Picture a perfect Southwestern day: The air as clear as gin, the bright blue sky marked only by a few stray clouds. In this spot, the waters of the Colorado River are placid, cool green, with none of the muddy brown foam found in the rapids that, over millennia, have carved out the Grand Canyon. Redwall limestone cliffs stretch high above. They’re streaked with desert varnish—the stain left by manganese seeps—and lightly colored with the aquamarine of lichen. Eons of the planet’s history are visible from here, whole epochs rendered in the span of a few thousand vertical feet. It’s an awesome sight.
The news seemed tailor-made to drive conspiracy theorists and members of the tinfoil hat club into a frenzy. In July, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that the CIA is helping to underwrite a yearlong study examining atmospheric geoengineering—deliberate, planetary-scale manipulation of the climate to counteract global warming. As reporters took jabs at the idea of “spooks” seeking to “control the weather,” the National Academy of Sciences tried to brush away concerns.
About a year ago, on March 26, 2012, Sandra Steingraber, an environmental writer and activist against natural-gas fracking, wrote a public letter titled “Breaking Up with the Sierra Club.” Breakups are never easy, and the letter, published on the website of the nature magazine Orion, was brutal from the start: “I’m through with you,” Steingraber began.
Few U.S. communities can match the eco credentials of the quaint college town of Bellingham, Washington. Nestled between the glacier-tipped peak of Mount Baker and the rugged coastline of the Puget Sound—the “Salish Sea” as locals prefer to call it—the area is a magnet for hikers, climbers, and kayakers. The town boasts a vibrant local-food scene, with two summer farmers markets and a pair of organic grocery stores. The City of Bellingham and the surrounding Whatcom County government get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, a practice that earned both recognition from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Leadership program. The Natural Resources Defense Council has dubbed Bellingham one of its “Smarter Cities” for the town’s commitment to reducing its ecological footprint.
Marlene Orr lives in Ft. McKay, Alberta, a tiny hamlet of two First Nations groups at the center of Canada's tar sands deposits, the largest petroleum reserve outside of Saudi Arabia. Ft. McKay is ground zero for tar sands extraction; the giant Syncrude and Suncor mines are to the south, Total E&P's source is to the west, and Shell's mine lies to the north of town, on the far shore of the Athabasca River.