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Jeff Biggers
Jeff Biggers is the American Book Award-winning author of Damnatio Memoriae, among other works, including Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, In the Sierra Madre, The United States of Appalachia, and State Out of the Union. His website is:

Entries by Jeff Biggers

While Palmyra Burns, We're Losing the War on History

(3) Comments | Posted October 6, 2015 | 2:42 PM

Amid the nonstop air raids and slaughter of innocent Syrians, the recent destruction of the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria by Islamic State militants did not simply reduce another Roman-era monument to rubble.

It made a mockery out of our inaction and indifference to the current war...

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'Overburden': Powerful New Film Doc Captures Big Coal's Enduring Trauma -- And Two Women's Work to Heal Its Damage

(0) Comments | Posted September 8, 2015 | 2:30 PM

While recent headlines hastily declare the death of King Coal, a powerful new film documentary based on seven years of investigation poignantly captures the complexities and largely overlooked stories of the enduring trauma of the coal industry on miners, their families, affected neighbors and the ravaged communities and Appalachian mountains they call home.

As one of the most timely, poetic and informed film documentaries released this year, Overburden: Two Women and the Mountain Between Them, chronicles a quintessential American journey--amid the tragedy of lawlessness in the workplace and the environment--of two courageous women, formerly divided, who shed their fears and find common ground to begin the painful process of dealing with their grief, seeking terms of justice, and healing their damaged communities and mountains.

"We've all become family," Betty, a once fervent pro-coal supporter tells Lorelei, a coal miner's widow and vocal mountaintop removal mining organizer, in the film. "Don Blankenship has put us together," she adds, referring to the notorious former Massey Energy CEO. Recognizing the loss of Betty's brother in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster, as well as her own suffering, Lorelei responds: "Too high of a price to pay, though."

As featured in Overburden--a chilling mining term that refers to the overlying rock and soil displaced, like besieged residents and miners, to reach underground coal resources--these two former adversaries will stand together when Blankenship finally goes on trial on Oct. 1 in Charleston, West Virginia, for charges of conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards relating to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, which took 29 lives.

To be sure, Lorelei and Betty will not only stand together in solidarity for mine safety and economic diversification.

"There's a desperate need for healing in the community," Lorelei says, in one of the most poignant moments in the film, as she packs up her belongings to move away.

Healing between families, communities and the plundered mountains in central Appalachia -- and in so many other strip-mined communities in southern Illinois, Wyoming and Montana, and on Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Navajo and other indigenous lands.

Embedded for years in West Virginia, Overburden director and University of North Carolina professor Chad Stevens is not only one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation, but one of its best storytellers, who has done the tedious and indefatigable work behind the scenes to gain the trust of bitterly divided and traumatized communities, and allow his characters to speak for themselves and recount the process of such healing unfolding today. Stevens brilliantly balances the beauty of families and the mountains, amid the tension of its conflicts and demise; his footage of a bear cub, aimlessly wandering to the edge of a massive strip mine, in search of its mother, is singular in its power.

There are a lot of important film documentaries on mountaintop removal mining--a strip mining process that has literally detonated untold millions of tons of explosives to blow up the tops of more than 500 mountains and shovel up the coal with machines over the past half century. In the tradition of the Oscar-winning film documentary Harlan County, Stevens effectively transcends the "war on coal" political banter by capturing the human stories behind the daily operations of one of our nation's most misunderstood, complicated and devastating sources of energy.

Photo credit: Chad Stevens, courtesy of Overburden film.

The portrait of Lorelei dispels many of the stereotypes of so-called "tree huggers" working to hold the coal industry and its sycophantic politicians accountable to various water and mining regulations. The widow of a miner who died from black lung disease, with a son-in-law in the mines, Lorelei joins a young community organizer, Rory McIlmoil, in a Coal River Mountain campaign for wind energy in an effort to draw attention for more sustainable economic development in the region. When a mining company launches its strip mining operations on Coal River Mountain, Lorelei travels to Washington as a representative of the affected residents, appealing to the Obama administration's "power to intervene."

Taking the viewer on a rare glimpse into the pro-coal circles, Betty is a matter-of-fact narrator who declares "coal is life here," and proudly posts a "Friends of Coal" sign. When the violation-ridden Upper Big Branch mine explodes in 2010, taking her brother's life in the process, Betty comes to the realization that "Massey Energy murdered my brother."

Joining efforts with Lorelei in a campaign to revoke Massey's corporate charter, Betty sums up the reality of both miners and all communities affected by reckless mining: "If we don't stand up and fight, who's going to?"

Years in the making, Overburden is ultimately an extraordinary story of transformation; of two brave women who recognize their fates no longer need to be divided by outside forces that have controlled the region for over a century through fear, deprivation and outright violence, and take action for a more viable future.

With Blankenship's historic indictment -- the first coal baron to be brought to trial for conspiracy charges in decades -- Overburden should be required viewing for President Obama, the Congress, and anyone who has ever depended on coal-fired...

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Damnatio memoriae nel Mediterraneo. Perché la storia dell'Antica Roma è importante oggi

(0) Comments | Posted September 3, 2015 | 11:06 AM

I flussi migratori di cui siamo testimoni oggi non sono una storia nuova per il Mediterraneo. La controversia riguardante lo ius soli risale a migliaia di anni fa. Anche la tragedia della distruzione delle rovine romane di Palmira in Siria ricorda la damnatio memoriae dell'epoca romana e ci rammenta che...

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Damnatio Memoriae: Returning Mediterranean's Lost Migration History to Center Stage

(0) Comments | Posted September 1, 2015 | 3:27 PM

Today's global migration shift is not a new story in the Mediterranean. The controversy over unconditional birthrights dates back thousands of years. Likewise, the recent tragedies in the Roman-era ruins of Palmyra, Syria are a reminder that we cannot separate human suffering and historicide; the destruction of the...

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Call It What It Is: A Global Migration Shift From Climate, Not a Migrant or Refugee Crisis

(106) Comments | Posted August 28, 2015 | 3:17 PM

Hundreds more died off the coast of Libya today, on the heels of 71 deaths of migrants trapped in the back of a truck near Vienna, Austria. At the same time, NASA officials just warned that rising global sea levels from climate change could...

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Rising Appalachia: 200,000 Say End Mountaintop Removal in Historic Petition

(0) Comments | Posted July 14, 2015 | 11:43 AM

Signaling a watershed shift in recognizing the national health crisis from cancer-linked strip mining in central Appalachia, more than 200,000 people have signed historic CREDO Action and Earthjustice petitions, calling on Congress to pass the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) and enact a...

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A Bologna una nuova scultura d'arte pubblica porta la natura in piazza

(0) Comments | Posted July 10, 2015 | 4:51 AM


Editor's Note: An English version of this article appears here, Reclaiming the Piazza: "Headscapes" Sculpture Brings Nature Into Bologna.

Una nuova installazione d'arte pubblica in prossimità di Piazza Maggiore a Bologna ha aggiunto una dimensione ecologica a questa città di pietra...

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Reclaiming the Piazza: 'Headscapes' Sculpture Brings Nature Into Bologna

(0) Comments | Posted July 10, 2015 | 3:08 AM


Editor's Note: An Italian translation of this article, A Bologna una nuova scultura d'arte pubblica porta la natura in piazza, is available on HuffPost Italy.

A new public art installation adjacent to Bologna's Piazza Maggiore added an ecological dimension to...

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Blood on the Mountain: New Film Chronicles Coal's War on Appalachia

(3) Comments | Posted May 26, 2015 | 12:42 PM

One of the most telling moments in the new documentary film Blood on the Mountain draws from 2008 footage of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship calmly mumbling his replies to numerous questions on mine safety at a hearing. When asked if he knew how many coal miners had died in Massey mines in the eight years since Massey became a publicly traded company, the notorious "dark lord" of the coal industry shook his head and said no. Filmmakers Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman allow for a gut-wrenching moment of silence, having methodically chronicled the industry's treadmill of violation-ridden disasters, and then provide the answer: 52 deaths under Blankenship as CEO of Massey Energy.

Unfolding with the plaintive air of an elegy, Blood on the Mountain captures this blatant disregard for the health and lives of coal miners -- and the mountains they call home -- as a timely reminder of the legacy of an essentially outlaw industry and its 150-year reign in West Virginia.

Yes, Virginia, there is a coal war in Appalachia, as defiant West Virginia-raised attorney Bruce Stanley tells the filmmakers, admonishing them to get the narrative right: "a war waged by coal on West Virginia."

The world premiere of this compelling film documentary at today's Workers Unite Film Festival in New York City couldn't be more timely, on the heels of West Virginia coal-chemical spills, a mounting health crisis from strip-mining and black lung disease, and dangerous coal-slurry impoundments readying for the next foretold Buffalo Creek-type disaster.

And as viewers watch the film this week, Big Coal-bankrolled members of Congress will continue to deny the deadly costs and health impacts of strip-mining, coal companies will abandon miners and mines in bankruptcy, and the rogue elements of the industry will take one last mountaintop-removal blast at the region before picking up and moving to the Illinois Basin or abroad.

As the film's best informants, local residents and former union coal miners like Terry Steele pull no punches. "They [couldn't] care less about this place," Steele says, noting that 80 to 90 percent of the mineral rights in his coal-rich county are owned by absentee corporations, adding that they "have no connection to land or people.... [W]hen they get everything they can get from it, they're like locusts."


While the coal industry did not begin in West Virginia -- and continues in 20-odd states -- Blood on the Mountain shows how the industry's stranglehold has always defined the state's corrupt politics and diminished economy, where regional lackeys do the bidding for absentee corporations, even at the expense of their own health, environment and livelihoods.

It's such an old and tragic history -- and it continues to flourish today, in the guise of political buffoons like U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a coal peddler who goes from one media-packed disaster after another.

Filmmakers Evans and Freeman have collaborated on several other films based in the region, including Coal Country and the PBS series The Appalachians.

"We had no no idea what blood lay under the graves," Rev. Ron English says, discussing the film's historical sweep, which dates back to slavery. Such historical oversight, English notes, makes the state, and the nation, "dishonest with ourselves, but we bring dishonor on our heritage."

That heritage for West Virginia has always ranged between repression and resistance -- courageous coal miners fighting bloody battles for union representation and fair wages and work conditions, fighting battles between themselves and, ultimately, waging a war on the mountains themselves as strip miners. It's a legacy of a century-long war of attrition by revolving coal companies to break down and divide the miners, their communities, and their land.

A former Massey miner's recorded voice laments Blankenship's union-busting ways, which eventually shattered and reduced the once-heroic United Mine Workers to a tiny corner of influence: "We had to produce to keep our jobs." Told that 1,000 people were waiting for their jobs, he adds, "I felt like that lump of coal was more important than a human being's life."

Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields -- and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the "extraction state" -- and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners' uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today's fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.

And the kicker: Don Blankenship now stands on trial for charges of conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine-safety and health standards.

"The land erased by man," a documentary clip from the 1970s warns, showing how the abuse of the land has always gone hand in hand with the abuse of the miners, "then the machines erased man."

Nearly a half-century later, Blood on the Mountain asks a similar question: What will it take for the nation to end the war on West Virginia, to be honest with ourselves about the toll of our coal-fire electricity on the lives of miners and mountaineers and not simply abandon the region to the whims of a volatile market but recognize our historical debt to coal mining...

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Regret to Inform You: Coal Blasting Rages On

(5) Comments | Posted April 24, 2015 | 8:41 AM

Judy Kellen, neighbor of Peabody's Rocky Branch Mine from Students Against Peabody on Vimeo.

The Washington University Students Against Peabody Energy ruined my Earth Day. They sent me footage of a recent fact-finding trip to Saline County, Illinois, where some of my family members, friends and farmers are being blasted by nearby Peabody Energy strip-mining operations.

Regret to inform you: Coal blasting rages on in southern Illinois, along with cancer-linked mountaintop removal operations in central Appalachia, and mining across the West.

Let's get the narrative right: Coal is not dying, it's declining and shifting, and though mountaintop removal is on the ropes, the knockout still awaits federal action. US coal mining production in 2015 is still set for 926 million tons, down from 996 millions tons, and estimated to rebound to 941 millions tons in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Thanks to the Appalachian decline, the Illinois Basin mined 104.9 million tons in 2014, up 4.6%.

Whether it's 996, 941 or 926 million tons of coal, that's still a lot of unprotected coal mine blasting now linked to cancer, and higher rates of birth defects and disease.


While I love to write about clean energy solutions, Appalachian transition and coalfield regeneration, and the inspiring regenerative city movement, to ignore the deadly impacts of mountaintop removal and coal mining is a betrayal to the residents living on the front lines of coal mining mayhem today.

Thankfully, impacted residents and groups continue the fight, despite the odds: Over 80,000 people have recently signed CREDO's petition for a moratorium on cancer-linked mountaintop removal mining through the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act.

Does a moratorium sound impossible? In Wales last week, the Assembly Members voted 30-0 after an informative debate to place a moratorium on open cast (strip) mining, similar to the ACHE Act, to study the impact of mining on residents.

It would be great to see such leadership in the US Congress, and among health and environmental groups based on Capitol Hill.

Earth Day has come and gone, but not the struggle to end mountaintop removal, which was launched in the same year: In 1970, an arsenal of explosives and draglines breached the ramparts of Bullpush Mountain in the Cannelton area of West Virginia, and blasted the first mountaintop removal mining operation.

Despite years of litigation, protests, education campaigns, public hearings and regulatory promises, the cancer-linked strip mine operations continue today in central Appalachia as the flip side of Earth Day's promise of restorative justice.

To celebrate Earth Day and not acknowledge the devastation of mountaintop removal, which provides only a small percentage of our national coal production, is to betray the origins of Earth Day itself.

Few people may recall that one of inspirations of Earth Day emerged out of earlier Human Ecology Symposiums organized by public health professor Morton Hilbert, to address the impact of our footprint on the land and its inhabitants.

Our nation's collective inaction over the fallout from strip mining and mountaintop removal does not simply mock the goals of Earth Day co-founder and former Sen. Gaylord Nelson, for "an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human being and all living creatures."

The federal sanctioning of such deadly mountaintop removal operations obliterates the very essence of Earth Day's purpose--and makes us all complicit to a crime against our earth and its Appalachian residents, as well as those dealing with strip mining in southern Illinois and the West.

So, let's be honest: The day after Earth Day is just another day of strip mine blasting in America--until we decide to take a stand like Wales, CREDO and the Washington University students, and end...

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Earth Day's Soundtrack: Wider Circles, New Album by Rising Appalachia

(0) Comments | Posted April 20, 2015 | 3:53 PM

In an effort to encourage low-impact touring and community engagement, the internationally acclaimed folk roots group Rising Appalachia has taken to the rails this spring to promote their border-crossing sixth album, Wider Circles. Set to be released on April 21, the album's blend of ethereal sister...

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CREDO Launches National Drive to End Cancer-Linked Mountaintop Removal Mining

(9) Comments | Posted April 13, 2015 | 8:24 AM

Calling for a "national, coordinated response to the humanitarian disaster of mountaintop removal mining," CREDO Action launched an extraordinary petition drive this past weekend for Congress to pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act) and place an immediate moratorium on "the deadliest and most...

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Ecopolis Iowa City: Interview With Chef Kurt Friese, Ramping Up the Local Food Economy

(0) Comments | Posted March 24, 2015 | 5:29 PM

On the heels of a new study on the emergence of local food hubs as an economic force in Iowa, Ecopolis Iowa City will feature leading food experts and advocates at its next forum, "Grow Here: Ramping Up the Local Food Movement" on Saturday, March 28,...

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Feds Can't Wait on Mountaintop Removal: As White House Hedges, Groups to Sue Obama Over State Lawlessness

(0) Comments | Posted March 18, 2015 | 11:59 AM


An escalating series of lawsuits, government rulings, banking decisions and breakthrough health studies has brought the fate of devastating mountaintop removal mining in central Appalachia to the doorstep of state and federal decision makers this week.

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Day of Reckoning in Appalachia: Legendary Coal Miner Calls for 'Insane' Mountaintop Removal to End

(0) Comments | Posted March 16, 2015 | 9:02 AM


With mountaintop removal mining on the ropes, as the last bank financiers ditch lending support amid new scientific research that demonstrates "solid evidence that dust collected from residential areas near mountaintop removal sites causes cancerous changes...

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Mountaintop Removal On the Ropes: 1,000 People Needed for Moratorium Push

(0) Comments | Posted March 13, 2015 | 6:48 PM


A reinvigorated "People's Foot" movement to end mountaintop removal is ramping up its efforts next week, as the last vestiges of outside support begin to abandon the nation's most egregious strip mining operations in central Appalachia.

"Mountaintop removal is...

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Mountaintop Removal Ends March 16. Put Your Foot Down for Basic Health and Human Rights!

(1) Comments | Posted February 26, 2015 | 11:30 AM

Fourteen months after the world watched in astonishment as poorly regulated coal-washing chemicals contaminated the Elk River in West Virginia, coal country residents and supporters are gearing up for an epic showdown on March 16 with the state's Department of Environmental Protection -- and the U.S. Congress --...

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Ecopolis Iowa City: Will Riverfront Park Showcase Bold Leadership on Resiliency, Climate Action?

(0) Comments | Posted February 23, 2015 | 6:52 AM

(All photos courtesy of Miriam Alarcón Avila)

When the UN Climate Summit kicked off last fall with the short film, "What's Possible," actor Morgan Freeman's challenge to "our leaders to be brave, and their choices to be bold" resonated with...

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Ecopolis Iowa City: As State Leads in Wind, Can Iowa City Become 'City of Solar'

(0) Comments | Posted January 22, 2015 | 10:17 AM

With the state of Iowa leading the nation in wind energy production, a packed crowd filled the Iowa City Public Library last night to discuss game-changing new power purchase agreements that could light up the famed "City of Literature" as a bright shining "City of Solar."

"Iowa has been a national leader in wind energy for years, but Iowa also has the potential to be a leader in solar energy as well," said Mike Carberry, a long-time clean energy advocate and a member of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. "Sun power that grows all of our corn can also be used to grow electricity. We have the solar resource, now we just need the will to make it happen."

Less than 15 miles from Iowa City, in fact, the extraordinary work of general manager Warren McKenna and the Farmers Electric Cooperative (FEC) has won international acclaim for its role as a national model for solar financing and development. Recognized last year by the Solar Electric Power Association as the "Utility CEO of the Year," McKenna spoke about his pioneering solar work since 2008, including the establishment of one of the nation's first feed-in tariff systems. FEC has installed solar systems at area schools, launched a groundbreaking solar community garden, and now oversees the largest solar farm in Iowa.

Farmers Electric Co-op manager Warren McKenna at Ecopolis Forum. Photo: Jeff Biggers

Speaking on behalf of Ecopolis Iowa City, a community forum on regenerative city initiatives that hosted the event, Miriam Alarcón Avil cited the state's high solar potential ranking in a recent Iowa Environmental Council study, which concluded that 20 percent of Iowa's electricity could be provided by rooftop solar installations.

The Ecopolis Forum members touted the breakthrough Eagle Point decision in the Iowa Supreme Court last year, which allows for third party power agreements, and effectively opened the flood gates for cost-effective solar energy initiatives in the state, and called on the city of Iowa City and the Iowa City Community School District to commit to a goal of 20-25% on-site solar energy on city buildings and new development projects with city funding within the next two years, along with energy efficiency requirements:

Ecopolis Forum
Petition for Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency in Iowa City

We, the undersigned, ask the city of Iowa City to adopt a requirement for 25% of the projected building energy use be provided by on-site renewable energy (solar, geothermal or wind). This shall apply to new construction and major renovations of city buildings and projects seeking city funding which have a construction budget of greater than $500,000 and city support greater than $75,000.

We, the undersigned, ask the city to adopt a 2030 Challenge requirement for all municipal buildings - new construction and major renovation - and for all new construction and major renovation projects seeking city funding which have a construction budget of greater than $500,000 and city support greater than $75,000. The 2030 Challenge seeks to achieve Net Zero Carbon Emissions for all new construction and major renovation by the year 2030. All new buildings and existing building major renovation projects shall be designed and built to meet an energy consumption performance standard of 70% below the regional average EUI (Energy Use Intensity, defined as kBtu/SF/year) for that building type. This standard for all new buildings and major renovations will be increased to: 80% in 2020, 90% in 2025, and carbon-neutral in 2030 (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate).

We, the undersigned, ask the Iowa City Community School District to adopt a requirement for 25% of the projected building energy use be provided by on-site renewable energy (solar, geothermal or wind). We also ask the Iowa City Community School District to adopt a 2030 Challenge requirement for all new construction and major renovation, with all projects designed and built to meet an energy consumption performance standard of 70% below the regional average EUI (Energy Use Intensity, defined as kBtu/SF/year) for that building type.

Kevin Hanick, winner of the Tesla Award for Renewable Energy Innovation. Photo: Jeff Biggers
For his groundbreaking solar development in Iowa City, developer Kevin Hanick was awarded the "Tesla Award for Renewable Energy Innovation" by the Ecopolis Forum. Hanick, a past recipient of the Iowa City Area Association of Realtors Distinguished Service Award, plans to install over 700 solar panels on his private housing complex in the Riverfront Crossings District.

In fact, as several presenters noted, southeast Iowa has already established the groundwork for a solar energy boom. State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, who represents Iowa City, has been a leading sponsor of solar legislation. Last fall, Johnson County signed on to a new solar agreement for a road facility, according to Moxie Solar representatives, that will save $250,000 over the course of the 25-year agreement. The University of Iowa recently released a request for proposal for rooftop solar photovoltaic electric generating system under a power purchase agreement.

In the southeastern Iowa town of Wayland, the Waco School District recently announced plans to save $100,000 annually, thanks to a newly installed solar system.

"The potential for solar in Iowa is largely raw and and untapped," said Troy Miller, who made a presentation with Jason Hall of locally-based Moxie Solar. "The winners will be forward thinking communities, such as Iowa City and Johnson County, who are aware that the federal tax credits may disappear after 2016."

Ecopolis members call for 20% renewable energy by 2020. Photo: Erica Damman...

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Climate Hope: Three Essential Green Books of the Year -- and a Poem

(4) Comments | Posted December 16, 2014 | 1:09 PM

Three important new books in 2014 -- and an extraordinary poem -- stand out as essential reading for our climate change century -- far from being requiems for our planet. Informative, original, unblinking and provocative, dealing head-on with the challenges of resource use in an urbanizing world, Herbert Girardet's

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