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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: I’m tired of binge-watching dramas on Netflix. What are some of the best environmental documentaries that have come out recently? -- Scott Andersen, Joplin, MO

While potent in its day as the film that put climate change on the public radar, An Inconvenient Truth, now a decade old, is hardly the last word in green documentaries anymore. Perhaps that honor will go to Disobedience, a 35-minute paean to how grassroots activism can be the lever that finally topples the dominance of fossil fuels. The film’s producers hope to spark new interest in fighting global warming.

Released on April 30 via hundreds of self-organized watch-parties and dozens of independent cinemas—while hundreds of thousands more viewers stream it for free online—Disobedience includes interviews with some of the most renowned voices in the global discourse around social movements and climate change. Conversations with environmental luminaries including author/activist Bill McKibben and filmmaker and globalization critic Naomi Klein are interwoven with riveting verité footage of everyday people organizing and fighting for a livable climate. 

Another new climate-oriented doc is The Cross of the Moment, which producers describe as “a deep-green, deep-time discussion of the environmental crisis...that attempts to connect the dots between Fermi’s Paradox, climate change, capitalism and collapse.” The 80-minute film, available for free streaming on Vimeo, features interviews with top scientists and public intellectuals woven together into a narrative that critics praise as “challenging, exhausting and unflinching.” A host of experts such as doomsday climatologist Guy McPherson and Beat poet and bioregionalism guru Gary Snyder discuss humanity’s prospects for surviving catastrophic climate change.

Another solid choice is last year’s Revolution, an epic adventure into the evolution of life on Earth and the revolution to save it. Director Rob Stewart, best known for his award-winning 2008 doc Sharkwater, spent four years and travelled to 15 different countries to produce Revolution, which brings viewers face-to-face with sharks, lemurs, seahorses and cuttlefish among other amazing creatures. Through it all, Stewart stays positive and showcases activists and individuals around the world who are winning the battle to save the ecosystems we all depend on for survival.

Still others include: Fossil Free, which chronicles the mission of impassioned climate activists around the world; Our Rising Oceans, where scientists in Antarctica show us how climate change is already spawning dire consequences; Fractured Earth, in which everyday Pennsylvanians take on Big Oil in trying to keep fracking off their land; and Oil and Water, an examination of the uneasy alliance between the fishing and oil and gas industries in coastal Louisiana.

Meanwhile, a new breed of YouTube-savvy filmmakers is calling into question whether long-form documentaries are still relevant, given viewers’ shorter attention spans and ability to click away in a flash to something more engaging. To wit, activist, artist and filmmaker Jordan Brown (AKA Jore) has released a series of short films on YouTube that focus on the interface between the dominant culture and the real impact on people, society and the environment. His 11-minute piece, Forget Shorter Showers, for instance, lays out the case for why people need to do much more than just take individual actions if they want to save themselves and the planet. Jore argues that only through organizing and working together can we directly challenge the industrial systems leading us down the path to planetary destruction.

CONTACTS: Disobedience, www.watchdisobedience.com; The Cross of the Moment, www.crossofthemoment.com; Revolution, www.therevolutionmovie.com; Jore, www.jore.cc.


Dear EarthTalk: I’m finally ready to make the switch from my old gas guzzler to an electric or plug-in hybrid car. What are the best bang-for-my-buck deals on these newfangled vehicles?
    -- Mickey LaMonte, Boston, MA

With each new model year, automakers continue to expand their offerings of affordable and fun plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. While consumers obviously want these new cars, this year’s phase-in of President Obama’s higher automotive fuel efficiency standards have given automakers another reason to step up the manufacturing of less consumptive vehicles that compete in price with their gas and diesel counterparts. Also, new car buyers can cash in on up to $7,500 in federal tax incentives (and possibly more from their own state—check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy to find out) to help defray the costs of getting into an EV or plug-in hybrid. What this means is that giving up gas has never been so easy—or cheap.

A case in point is Ford’s redesigned C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid that gives drivers a range of up to 500 miles as well as 19 miles of all-electric driving for under $28,000 factoring in the federal tax rebate. Not to be outdone, General Motors’ Chevrolet brand is coming on strong with several of its own affordable EVs and plug-in hybrids. The Spark Electric gets more than 80 miles per charge and can be had for less than $19,000. Chevy fans looking for a beefier engine and torquier ride can opt for the Volt plug-in hybrid, which runs for 380 miles using its gas engine as a generator or 38 miles on electric battery power alone—all for less than $27,000.

Meanwhile, German automakers continue to innovate on the electric vehicle front. BMW’s all-electric I3 EV zooms from zero to 60 in seven quiet seconds and, despite its punky look, drives just like a...Beemer. The all-electric base version of the I3 can be had for around $35,000 and gets drivers 81 miles per charge, but owners can opt to add a small back-up gas engine (for another $4,000) turning the car into a plug-in hybrid with a 150-mile range.

While Volkswagen may be in the dog house with environmentalists given its diesel emissions cheating scandal, the company is making some amends with the new all-electric version of its zippy sport-tuned hatchback, the e-Golf. Factoring in the federal EV tax credit, customers can drive off in a new e-Golf for less than $23,000—a great deal on a cutting edge fuel efficient vehicle if there ever was one.

If even that seems like too much money, consider an even smaller electric car. Smart’s FourTwo Coupe is a two-seater, around-town EV that will set you back just $13,000 following the federal tax rebate. Another logical choice is Mitsubishi’s similarly compact I-MiEV for under $16,000.

While all these choices are well and good if you need a car ASAP, those willing to wait until next year might want to hold out for Tesla’s forthcoming Model 3, a sporty all-electric sedan with a 215 mile range. The car will retail for $35,000, meaning that consumers should be able to get it for $27,500 after the federal tax rebate). Tesla is hoping that the solid range, sporty drive train and stylish look might just make the Model 3 the “it” EV on the market when it hits showroom floors in 2017.

CONTACTS: Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, www.dsireusa.org; Smart USA, www.smartusa.com; Tesla Motors, www.teslamotors.com.


Dear EarthTalk: Can we ward off the spread of the Zika virus with better environmental management? -- Mary Dornfield, Key Largo, FL

Zika virus, first discovered in Uganda’s Zika Forest in 1947, is transmitted to humans and other mammals through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, and typically causes only a mild and short-term illness (fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis) that likely immunizes the victim from future infections. But a Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly—where the fetal head doesn’t develop to the proper size, leading to other severe fetal brain defects.

Over the last half century, occasional Zika outbreaks have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. But the first confirmed case in the western hemisphere last year in Brazil now has public health experts concerned about its potential to develop into a global pandemic. “Because the Aedes species mosquitoes that spread Zika virus are found throughout the world,” reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), “it is likely that outbreaks will spread to new countries.”

Indeed Zika’s recent “success” in spreading far beyond a few isolated pockets of the tropics may be partly attributable to how we have taken care of the environment in the modern industrial era post-World War II. Durland Fish, a professor of microbial diseases, forestry and environmental studies at Yale University, isn’t surprised Zika has spread widely, given the proclivity of the Aedes mosquito (which is also responsible for spreading dengue fever and chikungunya virus) for inhabiting artificially human-made habitats like tires, cans, plastic containers and rain barrels.

“It doesn’t live in the ground, or in swamps, or any other kinds of places where you would normally find mosquitoes,” reports Fish in a recent Washington Post article. “So humans have created an environment for it to proliferate, by having all of these water containing containers around, and the mosquito has adapted so well…it’s really kind of a human parasite. It’s like the cockroach of the mosquito world.”

And the mismanagement of urban waste is far from the only environmental factor in the spread of Zika. Environmentalists point out that dam-building and deforestation are also significant contributors to increased amounts of standing water where Aedes mosquitos can breed and come into contact with growing human populations. Restoring natural hydrological flows and leaving forests intact would be good defense mechanisms against the spread of mosquito-borne disease of all kinds.

But whether we can contain the warming of the planet as a result of human greenhouse gas emissions might be the single biggest factor in whether we can prevent Zika from morphing into a global public health menace. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that predicted global average temperature increases of two to three degrees Centigrade would make temperate latitudes hotter, in turn exposing several hundred million more people to Aedes species mosquitoes. Malaria, dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases would also surge along with Zika.

“You have to do something about the mosquitoes, and that’s strictly an environmental problem, there’s no medical applications to that,” concludes Fish. “And focusing on that as an environmental issue is going to have the greatest impact on protecting people.”

CONTACT: CDC Zika Virus, www.cdc.gov/zika/; Washington Post, www.goo.gl/5wnxiS; WHO Zika Facts, www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/zika/.


Dear EarthTalk: Why does Donald Trump think we should renegotiate the Paris climate agreement? And will he be able to pull it off if he does get elected President?
  -- Betsy Edgewater, Dayton, OH

In a May 2016 interview with Reuters, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump dropped a bombshell on environmentalists: If elected, he would try to renegotiate the landmark Paris COP21 climate accord agreed to by 177 nations (including the U.S.) in December 2015. Calling the agreement “one-sided” and “bad for the United States,” Trump said he’s “not a big fan because other countries don’t adhere to it, and China doesn’t adhere to it, and China’s spewing into the atmosphere.” He added that if he takes the Oval Office, he would work to re-negotiate the emissions cuts agreed to by the U.S. at a minimum. “And at maximum, I may do something else.”

Environmentalists immediately jumped on Trump, long a climate naysayer. "This is another example of Trump's dangerous lack of judgment and the very real impacts it could have for all of us," said Gene Karpinski, president of the non-profit League of Conservation Voters. Billionaire environmental financier and NextGen Climate founder Tom Steyer concurred, called Trump’s denunciation of the Paris accord “short-sighted.” He worries that a Trump presidency would be “terribly costly” for the U.S. and would jeopardize the nation’s ability to lead the world out of its climate crisis. “We cannot go backwards on this important step towards a clean energy economy that benefits all our families,” said Steyer.

But try as he might, a President Trump would have a tough time backing out of U.S. commitments under the Paris accord. For starters, a clause in COP21 forces any signatory nations to wait at least four years before withdrawing, meaning Trump couldn’t even disentangle the U.S. until his second term if he even makes it that far. And according to U.S. chief climate envoy Jonathan Pershing, regardless of the outcome of our Presidential election come November, the other signatory countries would remain bound to the terms of the agreement whether Trump likes it or not—so “renegotiating” isn’t really an option.

But Trump could undermine American emissions reduction goals set forth in the agreement by overturning the Obama administration’s domestic Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases from U.S. electrical power generation by a third relative to 2005 levels within 15 years—and is an essential component in the U.S. plan to dramatically scale back emissions.

Joe Romm of ThinkProgress adds that Trump could block the “ratcheting down” of climate targets in the future called for under the terms of the Paris agreement to ensure that participating nations don’t backslide after meeting initial commitments. “His threat to blow up the only process we have to avoid multiple irreversible catastrophic climate impacts must be taken as seriously as his candidacy,” says Romm.

Environmentalists’ best hope for keeping America’s COP21 commitments alive is to elect a Democrat to the White House in November. For her part, Hillary Clinton would not only abide by U.S. commitments made under COP21 but would rally to surpass them as soon as possible, vowing to cut emissions by up to 30 percent by 2025 and upwards of 80 percent by mid-century. “The United States must lead the global fight against climate change,” Clinton recently commented on the Q&A website Quora. “We can’t wait. There is no Planet B.”

CONTACTS: COP21, www.cop21paris.org; NextGen Climate, www.nextgenclimate.org; ThinkProgress, www.ThinkProgress.org; Quora, www.quora.com.


Dear EarthTalk: Why did Ringling Brothers stop using elephants in its circus performances?
  -- Marianne Lusko, Bern, NC

After enduring years of criticism from animal rights activists, Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, announced in March 2015 that it would phase out the use of endangered Asian elephants in its circus performances within three years. Then, less than a year later, the company said it was expediting the process and would be retiring the 11 elephants still travelling for circus shows even earlier—by May 2016.

These last working circus pachyderms are now able to join 31 of their predecessors at the Center for Elephant Conservation, a 200-acre elephant refuge in central Florida created by Ringling Bros. in 1995 to care for, conserve, breed and study Asian elephants.

“There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” says Alana Feld, the company’s executive vice president. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

No doubt, part of the reason for that mood shift has been the advocacy work of groups like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)—each which has campaigned tirelessly to halt the use of Asian elephants in America’s iconic circus act. Testimonials from former circus employees and photographic evidence provided by these groups helped convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fine Ringling Bros. $270,000 in 2011 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Some of the documented abuses include Ringling Bros. elephants getting whipped and beaten by trainers and “yanked by heavy, sharp steel-tipped bull hooks behind the scenes, prior to performing.” A PETA investigator who travelled with Ringling Bros. for several months documented many of the circus’ elephants swaying and rocking continuously—“neurotic and abnormal behavior typically seen in animals who are suffering from extreme stress, frustration, and boredom.” Meanwhile, baby elephants were “torn away from their mothers and subjected to violent training sessions [to] learn how to perform tricks.” PETA adds that at least 30 elephants, including four babies, have died prematurely from accidents or disease while travelling with Ringling Bros. since 1992.

While circus fans will certainly miss the elephants’ presence in the ring heralding the opening of each show and performing synchronized dance routines, they’ll be glad to know that these lovable and endangered animals will no longer suffer abuse or be exploited for their entertainment value.

That said, Ringling Bros. does continue to use lions, tigers, zebras, llamas, goats, horses, camels and dogs in its circus performances—a fact that animal rights activists remain unhappy about. For its part, PETA wants Ringling Bros. to pull all of its animals from their performances immediately. “Tigers and lions spend most of their lives in cramped transport cages,” the group reports, adding that these and other animals travelling with the circus “are denied everything that is natural and important to them.”

CONTACTS: Ringling Bros., www.ringling.com; Center for Elephant Conservation, www.ringlingelephantcenter.com; PETA, www.peta.org; HSUS, www.hsus.org; ASPCA, www.aspca.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org  . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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