5 Good Things That Happened for the Planet in 2021

It wasn’t all bad. Here’s some of the good news from this year.

Environmental Rights Amendment Passes in New York

protest sign Markus Spiske / Pexels

In November, New Yorkers voted to add 15 words to the Bill of Rights of the New York State Constitution, stating that “each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” With the passage of this amendment, New York joins Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, which all have similar constitutional provisions for environmental protection.

The measure received overwhelming support at the ballot box; nearly 70% of voters voted “yes” on Proposal 2 to adopt the ballot measure. The Environmental Advocates of New York, who supported the amendment, say that including these environmental rights in the Constitution will “provide the same fundamental protections that we provide to our rights to free speech, freedom of religion, due process and property,” and sends a message that environmental health is of equal importance.

With this new right to a healthful environment, citizens have a tool for fighting back when those rights are threatened, and governments must consider human and environmental health when making decisions. Some energy experts have said that the amendment might also discourage developers from pursuing fossil fuel projects in the state, and give strength to lawsuits against polluters.

Monarch Populations Are Bouncing Back

monarch butterfly on flower Matthew Simmonds / Pexels

After hitting an all-time low last year, western monarch butterfly populations are bouncing back.

These iconic orange and black insects migrate thousands of miles every year. Migration begins in August, and the butterflies reach their overwintering sites in November, where they stay until March. Eastern monarchs – those whose summer breeding grounds are east of the Rocky Mountains – overwinter in Mexico, while Western monarchs (west of the Rockies) do so in sheltered groves along the California coast. Generations of butterflies often return to the same groves, or even the same tree.

Last year, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation recorded fewer than 2,000 butterflies in California: a huge change from the tens of thousands recorded in the years prior, and a 99% decline from the millions that overwintered there in the 1980s. Since then, the migratory route of monarchs has been destroyed by sprawling housing and development, increased pesticide and herbicide use for commercial agriculture, and the eradication of the milkweed they depend on. Climate change is also a factor in their dwindling numbers. Migration happens in sync with the seasons and the blossoming of spring flowers, but extreme, fluctuating temperatures have disrupted these natural rhythms. The presence of monarchs in California is considered an indicator of ecosystem health, and their absence shows that climate change and habitat destruction are taking their toll. The butterflies don’t have any state or federal legal protections, and the Western Monarch Count finds that the quasi-extinction risk of monarchs is 72% within 20 years.

However, on October 20 of this year, monarch counts on Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove and a nearby site totaled roughly 8,000, compared with the mere 300 counted last year. The monarch count lasts three weeks, but unofficial estimates put this year’s population at California overwintering sites at around 50,000. This still represents only 25% of the population that flocked here 5 years ago, but conservationists are encouraged to see these numbers rising.

Protections Restored to Three Public Lands

Bears Ears National Monument Bears Ears National Monument. Bob Wick / BLM

In October, President Biden issued a proclamation restoring protections for three national monuments: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off the coast of New England.

This reverses the largest rollback of federal land protection in U.S. history in 2017 by then-president Trump, who sought to cut Bears Ears land by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50%: a reduction of 2 million acres. With this move, Trump sought to loosen regulations on industry, and open up the protected land for mining, oil and gas extraction, logging, off-road vehicle use, possible development, and other commercial activity. Some Native nations and environmental groups decried the decision, citing the 100,000 archeological sites on the land that would be put at risk. Bears Ears land is sacred to regional Native American tribes, and Grand Staircase-Escalante is full of paleontological resources that would be jeopardized. Several Native American tribes immediately filed lawsuits after the announcement, including the Navajo Nation.

In 2020, Trump also rolled back protections on Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument, which opened up the marine ecosystem for commercial fishing. The monument encompasses 5,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean – including three underwater canyons, each of which is deeper than the Grand Canyon – home to 1,000 species of coral, fish, sea turtles, sharks, whales, and seabirds. It is the first and only national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, and protects ocean ecosystems and species that are important for scientific investigation and national heritage from industrial fishing.

National monuments are similar to national parks – which are created by Congress – but are instead created by the president through the Antiquities Act, and are protected from development by law. Many groups still uphold that these acts by President Trump to roll back protections were illegal.

These monuments are hugely important to Indigenous culture, biological diversity, outdoor recreation, and the economic stability of the regions they reside in, and Biden’s restoration of the original boundaries is a huge win for the environment and Native communities.

The Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement Grows

divest sign at protest Alex / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The effort to pull money from oil, gas, and coal gained momentum this year.

Divestment is happening in all sectors. An October report by DivestInvest found that 1,500 investment institutions – responsible for $39.2 trillion in assets – have committed to divesting from the fossil fuel industry.

The Ford and MacArthur foundations – two of the biggest names in philanthropy – committed to divesting from fossil fuels this year. These groups follow the Rockefeller Foundation, which committed to divesting its $5 billion endowment last year. The philanthropic sector is worth roughly $1 trillion, and the announcements of these large organizations might represent a tipping point, encouraging others to follow in their wake.

Faith organizations are also taking action. In the week before COP26, 72 faith institutions announced their divorce from fossil fuels, representing the largest joint-divestment of religious groups in history. Also at COP26, more than 20 countries and financial institutions agreed to stop financing fossil fuel development overseas, and instead fund clean energy (although these countries will still be able to fund projects at home).

Student activist groups have long been pushing for colleges and universities to divest, and this year, Loyola University Chicago, Dartmouth College, University of Illinois, Boston University, and Harvard – America’s richest university – have announced plans to do so.

APB of the Netherlands, Europe’s biggest pension fund, announced plans to divest 15 billion euros, and New York City’s pension funds $4 billion. Maine will also require public funds to sell off their fossil fuel investments by 2026: the first state to do so.

While major investors begin pulling their support, the number of fossil fuel bankruptcies has grown: 100 in the U.S. alone last year. The divest movement is also happening in tandem with greater funding for renewable energy projects, sending the message that fossil fuels are not a sound financial investment, and divesting can be. BlackRock, in fact, found that divestment didn’t have a negative effect on performance.

More People Are Going Plant-Based

veggie burger Grooveland Designs / Pexels

Industrial animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but more and more people are choosing to make a change with their diets.

A 2020 study of retail traffic data conducted by Ipsos Retail Performance found that over 9.7 million Americans are now following plant-based diets, up from only 290,000 in 2004. That’s 9.4 million more people in only 15 years! It’s estimated that about 3% – or 10 million people – of Americans are vegan or vegetarian. This number itself hasn’t changed much, which indicates that people are not labeling themselves as vegan or vegetarian, but are still enjoying more plant-based foods and eating a more plant-based diet.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly had an impact on consumer habits, which includes grocery shopping and food choices. Nearly 1 in 5 people (or 18%) in the U.K reported eating less meat than pre-pandemic times, and a similar percentage said that, even after the pandemic has passed, they’ll remain fully vegan or vegetarian. And, between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of consumers who identify as “meat eaters” fell from 85% to 71%, according to an annual report by the Food Industry Association.

Interest in plant-based meat and dairy alternatives is also growing. The plant-based food industry is a $7 billion dollar enterprise and is expected to be valued at over $162 billion by 2030. The majority of American households purchased plant-based foods during the height of the pandemic – mostly milk alternatives like oat or almond milk, and meat substitutes like Impossible meat and seitan. A recent study found that 1 in 4 Americans report eating more plant-based protein than in the spring of 2020. The health benefits of eating less meat are likely driving the surge; plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even severe cases of COVID-19.

Major fast-food chains are joining the trend and making meatless options widely available. Panda Express introduced their Beyond Meat Orange Chicken at several locations this year, which sold out in under two weeks. Chipotle is rolling out their new plant-based chorizo, and KFC has announced their plans for plant-based chicken nuggets. Fine-dining has also taken the meatless movement in stride, including the famous Geranium – named the 2nd best restaurant in the world this year – in Copenhagen, and the famous Eleven Madison Park in New York City.

Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Along with her most recent position at Hunger Free America, she has interned with the Sierra Club in Washington, DC., Saratoga Living Magazine, and Philadelphia’s NPR Member Station, WHYY.

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Storm drains keep swallowing people during floods

An alarming number of people (especially children) have drowned after disappearing into storm drains during floods. The deadly problem should be easy for federal, state and local government agencies to fix, but tragedy strikes again and again.

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Oceans Could Be Harnessed to Remove Carbon From Air, Say U.S. Science Leaders

Seaweed cultivation, altering the chemistry of seawater, or even injecting electrical currents should be studied, say the authors.

A century of tragedy: How the car and gas industry knew about the health risks of leaded fuel but sold it for 100 years anyway

This article originally ran on The Conversation and is republished here with permission.

On the frosty morning of Dec. 9, 1921, in Dayton, Ohio, researchers at a General Motors lab poured a new fuel blend into one of their test engines. Immediately, the engine began running more quietly and putting out more power.

The new fuel was tetraethyl lead. With vast profits in sight – and very few public health regulations at the time – General Motors Co. rushed gasoline diluted with tetraethyl lead to market despite the known health risks of lead. They named it “Ethyl” gas.

It has been 100 years since that pivotal day in the development of leaded gasoline. As a historian of media and the environment, I see this anniversary as a time to reflect on the role of public health advocates and environmental journalists in preventing profit-driven tragedy.

Lead and death

By the early 1920s, the hazards of lead were well known – even Charles Dickens and Benjamin Franklin had written about the dangers of lead poisoning.

When GM began selling leaded gasoline, public health experts questioned its decision. One called lead a serious menace to public health, and another called concentrated tetraethyl lead a “malicious and creeping” poison.

General Motors and Standard Oil waved the warnings aside until disaster struck in October 1924. Two dozen workers at a refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, came down with severe lead poisoning from a poorly designed GM process. At first they became disoriented, then burst into insane fury and collapsed into hysterical laughter. Many had to be wrestled into straitjackets. Six died, and the rest were hospitalized. Around the same time, 11 more workers died and several dozen more were disabled at similar GM and DuPont plants across the U.S.

Fighting the media

lead gas

The auto and gas industries’ attitude toward the media was hostile from the beginning. At Standard Oil’s first press conference about the 1924 Ethyl disaster, a spokesman claimed he had no idea what had happened while advising the media that “Nothing ought to be said about this matter in the public interest.”

More facts emerged in the months after the event, and by the spring of 1925, in-depth newspaper coverage started to appear, framing the issue as public health versus industrial progress. A New York World article asked Yale University gas warfare expert Yandell Henderson and GM’s tetraethyl lead researcher Thomas Midgley whether leaded gasoline would poison people. Midgley joked about public health concerns and falsely insisted that leaded gasoline was the only way to raise fuel power. To demonstrate the negative impacts of leaded fuel, Henderson estimated that 30 tons of lead would fall in a dusty rain on New York’s Fifth Avenue every year.

Industry officials were outraged over the coverage. A GM public relations history from 1948 called the New York World’s coverage “a campaign of publicity against the public sale of gasoline containing the company’s antiknock compound.” GM also claimed that the media labeled leaded gas “loony gas” when, in fact, it was the workers themselves who named it as such.

Attempts at regulation

In May 1925, the U.S. Public Health Service asked GM, Standard Oil and public health scientists to attend an open hearing on leaded gasoline in Washington. The issue, according to GM and Standard, involved refinery safety, not public health. Frank Howard of Standard Oil argued that tetraethyl lead was diluted at over 1,000 to 1 in gasoline and therefore posed no risk to the average person.

Public health scientists challenged the need for leaded gasoline. Alice Hamilton, a physician at Harvard, said, “There are thousands of things better than lead to put in gasoline.” And she was right. There were plenty of well-known alternatives at the time, and some were even patented by GM. But no one in the press knew how to find that information, and the Public Health Service, under pressure from the auto and oil industries, canceled a second day of public hearings that would have discussed safer gasoline additives like ethanol, iron carbonyl and catalytic reforming.

By 1926, the Public Health Service announced that they had “no good reason” to prohibit leaded gasoline, even though internal memos complained that their research was “half baked.”

The rise and fall of leaded gasoline

Leaded gasoline went on to dominate fuel markets worldwide. Researchers have estimated that decades of burning leaded gasoline caused millions of premature deaths, enormous declines in IQ levels and many other associated social problems.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the public health case against leaded gasoline reemerged. A California Institute of Technology geochemist, Clair Cameron Patterson, was finding it difficult to measure lead isotopes in his laboratory because lead from gasoline was everywhere and his samples were constantly being contaminated. Patterson created the first “clean room” to carry on his isotope work, but he also published a 1965 paper, “Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man,” and said that “the average resident of the U.S. is being subjected to severe chronic lead insult.”

In parallel, by the 1970s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided that leaded gasoline had to be phased out eventually because it clogged catalytic converters on cars and led to more air pollution. Leaded gasoline manufacturers objected, but the objections were overruled by an appeals court.

The public health concerns continued to build in the 1970s and 1980s when University of Pittsburgh pediatrician Herbert Needleman ran studies linking high levels of lead in children with low IQ and other developmental problems. Both Patterson and Needleman faced strong partisan attacks from the lead industry, which claimed that their research was fraudulent.

Both were eventually vindicated when, in 1996, the U.S. officially banned the sale of leaded gasoline for public health reasons. Europe was next in the 2000s, followed by developing nations after that. In August 2021, the last country in the world to sell leaded gas, Algeria, banned it.

A century of leaded gasoline has taken millions of lives and to this day leaves the soil in many cities from New Orleans to London toxic.

The leaded gasoline story provides a practical example of how industry’s profit-driven decisions – when unsuccessfully challenged and regulated – can cause serious and long-term harm. It takes individual public health leaders and strong media coverage of health and environmental issues to counter these risks.

The Conversation

Bill Kovarik is a professor of communication at Radford University. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News.

Banner photo: Gas station in Oscoda, Michigan, circa 1940. (Credit: Don…The UpNorth Memories Guy… Harrison/flickr)

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Coach for social change leaders offers support to overcome climate anxiety

Climate change is creating anxiety in a growing number of people.

While research is still lacking, some mental health professionals recommend that people who feel climate anxiety try to take action – make an emergency backpack, write to a local politician, or if possible, join a climate group.

But even people who’ve centered their lives on climate action and social justice can sometimes end up feeling depressed and anxious. That’s where Seth Bush comes in. He lives in Swissvale, east of Pittsburgh, and is a certified professional coach and a partner at the Radical Support Collective, which works with social and environmental change leaders.

They meet with individuals and groups to help people envision and start working to create the future they want. At one online session, he opened by asking participants to introduce themselves, and provide one “delicious detail” of their vision for the future. One person envisioned green spaces available to everyone. Another wanted a society where more people help each other.

The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant spoke with Seth Bush about his work, especially in terms of helping leaders in the environmental and justice communities who might be feeling burned-out or overwhelmed.

Listen to the story or read the transcript below.

Allegheny Front · Coach for social change leaders offers support to overcome climate anxiety


climate anxiety

Seth Bush: We’re talking a little bit about eco-anxiety, that at some level we are all experiencing the pain of seeing the forest fires and the hurricanes and the hunger and what humans can do to each other, you know, and hurt each other with covid, right? All of these crises.

I believe that people really in their hearts want to do something to make the world a better place, and the truth is, when we actually look at that, that can be a little bit overwhelming. Where do I start? What do I do? What’s my part in all of this? Can I really even make a difference?

I love working with those people who have seen in their hearts that they want to be contributing to their communities, and might be naturally bumping up against that threshold, so to speak, between their vision for making a difference and actually doing it.

The Radical Support Collective website explains that while climate work is an urgent need, being overwhelmed and in a constant state of urgency gets in the way. Bush takes changing that mindset seriously.

Julie Grant: When I first contacted you this summer, I got an automatic reply that said, “I’m taking a Rest Month during August and will not be replying to your email.” Can you talk about the idea of a rest month?

Bush: I want to live in a world where we’re not rushing all the time from thing to thing to thing to thing. I want to live in a world where our society is structured such that we’re not in crisis mode all the time, where we’re not urgently running around exhausting ourselves.

So our team got together a couple of years ago and said, ‘Let’s actually practice this. We don’t exactly know how it’s going to turn out, but we’re going to commit to taking a whole month off every year.’

We actually structure our whole year to prepare to be able to take a whole month off. So we’re actually intentionally saying, ‘OK, let us structure our programs, our income, how we run our business so that we have a really spacious rest month.’ It’s our time to see what happens to our bodies and see what happens to our minds as we step away from our computers for most of the month and step away from our day-to-day work.

What I love about it is we get to actually learn some things that we want to integrate back into our work so that rest doesn’t just become a month off every year, but rest becomes something that we can integrate into our day-to-day work, because, again, we really believe that for social change leaders to actually make a difference, we have to first have the capacity to vision the world we want.

Second, we learn how to live our lives right now as if we’re already living in that world that we want. So if I want a world where everybody is well-rested, I need to practice rest right now. So that’s why we take a month off.

Grant: How do you talk with people who have anxiety about the state of the climate, the environment, and humanity?

Bush: There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re experiencing pain for the world right now. My teacher Joanna Macy says our pain for the world is just a sign of our love for the world. That pain that we start to experience, the worry about the future, the worry about the suffering that we’re seeing about ecosystem collapse, about what the world is going to be like for our children – it just shows that we have really big hearts and that it’s actually the most human experience we can possibly have.

What if we had the skills to look this eco-anxiety in the face and say, ‘There’s nothing wrong here, let’s work together to move through it’? You don’t have to wallow in it. You don’t have to stay in it forever. Moving through it means metabolizing it. It means transmuting it, transforming that pain into some new possibilities that you might not even have been able to see before.

Grant: You talk with environmental and social change leaders in the PIttsburgh area and elsewhere – people who are trying to move toward a clean, supportive and equitable future. Are you worried, or do you hear concerns from others about developments like the new Shell petrochemical plant in Beaver County, or air pollution from the U.S. Steel plant in Clairton?

Bush: It’s not a far stretch to go down that particular pathway of despair, if we keep going the way we’re going with business as usual. What is Pittsburgh going to look like? I definitely hear that from activists and organizers.

The people who have a vision for what Pittsburgh could look like [have] some really beautiful visions for what Pittsburgh could look like. There’s some really, really smart people in Pittsburgh and in western Pennsylvania who have been thinking a lot about what is possible for this region and what could be possible for this region.

Seth Bush is a partner at the Radical Support Collective.

See more about at Pollution’s mental toll: How air, water and climate change shape our mental health.

Banner photo: Seth Bush of the Radical Support Collective helps change leaders and others embrace the vision they see for the future. (Credit: Seth Bush)

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The Internet has a rat poison problem

How online sales of highly regulated, super-toxic rodenticides exploit gaps in the law and imperil wildlife.

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A field guide to recognizing scientific disinformation

The strategy of creating confusion and doubt, often called the tobacco playbook after the industry that used it so successfully, has become standard operating procedure among many corporations across a wide range of industries.

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A fatal fungal disease is spreading among North America’s snakes

The pathogen is one of the latest and least understood diseases afflicting wildlife across the continent.

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Microplastics cause damage to human cells, study shows

Microplastics cause damage to human cells in the laboratory at the levels known to be eaten by people via their food, a study has found.

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5 environmental victories from 2021 that offer hope

In a year of seemingly continuous bad news, there are many reasons to be hopeful about the environment.

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