. The mountainous country around Lake Champlain, he writes, is “the landscape that fits with jigsaw precision into the hole in my heart.”

Vermont is also, however, what transformed him from author to activist and led him reluctantly to spend much of his life away from home. The turning point, he says as he heads north on 95 across Massachusetts, was a five-day protest march for climate action, from his hometown of Ripton to Burlington, in 2006. “We slept in fields,” he recalls, and had potluck suppers at Methodist churches along the way, “potluck suppers being their sacrament.”

He meant the protest to be a one-time thing, “but when I got to Burlington, 1,000 people were marching with us, and in Vermont, 1,000 people is a lot of people,” he says. “But what was amazing was to read the story in the paper the next day.” It was 17 years after The End of Nature, and nine years after passage of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on climate change. An overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence had demonstrated the reality of climate change and the human role in causing it. And yet a newspaper story was describing 1,000 people walking across Vermont as the largest U.S. demonstration ever against climate change. It dawned on McKibben that writing books and making meticulous arguments wasn’t enough. Read the rest of this entry »


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Guns Kill Kids in Cities, Too. Green Spaces Could Be Part of the Fix.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 26, 2018

Before treatment.


by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Outrage over school shootings has dominated headlines, not just because the victims are children, but also because the shootings occur so randomly and in places—Parkland, FL, Newtown, CT– where it once seemed such a thing could never happen.

It’s harder to stir a national debate about the persistent and far larger problem of gun homicides in the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods, even though more children die in urban gun violence than in school shootings. Maybe it’s just too predictable to hold our attention: The gun violence is extraordinarily concentrated–“hyper-segregated,” in the words of one criminologist–with a handful of neighborhoods in the nation’s 10 largest cities accounting for 30 percent of all gun homicides nationwide.

Now, though, it appears that predictability and geographic concentration could actually make urban gun violence easier to prevent.  For Columbia University epidemiologist Charles Branas, one answer is a relatively simple and inexpensive infrastructure improvement, involving derelict or abandoned city lots. Such lots add up to about 7.5 million acres of land and about 15 percent of the area of cities nationwide—and significantly higher percentages in mid-size cities like Flint, Michigan, or Camden, NJ.

Derelict lots often become the setting for drug dealing and other criminal behaviors and thus function as a primary threat to the health and safety of nearby residents, according to Branas, lead author of a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  He and his co-authors liken efforts to clean up these lots to the nineteenth-century public investment in sewage treatment and clean water systems as a means of curbing epidemic diseases and making cities livable.  Instead of cholera, says Branas, the “contagion” this time is urban gun violence, which he says spreads—and can be interrupted in its course—like any other epidemic.

For the new study, Branas and his co-authors looked at 541 vacant lots in randomized clusters across the entire city of Philadelphia, which has one of the highest murder Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

How Forest Certification Fails

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 20, 2018

Logging in tiger habitat (Photo: Anatoly Kabanets / WWF-Russia)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

When the Forest Stewardship Council got its start in 1993, it seemed to represent a triumph of market-based thinking over plodding command-and-control government regulation. Participants in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit had failed to reach agreement on government intervention to control rampant tropical deforestation. Instead, environmental organizations, social movements, and industry banded together to establish a voluntary system for improving logging practices and certifying sustainable timber.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) soon set standards that seemed genuinely exciting to environmental and social activists, covering the conservation and restoration of forests, indigenous rights, and the economic and social well-being of workers, among other criteria. For industry, FSC certification promised not just a better way of doing business, but also higher prices for wood products carrying the FSC seal of environmental friendliness.

A quarter-century later, frustrated supporters of FSC say it hasn’t worked out as planned, except maybe for the higher prices: FSC reports that tropical forest timber carrying its label brings 15 to 25 percent more at auction. But environmental critics and some academic researchers say FSC has had little or no effect on tropical deforestation. Moreover, a number of recent logging industry scandals suggest that the FSC label has at times served merely to “greenwash” or “launder” trafficking in illegal timber:

  • In a 2014 report, Greenpeace, an FSC member, slammed the organization for standing by as FSC-certified loggers ravaged the Russian taiga, particularly the Dvinsky Forest, more than 700 miles north of Moscow. Greenpeace accused FSC-certified logging companies there of “wood-mining” forests the way they might strip-mine coal, as a nonrenewable resource, and of harvesting “areas that are either slated for legal protection or supposed to be protected as a part of FSC requirements.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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Gaining Ground in the Fight to Stop Illegal Logging

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 9, 2018

Illegal logging of Spanish cedar along the Las Piedras River, Madre de Dios, Peru. (Photo: Andre Baertschi)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Strange as it may sound, we have arrived at a moment of hope for the world’s forests. It is, admittedly, hope of a jaded variety: After decades of hand-wringing about rampant destruction of forests almost everywhere, investigators have recently demonstrated in extraordinary detail that much of this logging is blatantly illegal.

And surprisingly, people actually seem to be doing something about it. In November, the European Court of Justice put Poland under threat of a 100,000-euro-per-day fine for illegal logging in the continent’s oldest forest, and last month Poland’s prime minister fired the environment minister who authorized the logging.

In Romania, two big do-it-yourself retail chains ended purchasing agreements with an Austrian logging giant implicated in illegal logging there. And in this country, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, normally dedicated to free trade at any cost, has barred a major exporter of Read the rest of this entry »

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The Deadly Myth of Clean Coal

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 3, 2018

With Donald Trump preaching the myth of “clean coal,” this piece from 2008 is timely again. Profitable lies, like cats, seem to have multiple lives.

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

You have to hand it to the folks at R&R Partners. They’re the clever advertising agency that made its name luring legions of suckers to Las Vegas with an ad campaign built on the slogan “What happens here, stays here.” But R&R has now topped itself with its current ad campaign pairing two of the least compatible words in the English language: “Clean Coal.”

“Clean” is not a word that normally leaps to mind for a commodity some spoilsports associate with unsafe mines, mountaintop removal, acid rain, black lung, lung cancer, asthma, mercury contamination, and, of course, global warming. And yet the phrase “clean coal” now routinely turns up in political discourse, almost as if it were a reality.

The ads created by R&R tout coal as “an American resource.” In one Vegas-inflected version, Kool and the Gang sing “Ya-HOO!” as an electric wire gets plugged into a lump of coal and the narrator intones: “It’s the fuel that powers our way of life.” (“Celebrate good times, come on!”) A second ad predicts a future in which coal will generate power “with even lower emissions, including the capture and storage of CO2. It’s a big challenge, but we’ve made a commitment, a commitment to clean.”

Well, they’ve made a commitment to advertising, anyway. The campaign has been paid for Read the rest of this entry »

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Habitat on Our Doorsteps: Making Room for Wildlife in an Urbanized World

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 3, 2018

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

One morning not long ago, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, I traveled with a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist on a switchback route up and over the high ridge of the Western Ghats. Our itinerary loosely followed the corridor connecting Bhadra Tiger Reserve with Kudremakh National Park 30 miles to the south.

In places, we passed beautiful shade coffee plantations, with an understory of coffee plants, and pepper vines — a second cash crop — twining up the trunks of the shade trees. Coffee plantations managed in this fashion, connected to surviving patches of natural forest, “provide continuous camouflage for the predators,” — especially tigers moving through by night, my guide explained, and wildlife conflict was minimal.  Elsewhere, though, the corridor narrowed to a thread winding past sprawling villages, and conservationists played a double game, part handholding to help people live with large predators on their doorsteps, part legal combat to keep economic interests from nibbling into the wildlife corridor from both sides. It was a microcosm of how wildlife hangs on these days, not just in India, but almost everywhere in the world.

For conservationists, protecting biodiversity has in recent years become much less about securing new protected areas in pristine habitat and more about Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

I Shop At Companies That Do Bad Stuff

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2017

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

On the list of companies I dislike, Amazon ranks near the top, for putting bookstores out of business everywhere and destroying the ability of authors and publishers to earn a living. Having fed itself to monstrous size on such small potatoes, the company has now moved on to gut the rest of Main Street retail and cut the heart out of communities everywhere.

And yet I shop at Amazon. My lame excuse is that it’s now a 25-minute drive to the nearest independent bookstore, it’s convenient to have a book turn up at my door, and the price looks right.

This inconsistency isn’t just an issue for left-leaners like me. Starbucks faced a right-wing boycott early this year when it responded to President Trump’s immigration ban with a pledge to hire 10,000 refugees. But new research by Brayden King at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management shows “zero correlation” between public commitments to that boycott and subsequent purchasing behavior by pro-Trump consumers. That is, our failure to vote with our wallets crosses political lines. (United at last!)

Withholding our cash from companies that cause harm or behave badly is one of the few avenues of protest we have as consumers. So why are we so bad at boycotting?

There are hundreds of explanations for our inconsistency, according to Julie Irwin, a professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies ethical consumerism. “It’s just really hard to think about this stuff,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable; people need to get on with their day. It’s not that they don’t care. People who care more are often more inconsistent with their values. It just upsets them more.”

One problem with boycotts is that they generally start with a company employee blurting out some egregious offense to our sensibilities. Usually it’s the dimwit chief executive opening his mouth to expose his reptilian brain. Think about Guido Barilla publicly scoffing in 2013 at the notion that his company, the world’s largest pasta maker, would ever feature a same-sex family in its advertising. Or recollect almost anything that the former Uber boss Travis Kalanick has ever said or done.

The resulting boycotts may seem effective. Mr. Kalanick was Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Got Drinking Water? Watch Climate Change Turn It Toxic.

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2017

The algae bloom that ate Lake St. Clair. (Photo: NASA/NOAA)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

It is a painful lesson of our time that the things we depend on to make our lives more comfortable can also kill us. Our addiction to fossils fuels is the obvious example, as we come to terms with the slow motion catastrophe of climate change. But we are addicted to nitrogen, too, in the fertilizers that feed us, and it now appears that the combination of climate change and nitrogen pollution is multiplying the possibilities for wrecking the world around us.

A new study in Science projects that climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen ending up in U.S. rivers and other waterways by 19 percent on average over the remainder of the century — and much more in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Can Synthetic Biology Save Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 20, 2017

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

The worldwide effort to return islands to their original wildlife, by eradicating rats, pigs, and other invasive species, has been one of the great environmental success stories of our time.  Rewilding has succeeded on hundreds of islands, with beleaguered species surging back from imminent extinction, and dwindling bird colonies suddenly blossoming across old nesting grounds.

But these restoration campaigns are often massively expensive and emotionally fraught, with conservationists fearful of accidentally poisoning native wildlife, and animal rights activists having at times fiercely opposed the whole idea. So what if it were possible to rid islands of invasive species without killing a single animal? And at a fraction of the cost of current methods?

That’s the tantalizing – but also worrisome – promise of synthetic biology, a Brave New World sort of technology that applies engineering principles to species and to biological systems. It’s genetic engineering, but made easier and more precise by the new gene editing technology called CRISPR, which ecologists could use Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Why Don’t Green Buildings Deliver on Promised Energy Savings?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 25, 2017

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360
Not long ago in the southwest of England, a local community set out to replace a 1960s-vintage school with a new building using triple-pane windows and super-insulated walls to achieve the highest possible energy efficiency. The new school proudly opened on the same site as the old one, with the same number of students, and the same head person—and was soon burning more energy in a month than the old building had in a year.The underfloor heating system in the new building was so badly designed that the windows automatically opened to dump heat several times a day even in winter.  A camera in the parking lot somehow got wired as if it were a thermal sensor, and put out a call for energy any time anything passed in front of the lens.  It was “a catalogue of disasters,” according to David Coley, a University of Bath specialist who came in to investigate.Many of the disasters were traceable to the building energy model, a software simulation of energy use that is a critical step in designing any building intended to be green. Among other errors, the designers had

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