New York’s Public Power Bill Could Be a Model for the Rest of the Country

A large section of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Midtown neighborhoods are seen in darkness from above during a major power outage on July 13, 2019 in New York City.

A large section of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Midtown neighborhoods are seen in darkness from above during a major power outage on July 13, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Scott Heins (Getty Images)

Two years ago, New York enshrined the most ambitious statewide climate targets in the country. The legislation, called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, requires the state to completely decarbonize its electric grid by 2040 and reduce emissions from all sectors by 85% within the following decade.

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A bill that’s currently gaining support in the New York legislature could set the state back on track to meet its goals. (The path has been bumpy, particularly because the state legislators haven’t come up with a payment plan for the CLCPA.) It hinges on the idea that the best way to decarbonize the state’s energy system is to make it publicly owned and democratically controlled. A new report from the policy tank climate + community project shared exclusively with Earther lays out exactly how it works, and shows that it could be a model for the rest of the country.

“As long as energy is treated as a commodity like any other, poor people, workers, and communities of color will suffer,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, who is a champion of the legislation. “Our energy and power systems must be accountable to the public so that we can build an equitable future, in New York and nationwide, free of corporate exploitation.”

The measure, called the New York State Build Public Renewables Act, has dozens of co-sponsors and is supported by the Public Power Coalition, which is led by Democratic Socialists of America chapters and local environmental justice organizations. It would essentially create a public option for electricity. To do so, it would expand the New York Power Authority, empowering it to build out utility-scale renewable energy generation and transmission infrastructure and requiring it to supply only renewable power.

NYPA is the largest state-owned energy provider in the U.S. It currently owns and operates one-third of New York’s high voltage power lines and provides up to 25% of the state’s electricity, the majority of which comes from hydropower.

Under the bill, NYPA would be required to fully decarbonize its existing energy infrastructure, decommissioning its fossil fuel plants by 2025 while rapidly increasing the state’s renewable energy generation. (The report proposes that the entity would have the right of first refusal for all renewable energy projects greater than 25 megawatts in the state.)

In addition to supplying power directly to customers who choose to opt-in, NYPA would also have to ensure that all publicly owned buildings—to which it is the sole provider of energy—run on 100% clean power by 2025.

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As it does all this, it would also be required to adhere to strict labor standards and unionization for all its projects, and also to partner with worker-owned cooperatives and small businesses owned by members of disadvantaged communities to procure necessary equipment and appliances. The law would also forbid the entity from shutting off power for unpaid bills.

That NYPA is publicly owned and operated is important for two reasons. For one, as a state entity, it’s directly governable, unlike investor-owned utilities.

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“We want to embark on an energy transition that is simultaneously rapid, equitable, and thorough. We want the energy system to be fully decarbonized, we want it to be maximally equitable, and we also want it to happen in less than 10 years,” said Thea Riofrancos, an associate professor of political science at Providence College and co-author of the new report. “In the private sector, the way to do that is to create incentives for investments and to regulate. With the public sector, it’s much more direct. You can ensure it happens.”

Unlike investor-owned utilities, which are required to make money for their shareholders, NYPA also has no profit motive. That would make it easier to ensure that the utility bills of low-income households stay low and that communities see the benefits of an energy transition.

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“With NYPA, they don’t have always to go the cheapest option or choose actions that will make the most money,” said Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the climate and energy program at the Democracy Collaborative and co-author of the report. “They are held to the standard of the public interest. That means that, for instance, instead of putting transmission through a place that may be cheapest but might have pretty significant environmental impacts, we can actually shift that framework because it’s not a profit motive that we’re going for.”

To ensure that it operates in an equitable manner, the report suggests that the law could come with a number of measures to boost democratic control. The authors suggest the state could create a multi-stakeholder board with seats for longtime environmental justice leaders or labor organizers who have a say in NYPA’s actions. They also propose that NYPA create community engagement hubs where residents can learn about new renewable energy plans and work opportunities and provide input on where new energy projects are sited.

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The report estimates that the comprehensive proposals would create up to 51,000 jobs—including 16,000 permanent ones—and between $48.6 billion and $93.5 billion of additional economic activity. It could also serve as a model for the rest of the country.

In the state of Nebraska, for instance, the electricity sector consists entirely of public power districts, publicly owned utilities, and energy cooperatives. The state could implement a similarly ambitious timeline to move the grid to 100% renewables. The federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority, which sells energy to 150 companies as well as utilities, could also take up a similar project.

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If the bill passes and is successful, Bozuwa also said it could help show that the U.S. needs more public entities to control electricity—and that there’s no reason we can’t create them.

“We could see, for instance, federal money going to states so that they could set one up themselves so that they can build out public renewable energy in their states, bring down the cost, make it accountable to the people, and bring down energy poverty at the same time,” she said. “It’s exciting to think of how we could take NYPA as this state-based entity, take the principles that guide it, put it through a rapid energy transition, and use the federal level to unleash similar types of entities across the U.S.”

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The Biden administration could use the New York bill’s model, Riofrancos added, to ensure that it meets the goals it has set since taking the White House, including the promise to decarbonize the grid by 2035 and ensure “40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments” meet the needs of communities who have borne the worst brunt of the climate crisis and pollution.

“By using a public institution … you can directly ensure that projects and jobs are sited in the places that deserve them most, where working class and racialized communities have been the most impacted by not only the climate crisis but also the pandemic and economic recession,” said Riofrancos.

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Through the power of the public sector, the U.S. has achieved massive energy goals quickly before. During the New Deal, for instance, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electric Cooperative system.

“It actually was able to bring lights on within 10 years,” said Bozuwa. “So we don’t need to create sticks and carrots for the private energy sector. We’re saying to the private sector, we’re going to outflank you, we’re going to make sure we transition the public sector faster than you ever would.”

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A Nasty Pipeline Showdown Is Brewing Today in Michigan, and Canada Is Pissed

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a news conference on Thursday, May 21.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a news conference on Thursday, May 21.
Photo: Michigan Office of the Governor (AP)

Seizing the profits of a major oil company, making Canadians angry, tugboats causing havoc: It’s all happening in Michigan right now. The mandated shutdown of a major oil pipeline is brewing into a nasty fight that pits Michigan’s governor and environmental groups against a fossil fuel company—as well as the country of Canada.

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At issue are two pipelines owned and operated by Enbridge, an energy company headquartered in Canada, that ferry crude oil and natural gas to the U.S. via the Straits of Mackinac, a shipping channel in Michigan that connects two of the Great Lakes. The two pipelines are collectively known as Line 5—and they’re in pretty crappy shape. The lines were built in 1953, but were only designed to last for 50 years; Enbridge has, essentially, been stalling on making major repairs or replacements for close to two decades. Even before the pipelines met their expiration date, Line 5’s safety record has been pretty abysmal: Records collected by researchers in 2017 show that the pipeline has spilled at least 1.13 million gallons of fossil fuels in 30 separate incidents around Michigan since 1968.

A series of high-profile safety flukes in recent years haven’t done much to assuage fears. In 2010, another Enbridge line spilled 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, prompting concerns about the safety of Line 5. In 2018, a tugboat anchor, of all things, dented the Line 5 pipeline and caused a minor spill, while in 2020 Enbridge disclosed that different anchors had also damaged another area on the pipeline—right next to a spot where the protective coating had worn off. Sounds safe!

Last November, saying that Enbridge has “failed for decades to meet [safety] obligations” for the Line 5 pipeline and that it poses “an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill,” Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration terminated the easement that allowed Enbridge to operate Line 5, giving them until the end of May 12 to stop the flow of oil. Shutting down Line 5 had been one of Whitmer’s campaign promises; her administration has also set emissions reduction goals for 2025 and 2050, and her plan after the pipeline shuts down involves incorporating renewable energy and electrification to help replace the oil provided by the pipeline.

Pipelines in 2021 face a much more hostile environment than they did in the 1950s. Replacing and updating the pipeline, environmental groups say, would lock Michigan into using a fossil fuel supply that is at odds with its clean energy goals. The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians is also seeking to designate part of the pipeline’s route as an official cultural property after a group found what seemed to be an archaeological site at the bottom of the Straits. This designation would give Enbridge extra hurdles to jump through with the federal government before making any repairs or changes. Enbridge is also facing a series of legal challenges and heated protests as it tries to build another pipeline in Minnesota known as Line 3, so it’s not exactly a beloved name among environmental groups in the Midwest right now.

Enbridge has not taken Whitmer’s order well, and the fight keeps getting more heated. In the months since the November announcement, it sued the state, claiming Line 5 is regulated under federal authority and that Whitmer has no standing to terminate the easement. Politicians from across the country—some of them from states that get oil from Line 5, but others who seem to be in it mostly to support fossil fuels—have also voiced support for keeping the pipeline open. As the deadline looms, Enbridge has effectively refused to shut down the flow of oil, saying the court or the feds would have to give the final order. Whitmer fired back: She sent a letter to the company on Tuesday saying that the state would try to seize profits from the oil Enbridge puts through the pipeline after Wednesday, citing “wrongful use of the easement.”

The escalating situation in Michigan is also posing a big problem for the Biden administration. In January, President Biden made Canadians angry (wow) by revoking a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried tar sands from Canada into the U.S. Even though supporting the end of a fossil fuel flow would be in line with his administration’s climate-friendly image, wading into the mess in Michigan could mean pissing off the Canadians (again, wow) even more. And Canada seems ready to fight for dirty fuels: It filed suit against Michigan this week, while the Canadian government said Tuesday that the case “raises concerns regarding the efficacy of the historic framework upon which the U.S.-Canada relationship has been successfully managed for generations.”

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The official deadline for shutting off the flow of oil is tonight, but even if Enbridge does an about-face and turns off the pipeline, it looks like the drama won’t be ending anytime soon in the Great Lakes. How exactly the first big pipeline showdown of the Biden administration will play out remains anyone’s guess—but everyone from the federal government to environmental groups to Canadians may have a chance to jump in on the brawl.

This Indoor Garden Will Feed You Greens Year-Round

Illustration for article titled This Indoor Garden Will Feed You Greens Year-Round

Photo: Click & Grow

Click & Grow 25 is the latest project by former orchestra conductor Mattias Lepp who felt that the idea of indoor gardens—essentially, a farmer’s market in a box—would be just the tool for staving off future food shortages. His company, founded in 2009, raised $11 million in 2018 to develop new materials and hardware technologies for indoor gardens. Now, he and the Click & Grow team are taking the tools they used to build large-scale gardens and bringing them into the home.

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Lepp calls his tech “hyper-local farming,” and he claims that what he and his team created is entirely unique.

“We’re the only ones in both vertical farming and smaller indoor growing device segment who have figured out how to provide the future of sustainable food while being profitable and having a global reach,” he said. “Compared to big vertical farms we’ve looked at what’s the real problem of vitamin-rich foods like leafy greens—it’s the overly long supply chains that produce waste, nutritional degradation, and transport emissions. The greens from vertical farms still go through the traditional food supply chain, albeit they’re fresher, cleaner, and come from a more local urban farm, they sit in stores, get moved around and half go to waste in a dark corner of a fridge. Unlike vertical farms, we’ve taken a step out of the traditional supply chain and figured out the only sustainable solution, both in terms of nature and business, and that is growing food at the place of consumption.”

Illustration for article titled This Indoor Garden Will Feed You Greens Year-Round

Photo: Click & Grow

The Click & Grow 25, which is currently available through Kickstarter, costs $399 for early birds and consists of a frame, containers, and lights. The plants grow out of coffee-pod-like earth nuggets and the whole system is designed for minimal interaction. The Smart Soil pods contain calibrated dirt and nutrients and the system waters the plants automatically.

Lepp’s goal was to make the system as small and simple as possible.

“In 2018 we looked at the numbers and figured out that a family of 4 could feasibly grow a fifth of their food plate in expendable living space, on just 80 square feet of wall at home, for example,” he said. “The idea went through different experiments and prototypes through the years, mainly focusing on how to integrate a garden of this size into even a small New York City apartment and into anyone’s busy lifestyle with its ease of use.”

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The team plans to ship in February 2022, and there are a number of permutations of the garden product, which you can stack them against a wall for maximum usage of space. An app will tell you when you add water and when your greens are ready to nosh.

The product is already fully funded to the tune of more than $227,000 and counting, and it looks like just the thing for folks who might need to feed a hungry family or just a hungry rabbit.

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The U.S. Has Ignored Pipeline Cybersecurity and Now You’re Paying the Price

Fuel tanks are seen at Colonial Pipeline Baltimore Delivery in Baltimore, Maryland on May 10, 2021.

Fuel tanks are seen at Colonial Pipeline Baltimore Delivery in Baltimore, Maryland on May 10, 2021.
Photo: Jim Watson/AFP (Getty Images)

It’s been four days since the Colonial pipeline, a major gasoline artery in the U.S., shut down following a ransomware attack—and Americans are starting to feel the impacts. As the federal government scrambles to figure out how to transport gasoline across the country and shortages are beginning to hit gas stations in some states. It’s been such a mess that the hackers themselves have kind of apologized for the whole ordeal: DarkSide, the group responsible for the attack, issued a statement Monday explaining that “our goal is to make money and not creating problems for society.”

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Yet the problems aren’t wholly DarkSide’s fault. This whole mess may have been entirely preventable if the government had been paying attention to its own responsibilities in helping pipelines prepare for cyberattacks.

While both political parties have raised increasing concerns about cyber attacks that can target the energy grid and other pieces of critical infrastructure, pipelines, specifically, are a hugely overlooked part of this equation. Federal pipeline cybersecurity guidance and oversight have been minimal at best. The government issues only voluntary cybersecurity guidelines for pipelines, even those like Colonial that affect millions of people every day. Even those voluntary guidelines have been such a non-priority, in fact, that no one seems to have been paying much attention to the issue at all for a decade or more in some cases.

The regulation of physical pipelines and their construction falls under the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. But the digital security of pipelines is under the purview of the Transportation Safety Administration—the same agency whose agents pat you down at the airport. Yet as late as 2019, TSA employed only six staffers on its pipeline cybersecurity division, responsible for overseeing 2.7 million miles (4.4 million kilometers) of pipeline across the country.

Much of the original TSA best practices regulating pipeline cybersecurity were drafted shortly after 9/11—and many have been barely touched since then. The agency’s protocols outlining the roles of the different branches of the federal government in case of a pipeline security breach hasn’t been updated since 2010. Given how quickly the digital landscape of our lives has evolved in the past decade, let alone the sophistication of cyberattacks, the lack of attention is embarrassing.

Warnings about the cyber threats to pipelines have abounded. In 2018, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission members Neil Chatterjee (at the time, the chair of the commission) and Richard Glick wrote an op-ed for Axios detailing how unprepared the U.S. was for a cyberattack on a major pipeline. (Chatterjee retweeted the nearly 3-year-old op-ed on Saturday, suggesting that the landscape probably hasn’t changed since its publication.)

The Government Accountability Office put a fine point on some of those problems in 2019 when it took TSA to task and conducted a probe on its pipeline security protocols. In addition to the embarrassingly out-of-date documents, the GAO also found that the TSA’s plans didn’t “identify the cybersecurity roles and responsibilities of federal agencies that are identified in the plan, such as [Department of Energy], Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), or the FBI, or discuss the measures these agencies should take to prevent, respond to, or support pipeline operators following a cyber incident involving pipelines.”

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Even with the GAO report in 2019, progress seems to have been slow on fortifying the country’s pipelines—and the loosey-goosey nature of what companies are mandated to do could be part of the reason. FedScoop reported in 2019 that following the GAO report, the industry was attempting to work with federal agencies on improving cybersecurity practices, but companies worried that sharing information could affect fuel prices on the market or make them targets to more attacks. Bill Caram, the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said in an email that “the lack of any kind of reporting requirement around these cyber security events” is “troubling.” He added that “we really have no idea how widespread they are.”

In 2020, an elaborate spearphishing campaign targeted natural gas facilities around the world, including some in the U.S., prompting the two-day shutdown of an unidentified pipeline network. It offered a rare insight into how attacks can play out. The Department of Homeland Security found the owner “did not specifically consider the risk posed by cyber attacks,” reflecting how lax oversight can leave companies unprepared.

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It may take some time to figure out what exactly happened with the Colonial pipeline, and it’s not out of the question to think that the company could have been better equipped to face the attack.

“For Colonial itself, it will be seen whether they failed at the essential cyber hygiene (which means they were a rather easy target) or they did well in cybersecurity and the attackers had to use sophisticated methods for the attack,” Dirk Schrader, a vice president at security research at New Net Technologies, a provider of cybersecurity and compliance software, said in an emailed statement. “Based on known facts and insights, it rather seems that Colonial missed on the essentials. Some of the webservers in their infrastructure show old vulnerabilities. … In addition, there is quite an amount of knowledge about the DarkSide ransomware family to be prepared for it.”

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But the government’s complete lack of enforcement in cybersecurity is especially ironic to consider in light of the increasing panic over the physical security of pipelines More than a dozen states have passed bills over the past few years criminalizing anti-pipeline protests, doling out heavy punishments for vague offenses like trespassing or “tampering” with construction sites. These bills have often been influenced heavily by fossil fuel interests and have come in the wake of Indigenous-led protests against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

Meanwhile, massive fossil fuel pipelines have been operating for years with an OK from the federal government to do so with the digital security equivalent of having your email password set to “password.” Long-term those pipelines—and the oil and gas industry in generaldo need to be wound down to address the climate crisis. But it might be time for the government—and the industry—to rearrange its priorities around what it considers “security” and what the real threats to fossil fuel infrastructure are.

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The Weird, Unholy Alliance of Tucker Carlson and Environmentalists

Illustration for article titled The Weird, Unholy Alliance of Tucker Carlson and Environmentalists

Photo: Richard Drew (AP)

Tucker Carlson has used his platform to, among other things, undermine climate science and lie about renewable energy. Yet last week, he put out an impassioned plea to save the Maine woods, claiming that “real environmentalists” should oppose a power line connecting Quebec hydropower to the U.S. Bizarrely, he and the Sierra Club are on the same page.

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The segment and the alignment with traditional environmental groups paint a picture of how complex renewable energy projects can be for local communities—and what the upcoming culture war over renewables might look like.

The project that attracted Carlson’s wrath is a proposed 145-mile (233-kilometer) transmission line owned by local power company Central Maine Power that is intended to connect hydropower produced in Canada to the grid in Massachusetts, all in the service of helping the state meet its ambitious climate goals. Construction began in February despite numerous legal challenges from green groups and a bitter public relations war that has dragged on for years in the state.

The tone of Carlson’s segment is over-the-top dramatic, often in an unintentionally funny way. Most of it is set over a soundtrack of racing violins or pounding drums. At one point, the camera zooms in on an animal skull below footage of powerlines, as if to suggest instant death from coming into contact with a transmission line—which, in case you need reminding, are pretty normal pieces of the energy grid. The segment also seems tailor-made to appeal to people in the region. One of the interviewees is filmed in what looks like a woodland lodge bar that prominently displays a bottle of Allen’s Coffee Brandy and a can of Moxie—two drinks produced in Maine and beloved by Mainers—on the bar next to him in the shot. Another says that “there is no doubt Tom Brady is the GOAT” in a seemingly completely unrelated aside during his interview.

“The whole state of Maine will become an ugly place” with the project, one of the interviewees tells Carlson.

While this dramatic production may seem funny, it also paints a picture of how aggressive opposition to new renewable energy projects can be even though many are relatively innocuous pieces of infrastructure in the grand scheme of things—and are necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. And yet—I can’t believe I’m saying this—tone aside, Carlson does a not-terrible job of laying out some of the facts of the case. He describes the environmental issues with the proposed corridor, including how it endangers what’s among the most robust natural habitat for the trout in the U.S., as well as the failure to consult with local communities. He even technically gives the emissions calculations of the project a (very small) sliver of airtime: The segment addresses the facts that cutting down trees eliminates their ability to sequester carbon and that the reservoirs that form behind hydropower dams emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

These issues are key reasons why environmental groups have opposed the transmission project as well, including that the project wouldn’t reduce overall emissions but rather just ship clean power that would’ve been used elsewhere to Massachusetts.

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“This is a shell game,” said Sue Ely, a staff attorney at Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It’s not renewable energy, it doesn’t help Maine’s renewable energy industry, and it’s very damaging to Maine’s environment.”

NRCM filed a lawsuit last fall with the Sierra Club challenging the federal government’s environmental impact review of the project. Indeed, what’s riled up most local opposition—and what Carlson’s report focused on—is the project’s proposal to clear 53 miles (85 kilometers) of new transmission corridor in Maine’s North Woods, a 3.5 million acre chunk of wildland that borders Canada. The North Woods is the biggest undeveloped forest in the eastern U.S., and makes up more the half the state itself. It’s also a big economic driver for a state that’s been struggling in the post-industrial era, with a thriving timber industry and thousands of visitors each year. Tourism is an enormous sector of Maine’s economy; rafting, snowmobiling, and camping are all prominent sources of revenue in the North Woods that would be negatively impacted by visible power lines.

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“There are tons of transmission corridors in the state, but CMP snaked this line right in between the protected areas,” said Ely. “They slalomed through it.”

A spokesperson for Clean Energy Matters, the CMP-owned lobbying organization for the project, said in an email that these claims “were presented to and ultimately rejected by the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Massachusetts regulators.” (The group also said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News that CMP wasn’t allowed to participate in the Carlson segment, and that producers used stock footage and “false descriptions” of the project.)

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Even before Carlson—who owns a home in Maine and has even broadcast his show from the state—showed up with his cameras, there was plenty of mudslinging around the corridor project to be had on both sides. Clean Energy Matters has spent nearly $20 million in advertising on a pro-corridor campaign. Both groups like NRCM and the Sierra Club as well as Carlson in his segment repeatedly refer to CMP as “foreign-owned” (CMP is owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid, which, in turn, is owned by the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola)—a term that’s been used in other energy fights to stoke xenophobic fears and images of foreigner stealing American jobs.

The spokesperson for Clean Energy Matters pointed out in an email to Earther that some opposition efforts to the corridor project “are funded by three corporations with oil, natural gas, and nuclear generating stations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.” Those companies are Calpine, Vistra, and NextEra, which have poured their own millions into advertising campaigns against the project. Clean Energy Matters has also attacked NRCM for what it says are ties to natural gas groups after NRCM got a donation from an anti-corridor group with murky funders.

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“It’s so vicious,” Ely said of the fight. “It really hardens people.”

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And, like many local fights, the actual issues at hand—lowering greenhouse gas emissions and figuring out how to best fit renewables into the local landscape—seem to be getting lost in the brawl. Caratunk, a 68-person town along the proposed transmission line’s route, had been working with NextEra on installing a proposed 150-megawatt solar farm. The chair of Caratunk’s selectboard said in a 2018 letter to the Maine Public Utilities Commission that the CMP corridor project would prevent the development of this project and potentially other local renewables projects in the area. The selectboard chair appeared in the Carlson segment as a voice of local opposition, with no mention of the alternative solar project. While there’s a chance the selectboard chair didn’t bring up the project with producers, it’s not out of the question to think that Carlson’s team didn’t want to spotlight how opponents of the “green energy scam,” as they called the CMP project, might be in favor of other renewable energy ventures in Maine.

The brook trout in the North Woods—or the lobster in the Gulf of Maine or any of the state’s other ecosystems for that matter—can’t hang on much longer if our planet keeps baking at the rate it’s going. Weighed out on a cosmic scale, if cutting 53 miles through a pristine section of woods could help an enormous energy-using state keep its emissions down, it might be worth it, despite the big local tradeoffs. That seems to be the attitude of some conservation and environment groups in the state who have begrudgingly signaled their support—or, at least, the end to their opposition—for the project in recent weeks.

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I asked Ely about this challenge. If the CMP project was bringing a completely uncontested source of renewable power into New England—or, perhaps, if a transmission line through the North Woods could be connected to a renewable project that serves Maine and creates renewable energy jobs in the state—would the green groups be so opposed? She sighed.

“I have felt really fortunate in this fight that I have not had to answer that question—it’s a really good question,” she said. “In Maine, if we really want to do what our governor says—reach net zero by 2045, reduce our emissions by 80% by 2050—it’s going to require this massive buildout of renewable energy resources and a massive electrification of everything we can possibly electrify. We need to grow our grid somewhere in the ballpark of three times, and that is going to require building these massive transmission structures. And this anti-transmission line fervor is really going to hinder our ability to reach our clean energy goals.”

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It’s that fervor Carlson seems intent on stoking, though based on his past body of work, it’s for reasons likely less in line with those of local environmental group.

“This corridor is more than an energy project—it’s an attack against rural America and the people who live there,” Carlson said in his segment. That is, of course, untrue, but he’s setting the stage for his audience to view all renewable energy projects with skepticism and as an attack on the environment. If conversations around renewable projects can’t stay honest—and if big companies that plan to profit off the energy transition don’t start thinking about the local impacts of what they’re doing—there will be plenty of fodder for the culture war to come.

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It’s Time to Kill Earth Day

A woman takes part in a protest in Cali, Colombia, on Sept. 20, 2019.

A woman takes part in a protest in Cali, Colombia, on Sept. 20, 2019.
Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP (Getty Images)

Hooray, it’s Earth Day! That one day of the year when we can all come together and celebrate treating our planet with respect. From first-graders to Jeff Bezos, everyone loves a good, ol’ fashion Earth Day. So, I regret to inform you that we must kill Earth Day and replace it with something more urgent.

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The first Earth Day in 1970 was a radical idea, and it had radical results. Spearheaded as a national “teach-in” day by Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat and famous conservationist, Earth Day grew out of the civil rights movement. A burgeoning but localized environmental movement inspired by author Rachel Carlson’s best-selling 1962 book, Silent Spring, which detailed the devastating environmental effects of the chemical DDT, fed into the push as well. The devastating 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and the Cuyahoga River literally catching on fire the same year added increased pressure to address the deluge of pollution.

For the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, a reported 20 million Americans marched on behalf of their planet, solidifying environmental issues as a major concern for Americans. What followed was a spate of governmental action that is unthinkable today: The passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which President Richard Nixon signed into existence in December 1970. Today, Earth Day is celebrated in nearly every country.

Earth Day is, in short, largely responsible for the world’s environmental awakening and the regulations to rein in pollution that arose in the decades after that first iteration. The ripple effects of Earth Day and the ideas it instilled and inspired are so widespread and profound that they are virtually impossible to adequately summarize. (I highly recommend listening to this episode of NPR’s Thoughline to better understand Earth Day’s impact.)

Yet today, Earth Day has lost its radical identity right at the moment when that type of energy is essential to our continued existence on this planet. It has, instead, become a “celebration”—a Good Day for Brands™ to greenwash their environmental impacts by announcing pledges, environmental-themed musicals, deals, and this year, inexplicably, NFTs. As climate reporter Emily Atkin wrote in her Heated newsletter, all of these PR pitches are “hot, useless garbage” that have made Earth Day “hell on Earth” for environmental journalists.

Earth Day’s PR-friendly image is not a coincidence. The name “Earth Day” itself is the invention of renowned ad man Julian Koenig, who volunteered to help Sen. Nelson and Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes with their cause. (Fun fact: Julian Koenig is the father of Sarah Koenig, creator of Serial.) And its widespread and enduring appeal is arguably thanks to how palatable it was to mainstream—read: white, suburban—America.

But the increasingly overt brand-friendliness of Earth Day is not merely an annoyance for cranky journalists. It poses a huge risk to the planet and people by lulling us into a false sense of things being marginally better. Big Oil’s main front group has spent the day tweeting about its supposed green bonafides. But the greenest bonafide would be it not existing. It would be Coke paying up for the plastic pollution it creates. It would be acknowledging the undue burden of pollution in communities of color, a legacy that continues since the first Earth Day.

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Wilbur Thomas, a Black scientist, said in a speech on Earth Day 1970, “The nitty gritty issues relevant to Blacks is simply the fact that a disproportionate number of Blacks are exposed to more environmental health hazards than non-Blacks in addition to the regular burden.”

While the impacts of Earth Day are indisputable, so too is the deficient action we’ve taken in the decades since its inception. Humanity’s inaction over the past 51 years since Earth Day began has led to a global plastics crisis, the destruction of 97% of Earth’s ecosystems, melting glaciers, rising seas, water shortages, increases in extreme weather, and a carbon saturation in the atmosphere of 420 parts per million—up from 315 ppm when measurements began in the 1950s. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere haven’t been this high for 3 million years.

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In other words, while Earth Day ignited our collective consciousness around environmental issues and has, either directly or indirectly, led to unfathomable progress, it still wasn’t enough to combat the capitalistic forces that have led us to the yawning chasm stretching out before us today. And we still have yet to achieve true environmental justice that centers Black and brown communities living in the shadow of smokestacks and freeways. There’s movement to right those wrongs, yes. The youth climate movement and some traditional environmental organizations are finally opening the tent to communities of color. But we need the tent to grow even further and for radical ideas to be closer to the center.

At its inception, Earth Day was a revolutionary idea that marked a turning point for politics, policy, and the planet. But the celebratory, brand-friendly version of Earth Day we have today is detrimental to the very cause for which it ostensibly exists.

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Earth Day must die because its existence allows for the illusion of action amid a fog of feel-good celebration, as if the climate is not currently on a collision course with catastrophe. Yes, Earth Day provides a handy anniversary for politicians to take real climate action, but the day itself has become scenery rather than the engine for change that we desperately need.

We need a new Earth Day with as much potency as the first Earth Day if we are to address the challenges that lay before us. We need a new idea to blast apart the partisan divides and monied forces that have wrecked the climate for power and profit. We need a newfound spark that, like the first Earth Day, further marries the movement for racial equality with a revolution in clean energies. And we need leaders who can help us ensure that this crucial moment of hope does not evaporate into a vapor of eternal failure.

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Abandoned Oil Pipelines Are a Disaster Waiting to Happen in the Gulf of Mexico

A rig and supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana.

A rig and supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana.
Photo: Gerald Herbert (AP)

Seems like no one is keeping an eye on what polluters are doing in the Gulf of Mexico. For decades, the federal government has allowed the oil and gas industry to abandon almost all ocean pipeline infrastructure it no longer uses without further cleanup—and barely monitors the safety of active pipelines still in use today, a new watchdog report found.

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The report was released Monday by the Governmental Accountability Office, a nonpartisan arm of the federal government tasked with reviewing spending, policies, and procedures for various agencies and departments. The numbers are pretty damning. According to GAO, there are more than 18,000 miles (28,968 kilometers) of abandoned, unused pipelines running along the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico alone. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the agency in the Interior Department responsible for underwater pipeline safety, technically requires pipeline operators to remove the pipelines after they are retired, but allows for some pipelines to be decommissioned-in-place—which, the report found, it has done for 97% of the pipelines built since the 1960s.

Even though these pipelines could still contain oil or other chemicals and pose a hazard to both the environment and human ocean activity—between 2015 and 2019, almost 90 trawlers reported getting stuck on old pipelines—the report found that BSEE doesn’t monitor the environment where the trashed pipelines are left, or require that the owners clean the pipelines left behind. The agency, in fact, does “not observe any pipeline decommissioning activities, inspect pipelines after their decommissioning, or verify most of the pipeline decommissioning evidence submitted,” the GAO found. Sounds great!

The report came out the day before the 11th anniversary of the disastrous BP disaster in the Gulf, where an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, caused partially by faulty safety equipment, killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Given the anniversary, the report’s conclusions that the government is essentially not paying attention to what the industry is doing underwater is especially worrisome.

Megan Milliken Biven, an energy policy researcher, said that she wasn’t surprised by these huge numbers of abandoned pipelines. From 2010 to 2018, Milliken Biven worked at the Bureau of Ocean Management, an agency under the Department of the Interior that works closely with BSEE. While working there, she came across the issue of abandoned ocean pipelines.

“I was like, holy shit, this is a big thing,” she said. “And there were a lot of people in the agency like, ‘holy shit, this is a big thing.’ But it was just one of those things that was like, ‘well, we’ve always done it this way.’”

Doing things this way has created incredibly dangerous conditions for the Gulf’s ecosystems already hit hard by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill,. These old pipelines can hold up new conservation measures as well. In 2020, officials in Louisiana had to add $2.2 million to a restoration project on a barrier island after they discovered a tangle of buried, abandoned oil and gas pipelines.

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“The pipelines can get pushed around by wind,” said Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “They’re out there damaging fish habitat. It’s unclear if they were ever cleaned of oil and stuff like that, so they could be leaking toxins into the environment.”

Meanwhile, there are also still 8,600 miles (13,840 kilometers) of active oil and gas pipelines in the Gulf that operate, the report found, with minimal and inadequate government oversight. The Interior Department, the GAO said, relies heavily on monthly ocean surface observations, conducted by helicopter or by boat, to patrol for oil sheens or gas bubbles to make sure there aren’t leaks and that everything is functioning as it should. But pipelines or wells that are leaking don’t always send oil to the surface, and when they do, ocean currents can carry the material miles away from the actual source of the problem. This makes it “difficult, if not impossible, to associate [sheens and bubbles] with a specific pipeline,” Interior officials told the GAO. The report goes on to note that “relying on surface observations could allow leaks—particularly slow leaks in deep water that are dispersed by currents—to go undetected for extended periods of time.” With 44% of these active pipelines were installed before 2000, the risk of ruptures is increasing.

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“There’s studies out there saying that after 20 years, the probability of failure increases rapidly,” Sakashita said. “What we’re looking at is old, corroded pipelines that are still out there and active and could have oil spills.”

One of the most frustrating things about the report is how easy some of the safety solutions to these problems are—and how the government is lagging behind in implementing them, or just not taking any action at all. For instance, if the government began simply enforcing its own rule that pipelines be removed from the ocean floor rather than allow nearly all pipelines to be decommissioned in place, it would go a long way in making sure the Gulf is a safer place. Even the simplest cleanup requirement or oversight for decommissioned-in-place pipelines would be a step up from the basically zero enforcement that goes on today.

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There could be some legal avenues to pursue getting pipeline companies to clean up their messes. Miliken Biven said she thinks that the regulations would allow a state or NGO to sue the pipeline’s original operator if the pipeline “constitutes an obstruction”—especially in states like Louisiana and Texas that may have seen conservation project costs increase because of abandoned pipelines or want to start an offshore wind industry that would be hampered by old pipelines.

When asked if the Center for Biological Diversity was considering filing any suits on these grounds, Sakashita said the group is “looking into our legal options to require better enforcement and removal of the pipelines.”

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The abandoned pipelines also present a big opportunity for the government to create remediation jobs. A movement is growing on land to recruit out-of-work fossil fuel workers to clean up the millions of abandoned oil wells littering the country. President Joe Biden set aside $16 billion in his jobs plan for “union jobs” to clean up wells and mines. BSEE already has a policy requiring the removal of abandoned rigs and platforms, and Miliken Biven said mimicking that policy for abandoned pipelines could create jobs.

“All the workers who are sitting dockside—that would be a huge boon,” she said.

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Worn Out: The Challenge of Shopping for Sustainable Clothes

Earth Day is swiftly approaching, and that means my inbox is full of promotional emails from clothing brands announcing that they’re becoming “sustainable” or making “eco-friendly” products. But it turns out those labels don’t mean much.

Neither do other environmental buzzwords common in fashion marketing like “green,” “natural,” “clean,” or “ethical.” That’s because these terms lack concrete legal definitions, meaning brands don’t have to meet specific criteria to use them.

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As public concern about the climate crisis, pollution, and other ecological issues grows—particularly among millennials coveted by brands—more of us are searching for ways to shop that don’t make these issues worse. One report found that web searches for “sustainable fashion” tripled between 2016 and 2019. Companies want customers; customers want more Earth-friendly options. It’s no wonder that so many brands slapping these vague terms on labels in an attempt to woo people.

Some companies are trying to do better. But for many others, squishy marketing words are all there are. Many brands printing the term “sustainable” on packaging without making any real changes. There’s a word for that: greenwashing.

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Annoyingly, greenwashing is another term that hasn’t been legally defined. Wren Montgomery, an assistant professor of sustainability at Western University’s Ivey Business School in Canada, said it’s the kind of thing you recognize when you see. In a 2020 report on the phenomenon, she and a colleague also attempted to nail down a working definition of the term, and came up with the following: “Communication that misleads people into forming overly positive beliefs about an organization’s environmental practices or products.”

Greenwashing is widespread, and can make it really difficult for shoppers who are attempting to shop for clothes that don’t wreck the planet.

“We’ve seen data [that shows] these terms are really confusing people,” she said.

Don’t get me wrong: There are some green terms often found on packaging and labels that actually have clear meanings. One example is “organic,” which refers to a certification doled out by the Department of Agriculture to brands that meet specific criteria. You can debate whether or not those federal standards are strong enough, but to claim something is “organic,” brands have to prove it.

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There are also organizations working to assess brands’ environmental impacts. The nonprofit Stand.Earth, for instance, created the Filthy Fashion Scorecard to rate clothing companies’ climate commitments. It’s a bummer—it found that barely any of them actually met the standards of the Paris Climate Accord—but it can be a great resource for anyone having trouble choosing where to shop for clothes.

Ultimately, though, our personal choices aren’t going to clean up the fashion industry, which contributes to the climate crisis, creates piles and piles of waste, and otherwise screws up natural ecosystems. We’ve got to fight for stricter standards for the fashion industry as a whole and push our elected officials to force companies to clean up their acts. Then, we wouldn’t need to search for green labels, because all clothing would truly be sustainable.

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Don’t Watch Netflix’s Seaspiracy

A film still from Seaspiracy.

A film still from Seaspiracy.
Image: Gizmodo (Fair Use)

Yesterday, the sun was shining bright, and birds were chirping outside my window, and the buds were really starting to coming out on the trees. It was a stupidly perfect day really, and I had to go ruin it all by watching Seaspiracy.

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The Netflix documentary has been among the streaming service’s most popular films since coming out in late March, and yet nearly every marine scientist I’ve seen talking about it has wanted to see the movie sunk into the Challenger Deep, never to be seen again due to rampant misinformation. I’ll leave much of the debunking of the bad science in the film to the subject matter experts. (That includes some of those quoted in the film, who have also said they were misrepresented.) What’s just as disturbing about Seaspiracy, though, is the facile way it frames up how to solve the problems facing the ocean and society in the privileged vegan bro savioriest way possible.

The premise of Seaspiracy is that Ali Tabrizi, its director and narrator, wanted to make a movie about the wonders of the ocean, but quickly got freaked out that humans’ actions were strangling the seas. It chronicles his transition from doing local beach cleanups to getting concerned about whaling and going to the infamous cove in Taiji, Japan, where dolphin slaughters take place on the regular. That sets off a round-the-world trip and interviews with nearly three dozen experts or people involved in the fishing industry.

Throughout the film, Tabrizi argues that the real issues affecting the ocean are not what the mainstream media would have you believe while simultaneously showing news clippings and studies covered in the news to try and make his points. Climate change gets shrugged off, and so does plastic pollution from land. Straws? Perish the thought! Instead, Tabrizi’s film takes issue with ghost fishing gear, a topic widely covered in the media including this very site, and slavery at sea, the subject of a major New York Times investigation in 2015. I understand not everyone is reading ocean news all day, every day, but the repackaging of it by Tabrizi and then yelling, “why is nobody covering this???” is a nice story that’s just completely false.

Misrepresenting journalism and academics isn’t the only issue, though. Throughout it all, Tabrizi plays up racial tropes. The bad guys are Asians, specifically Japanese whale and dolphin hunters and Chinese consumers of shark fin soup. The good guys—in this case, the experts he cites—are mostly white. Christina Hicks, one of the only people of color in the film with a speaking role and a scientist at the Lancaster Environment Center, tweeted it was “[u]nnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love & have committed your career to.” The voices of people who are actually on the front lines of fisheries are largely absent outside of his interviews with three men who were slaves aboard Thai fishing boats that take up a relatively small portion of the film.

There’s a scene off the coast of Liberia after Sea Shepherd activists and Liberian officials intercept an illegal Chinese fishing boat where Tabrizi and the crew also see Liberian men out in a canoe subsistence fishing far from shore. Yet the film goes no further than showing them as victims of commercial and illegal fishing rather than engaging them as subjects in the debate. (Obviously, this would be tough to facilitate on the high seas, but it’s a real missed opportunity that nothing could be arranged once all parties were back on land.)

What Tabrizi is documenting in his film is the failure of multiple systems, including the parts he glazes over. The oceans are in deep trouble. Climate change is causing the oceans to overheat and acidify. Just 88 companies are responsible for half of all ocean acidification. If climate change continues unchecked, the world’s leading scientists have warned, oceans face “unprecedented conditions” by the middle of this century. The fish Tabrizi says he wants to save won’t exist anymore if we ignore it.

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At the same time, plastic pollution is spiraling out of control from fishing gear to failed recycling programs. Overfishing is also putting pressure on the high seas, and industrial fishing is responsible for everything from slavery and human rights abuses to dumping pollution. It is literally everything humans fucking do—or more accurately, what a few large corporations do thanks to decades of political entrenchment.

To address these problems will require major systemic overhauls of how we manage fisheries, more stringent conservation measures, and bringing fossil fuel companies to account. Seaspiracy’s answer, though, is much more basic: go vegan. The end of the film features a flurry of pro-vegan doctors with a past of somewhat questionable statements and views as well as a vegan seafood company all talking about the wonders of plant-based diets over shots of said vegan seafood.

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And that, in a nutshell, is the issue with the entire film. The film is produced by the same guy behind Cowspiracy, another pro-vegan film that sidesteps other systemic issues and misrepresents science. That explains why the filmmakers didn’t opt for calling it Conspirasea, which was right there for the taking, and also why the only “systemic” solution on the table is individual change, which is wholly inadequate. It also gives no agency to those who depend on fisheries for subsistence or income.

Instead, it comes off as ‘I alone can fix this problem I have only recently learned about,’ and that solution is my preferred method. Tabrizi has been proselytizing about, veganism, since at least 2015, according to archived videos, and directed a film called Vegan in 2018. In one of his archived videos, he says, “Auschwitz was basically designed off factory farming at the time. That’s how Hitler came up with a way to treat the Jews.” So when Tabrizi reaches that veganism is the only answer at the end of Seaspiracy, it’s important to keep that context in mind—whether the research for the film led him to that conclusion or vice versa.

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Look, I would crush a vegan shrimp taco or faux fish and chips any day of the week. And if you want to after watching Seaspiracy, that’s great. Let’s have a picnic in the park and go back to brunch or whatever.

But if you want to actually fix the gratuitous human rights abuses in the fishing industry, the greenwashed labeling system for sustainable fish, and stop climate change, then going vegan ain’t it. Last time I checked, veganism doesn’t reduce plastic in the ocean. Nor does it end climate change or the dominance of the fossil fuel industry. I haven’t heard of it solving slavery either, but vegans, please sound off in the comments if you must.

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The issue of presenting a relatively simple solution to the huge interlocking crises we face is hardly limited to Seaspiracy. It’s tough to come up with a simple line about how someone watching a film can take down the fossil fuel industry, blow up capitalism, or advocate for salmon farms that are actually sustainable. And it’s very easy to just go down the well-trod road of highlighting one solution that aligns with the filmmakers’ values.

I don’t doubt that the film is well-intentioned with its call to go vegan, either. There are ample reasons for most Americans to cut down their meat consumption, from the climate crisis to animal rights to health. The same is true for seafood, including the negative impacts on biodiversity and human rights. We do need impassioned defenses of everything wondrous about our world before we lose it forever.

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“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” oceanographer Sylvia Earle tells Tabrizi in the film’s final scene.

In the case of Seaspiracy, though, Tabrizi is only asking you to do one thing. And that one note is a pretty sour note in light of all the problems we need to address.

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Creepy Eco-Horror Film Gaia Reminds You Not to Mess With Earth

Monique Rockman in Gaia.

Monique Rockman in Gaia.
Photo: Film Initiative Africa

io9 ReviewsReviews and critical analyses of fan-favorite movies, TV shows, comics, books, and more.

The great thing about horror is it can come from anywhere. Sure, we’re familiar with gore, monsters, and murderers, but truly anything can scare you or kill you. Case in point, the burgeoning genre of eco-horror, which makes it very clear that the world we live in right now will eventually kill us all due to climate change. You can now add a must-see film to that genre: Gaia, which just had its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

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Gaia joins the ranks of other eco-horror films which include titles like Annihilation, The Happening, The Ruins, In the Earth, and more. It starts off ultra simple; We meet park rangers Gabi and Winston (Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi) who are researching in a South African jungle when their drone goes missing. Gabi goes off to find it but becomes separated from Winston and eventually captured by a father and son who, seemingly, live alone in the jungle.

Written by Tertius Kapp and directed by Jaco Bouwer, Gaia’s main mystery is why and how these two white men, Barend (Carel New) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk), live the way they do. Besides covering their skins in mud, using homemade bow and arrows, and saying a daily prayer to a mysterious forest god, they also shield themselves from some kind of deadly spore and have the ability to heal wounds incredibly quickly. All of this fascinates Gabi who is both scared and fascinated by the father and son.

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Carel New stars in Gaia.
Photo: Film Initiative Africa

The tone set by all of this is one of dread and intrigue. A tone that permeates the whole film and increases when we finally get a taste of what is out in the darkness. Which, if you’ve ever played The Last of Us or Resident Evil, will scare you even more. No, it’s not zombies, but the beings haunting the forest almost look like the underwater, barnacle-infused, coral-filled monsters from those games, complete with the unpredictable movements and clicking noises. Which, on their own, are scary enough. But it doesn’t answer why Barend and Stefan would willingly choose to live among them. That’s where Gaia gets really interesting and the environment horror comes in. You see, the two men believe the jungle itself—more specifically herself—is starting to take back the planet that’s long been hers. The mystery and scares deepen from there.

Gaia works for a few reasons. The first is the way the story unfolds. There’s no fat on the edges—everything is very clear, direct, and easy to understand…until it isn’t and shouldn’t be. The performances are top-notch also, with Rockman, in particular, blending so many emotional states we never quite know exactly what she’s thinking and feeling because she’s obviously thinking and feeling a great deal. There are sparse special effects but they’re highly effective when they’re utilized, raising the tension and horror for everyone involved.

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From the design of creatures down to the costumes, effects, and more, Gaia certainly has its roots in many other films. But even so, it’s rarely predictable. Near the end, things do get a little overly esoteric and vague but it still works in broad strokes. The result is a satisfying, scary, highly cautionary tale about what humanity is doing to itself and the planet. Which, like the rest of Gaia, isn’t necessarily a new message, but this a welcome reminder in a solid new take.

Gaia just had its world premiere at SXSW and does not yet have distribution.

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