10 stories on the environment and the economy that made us think this year
Our colleagues publish thousands of great stories every year, but these 10 are some that our staff kept coming back to in 2018. If you have some extra time over the holidays, we recommend you check them out.
They do not, we should warn you, paint a very pretty picture. We spent much of the year covering the rapidly approaching deadline for fixing climate change, and the fact that extractive businesses who have fueled it are also failing to share that wealth with most of the population. At Fast Company, we often focus on solutions. Many of these stories helped us frame the problems that we need solutions for–from exploited workers to mass extinction and everything in between. (Click on the titles to read the articles.)
The Insect Apocalypse Is Here, the New York Times
Bugs are not usually the poster animal for extinction. You’re going to garner a lot more sympathy with a polar bear or a whale than a cockroach, but this truly horrifying article makes it clear that humankind’s impact on the natural world reaches all levels, and with potentially disastrous consequences. Bugs are, in fact, vitally important to the world’s ecosystems, and now they’re disappearing incredibly quickly:
In 2013, Krefeld entomologists confirmed that the total number of insects caught in one nature reserve was nearly 80% lower than the same spot in 1989. They had sampled other sites, analyzed old data sets, and found similar declines: Where 30 years earlier, they often needed a liter bottle for a week of trapping, now a half-liter bottle usually sufficed. But it would have taken even highly trained entomologists years of painstaking work to identify all the insects in the bottles. So the society used a standardized method for weighing insects in alcohol, which told a powerful story simply by showing how much the overall mass of insects dropped over time. “A decline of this mixture,” Sorg said, “is a very different thing than the decline of only a few species.”
A Kingdom From Dust, California Sunday Magazine
Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s story is one of how the U.S.’s appetites–and appetite for growth–has made and lost fortunes, and destroyed the planet in the process. The Resnicks are the largest farmers in the United States (you may know them as the people behind Pom pomegranate juice and the bogus claims about its health effects). Their shrewd businesses decisions have grown an empire in California, but growing the empire took so much water that there’s none left to sustain it.
“Let’s call it what it is,” he says. “It’s gambling. Stewart gambled and won for many years. He gambled on the price of nuts going up, and he gambled on the water never going dry. He kept planting more and more trees. But he got too big. Too many pistachios. Too many almonds. Too many pomegranates. Like a lot of empires, it comes to an end.”
The War Inside 7-11, Bloomberg
There’s an ongoing battle between 7-Eleven corporate and its franchisees that, in a Trump world, has taken on new, intense dimensions of race and identity. While before the chain celebrated the diversity of its store owners, new corporate leadership has been less cosmopolitan, leading to a series of raids by immigration authorities that may have been sparked by the company itself.
Donna Bucella, a former federal prosecutor who was hired in January as chief compliance officer at 7-Eleven, says the company doesn’t steer investigators toward store owners with whom it has disagreements or disputes. If the company has specific, credible evidence of wrongdoing, she says, it will pass it along to law enforcement. Bucella says she didn’t know about the company reviewing store tapes.
Paranoia has swept across the universe of 7-Eleven franchisees. At franchisee conventions, inside stores, and on private email chains, they swap stories about perceived offenses from headquarters in Dallas. In particular they’re alarmed by the ICE raids on stores owned by critics of the company. They all but assume 7-Eleven has something to do with it.
The Nastiest Feud in Science, the Atlantic
We all learn in school that the dinosaurs were destroyed by an asteroid. But one scientist is fighting against this orthodoxy, arguing that instead it was a series of volcanoes. This has caused a major battle in the scientific community, but what’s really important is–as we approach what may be a sixth mass extinction–to grapple with the facts of the most recent one.
The age of the dinosaurs opened with continents on the move. Landmasses that had spent millions of years knotted together into the supercontinent of Pangaea began to drift apart, and oceans–teeming with sponges, sharks, snails, corals, and crocodiles–flooded into the space between them. It was swimsuit weather most places on land: Even as far north as the 45th parallel, which today roughly marks the U.S.-Canada border, the climate had a humid, subtropical feel. The North Pole, too warm for ice, grew lush with pines, ferns, and palm-type plants. The stegosaurs roamed, then died, and tyrannosaurs took their place. (More time separates stegosaurs from tyrannosaurs–about 67 million years–than tyrannosaurs from humans, which have about 66 million years between them.) It was an era of evolutionary innovation that yielded the first flowering plants, the earliest placental mammals, and the largest land animals that ever lived. Life was good–right up until it wasn’t.
The Country’s First Climate Change Casualties? Pacific Standard
Virginia’s Tangier Island is slowly sinking beneath the waves. A combination of erosion and rising sea levels makes it nearly certain that life there can’t continue. But its residents are determined to stay–and have been bolstered by the president, who has told them not to worry about the rising seas that are threatening their livelihoods.
The story of Tangier has largely been limited to the inevitability of an island going down–the science behind it, the politics around it. And without new infrastructure, fast, Tangier is indeed going down. What’s been left out, however, is why its people are willing to go down with it–and why they’ve risked it all on Trump to keep them afloat.
In This Rapaciously Dry Year, a Quiet Question Grows Louder: What Are We Doing Here? High Country News
As the effects of climate change increase, it’s going to force even harder decisions about how humanity should adapt to the changes. In this story, an author in Santa Fe, New Mexico, grapples with the question of what it means to live in a city that will likely be afflicted with drought for the rest of her life. What does it mean to stay in that place–and what does it mean to abandon it?
The question of whether we should stay or go was turning out to be complicated; even the angles that seemed straightforward weren’t. Shanahan pointed out that if water limited the city’s growth, the value of our home might go up. That’s how supply and demand should work, Grady Gammage, a lawyer, water expert, and sometimes developer in Phoenix, told me. But the idea that there’s not enough water to build houses? “That’s going to scare people, so it might constrain demand.” Claudia Borchert, Santa Fe County’s sustainability manager, remarked over coffee that she’d just fielded a call from an anxious homeowner asking if his property value was safe. “Boy, in the short term, yes,” she told him. “In the long term, all bets are off. It won’t necessarily be that there’s no water, but will people want to live here?”
Affordable Housing Is Disappearing. These Mobile Home Residents Are Fighting to Protect Theirs, Time
In a story of how corporatized the housing market is becoming, this piece examines what’s happening to people at the lowest end–residents of trailer parks–as their parks are bought up by large companies who then try to increase returns on the backs of the residents.
Mobile home park residents, most of whom own their trailers but rent the land beneath them, have always been among America’s most vulnerable low-income homeowners. But since the 2008 financial crisis, and as an aging generation of mom-and-pop park owners cashes out, a new breed of investors bent on raising rents to increase returns has bought up a growing share of the market. In July, Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm, bought a portfolio of 14 mobile home parks in California and Arizona for $172 million—not to redevelop, but to operate. It’s one sign, according to Jim Baker of the watchdog Private Equity Stakeholder Project, “that the industry is becoming a commodity.”
One of the defining policy issues of the next U.S. Congress and presidential campaign will be the Green New Deal. Pushed by charismatic young lawmakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the plan would involve decarbonizing the economy, creating green jobs, and moving to 100% renewable energy. But most of the rhetoric has been very big picture. This story digs into what a world after a Green New Deal could look like, and what it will take to actually get there.
In a broad sense, that’s what policymakers in other countries refer to as industrial policy, whereby the government plays a decisive role in shaping the direction of the economy to accomplish specific aims. That doesn’t mean that the state controls every industry, as in the Soviet system; instead, it would be closer to the kind of economic planning that the U.S. practiced during the economic mobilization around World War II, and that is practiced internally today by many of the world’s biggest corporations. Should Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution pass muster, the select committee will convene policymakers, academics, and representatives from the private sector and civil society to hash out next steps. How widely or narrowly that groups defines a Green New Deal–and whether it’ll ever be given space to meet on Capitol Hill– remains to be seen, as supportive lawmakers huddle in Washington this week to try and gain support for writing it into the rulebook for the next Congress. Ultimately, it will be that committee that fleshes out what a Green New Deal looks like. But the proposal itself, American history, and existing research give us a sense for what all it might look like in practice.
“I’m Just More Afraid of Climate Change Than I Am of Prison,” the New York Times
What each of us should do to combat climate change is an open question. Do your personal choices matter, or is it more important to advocate for major societal change? For the people in this story, the answer is more powerful. Their fight against climate change involves going to jail for civil disobedience that involves physically shutting down oil pipelines–and then making the case against climate change in court.
Foster, who is 53, was charged with criminal trespass and criminal mischief, conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. At his bond hearing in Cavalier, North Dakota, he learned that he faced a maximum sentence of more than 26 years. When prosecutors requested that his bail be set at $100,000, Foster asked for a chance to speak. “Your Honor,” he said, “one of the main reasons for this action is to appear here and see justice done for our children, and to protect the air and land and water that they will require to survive. So it’s very important for me to be here in this courtroom, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m–it’s terrifying–but I am not going to miss it.”
Inside Google’s Shadow Workforce, Bloomberg
As tech employees began to more aggressively assert their rights in the workplace this year, the focus was often on engineers and their push back against company policies. But next to that labor story is the fight of many of the other workers who aren’t even employed by the companies, but work there on contract from staffing companies. These workers are also beginning to agitate for their right to accrue more of the benefits that full-time tech employees get. This story is a window into that workforce and how it might change.
Google’s Alphabet Inc. employs hordes of these red-badged contract workers in addition to its full-fledged staff. They serve meals and clean offices. They write code, handle sales calls, recruit staff, screen YouTube videos, test self-driving cars, and even manage entire teams–a sea of skilled laborers that fuel the $795 billion company but reap few of the benefits and opportunities available to direct employees. Earlier this year, those contractors outnumbered direct employees for the first time in the company’s 20-year history, according to a person who viewed the numbers on an internal company database. It’s unclear if that is still the case. Alphabet reported 89,058 direct employees at the end of the second quarter. The company declined to comment on the number of contract workers.