Saturday, January 28, 2006

Search for The Magic Bullet (3rd in a series): Measuring Success--And Failure

Global environmentalism entered the digital age when the 2006 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) was released at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week.

Developed by the Center for Environmental Law & Policy at Yale University and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, the EPI pilot study is the first to measure and analyze how some 133 nations around the world currently perform against 16 indicators of environmental protection.

Overall EPI Scores by country (higher scores reflect better overall performance on a scale of 0-100). Green: 78.8-88.1, Blue: 69.6-78.7, Yellow: 60.3- 69.5, Orange: 51.7-60.2, Red: 25.6-51.6, Gray: no data.

“The EPI centers on two broad environmental protection objectives: (1) reducing environmental stresses on human health, and (2) promoting ecosystem vitality and sound natural resource management,” the report says.

“It’s like holding up a mirror and having someone help you see what you couldn’t see before,” Daniel Esty, Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, told the NY Times. According to the report, “…policymakers in the environmental field have begun to recognize the importance of data and analytically rigorous foundations for decision making.”

The Best & Worst performers

“Top-ranked countries—New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom—all commit significant resources and effort to environmental protection," the report says. "The five lowest-ranked countries—Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Chad, and Niger—are underdeveloped nations with little capacity to invest in environmental infrastructure or aggressive pollution control and systematic natural resource management.”

The US (78.5) ranks well down, and despite its superpower status, barely manages to crack the top-30. The US performs 28th in the world overall, lagging many European nations, Canada and Malaysia. When viewed among the nations of the Americas, our performance on measures for agricultural, forest and fisheries management is dead last.

The Top 10 (Overall EPI Score) are: New Zealand (88.0), Sweden (87.6), Finland (87.0), Czech Republic (86.0), United Kingdom (85.6), Austria (85.2), Denmark (84.2), Canada (84.0), Malaysia (83.3), Ireland (83.3).

Russia (77.5) ranks 33nd, Brazil (77.0) ranks 34th, China (56.2) ranks 94th, India (47.7) ranks 118th.

Establishing A Baseline

The report’s release serves to put a stake in the ground from which policy and policymakers can be measured in the future. “By identifying specific targets and measuring how close each country comes to them,” it says, “the EPI provides a factual foundation for policy analysis and a context for evaluating performance.”

“Environmental health and ecosystem vitality are gauged using sixteen indicators tracked in six policy categories: Environmental Health, Air Quality, Water Resources, Productive Natural Resources, Biodiversity and Habitat, and Sustainable Energy.”

Work In Progress

As a first effort, the index has its shortcomings, both in terms of methodology and utility. The report acknowledges that there is currently a lack of reliable data, gaps in existing data, and limited country coverage.

These remain as problems to be addressed in future efforts. As it is, the report says the EPI “falls short in covering the full spectrum” of environmental issues such as waste management, acid rain, heavy metal exposures, wetland loss and ecosystem fragmentation.

Methodology and results reporting can also sometimes mask underlying problems. “Among middle-ranked countries, performance is uneven,” the report says. “Russia, for example, has top-tier scores in water but disastrously low sustainable energy results. Likewise, Brazil has very high water scores, but low biodiversity indicators. The US stands near the top in environmental health, but ranks near the bottom in management of productive natural resources.”

“The Pilot 2006 EPI represents a ‘work in progress’ meant to stimulate debate on appropriate metrics and methodologies for tracking environmental performance, enable analysis, and highlight the need for increased investment,” the report says.

A Promising And Powerful Tool

Problems notwithstanding, the release of the EPI represents a great accomplishment and an invaluable tool with far-ranging applicability to addressing modern day environmental issues. Considering the magnitude of these issues, and the threat they present to the quality of life on earth, it serves as a model for a scholarly and systematic approach to bringing about positive change, and as a beacon for international cooperation and collaboration.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Search for The Magic Bullet (2nd in a series): Community-based Environmental Protection

A Fairfield County publication, Wilton Magazine, recently "asked people at random for their thoughts on global warming and what government and citizens should do to address it." 9 of 12 respondents focused on what the government should do; just 3 emphasized choices we as citizens can make to bring about change.

The responses are too few to be representative, but suggest many see global climate change as beyond the local purview, and best left to an unspecified government. This at a time when many in politics, universities and think tanks say environmental protection ought to originate on the bottom rung instead, at the local community level.

"'Community-based environmental protection’ has been the poster child for the environmentalism of the future," says Stephen M. Meyer, Professor of Political Science at MIT, and author of a recent study "The Origins of Community-based Environmental Protection." "Everyone from federal officials to people in non-governmental organizations have touted place-based, local initiatives as part of a solution to environmental problems--not just in the US, but globally as well."

Stephen M. Meyer, co-author of the study "The Origins of Community-based Environmental Protection." Photo by Seth Meyer.

The idea is simply that citizens empowered to manage local resources such as watersheds do a better job of it than federal or state governments. Tack on the fact that many issues about global environmental change occur when control over resources is taken out of the hands of local stakeholders and given over to central governments or agencies many times removed, and the argument for community-based environmental protection (CBEP) becomes clear.

Its promise, Meyer writes, is that CBEP may achieve better outcomes than traditional regulatory approaches. The approach integrates local know-how, sensitivities and values; it's collaborative and enables stakeholders to participate equally and can address issues beyond the reach of governments.

"The argument is that local communities can do a better job than some distant bureaucrat in Hartford or Washington," says Meyer. "Of course, when an idea attracts acclaim, from both the left and the right, you have to wonder if there really is something there." Meyer and co-author David M. Konisky chose to look at wetlands protections in Massachusetts to see if CBEP efforts there proved effective.

"All things being equal, you’d think that if we gave decision-making authority to someone at the local level they could do a better job," Meyer says. "I just want to know if that’s true. We’re sort of 'throwing down the gauntlet' to say enough 'touchy-feely' discussion. It’s nice, but what is CBEP really doing for the environment? That’s where we think people need to go, and we’re trying to push that."

Meyer and Konisky compared "bylawed" towns in Massachusetts, which have stronger local wetlands regulations, with "non-bylawed" towns operating under state law, a minimum standard that conservation commissions must observe. "Was there a systematic difference that points toward better environmental outcomes? Yes. Does it makes a difference in the environment? Yes, with some caveats. It’s not huge, but it’s in the right direction."

It is a direction that supports the notion that compelling contexts and real action emerge first at the local level. Where global issues remain intangible and seemingly far off, local issues and occurrences will always draw attention and promise greater potential to stir communities to act. In the search for a magic bullet, a way to motivate public support for issues as expansive and difficult to get your arms around as global climate change, CBEP offers a ray of hope.

"Many problems are still fundamentally local in nature," Meyer says, "and need to be dealt with at that level. Whether or not there will be grizzly bear or buffalo for my grandchildren to see is not a global issue, but a decision to be made by people in Wyoming or Montana. That’s really where it lies."

Getting involved with CBEP is one way individual citizens can work with their neighbors and in their communities to solve environmental issues big and small, global and local, and not wait for "the government" to take action. "It's not an either or proposition," Meyer says. "I’ve noticed that my students are startled to think that they’re part of the problem, but personal responsibility and personal action plays a very big role, especially in the U.S. where consumption levels are extraordinarily high compared to other parts of the world. When you start thinking that the problem is fundamentally about personal choice--which I believe it is--the best solutions are also about personal choice, and are fundamentally local."

"While the government is sleeping, communities can play a very big role in choosing what they should do and how they will do it," Meyer says. "Communities always have the option of setting up and establishing their own guidelines for environmental protection and conservation." Not only will they likely be a whole lot better off, but the world may be better for it, too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Upcoming talks: "Discover Connecticut's Natural Wonders"

Connecticut may seem tame, but it's actually a place where amazing discoveries about geology, dinosaurs, and nature have been made for centuries. Here anyone can explore sites that reveal where continents collided, where communities of dinosaurs once thrived, as well as a great diversity of modern day natural habitats and fisheries.

If you'd like to hear more about the state's incredible natural history and amazing tales about the contributions local scientists have made to our knowledge of the world, come to one of the slide shows I'll be giving in the next few months. Each includes rarely told tales and seldom seen images that are sure to delight. For more information about the program, "Discover Connecticut's Natural Wonders," visit and click on "Upcoming talks."

Saturday, February 18th, Connecticut Audubon Eagle Festival, Essex, 1 pm.

Tuesday, February 28th, Windsor Locks Public Library, Windsor Locks, 7 pm.

Sunday, March 5th, OC Marsh Fellows Program, Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, 10 am.

Tuesday, March 7th, Connecticut Junior Science & Humanities Symposium, UConn Storrs, 1:45pm.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Search For The Magic Bullet (1st in a series): The Environmental Revolution of the 21st Century

In Connecticut, we enjoy wonderful natural places to hike, beaches to comb, minerals and fossils to photograph. On this site we like to talk about trips to do all these things and more. Our hope is that we may enable others to get out and enjoy the state's natural wonders and that by doing so, more come to appreciate the need to conserve them.

From now on, we'll talk also about the urgent search that has begun to find new ways to bring people together and to tackle the great threat to our quality of life: global environmental change. Imagine that the state we leave our kids and grandkids may be one where the shore has been drowned by rising seas, or where maple trees have been removed from the landscape by rising temperatures. Is this the legacy we would choose?

The fact is that if we don't immediately make vast changes in the way we consume materials, goods and energy the choice will be made for us. Patterns of global change seen today are far beyond any seen before in the more than 3 billion year history of life on earth.

"We need to trigger a response that in historical terms will be seen as revolutionary—the Environmental Revolution of the twenty-first century," James Gustave Speth writes in his book, Red Sky at Morning. "Only such a response is likely to avert huge and even catastrophic environmental losses."

A founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and advisor on environmental policy to President Carter, Speth has offered a unique and compelling perspective on the challenge before us. "An extremely important and authoritative book," wrote one reviewer, Simon Levin of Princeton University, the author of Fragile Dominion. "Gus Speth is one of the few people who has the credentials to integrate the scientific aspects of environmental decline with analysis of possible political solutions, and he does so brilliantly."

"One goal should be to find the spark that can set off a period of rapid change," Speth writes, "like the flowering of the domestic environmental agenda in the early 1970s. Part of the challenge is changing the perception of global-scale concerns so that they come alive with the immediacy and reality of our domestic challenges of the 1970s." During that time, key environmental problems were remedied by the passage of federal legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

But the days of central governments simply legislating solutions to our environmental problems have more than likely passed. Nothing short of revolutionary changes in our ways of life, in our homes and communities, will suffice if we want to preserve for our grandkids a state like the one we inhabit today.

What can be done to effect change, to trigger what Speth calls the Environmental Revolution of the 21st century? We have some ideas. We'll talk more about our ideas, things that can be done here in Connecticut, and how to facilitate greater communication among local organizations and citizens in this blog. Please let us know your ideas as well.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Photo Proof Of A Ghostly 'Black Dog of the Hanging Hills?'

It was said to haunt these hills, to foretell doom for some, but the dog had not shown itself for many years--until recently. "I was on top of that mountain when a black dog appeared out of nowhere," says Michael Anastasio, 31, a Meriden native and former US Marine.

"Things just don't sneak up on me without me being aware of them, but I swear this dog just appeared." In describing his encounter with a strange black dog at Castle Craig, the tower visible atop the Hanging Hills just east of West Peak, in 2004, Mike recalls details eerily similar to those of an ancient legend about a mysterious Black Dog believed to be a harbinger of death and disaster (as described in previous post).

"I was doing a panoramic," Mike says, "just taking a few shots of Meriden. When I came around to take a shot of the tower behind me--boom! The dog was there." (above; photo by Michael Anastasio). According to local legend, the Black Dog can be seen to bark, but make no sound. Where it trods the ground it raises no dust, in snow it makes no footprints. Ghostlike, the dog appears as if out of nowhere, and takes its leave just as mysteriously, as it roams over a large area around the hills.

The photo Mike took of the dog he saw in 2004 bears an uncanny resemblance to the image of the Black Dog that appeared in a classic account of two geologists’ ill-fated encounters with “a short haired black dog of moderate size” seen around West Peak written by WHC Pynchon and published in Connecticut Quarterly in 1898.

"I looked around the area, and there were no owners, no other people up there except me and my bro' George," Mike says. Nor did the dog appear to wear a collar or tags. "George said he didn't even see a dog at all, strange in itself because he was just ten feet to my left--very odd. I heard the story of the Black Dog shortly after that day. I've lived in Meriden since I was 6 and that was the first time I've ever been up to the tower."

The sighting of the Black Dog was also a first for Mike. Good thing, too. The legend warns that "if a man shall see the Black Dog once it shall be for joy; and if twice, it shall be for sorrow; and the third time he shall die." Should Mike return to the Hanging Hills and see the dog again, the legend suggests tragedy could ensue. Should Mike return after a second sighting, he would be putting his life at risk.

"I've been back to the top since the photos were taken," Mike says, "and I suppose I did have the legend in mind. I didn't hike this time. I drove up to the top and never saw the 'Black Dog' throughout my visit."

And if he ever does see it again? "If for a second time, a 'Black Dog' just appeared within 6 feet of me, without making a sound, or vanished without a sound, I would avoid the area from that point on," Mike admits. "The one thing I do know about fate is that you don't tempt it."

Mike takes a more sensible approach to being the only person known to have encountered the dog in recent time--unlike the two geologists who dared tempt fate more than a century ago, only to later be deeply saddened by tragedy, and ultimately lose their lives.

Views from atop Castle Craig (above) and of Meriden (below) Mike took on the fateful day. Photos by Michael Anastasio.

For centuries, the Hanging Hills have been irresistible to geologists for the extraordinary details they offer about Connecticut geology, particularly about the Connecticut River Valley or Hartford Basin. The basin was formed some 200 million years ago, by continental rifting associated with the breakup of the supercontinent of Pangaea. The valley's sediments and traprock ridges, such as the Hanging Hills, reveal what must have been a violent time in the states past, when earthquakes shook the ground, and tremendous floods of molten lava poured over and through the surface of the earth here.

Whatever secrets the hills hold about strange phantasms such as the Black Dog, or how its sight can forever change mens' lives, remain mysterious.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Hanging Hills of Meriden: Legend & Geology

“It may seem strange that a man of science should believe a thing of this kind—an idle tale for the ignorant and superstitious you will say—but I do believe it,” a young geologist wrote in 1898. The tale warned about a curse involving a black dog said to haunt the West Peak of the Hanging Hills of Meriden, an apparition that spelled death and disaster, one some believe wanders the hills even today. “And if you would know why, listen…”

The peaks of the Hanging Hills of Meriden (above) as pictured in “The Black Dog,” a firsthand account of two geologists’ ill-fated encounters with “a short haired black dog of moderate size” seen around West Peak, written by W.H.C. Pynchon and published in the Connecticut Quarterly.

“When winter winds roar…when the rocks stand out black through the drifts…the West Peak (above, as pictured in Pynchon's account) has a look of menace hard to describe. Weird tales have sprung up…one is especially to be mentioned—the story of a black dog seen at times upon the peak.

“Many have seen him once, a few twice—none have ever told of the third meeting,” the young geologist wrote in describing the dog’s ethereal qualities. “Men have seen it bark, but have heard no sound; and it leaves no footprint behind it on the dust of summer or the snow of winter.” Its sight was said to mean certain death for anyone so unfortunate as to look upon it for a third time.

The curse of the black dog—geologists fall victims?

The young geologist encountered the dog, and years later its legend, during his first trip to West Peak made one spring in the late 1800s. “I was then a student at Harvard, and the work in geology I had taken up made it desirable for me to visit the locality.” Connecticut Valley traprock ridges, including West Peak, had held a special fascination for local geologists such as Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock since the 1820s.

“Hoary evidences of ancient volcanic action,” was how the young geologist described the hills. “Countless years have elapsed since the great tide of molten lava rolled over the region. Years fewer, but still countless, have passed during which the shattered and tilted remnants of the lava sheets have watched over the land. Deep gorges divide the masses into separate mountains, lonely and desolate, and the most desolate and the most conspicuous of all is the West Peak.”

After the young geologist rode up to West Peak and started collecting samples of “vesicular” lava, the dog appeared to him. He greatly enjoyed the dog's company until dusk, when it “stopped, looked back at me a moment, and quietly vanished into the woods.”

Three years later, the young geologist returned to West Peak early in February with a friend, Herbert Marshall, a geologist with the fledgling United States Geological Survey. The night before, Marshall told about how he had also seen the dog, not just once, but twice before, and “laughed at the legend, saying he did not believe in omens.”

In the morning they made an ascent of the south face of West Peak in the cold and snow, until they reached “deep clefts” in the cliffs that the young geologist would later compare to the biblical “Valley of the Shadow of Death.”

Marshall (above, as pictured in Pynchon's account) was in the lead when he abruptly stopped. “There on the rocks above us, stood a black dog,” the young geologist wrote. It was the second time he had seen it, but for Marshall, the third. “We saw his breath steaming from his jaws, but no sound came through the biting air.” Marshall turned white and uttered: “’I did not believe it before. I believe it now.’ And then, even as he spoke, the fragment of rock on which he stood slipped. There was a cry, a rattle of fragments falling—and I stood alone.” Rescuers later found Marshall’s body at the bottom of the ravine, bloodied and broken, and watched by a black dog.

After witnessing the death of his friend, and at the risk of encountering the dog for a third time himself, the young geologist felt compelled to return to West Peak and to carry on the work of the geological survey. “I must die sometime,” he wrote. “When I am gone this paper may be of interest to those who remain, for, in throwing light on the manner of my death, it will also throw light on the end of the many victims that the old volcanic hills have claimed.

Six years later, the young geologist went missing following a trip to the hills. It was several weeks before his body was found in the same ravine where Marshall had fallen below West Peak. According to a newspaper report, “the body was found on almost the identical spot where his friend, Herbert Marshall, met his death six years before…the fifth man who has lost his life on the range within thirty years.” Whether or not he had seen the black dog a third time that fateful day we will never know.

Some wonder if the black dog still prowls West Peak today, looking to claim yet more victims, perhaps such as the climber who lost his life on the mountain as recently as Thanksgiving Day, 1972.

Fact & Fiction

While the tale of the curse of the black dog is the stuff of legend, observations made about the geology of the Hanging Hills in Pynchon's account ring true. The hills, for example, are correctly described as "evidences of ancient volcanic action." Geological studies made in the past, as well as new work being conducted today, show the ridges formed during a series of three periods of volcanism that occurred in the region some 200 million years ago. Exposures of all three of the lava flows, the Talcott, Hampden, and Holyoke Basalts, occur in close proximity in the hills and surrounding areas.

A view southward from West Peak (above) photographed last October. The Sleeping Giant can be seen in the photo centered on the horizon.

"The ridges are all made of the Holyoke Basalt flow," writes geologist Greg McHone in his guide, Great Day Trips to Discover the Geology of Connecticut. Rocks of the Talcott Basalt can also be found along the hills' southern and western flanks; portions of the Holyoke Basalt can be found to the northeast.

Pynchon's account notes that "the cliffs are pierced by deep clefts" and valleys. These notches, visible from the hilltops and highways below, are the results of faults which have split and shifted portions of the old lavas, and made the hills more foreboding. "Since the flow tilts to the east," Greg explains, "yet reappears in several ridges, there must be faults between the ridges that have offset the ridges to lower levels as you go from east to west.

The faults (seen above as thin black lines) separating the peaks (red areas) are shown on the 1985 Bedrock Geologic Map of Connecticut (above) developed by renowned geologist John Rodgers of Yale University, and published by the Connecticut Geological & Natural History Survey.

In an area north of Meriden, faults split portions of the Metacomet Ridge. Since ancient time, water and glacial ice have worked to erode and deepen the ravines Pynchon described as separating the Hanging Hills. The large lake just north of Hubbard Park in Meriden, Merimere Reservoir, now fills one valley between East Peak and South Mountain. As Greg describes in his book, Hubbard Park today provides excellent access to the hills, for anyone interested to explore the hills, hikers and drivers.

Along the road that leads from the main area of the park and up to the peaks are examples of "vesicular lavas" like those Pynchon describes the young geologist collecting on the day he first saw the black dog. Small bubbles of hot gas trapped in the molten rock during the time the ancient lavas flowed remain today as pockmarks and small voids commonly seen in local basalt and known as gas vesicles (below).

If you make your way to the top of the peaks there are other interesting features of the basalts that can be seen. Narrow lines, raised and irregular, are apparent in the surface of the ridge tops. These are evidence of polygonal columnar jointing. These natural designs formed first as the lavas cooled in columns perpendicular to the direction of flow and shrunk and cracked. The vertical cracks, or fractures, later filled with minerals during the long periods of sedimentation in the Connecticut Valley that followed.

Evidence of much more recent glacial erosion of the ridges can be recognized as scrape marks seen in the rocks running north to south. The gouges were worn in the rock by glacial till, stone fragments and sediments that accumulated in glacial ice as it spread southward, worked to scour the traprock ridges and surrounding landscape.

Of course, exercise caution in making any exploration of the Hanging Hills. Whether you see the black dog or not, West Peak is a hazardous place under the best of circumstances.