I have a confession to make. I have committed environmental sins. Even though most have been accidental sins of omission, paying closer attention would likely have avoided many of them. Some make me feel especially regretful because I can't take them back or correct them.
While I'd like to think I've made progress on my trip to environmental utopia, I clearly have yet to reach my destination.
These musings on environmental imperfection were recently prompted by the book No Impact Man by Colin Beavan.
As part of a complex world-wide economy, our consumer tentacles have a very long reach. And we find that some of the products we buy were produced, harvested or manufactured by unsustainable, unethical, even illegal, means.
Coffee, like other valuable long-season crops, is grown in the tropics for export to places like the United States. It is often produced in place of food crops, even in parts of the world where poorer people struggle to own land and grow crops to feed themselves. Once grown as the undergrowth plant in tropical forests, it is now more commonly planted in sunny plantations and sold to major coffee producers. The rainforests are stripped for these monoculture plantations, exposing thin tropical soils. Since they are monocultures, it is easier for disease and pests to gain a foothold, necessitating higher inputs of toxic pesticides.
"By shifting away from traditional practices, you lose an incredible amount of topsoil [and] contaminate waterways," Robert Rice, a co-author of an article on the topic in Bioscience explained in a Huffington Post interview. While coffee is wildly popular and widely grown, the more obscure pine nut presents a different set of challenges. A majority of the pine nuts imported for use in pesto here in the United States come from the Korean pine tree. It grows extensively in the temperate rain forest of southeast Russia and is most often gathered from the wild by local collectors.
The Wildlife Conservation Society's Jonathan Slaught explained recently in the New York Times that the expanding road system in this part of Russia has given wider access to these forests. Along with greater global demand, there is additional pressure on the pine nut supply and the rich ecosystem (including the Siberian Tiger) in which we find them. A simple solution to this quandary is much closer to home. Though many believe that it is the pine nut that gives the unique flavor and texture to pesto, Slaught contends that there are many alternatives, including pinyon pine (from western US forests), cashews, walnuts and almonds.
This part of Russia is also home to our third dubious product, oak lumber for hardwood flooring here in North America. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that the region has exported four times more lumber than was legally permitted during the ten year period of their recent study. An area of woodland the size of Pennsylvania (much of it home to those Siberian Tigers) has been lost to fire and illegal logging since the turn of the century.
Alexander von Bismark, director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, lead a team to Russia and China to explore the illegal business ventures of one of the companies that has been responsible for exporting much of this lumber, Hunchun Xingjia Wooden Flooring. Their research showed that the company imported large amounts of illegally cut Mongolian Oak to well-known US wood retailer Lumber Liquidators.
Far away as the problems may seem, we can be part of the solution to these challenges. Take some time to do a bit of internet research. Inquire about where your products come from when you shop. Insist upon products that are produced locally or certified as sustainably produced.
How can similar natural disasters result in such wildly varied human and economic tolls? Why does it seem that places already cursed by poverty are so much more likely to endure terrible consequences? The tenth anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita gives us a chance to explore such questions and reflect upon how much we have learned since those two dreadful storms in 2005. The reasons that different disasters bring such varied levels of damage are sometimes obvious and easy to figure out, yet we sometimes repeat the mistakes anyway. And like so many other things in life, the details can confound us, making the solutions more complicated than we expect.
Especially in today's complicated and intertwined world, it is easy to become disconnected from the consequences of our actions. Those trying to cheat or take advantage of circumstances often ignore what they do to others because they place their greed or selfish needs ahead of others. This has happened far too often in business and finance, sometimes with catastrophic economic impacts.
While some may concede that this is human nature and we should accept it, civilized societies usually try to encourage behavior that is good for everyone. The "common good," then, is the motivation for the passage of laws and the establishment of regulations related to those laws. Yet the common good is frequently not well served, especially in the most lawless of countries. Though for different reasons, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan and Columbia may be the most nightmarish of that group. But even places that hold the "Rule of Law" in high regard find themselves struggling to do the right things environmentally. It would seem that this happens for several reasons.
Without realizing it, many Americans and Western Europeans played a part in the disaster that killed nearly 600 people in the horrid clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh. The impacts we have on the environment, the way we use our natural resources and the unsafe working conditions that plague many parts of the world are usually far off abstractions to most of us. Since we frequently get our food, clothing and other consumer goods from faraway places, we are disconnected from the environmental damage or worker hazards to which we unknowingly contribute.
In hunting and gathering cultures and subsistence agricultural societies, people were always closely connected to their environment. When harm was inflicted upon the local environment, the damage was obvious and usually impacted the people directly. Overgraze your rangeland and you damage the productivity of the place your animals feed. If poor farming practices allow your soil to wash away, you'll lose soil fertility. Chop down trees faster than they can regenerate and you'll use wood faster than it grows back. But in today's interconnected, worldwide economy, it's easy to lose track of such problems. When damage is done, we can be thousands of miles from where the environmental problems or workplace conditions are the worst. When Chinese factories produce air pollution, we get inexpensive products but never see the health problems it creates for the Chinese people.
When we eat a hamburger (from the 200 million tons of beef we import) from former tropical rainforest in Central America , we never see the damage to the rainforest. When we buy grapes or bananas from thousands of miles away that have been treated with toxic pesticides, we seldom think about the victims of pesticide poisoning that pick them. When we ignore recycling opportunities, we conveniently ignore the landfill where the trash ends up. When we buy a diamond that was mined in or around Sierra Leone in Africa, we don't think much about the importance of diamonds in funding the brutal wars in the region that have killed four million over the last two decades.
Even before the catastrophes of the last few months, the stories of manufacturing sweatshops have given a black eye to many well known companies. But when more than 500 people die in a building collapse, people pay particular attention. The nightmare in Bangladesh is especially heinous when one reads of the almost incomprehensible disregard for human life that was shown by both the owners and some of the government officials that discounted the severity of the disaster. Despite substandard construction and a warning that the building was in danger of collapse, owners and managers sent workers into the building just hours before. Afterwards, Bangladesh's finance director said that, "I don't really think it's serious…" and that the accident would not harm Bangladesh's thriving garment industry.
Though the nature of the clothing industry makes it difficult to nail down the buyers and stores that would sell products manufactured in such factories, the labels have been sold by several American retail chains and US-based web retailers. Yes, ignorance is bliss. Sometimes it's even criminal.
Readers are encouraged to read more via internet searches on the Bangladesh garment industry and its connections to retailers in the United States as well as several other topics mentioned in this environmental column.
The three worst national economies in the world are in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The three nations are also in the bottom ten percent in education, health and overall prosperity according to the Legatum Institute's Prosperity Index (prosperity.com). Yale's Environmental Performance Index ranks all three in the bottom ten percent in overall environmental quality. So it is no surprise that 99.8% of all Ebola cases are in these three neighboring countries.
The poorest nations are usually among the most dysfunctional societies in the world. Not coincidentally, they are the unhealthiest and most environmentally degraded places on the planet. Their economies are a wreck, their educational systems dreadful, their health care infrastructure nearly nonexistent, and water and sanitation systems unavailable to large segments of their societies. Sometimes this happens because of a lack of resources – drought, poor soils, a lack of energy or other raw materials. But much more often it happens because of war, social injustices and inequitable distribution of wealth and land. Man's inhumanity to man is far too frequently the root of such nightmarish existence. And control of resources is often a major player in the conflicts.
In Sierra Leone, an eleven year civil war that resulted in the death of 50,000 people ripped apart a nation that was already in a tough spot. Control of the nation's diamond deposits was at the center of the conflict. Ethnic tribal divisions and control of diamonds fueled not one, but two civil wars within Liberia over the last quarter century. Coups, fraudulent elections and political assassinations poured gasoline on the already smoldering political embers resulting in 250,000 deaths. The diamonds and timber resources were sold by the warring factions to fund the small arms that were used in the conflicts. Some stability returned to Liberia with the 2006 election but the wars had shattered the nation, its economy, environment and what little infrastructure existed.
Guinea has been the most stable of the three Ebola-plagued nations, but only in comparison to its war-torn neighbors. The conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia spilled over into Guinea in 2000 as insurgents attempted to gain control of the bauxite, gold and diamond mines. (Guinea may have nearly a quarter of the world's bauxite reserves, the source of virgin aluminum ore.) Three separate coups have put two different military juntas in place in Guinea in just the last six years, following the death of their president in 2008. They have managed to avoid the large scale civil wars that tore apart Sierra Leone and Liberia, but few resources have gone into productive investments for three decades. The region seems stuck in the middle of the nineteenth century – except when it comes to military weapons.
All kinds of health problems are rampant. Infant mortality is extremely high and HIV/AIDS is still a serious problem in the region. Malnutrition and anemia, especially among children, remain very high. Ebola has become an epidemic there because of dire poverty, horrible living conditions, a lack of food and potable water, and dreadfully inadequate health care. Clearly, we don't need a medical miracle. We need a miracle that will eliminate the inhumane state of affairs that allows the disease to exist in the first place.
Ignorance is bliss. Poet Thomas Gray's famous quote is often taken out of context. Gray wondered in his 18th century poem if learning more might actually complicate his life. Not knowing about something, he speculated, might be better than understanding a problem and worrying about it.
Today, it usually implies that ignorance leads us to overlook problems that we might otherwise be able to address. This holds true for all sorts of social, health political and even environmental issues. With this in mind, let's look at a few of the environmental problems many have selectively ignored.
The environmental horrors of war are often overshadowed by the awful human costs. But that ecological damage can be horrid in its own right. Even the American Civil War had its environmental costs, particularly on agricultural resources. Stories are legion of large swaths of cropland being trampled or farms being pillaged by scavenging troops. Sherman's March was the worst, but not the only, case of widespread incineration that destroyed many communities. The sorts of destruction that had been associated with war prior to the 20th Century could be devastating in the short term. But cropland recovered, forests regenerated and towns were rebuilt. The advent of chemical weapons, the by-products of weapon use and toxic chemicals meant that problems were magnified.
Prior to the Vietnam War, the overwhelming majority of environmental degradation from war was collateral damage. The United States introduced intentional "ecocide" during the Vietnam War, using the powerful leaf defoliant Agent Orange to get the leaves off the dense jungle vegetation. What seemed like a good idea to expose the troop movements of the Viet Cong, ended up being an environmental and health disaster.
Agent Orange, manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, was made up of two herbicides (2-4-5 -T and 2-4-D), two toxic chemicals in their own right. But it was also contaminated with a chemical in the very toxic Dioxin family that was an incidental by-product of the manufacturing process. The death and serious health problems of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people and birth defects of a half million infants were blamed on exposure to the defoliant. Nearly 40,000 American Vietnam veterans made claims to the government for health problems connected with Agent. (Less than 500 claims were ever paid because the vets were unable to prove a direct connection to exposure.)
War-inflicted environmental problems arise from other unexpected places. Kuwait's meager groundwater resources were badly contaminated and sensitive desert vegetation seriously damaged during the first Gulf War in the early nineties. One major aquifer that holds more than a third of Kuwait's freshwater reserve is still badly contaminated today. Biological weapons have, unfortunately, been in the news over these last few months. The horrible atrocities in Syria are a stark reminder of the awful effects of those weapons.
Though biological weapons of various sorts date back several thousand years, modern germ warfare has taken the despicable practice to a more dreadful extreme. Though the United States recognized the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the subsequent Geneva Protocols in 1925 and reframed from using the weapons, the US continued to experiment with and produce the agents into the eighties.
Fortunately, the conventions, good judgment and fear of retaliation have kept the use of such weapons to a minimum around the world. The final challenge with biological weapons is getting rid of them. Even after a quarter century, the United States is still reportedly working to destroy their massive stockpile. It is sure to be more challenging in a place like Syria. Despite those challenges, let's hope that the safe and complete destruction of the chemicals in Syria bring us a step closer to chemical weapon-free world.
Unpleasant legacies of environmental degradation can be found all across the United States, including right here in Central Pennsylvania. Some of these legacies are many decades old, others are being created here and now.
Poorly reclaimed coal mines from long ago are still a source of acid mine drainage and contaminated ground water, despite extraordinary local efforts by groups like the Altoona Water Authority and the Blair County Conservation District. Even though the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has an extensive storage tank cleanup program, groundwater contamination from leaking oil and gasoline tanks remains a problem.
In spite of DEP's successful "Brownfield" remediation program to cleanup abandoned industrial sites and the hazardous chemicals often left behind, resulting contamination is still unacceptably common around such facilities. Such sites are often a source of visual blight as well. Several notable examples can be seen right here in Altoona and Blair County. They degrade communities and discourage new development and investment in those neighborhoods. These abandoned buildings can also be a direct financial drain on local governments, as counties and municipalities are often forced to pay for cleanups and demolition. The Russo Building on 31st Street in Altoona is a recent example right here in Altoona. While some of these problems have been addressed by regulatory improvements and successful government programs to clean up these liabilities, this legacy building continues.
Some illegal dumps in Blair County have been active for decades. Dumps near Wopsy Lookout, in Sinking Valley and the mountainside in Frankstown Township all had waste that was many decades old. Yet illegal dumping continues. As testimony to this, local officials have investigated six major dumping incidents since last autumn. Even what we thought was "legal" disposal has its legacies. The old Delta/Stotler Landfill north of Altoona was named a Super Fund toxic waste site in the eighties and monitoring continues today to assure that the toxins do not migrate elsewhere.
Unexpected legacies may be created by some of our current energy production activities. Just as there were unintended consequences of extensive coal mining, it is feared that there will be long term damage done by fracking for gas in Marcellus Shale. Similarly, many remain concerned about the future of wind energy generation. Despite being a renewable source of energy that does not generate air pollutants, windmills can degrade forestland, destroy habitat and generate considerable noise pollution. Skeptics also fear that wind farms could be the next generation's industrial "Brownfields" if subsidies are discontinued or they are abandoned for any reason.
With a history of so many environmental legacies, we would be well served to learn a few lessons from our past. Understanding the problems and establishing the personal habits and public policy to address them is the key.
In these days of dreadfully bad television and cinema, it is encouraging when you find something insightful and educational on the tube or screen. I had this unexpected pleasure twice this past week and came away with a feeling of hope amidst great anguish over the state of the environment.
The 11th Hour, the Leonardo DiCaprio documentary on our environmental crisis was last weekend's feature at Penn State Altoona's Downtown Movie series. Majestic scenes of some of the planet's most amazing landscapes were contrasted by images of some of our most vexing environmental challenges. But it was the all-star cast of scientists, environmental researchers, authors and social leaders that hammered home the message of the film.
The message was this: while there are things to be concerned about, there is hope. That hope is built upon a foundation of individual action and advocacy for broader social action. Kenny Ausubel, author of Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature, made perhaps the most profound comment of the film. "When we all talk about 'saving the environment' in a way it's misstated because the environment is going to survive. We are the ones who may not survive. Or we may survive in a world we don't particularly wanna live in."
Paul Hawken, who has advocated for, and written about, sustainable and "green" business practices, gave the greatest message of hope. "What a great time to be born! What a great time to be alive! Because this generation gets to completely change this world." It is not about living in the cold and dark, as some environmental cynics sometimes contend. Nor is sensible resource use and preservation anti-business. Architect and designer William McDonough reinforces Hawken's point. We must "change from mass production of things that are essentially destructive to mass utilization of things that are inherently assets instead of liabilities."
Instead of using non-renewable energy to make things we consume and throw away, we would more renewable energy (but less energy overall) while making things from recovered materials. Environmental Studies Professor David Orr, from one of the nation's most sustainable educational institutions, Oberlin College, believes that it is more about our will to change. "These are not technical issues, nearly as much as they are leadership issues." Orr laments our inability to find common ground to bring about change.
A couple nights after the film, former President Jimmy Carter appeared on The Daily Show to talk about the Carter Center's effort to eradicate the Guinea Worm disease, dracunculiasis. A horrible parasitic infection caused by a water-borne nematode, the worm painfully bores its way out of the body after a year-long incubation period. Inflicting 3.5 million people in 21 countries in Asia and Africa in 1986, a rigorous educational effort and distribution of a simple and inexpensive filter has drastically reduced the number of cases of the disease. Last year, only 542 cases were reported in four countries - Sudan, Mali, Ethiopia, and Chad.
Change is not always something that is expensive or technically challenging. Sometimes it's about informing people that there is a challenge, letting them know that there is a solution and that we can collectively bring change.
Feel free to read more about the Guinea Worm Initiative.