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Signs of Life :: Small Stories About Big Change

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:: Brazil Agrees to protect Rainforests
:: Climate Activists Turn Up the Heat
Also ...
Hawai'i to Ramp Up Renewable Energy
High-Tech Hitchhiking
U.S. Army Goes Electric
Vivace Makes Clean Energy from Water

:: Campaign Finance Pledge


:: Activists Seek Peace in Gaza
Also ...
Jewish Voice for Peace Supports Young Refuseniks
Online Apology for the 1915 Massacre of Armenians

:: A Fight for Tenants' Rights

:: Campaign for Public Water Trust


Energetic activists outside the U.N. Conference on Climate Change held in December in Poznan, Poland.

Energetic activists outside the U.N. Conference on Climate Change held in December in Poznan, Poland. Photo by Mal Chadwick,




Brazil Agrees to Protect Rainforests

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Blue-fronted Amazon, photo by Arthur Chapman

The Brazilian government made its first-ever serious commitment to Amazon rainforest protection this December, pledging to reduce the rate of deforestation by 70 percent over the next decade.

If the target is met, it will keep 4.8 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

The announcement came just before the most recent international climate meeting in Poznan, Poland, where negotiators debated how to reward countries that reduce deforestation. Brazil’s plan seeks international funding. Norway has pledged $1 billion over seven years to the effort.

—Brooke Jarvis



Climate Activists Turn Up the Heat

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2009 could be the year when the drive to stop global warming finally becomes a full-fledged global movement.

For almost two decades, experts and diplomats have been trying to negotiate a treaty. But with insufficient outside pressure, they’ve been making little progress.

December’s meeting in Poznan, Poland—the 16th giant “conference of the parties” to be held on climate change—began as usual with people going through the diplomatic motions.

But several things shook the session up. One, the nations who will be affected most quickly by climate change stepped up their rhetoric. Small island nations demanded that other countries stop threatening their survival and commit to reducing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.

In the concluding speech to the conference, Al Gore got a full minute of lusty cheering when he said the new benchmark for climate progess was indeed 350.

Activists at have spent the last year pushing that number, originally identified by NASA climatologist James Hansen. It’s the most important number on earth—and this year, the organizers of plan to make it the most well-known. On October 24, people in thousands of locations, from high in the Himalayas to underwater on the Great Barrier Reef, will rally around that number.

Now activists are turning to direct action. March 2 in Washington D.C. will mark the first mass civil disobedience on climate change in U.S. history. Organizers expect more than a thousand people will be arrested outside the coal-fired generating station that powers Congress. Hansen has said that we can’t reach 350 unless we stop burning coal soon.

A letter I wrote with Wendell Berry put it this way: “There are moments in a nation’s—and a planet’s—history when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction. We think such a time has arrived.”

—Bill McKibben is a journalist, author, and the founder of

Interested? Bill McKibben launches mass civil disobedience campaign.




Hawai'i to Ramp Up Renewable Energy

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The State of Hawai‘i and the Hawaiian Electric companies have allied to dramatically expand renewable energy. Their agreement requires that 40 percent of the islands’ electric power be renewable by 2030 and commits them to ban new coal plants, retire or convert older fossil fuel plants, encourage new clean energy projects and the use of electric vehicles, and build an undersea cable to link island grids.

High-Tech Hitchhiking

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Hitchhiking is going high-tech as a number of companies pilot applications that allow commuters to “thumb a ride” using their iPhones. The shared transport “apps” connect drivers with potential passengers. The Avego system, which is being tested in Dublin, is one example. It lets drivers enter information about their intended route, then automatically sends riders a menu of potential pick-up points and destinations.

A similar application called Carticipate was released this year by a San Francisco company, and also offers a Facebook application. The developers hope the applications will increase carpooling and reduce fuel use. Currently, about three-fourths of U.S. workers commute alone.

U.S. Army Goes Electric

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The U.S. Army plans to lease 4,000 electric vehicles, in what the Pentagon claims is the “largest acquisition of electric vehicles in the United States by any entity to date.” The Army says the program will support energy security by saving 11 million gallons of fuel and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 115,000 tons. The Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) will replace some of the Army’s fleets of non-tactical sedans and light trucks. The first six NEVs were unveiled on January 12.

Vivace Makes Clean Energy from Water

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Scientists have developed a new device that produces clean energy from water flows of less than one knot (1.15 miles per hour). Most of the world’s currents are slower than three knots, but dams and water mills require an average of five to six knots to generate electricity.

Inspired by the physics of swimming fish, the device, called the Vivace, is less likely to harm aquatic life than dams or wave-action power systems. The developers say it can produce energy more cheaply than wind and solar, and believe it could have widespread applications.



Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day: Residents of Kogelo, Kenya, the village of Obama’s father’s family, watch on television as Obama becomes the U.S. president. Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy zoriah /

Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day: Residents of Kogelo, Kenya, the village of Obama’s father’s family, watch on television as Obama becomes the U.S. president.
Our own videos: reactions from the inauguration





Campaign Finance Pledge

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Capitol Hill
Read more about campaign finance reform and other initiatives putting citizens in charge of democracy.

More than 1,500 voters have pledged “not to donate to any federal candidate unless they support legislation making congressional elections citizen-funded, not special-interest funded.”

The “donor strike” is sponsored by Change Congress, a campaign finance reform group that advocates banning lobbyist contributions and financing campaigns solely through a combination of public funds and small-dollar donations—a proposal polls show is supported by 69 percent of Americans.

Legislators who refuse to back the proposal will be reminded of what they’re missing. Pledgers report their zip codes and recent campaign contributions, and the website ( tracks how much funding their representatives stand to lose from the strike—over $400,000 and growing daily.

—Brooke Jarvis



Vice President Joe Biden

“They’re thinking the same old thing that got us here, greed. They’re thinking, ‘Take care of me.’ ”

Vice President Joe Biden









Activists Seek Peace in Gaza

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Community Banks posters
Supporters of conscientious objectors outside of a prison.

In the wake of the death and destruction that resulted from the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, there is a positive story that has received little attention: People of conscience from around the world are organizing to support human rights in Palestine.

While there has been little sympathy in the international community for the extremist Hamas organization that came to power in the crowded Palestinian territory a year and a half ago, there has been widespread recognition that Palestine’s civilian population should not be subjected to massacre. More than 1,300 Palestinians, close to half of whom were civilians, died during the Israeli assault in December and January, compared to 13 Israelis (three civilians).

In the United States, which provides Israel with most of its weaponry, an unprecedented number of peace and human rights groups mobilized their memberships to challenge the Bush administration and Congress in their support of the war. Liberal pro-Israel groups like Americans for Peace Now (APN), Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and J Street countered more conservative groups—who rallied in support of the attacks—by pushing for an immediate cease-fire.

When the House of Representatives passed a resolution defending Israel’s actions, a sizable number of representatives who had previously supported similar resolutions abstained as a result of phone calls, emails, online petitions, local demonstrations, and other constituent pressure. Activists believe these successes point to a growing understanding in the U.S. that Israeli security and Palestinian human rights are mutually dependent.

Within Israel, there was a series of antiwar demonstrations, some numbering in the thousands. Near the Gaza border, hundreds of residents of Sderot, an Israeli town that had been hit by Hamas rocket attacks, signed a petition calling for an end to the Israeli military operations.

Since the end of the fighting, an unprecedented amount of donations has poured in from around the world for relief organizations working in the Gaza Strip, and teams from human rights organizations have begun documenting war crimes.

Meanwhile, Israelis in growing numbers are questioning their government’s actions in light of emerging stories of loss and hardship suffered by Palestinians. Chief among these is the case of Ezzeldine Abuelaish, a prominent Palestinian doctor who lost three of his children after his house was hit during an Israeli missile strike on January 17. Among them was Abuelaish’s daughter, who had attended a summer camp in the United States designed to build trust and reconciliation among Israeli and Palestinian youth. Abuelaish is well-known in Israel for his peace activism. His story has triggered an outpouring of sympathy in the U.S., Israel, and Palestine, and served to mobilize efforts for peace and reconciliation.

—Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the Middle East Studies program.



More than 70 Israeli high school seniors have refused to obey their legal requirement to serve in the military, and some have been jailed. On December 18, 22,000 letters of support were delivered to the Israeli Minister of Defense.
Photo courtesy Oren Ziv Photos /

More than 70 Israeli high school seniors have refused to obey their legal requirement to serve in the military, and some have been jailed. On December 18, 22,000 letters of support were delivered to the Israeli Minister of Defense.

Refuseniks: Conscientious objectors speak out









Jewish Voice for Peace Supports Young Refuseniks

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The organization Jewish Voice for Peace has launched a global movement on behalf of a group of over 70 Israeli high school seniors calling for Israel to recognize the rights of conscientious objectors. The students have refused to obey their legal requirement to serve in the military, and some have been jailed. In December, the group, called the Shministim, launched an online campaign asking for letters of support. On December 18, they delivered 22,000 letters to the Israeli Minister of Defense in Tel-Aviv. The group has continued to receive an outpouring of support: a total of 50,000 letters has come in from around the world since the campaign started.

Online Apology for the 1915 Massacre of Armenians

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An online apology for the 1915 massacre of Armenians living in what is now Turkey has gathered more than 28,000 signatures. The statement expresses regret for “the insensitivity and the denial of the Great Catastrophe,” during which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed.

Turkey has for decades refused to acknowledge the 1915 events as genocide, and in recent weeks investigated the authors of the apology for possible violation of the Turkish penal code, which makes “insulting the Turkish people” a criminal offense. They have since found no grounds for prosecution.




A Fight for Tenants’ Rights

Tenants’ rights groups are taking action to protect renters from eviction when banks foreclose on property owners.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, renters make up an estimated 40 percent of the families currently facing eviction because of foreclosure. Nearly a million properties are at risk of foreclosure, a number expected to more than double in the coming year.

Renters can be evicted with only a few days notice, even if they’ve never missed a rent payment, and they are frequently unable to recoup security deposits and advance rent without suing. Vacant rental buildings are often targeted by vandals, and entire neighborhoods can suffer.

Lawyers for New Haven Legal Assistance (NHLA) threatened a lawsuit against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, forcing them to allow renters to stay in their apartments. Advocacy groups are now pressuring other lenders to do the same.

Groups like the San Francisco Tenant’s Union and Boston’s City Life/Vida Urbana are helping renters challenge evictions in court. They are also organizing public protests against banks and urging policymakers to stop lenders—many of whom are benefiting from federal bailout funds—from evicting tenants in foreclosed properties.

“The current situation is a lose-lose situation for everyone right now,” says NHLA’s Amy Eppler-Epstein. “Banks can make more money on a full building than an empty one that’s trashed. Shareholders, neighborhoods, communities, and tenants are suffering. It’s crazy, and it’s got to change.”

—Daniel Fireside is book editor at Dollars & Sense magazine,


Max Rameau, director of Take Back the Land, an activist group in Miami that has organized a squatting campaign to clean up vacant foreclosed houses and help homeless people move into them.

“We’re matching homeless people with peopleless homes.”

Max Rameau, directoy of Take Back the Land,












Campaign for Public Water Trust

Water pipe image

Citizen groups like Food and Water Watch are asking Congress and the Obama administration to tackle the nation’s water infrastructure crisis, a problem they say has not sufficiently been addressed by the president’s proposed economic stimulus. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) has lent his support and will be crafting legislation this spring for a public water trust fund, which would help secure an ongoing source of federal money for water projects.

The U.S. has 72,000 miles of pipe, some more than 100 years old. Federal agencies estimate that between $300 and $500 billion is needed over the next 20 years to repair our aging water infrastructure and halt pollution. Currently, one trillion gallons of untreated water end up in our rivers, lakes, and streams each year as a result of poorly functioning water systems.

This crisis is putting ecosystems and people at risk, but help from the federal government is virtually nonexistent. Since 1978, the federal government’s contribution to overall spending for clean water has shrunk from 78 percent to 3 percent. These numbers are reflected every day in beach closings and water advisories from sewage overflows. Many municipalities have opted to turn operation of their public water systems over to private companies in an attempt to draw private investment into upkeep. Unbelievably, almost half of our waterways in the U.S. don’t meet water quality standards.

“We have trust funds for highways, airports, and social security. So, why should support for the liquid that sustains all life be any different?” asked Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch. “Clean water, a public resource used by all Americans, certainly warrants federal support and deserves the same protection.”

—Tara Lohan is managing editor at Alternet.

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