Losing a species


photo of Sudan taken by Jana Hajduchova

by Karen Topakian

In case you haven’t heard we lost the last white rhino male, Sudan. And I mean we. The human race. The species that thinks it’s in charge.

Now only two females roam the planet. Two.

In the 1960s, there were approximately 2,000.

According to the New York Times, “War, habitat loss and poaching for rhino horn have decimated populations, and by 2008 researchers could no longer locate northern white rhinos in the wild. But a number of the animals — including Sudan, who was captured in 1975 — remained at zoos around the world.”

We, humans, bear the responsibility for their decline. We start wars. We encroach on their habitat and we kill these majestic creatures to grind up their horns as a mythical cure for cancer.

And we show no signs of stopping. Since we don’t assign a dollar amount to our natural world, we don’t value what nature does and provides. In a capitalist world, no financial value truly means no value at all. Therefore, we don’t know how to assess the “cost” to the planet when we lose a species.

Because white rhinos eat grass, they have changed the ecology and structure of the grasslands. According to Business Insider, “Although seemingly counterintuitive, grazers, like rhinos, increase biodiversity by selecting certain plants over others, giving other species more ability to grow.”

The loss of this one species can alter this ecosystem in profound ways.

If we lost these five species, humans could not survive on this planet – ants, termites, bats, frogs and birds. These creatures decompose plant material, stir up soil, aid in seed dispersal, pollinate plants, serve as bio-indicators of our ecosystem, recycle nutrients and provide pest control. Try getting along without these free services!

Until we value these creatures’ lives, defend their right to live and protect their homes and habitats, we will reduce biodiversity. Disrupt the intricate web of life and place our food sources and clean drinking water at risk.

Now back to Sudan.

My friend and colleague, Jana Hajduchova, knew Sudan since she volunteered for the Czech zoo in Dvur Kralove before he was transported to Kenya in 2009. “I met him several times, last time about three weeks ago. He was still doing well, although I could see that it is already painful for him to walk. He was such a darling… Well, all rhinos are, but he was very kind and a nice animal.”






Taken for a Ride


by Karen Topakian

“We (slight pause) are a nation divided.” declares an authoritative male voice, while the television screen fills with black and white images of swarms of people confronting each other in the street.

“That’s what they tell us, right?” the voice continues as sirens punctuate the muffled sounds coming from a large agitated crowd.

“This chasm between us.” (Black and white images of a large demonstration. A power fist rises from the crowd.)

I watch this ad feeling hopeful as I see everyday people marching for peace and justice. It’s obviously an ad, but for what?

“But what they don’t tell you.” (The image turns to color, a street protest with a sign saying Free Hugs.)

This swell of humanity striving for a better world fills me with inspiration. It emboldens me to work harder to create a more just and equitable world. What’s it advertising or is it a PSA for the ACLU, Amnesty International…?

“What doesn’t make the news is this.” (An African-American male approaches an African American police officer then hugging him.)

“We carry each other forward.” (Two young baseball players carry a third off the field. Soldiers carry one of their own off the battlefield)

No matter who we are or what we believe.” (A first responder heroically rescues someone high above dangerous flooded waters. A rainbow peace flag held aloft in a throng of protesters.)

“Or where we come from.” (A black and white image of immigrants standing on the shore looking out at the sea.)

“We’ve had the privilege of carrying a century of humanity.” (A sea of men and women fill an enormous urban intersection.)

I stop wondering for a moment about the product, because I’m swept up in pride at the American tradition of unity, generosity and helping those in need. Now I’m hopeful that we Americans, can come together, rise above our differences to make this country and world a better place.

“Lovers.” (A black and white image of a block long convertible with a Marilyn Monroe-type women standing next to it.)

“Fighters.” (Mohammed Ali polishes the hood of a big car.)

“Leaders.” (President Eisenhower stands tall in a convertible processing down a parade route. Probably at his inauguration.)

“But maybe what we carry isn’t people. It’s an idea.”

OMG, they’re advertising a car! Not just any car but a Cadillac.


The gas guzzling behemoth that contributes to global climate change with its low gas mileage (22 city/31 highway).

Cadillac, whose parent company General Motors, historically achieved greatness when the EPA named it one of the top 100 corporate polluters.

Cad-il-lac! A status symbol. A car for the elite, not for the masses.

A Caddy – unaffordable by most, envied by many.

I spent 34 precious seconds feeling good about the world, about our country. The longest I’ve felt since the Women’s March. Now I only feel anger. Anger at these advertisers’ emotional manipulation for a product that contributes to global climate change. Anger at this ad built on the backs of heroes and change agents.

Talk about feeling ripped off. Robbed. Cheated. Used. Duped.

Maybe I feel worse because I identify with these images, with these movements or because they’re usurping these social change movements, for which they’ve never played a part and even thwarted, to sell something that contributes to our planetary demise. I feel duped by allowing myself to feel manipulated by their images and rhetoric that feel sacred to me.

A labor organizer colleague disagreed with me about this ad, which aired during the Academy Awards, because he said their UAW workers receive a good wage, which, of course, is important. Had the ad come from the UAW, I would have hailed it, because they’ve fought the good fight for workers. Had the ad featured electric cars, which I see as working towards a solution, I too would have lauded it. Just not a Cadillac.

Of course, they’re not the first company to play on our emotions. That’s advertising’s design. It manipulates us. Opens our heart to see the product or service for the first time or in a new light and then, hopefully tells our brain to purchase it.

Studies show the average number of advertisement and brand exposures we experience per day per person reaches 5,000+.

In addition to using emotional and nostalgic images, advertisers and politicians more frequently employ popular music to promote their wares and themselves. For example, Microsoft paid Rolling Stones to play “Start Me Up” to launch Windows 95. Candy giant Mars licensed “Satisfaction” to sell Snickers bars. BMW played Steppenwolf’s classic hit “Born to Be Wild.” Most recently, Sleep Number mattresses used the Kink’s iconic song, “All Day and All of the Night.”

As much as I dislike hearing the songs I love used for commercial purposes, these artists made a financial agreement with these companies knowing how they would use their art.

The Cadillac ad strikes me differently. Because it relies on our emotional connection to striving for a better world to sell us a product for which it bears no connection or relationship. Pure and simple pandering. Well done. But pandering nonetheless.

When it comes to ads like this, I must protest.

Cradle to Cradle – a new way to think about design and production

by Karen Topakian

Imagine buying a television, a washing machine or a sofa and not worrying that its final resting place may be in a landfill?

Imagine purchasing a piece of carpeting that not only doesn’t off gas but instead cleans the air?

These products can exist and do exist because of the chemical and design work undertaken by German chemist Michael Braungart, Ph.D. and architect Michael McDonough at MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry).

In 2002, they wrote the book Cradle to Cradle to promote the idea that the manufacturing of products doesn’t need to produce waste if the process incorporates ecologically intelligent design. They have worked with manufacturers such as Herman Miller, Pendleton Woolen Mills, Kiehl’s and Method to produce products, which when broken down become “food” or “manufacturing nutrients” for other high quality products, without the use of toxic materials or processes.

Your television could be broken down into its component parts and rebuilt as a new television or as another high quality good. Each part would be built/designed to serve as a manufacturing nutrient or “food.”  No waste. No muss. No fuss.

In the world of permaculture, it would be known as a closed loop.  As in nature where one critter’s poop is another critter’s food or habitat. Nothing goes to waste.

Braungart and McDonough describe it as, “Unlike cradle-to-grave systems, cradle-to-cradle design sees human systems as nutrient cycles in which every material can support life.”

The Cradle to Cradle process turns the whole notion of recycling on its head.

These innovators believe everything in the world can be designed and created using the intelligence of natural systems. Now they have even developed a certification process to assess a product’s safety to humans and the environment.

If you’re interested in reading more about their work. Check out their website, http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm.

Or read their book, which “is printed on a synthetic ‘paper,’ made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers, designed to look and feel like top quality paper while also being waterproof and rugged. And the book can be easily recycled in localities with systems to collect polypropylene, like that in yogurt containers.”

Another footprint? Good thing we only have 2 feet

by Karen Topakian

Most of us humans have two feet. When we walk on sand or soil. Or wet cement. We leave a footprint.

We also leave a carbon footprint. (The amount of greenhouse gases produced in our day-to-day lives through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation, etc.)

I’ve just learned about another footprint that we need to heed. Our nitrogen footprint.

Yup nitrogen. Symbol N. Atomic number of 7 and atomic mass of 14.00674 u.

Nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas. Sounds pretty harmless, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled. Nitrogen may be essential to plant life but synthetic nitrogen is a polluter. And a killer.

For example, in the Mid-West when chemical fertilizers, which contain synthetic nitrogen, are applied to boost crop production the excess nitrogen runoff eventually flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Producing toxic algal blooms that suffocate coastal waters. Producing hypoxic zones – dead zones – that kill fish and shellfish.

Combustion of fossil fuel also contributes to nitrogen pollution. Cumulatively, this pollution has become a top threat to global biodiversity. Contributing to human health problems, water pollution, ozone layer depletion, smog, and climate change.

See I told you it was worth heeding.

If you’re wondering about the size of your nitrogen footprint, check out this hand dandy new tool, The Nitrogen Footprint Calculator. The questions are simple. Just answer honestly. And let me know your score.

The average American’s is 91 lb per year. Mine was 64. The average German’s is 58 lb per year and the Dutch beat that score with a 54.

Warning: If you eat meat, drive a car, fly often in an airplane your footprint might resemble Bozo the clown’s. If you’re a vegetarian, who walks everywhere your foot might be able to fit comfortably into one of those cute size 5 shoes that decorate every shoe display.

I want an enviro lobby as powerful as the NRA!

by Karen Topakian

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the National Rifle Association (NRA) has successfully squelched all research on gun violence performed by the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This un-performed research could, for example, help communities understand whether carrying firearms makes them safer or not.

The NRA’s representatives in Washington fought a pitched battle against public health scientists in the 1990’s. The NRA said that studying gun-related injuries and death was biased against gun owners and political. The scientists disagreed. The NRA won, essentially by removing the research funds from the CDC’s budget. Those dollars have never been put back into their budget.

That’s what I call an effective lobby.

Imagine for a moment what would happen if other “special interest” groups in the US had this same degree of clout?

What if the environmental community had enough power to limit all Federal funding of scientific studies that showed that pesticides were safe for farm workers or consumers?

Or if the anti-nuke movement could stop all funding for the DOE’s Stockpile Stewardship Program because it continued the testing and development of nuclear weapons, a violation of the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Or if the coal industry could not receive any federal funds in support of its promotion of “clean” coal?

That’s why I want an environmental lobby group that’s as powerful and effective as the NRA. What about you?

You know you’re living in the twilight zone…

by Karen Topakian

when the US military “see(s) overdependence on fossil fuel as a big liability, and renewable technologies — which have become more reliable and less expensive over the past few years — as providing a potential answer.”

Why would they arrive at such a conclusion? Simple. According to a recent NY Times article, “In Iraq and Afghanistan, one Army study found, for every 24 fuel convoys that set out, one soldier or civilian engaged in fuel transport was killed. In the past three months, six Marines have been wounded guarding fuel runs in Afghanistan.”

Service members are literally dying while transporting fossil fuels in countries that produce the fossil fuel with which we burn and pollute.

Ray Mabus, the Navy Secretary said he wants 50% of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020.

My favorite line in the whole article: “While setting national energy policy requires Congressional debates, military leaders can simply order the adoption of renewable energy. And the military has the buying power to create products and markets. That, in turn, may make renewable energy more practical and affordable for everyday uses.”

If they are successful in achieving their goal, they could easily drive the renewable energy markets in a way that our Congress has proven incapable.

And to top it off…

Mabus and other experts also said that greater reliance on renewable energy improved national security, because fossil fuels often came from unstable regions and scarce supplies were a potential source of international conflict.

If that argument sounds familiar, it’s because those of us on the left have been singing this tune for years. And here we thought it was falling on deaf ears.

bin Laden Goes Green

by Karen Topakian

What kind of world do we live in where Osama bin Laden makes more sense than our own elected leaders? Leaders like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert.

Leaders who don’t believe in climate change. Global warming. Or our role as humans adversely affecting the environment.

Apparently Mr. bin Laden gets it. Because this is what he said about the destructive flooding in Pakistan. “The huge climate change is affecting our (Islamic) nation and is causing great catastrophes throughout the Islamic world.”

Granted he doesn’t spend any of his time or resources providing aid to the Islamic world just sowing destruction. But he recognizes the impact of our behavior on the environment.

If he really wanted to so something about it, he would speak out about the contribution that oil rich nations in the Islamic world make to climate change.  He would urge Islamic leaders to invest in clean energy and away from fossil fuels. He might even be able to persuade the Islamic world to champion this cause.

As a leader, which he is to many, he could use his network and influence for good instead of evil.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

Happy World Wetlands Day




by Karen Topakian 

Did you have fun on Tuesday celebrating World Wetlands Day? It’s not a big holiday. Nobody gets dressed up in costumes. Large family gatherings don’t occur. Religious observances don’t take place. Sadly, it’s not even a candy holiday. I bet you couldn’t find a Happy World Wetlands Day card in your local card store, if you tried. 

Nonetheless we should celebrate wetlands.  Because…

they capture and hold rainfall and snow melt, retain sediments and purify water, playing a vital role in the water cycle. Wetlands play a major role in supporting aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity. Poor management strategies can cause wetland related diseases that claim the lives of millions of people each year. Pollution from agriculture and human waste contribute to the health of wetlands and our fresh water supply.

This under celebrated holiday began on February 2, 1971, at the first ecologically focused convention that took place in Ramsar, Iran where countries from around the world met and signed the Convention on Wetlands. In the past 39 years, 158 countries have signed the Treaty and 169 million hectares of wetlands (1828 sites) have been designated as Wetlands of International Importance.

Don’t be fooled, the problem isn’t solved.

For example, on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Maarten, which is a signatory to the Convention, their ponds have been reduced by 50 percent in the last 15 years. From 10 to five. How does this happen? And it’s not unique to St. Maarten. But when zoning plans and wetland protection legislation are not developed, implemented and enforced. The wetlands disappear. Since coastal habitats provide primary targets for economic development, wetlands protection struggles to compete. 

The good news… a few local groups work hard to counter the development, Environmental Protection in the Caribbean, St. Maarten Pride Foundation, Nature Foundation and the Seaside Nature Park.  

If by accident you did destroy some wetlands on World Wetlands Day, please restore them immediately.

A Morning Fire

by Karen Topakian

 A daily occurrence of yesteryear. Not today at 51 Oakwood Street. 

When we arrived home very late last night from our Christmas trip Back East, the igniter on our furnace had burned itself out. Probably partying and carrying on in our absence. Leaving us…cold.

Despite Peg’s best efforts to revive it, she declared it a goner.

Before leaving for work, she lit a fire in our fireplace, so we could enjoy our breakfast and the morning warmed by the burning logs. We didn’t need the fire to cook. Nor to heat hot water. Or to fuel the all important washer and dryer. We were simply without heat.

Our brick fireplace sits in the middle of the second floor providing plenty of warmth for the living room, kitchen and dining room. But none for the downstairs where we sleep and shower and I write. So here I sit, writing at the dining room table, while the golden embers and shooting flames dance over my left shoulder.

This is a temporary condition at best. The repairperson should be arriving between 9 and 11 this morning.*

However, in many parts of the world heating by wood occurs daily. Not as a quaint, cozy experience. But as a necessity. And a dangerous one at that.

According to the “State of the World’s Forests 2005,” a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (UN/FAO) of the United Nations, “Wood energy remains the most important source of energy for more than two billion people in developing countries.”

Traditionally, women gather wood to build cooking fires. A perilous and arduous journey for women and girls often through dangerous war torn regions where they may incur injuries and violence en route.

Peg and I gathered wood, too but only from the neatly stacked pile below the staircase.

The World Bank says that, “Heating by wood, translates to deforestation, since 76 percent of the wood cut in developing countries is used for cooking and heating fuel.”

WomenWatch, a United Nations website for information and resources on gender equality and empowerment of women, says that with the growth of desertification and deforestation, “…women and girls have to walk longer distances to collect water and firewood, which further limits the time they can devote to school and income-generating activities.” Furthermore, they can carry up to 20 to 38 kg (44 to 83 pounds), walking five to ten kilometers a day (three to six miles).

Once they have collected the wood, women make fires often in doors, which often do not burn efficiently leading to respiratory problems for them and their families as well as causing burns and other fire related injuries.

As if these problems weren’t enough cause for concern…

In a recent New Yorker article, titled, “Hearth Surgery,” the author Burkhard Bilger states that, “As global temperatures have risen, the smoke from Third World kitchens as been upgraded from a local to a universal threat. The average cooking fire produces about as much carbon dioxide as a car, and a great deal more soot, or black carbon – a substance seven hundred times as warming. Black carbon absorbs sunlight. A single gram warms the atmosphere as much as a 1500-watt space heater running for a week. Given that cooking fires each release one or two thousand grams of soot in a year and that three billion people rely on them, cleaning up those emissions may be the fastest, cheapest way to cool the planet.”

And finally, the UN/FAO report says that, “Wood energy is also likely to gain in popularity in developed countries over the next 20 years as part of efforts to promote the use of renewable energy.”

When seen in the light of this information, all fires adopt a sinister glow.

*by 10 a.m. the furnace was working and our fire was out.

The SF Chron trumps the NY Times



by Karen Topakian

For the first time in years, I read the SF Chronicle before the New York Times.

Two front-page headlines caught my eye: the death of Don Fisher, the GAP co-founder and the upcoming 6-week test to reroute traffic from Market Street.

The Don Fisher story garnered my attention because only hours before his death, the fate of his and his wife’s treasured modern art collection had finally become public. The SF MOMA had won the prize.

Their 1100 piece collection was not an abstract notion to me. I had actually seen several pieces in 2001. In January of that year, while attending a meeting at the GAP headquarters on the Embarcadero, a representative invited all those interested to view the collection, which was normally held under lock and key. As a lover of modern and contemporary art, I joined the tour.

Hanging on a white wall, Warhol’s Chairman Mao stared back at me.  Chuck Close portraits, Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoons, Sol LeWitt’s colorful geometrics filled the galleries.

I walked away from that viewing surprised at the breadth of his collection and angered that it was only available to those whom he invited to view it. And I know I told the story many times about the unfairness of confining these works to the selected few. But now that would be a different story. One that would play out without him.

The second front-page story, about the temporary closing of Market Street to private vehicles, transported me to a favorite text of environmentalists: Ecotopia, written in 1975 by Ernest Callenbach. This futuristic novel set in 1999, (19 years after Northern California, Oregon and Washington seceded from the rest of the US.) amongst other innovative notions, turns Market Street into a tree-lined thoroughfare, pedestrian walkway, and bicycle route accessible only to public transit not private vehicles. The city moves us one step closer to a car free future.   

As for today’s front page New York Times stories – they covered the mundane: potential sanctions against Iran, swine flu, and the newest Cheney on the block.