Environmental Surf Film Journeys into the Great Bear Rainforest

Part enviro documentary, part surf film, Tipping Barrels was created by Canadian surf brand Sitka, in collaboration with Pacific Wild. Although the film has a clear message, it doesn’t feel too “activist.” My impression is that the team set out to produce a work of art first and an advocacy piece second. As a result, you can appreciate the beautiful shots of rainforest and wildlife without delving into politics–at the same time, you can’t help but realize how much beauty and life is at stake.

I think this is a smart way to produce a documentary, even from an activist perspective. Tipping Barrels doesn’t preach. It’s basically a story of two guys looking to catch some waves off the coast of British Columbia. The stunning landcape visuals draw you in, and the poignant interviews make an understated but undeniable point.

Background: Oil and Rainforests Don’t Mix

The Enbridge Northern Gateway, the pipeline mentioned in the film, would pump tar sands  over 2,000 miles from Alberta to British Columbia (map here)–think of it as Keystone XL’s northern cousin. Like TransCanada’s project, the Northern Gateway is intended to help Canadian tar sands companies reach growing markets in Asia. In doing so, it will cross hundreds of streams and rivers, ending at the port of Kitimat in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Enbridge’s Northern Gateway has the distinction of threatening one of the most pristine temperate ecosystems in the world. From Kitimat, tankers would carry the oil along British Columbia’s rugged coastline, home to a huge range of wildlife, from the economically essential salmon to the enigmatic spirit bear.

The industrial infrastructure needed to ship oil would be destructive enough by itself. And I don’t even need to describe what an oil spill on the B.C. coast would entail–just picture BP’s mess in a rainforest. Even something on the scale of the recent Montana oil spill would be disastrous.

The Northern Gateway faces stiff opposition, especially from First Nations communities, who have united against the pipeline. Largely due to the controversy, the final decision on Enbridge’s proposal has been delayed until 2013. But, like Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway has a lot of money and political power behind it, so it’s definitely not dead yet.


Green Graffiti by Edina Tokodi Brings Nature to the City


Urban art installations and murals can challenge authority and subvert establishment, or just decorate a bleak concrete landscape. Sometimes, they can earn their creators wealth and fame. But the most compelling works show us a new way of seeing the world around us. They make us ask questions about our environment and our role in it.

We’ve covered the reverse graffiti trend, which seeks to build a conversation about the urban disconnect (and land a few ad jobs in the process). Today, I want to show you another vision of eco street art: the work Edina Tokodi.

Born in Hungary and now based in Brooklyn, Tokodi brightens the streets of Williamsburg with living moss murals. Check it:

Green graffiti by Edina Tokodi

According to Tokodi’s web site,

Her site-specific installations are inspired by Japanese Zen gardens and informed by the space’s environs, whether organic or man-made. Often sheathed in steel, glass, pavement and stone, the installations provide an unavoidable contrast to their surroundings. It is within this contrasting atmosphere, that her installations invite interaction, thus reclaiming the human bond with nature.

Eco street art by Edina TokodiTokodi is the founder Mosstika, “a NYC based collective of eco-minded street artists, using guerrilla tactics to evoke the call of man back to nature.” By bringing nature into the urban experience, the moss art leads us to wonder, What if this were not concrete and bricks, but trees and grass? How would that change things? 

Eco street art by Edina Tokodi

Just as intriguing are Tokodi’s living portraits–intricate designs made entirely from succulents. Like Impressionist paintings, the patterns seem somewhat abstract up close; at a distance, they come together to form a clear image. Squint and you can almost imagine you’re looking at a photograph.

At its best, a stenciled mural is inherently superficial. Even when designed to show depth, it’s still just a wall with paint on it. Tokodi’s pieces, on the other hand, are part of the physical environment, not just decoration. They are meant to be touched.

You can see more of Edina Tokodi’s green graffiti at Mosstika.com, or on the Behance Network. And, as always, I’m interested to hear what you think about “living” art and the role of street art in our society. Can urban murals go further than expression and affect culture more deeply? How might green art translate to green activism?

[Images: Mosstika on Behance]

Worried About Shark Attacks? The Sharks are the Ones That Should be Scared

With Shark Week drawing to a close, the ocean’s top predator is swimming through many Americans’ minds. But even if you haven’t been tuned in to the Discovery Channel, you might have heard that there were 79 shark attacks in 2010, up 25 percent from the year before.

That’s not quite correct. There were actually millions of shark attacks last year. In all but those 79, the sharks were the victims.

We’ve all heard that the chances of getting bitten, not to mention eaten, by a shark are extremely low, as humans are not sharks’ normal prey. But it only takes a few horror stories (and a blockbuster film or two) to make us fear and loathe the cartilaginous hunters.

The truth is that sharks have much more reason to be afraid of us. Worldwide, less than 10 people per year die from shark attacks, while between 20 million and 100 million sharks are killed by humans. Some sharks are killed for sport, but most are killed for profit, the fins being especially valuable. As renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle explains in her book The World is Blue, 

In 1980, designated as the “Year of the Ocean” in the United States, a perverse but well-intended campaign was intiiated at NOAA to help fishermen by developing markets for sharks as “underutilized species” and by fostering new connections to Asian consumers. In two decades, fears about man-eating sharks shifted to man…eating sharks….

For centuries, soup made from the fins of sharks has been a traditional but rare treat in China, the primary attraction being the difficultury of obtaining the vital ingredients…. By the end of the 20th century, however, new wealth in Asia and new means of finding, catching, and marketing sharks made shark-fin soup much more commonplace.

Because shark fins are in higher demand than meat, fishermen haul their catches on deck, slice the fins off, and throw the still-living sharks overboard. As many as 73 million sharks die each year from this practice.

Shark finning is illegal in the U.S., but a loophole allows shark fins to be imported into California. Ocean Conservancy, NRDC, and other conservation groups are campaigning for a bill to ban the trade of shark fins–you can sign the petition here, even if you don’t live in California. Change.org also has a petition asking Food Network to stop featuring recipes that include shark meat.

Sharks have survived for 400 million years, but humans may manage to wipe them out in a geological heartbeat. About a third of shark species are endangered, with some populations declining 90 percent in recent years. And any ecologist will tell you that eliminating top predators can have a disastrous effect on an ecosystem.

Of course, sharks aren’t the only fish in trouble. After decades of irresponsible fishing, we are beginning to realize that the ocean does not have an infinite capacity to restore wildlife. In 2003, nearly a third of marine fisheries were in a state of collapse, and research indicates that the remaining stocks could be gone within 50 years.

Entire books have been written on the causes and impacts of this decline, but the solutions are not out of reach. In your daily life, you can choose to buy sustainable seafood (Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guide will help you with that). On a political level, you can join the effort to restore the oceans–for example, Mission Blue, founded by the brilliant Ms. Earle, is working to establish marine protected areas, or “hope spots.”

We named our planet Earth because that’s where our species dwells, but it would be more accurate to call it Ocean. We hear a lot about saving the earth; now we need a new worldwide effort to save the seas. Sharks are a good place to begin.

And if we can save the oceans, we just might save the humans in the process.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Green Entrepreneur Ted Nordquist Brings a Sustainable Philosophy to the Business World (Part 2)

This is the second part of my interview with WholeSoy founder Ted A. Nordquist. (You can read Part 1 here.) In addition to running his soy yogurt company, Mr. Nordquist serves on the technical advisory board for the Non-GMO Project. So it’s not surprising that a large part of the discussion focused on the risks and ethics of genetically engineered foods.

GMO stands for genetically modified organism, a life form created by combining genes that would not come together in nature.

“The best example is a tomato that is resistant to frost,” Nordquist says. To create this plant, “[biotech researchers] take a gene from the DNA of an arctic fish that is cold-resistant and inject it into the DNA of a tomato plant. But the tomato plant DNA won’t accept the gene, so they take a virus called a marker gene,  attach it to the fish gene, and shoot it into the DNA of the tomato plant.”

While people have been hybridizing plants for centuries, genetic engineering is different. Using traditional breeding methods, you could combine separate tomato plants to produce a desired characteristic, such as larger fruit. But you couldn’t combine a fish with a tomato.

Genetic engineering is a way of breaking the rules, or “reprogramming the operating system of nature,” as Nordquist puts it. Because this form of genetics is relatively new, its consequences are largely unknown.

The problem, Nordquist says, is that DNA is extremely complex (one strand has enough information to fill the Library of Congress), and researchers don’t completely understand its workings. Many people, including Nordquist, believe there is not enough evidence to declare genetically engineered food safe. “It’s a huge human experiment.”

Due to the uncertainty surrounding GMOs, several countries have banned or restricted them, and the European Union requires GMO foods to be labeled. But no such measures have been passed in the United States, thanks to lobbying by the biotech industry.

What advantages do GMO plants offer? In many cases, they can increase productivity. For instance, a farmer who plants herbicide-resistant corn can spray Roundup on his fields without killing the crop. GM has also been used to make vegetables more nutritious and to give them a longer shelf life.

Even for farmers, GMOs have their downsides. When using conventional plants, a farmer can collect the seeds and replant them year after year. However, Nordquist explains that this is not possible with GMO plants, because the engineered organisms are considered the property of the company that invented them. No one else has the right to reproduce the “name-brand” plant varieties.

“What [biotech companies] are after,” Nordquist warns, “is control of the food chain.” If the industry keeps progressing the way it is, “someday in the future, some guys in black suits will show up at a small Asian farm and tell the farmer that he has to pay them a dollar an acre, or they will sue him” because he is planting a seed they created.

The power to change the GMO situation lies in the hands of consumers. That is why groups like the Non-GMO Project are working to educate shoppers. The Non-GMO project is also pioneering a labeling system for certified GMO-free foods.

Third-party certification is an important tool for buyers that want to support Non-GMO foods. Many people do not realize that up to 90 percent of corn and 92 percent of soybean acreage in the U.S. is genetically modified. And the “USDA organic” sticker does not necessarily indicate a GMO-free product.

After discussing the concrete issues of green business and genetic engineering, Nordquist returns to philosophy—a subject with which he seems fittingly comfortable.

“The only way people will be able to survive on the planet,” he says, “is if they can come in contact with their fundamental natural essence, a sense of comfort, being at peace with themselves.”

It is this deeper sense of nature than makes Nordquist stand out among other green business leaders. For him, social responsibility isn’t just a buzzword. He is committed to sustainability because he believes it’s the right thing to do—and he isn’t afraid to say so.

Nordquist closes with a hopeful message for the future: “Everyone has inside them the essential program that runs the universe. If people become one with that innate essence, that essence of love and joy… everything will be all right.”