Welcome, Ensia!

Ensia calls itself “a new magazine and event series showcasing environmental solutions in action.”

Read that description carefully and you’ll see how this media venture  got its  name. It took me a while.

Even as the traditional press continues to shrink–my former employer, Time Inc., just this week eliminated another 500 jobs, or 6% of its workforce–new outlets arise. I’ve been particularly impressed lately by the work of such nonprofit underwriters of journalism as Pro Publica, EnvironmentalHealthNews and the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Ensia, too, is a nonprofit, published by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, which formerly published a magazine called Momentum, and funded by a major grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which supports environmental causes.

voice-green-investing-gunther-mainI’m pleased to be a contributor. Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment (and a lively presence on Twitter as @globalecoguy), asked me to write an occasional opinion piece about business and sustainability. My first one looks at some issues raised by Bill McKibben’s campaign to get institutional investors to divest from fossil fuel companies, and how individual investors might want to think about divesting. Here’s how it begins:

In the investing world, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. When it comes to climate science, predicting the future is more straightforward: If we burn all of the fossil fuels on the books of the big oil, coal and gas companies—2,795 gigatons, to be precise—or even most of them, we’re headed for trouble. Bill McKibben, the writer and environmental activist, calls this global warming’s terrifying new math. In response, McKibben and his allies at 350.org have launched a coast-to-coast campaign to persuade colleges, universities, churches, foundations and, yes, people like you and me, to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry.

“It does not make sense,” McKibben says, “to invest my retirement money in a company whose business plan means that there won’t be an earth to retire on.”

His logic is unassailable. But divestment alone won’t deliver the change we need—only political action can do that. And, while it is possible to cleanse your personal portfolio of fossil fuels, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Here’s why.

You can read the rest of the column here. I’m going to dive into this topic in more depth here on the blog in a day or two.

Meantime, browse around Ensia. I think it’s off to a good start.

Google, Jane Goodall, forests and the cloud

Not long ago, the only people who could access and analyze satellite images of the earth were government officials, the military, well-equipped scientists and oil, gas and mining companies.

Today, anyone with a computer and Internet connection can access to Google Earth. Since its introduction in 2005, Google Earth has become a powerful tool for scientists, activists and ordinary citizens who want to better understand, monitor and communicate about the environment.

It’s not just westerners either: Tanzanian villagers are working with the Jane Goodall Institute to monitor deforestation and identify chimpanzee habitats and elephant paths. Indigenous tribes in Brazil can map their lands and track illegal logging and mining. All they need are mobile phones equipped with cameras and GPS technology.

What’s more, the technology is getting better all the time. Last week in Copenhagen during the UN climate negotiations, Google Earth announced that it has worked with experts in remote sensing to build a new platform that incorporates satellite images, massive data and online computing power, making it easier, faster and cheaper to analyze forest ecosystems. (See this and this at the google.org blog.) It’s currently being tested by a handful of organizations, but will be rolled out more widely before long. The red spots on map below, for example, show new deforestation in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.


On my way home from Copenhagen, I learned about these new developments from Lilian Pintea, who is the director of conservation science at the Jane Goodall Institute, which is best known for its pioneering research on chimpanzee behavior. We met when we missed a connection in Geneva, so we arranged to have dinner during the layover. [click to continue…]