Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

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An Unfortunate Step Backwards

June 5, 2017

On this World Environment Day we are left to ponder the latest chapter in human irresponsibility, the decision by Mr. Trump to have the United States, the second greatest polluter in the world, withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

This decision manifests the President’s unacceptable lack of understanding of reality. After hearing his comments and speech, one is left to wonder if he actually read the agreement. Trump’s assessment of the Paris accord and its supposed effect on our nation once again displays his “willful ignorance and disinterest” and “failure of intellectual virtue” as columnist David Brooks (a Republican, no less) aptly phrases it.

This is an agreement involving a non-binding timetable for the reduction of carbon emissions. No country is imposing restrictions on any other country, contrary to Mr. Trump’s assertions. Under the agreement, we already have the freedom to make adjustments as dictated by our circumstances without penalty.

Trump claims that the accord “would effectively decapitate our coal industry.” For those who pay attention, the coal industry was in decline long before the accord because of the availability of cleaner and cheaper energy sources. As a matter of fact, even the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, Kentucky, switched to solar power in order to save money.

He said in his speech that he “was elected to represent the people of Pittsburg, not Paris”. It is of some interest to note that the people of Pittsburg voted overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton and is a green city of its own volition.

Economically, there is widespread agreement that any short-term gains made by the fossil fuel industry will be greatly offset by our inability to capitalize on the inevitable world-wide shift to renewable energy. By leaving the Paris agreement, we jeopardize our potential to be at the vanguard of clean technology and the economic gains that come with it, a vacuum sure to be filled by other industrial nations, notably China.

This withdrawal seems to be more about sending a misguided “nationalist” message to the world (courtesy of the unelected Steve Bannon) than about global warming. It is the product of the bunker mentality of a man who sees not facts or points of view but instead a pantheon of enemies composed of any person or group who disagrees with him.

Mr. Trump has chosen to put us in the company of only Nicaragua (who voted against the accord because it wasn’t tough enough) and Syria in the world community. He has basically abdicated the leadership role the United States had formerly embraced in this critical issue. Instead of forging ahead in the field of sustainable energy, he has chosen to go backwards in spite of the opposition of a large number major corporations (including, amazingly enough, Exxon), 211 mayors representing 54 million Americans, and his own Secretary of State.

By now there should be no question about climate change being affected by carbon emissions caused by mankind (though some in the current administration still have their heads in the sand on this one) and no question that an immediate concerted effort is needed to curtail the damage being done before it is too late. Any negative impact this may have on our economy (and that is indeed disputable) is far outweighed by the positive impact we could and should make concerning the future health of this planet and the future generations that will inhabit it.

The Paris accord is by no means perfect, but at the very least it takes a step forward in uniting the nations of this planet in a common cause, one that is critical to us all. To abandon it is an act of self-absorbed fantasy which only serves to accelerate the advance towards an incomprehensible cataclysm. The reality is that we are all in this together. It is a time for America to step up, not take this unfortunate step backwards.

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Now More Than Ever

April 22, 2017

Earth Day 2017 comes early in the current administration’s assault on the environment. Now more than ever we need to be increasingly diligent in the protection of our vulnerable planet for it is abundantly clear that preserving it has taken a back seat to the unfettered and irresponsible expansion of the fossil fuel industry.

The Trump cabinet has been called “a nightmare for the planet, and the fossil fuel industry’s dream come true” (Michael Brune, director of the Sierra Club). It is filled with those who have a history of denying climate change  (including the President himself), most of whom are directly from the petroleum industry.

Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (which he built a career suing on behalf of the oil industry), is busy filling it with other climate change deniers in an attempt to roll back environmental regulations which they narrowly view only as harmful to business. The fact that these penny-wise and pound-foolish actions will be detrimental to the health and welfare of the Earth and its inhabitants seems to be besides the point.

Natural resources such as oil, gas, and coal are finite entities. However, they have become nothing more than a valuable commodity to be manipulated for the benefit of national power, corporate stockholders, or personal convenience by those in the business of resource profiteering. Modern man has exploited the gifts of this Earth without regard for their potential depletion or the destruction that is the byproduct of their acquisition. We have disregarded the interconnected nature of all things that make up the ecology of this world, and in doing so, have created an imbalance that is spiraling out of control.

History shows that we constantly overestimate our ability to safely extract the materials that we want and dispose of their waste. The result has been the pollution and destruction of our only environment. How many oil spills, deforestations, slag heaps, chemical contaminations, oceanic plastic “swamps,” animal extinctions, fouled wells, toxic dumps, poisoned water sources, and smog-choked cities do we need to understand this?

Half of the equation is the need to decrease our copious consumption. We have become energy gluttons who value convenience over conservation. How about downsizing the gas-guzzling vehicles we seem to covet? How about using more mass transit or even walking or biking? How about foregoing the wasteful McMansions and living in reasonably sized houses with moderately controlled temperatures? How about greater support for developing and making use of the technologies that would allow us to produce energy without destroying our planet in the process?

The idea of stimulating much-desired job creation by focusing on the fossil fuel industry is constantly being heralded. However, it is actually in the area of renewable energy industries that more jobs can be provided without adversely affecting the environment. According to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, $1 million dollars worth of oil and natural gas output directly creates 0.8 jobs and $1 million dollars of coal produces 1.9 jobs. However, wind power creates 4.3 jobs per million, solar power 5.4, building retrofits for energy efficiency 7.0, biomass power generation 7.4, and mass transit services 11.0.

We need to return to our instinctive reverence for the natural world and a realization of its delicate balance. It seems that “civilization” has made us arrogant, for the view that the land and all that is upon or under it is merely there for our exploitation is now prevalent. This is a shame that can become a tragedy, for humans have ignored this stark reality: if we do not take care of this planet, we will destroy it, and us along with it. This is not crazy talk. It is not the doomsday rambling of some overzealous tree hugger. It is science. It is common sense. And, in the long run, it is a matter of survival.

So today, April 22, the day which has been designated as Earth Day, the citizens of this nation are once again reminded to reconsider the shortsighted intrusions being made upon this delicate sphere. We do not have unlimited time to solve the problem even if the skeptics and deniers change their views. The very things that make life on Earth possible are being endangered, and the damage that is being done now to our land, atmosphere, and waters cannot be reversed. And unlike the dinosaurs, we will have no one to blame for our extinction but ourselves.

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Enemy of the Ocean

January 2, 2017

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“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
― John Muir

The oceans of the world are one of the critical elements of the ecology of the Earth. Their environmental health is a powerful indicator of the health of the planet itself. And that health is suffering because of the actions of one creature: mankind.

At this moment eight massive garbage patches exist in the world’s oceans. The one in the Mediterranean Sea contains about 250 billion pieces of plastic. In the Pacific Ocean, the Great Eastern Garbage Patch is the size of Texas, and the Great Western is even larger at half the size of the continental United States. The Indian Ocean and North Atlantic Ocean have also fallen victim to this egregious phenomenon.

These garbage patches are composed of anything humans dispose of that floats. The greatest portion is plastic: plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic containers of all sorts.

This is of particular concern because plastic takes an extremely long time to biodegrade. The average plastic bottle takes at least 450 years to completely biodegrade, and some take as long as 1,000 years. Rather, the plastic is ground down by the motion of the sea and the light of the sun into small particles called “confetti.” This confetti is destined to float around in the currents like a murky soup.

This is further compounded by the fact that these plastics leach out harmful substances such as bisphenol A (BPA). Plastics also absorb PCBs already present in the water. When marine life consumes the plastic granules, the harmful chemicals get into the food chain and affect any organism that eats them (including people).

And just who are the culprits responsible for this?

We are. All of us.

The use of products that end up in the garbage, plastic or otherwise, is pervasive. Since the threat is not immediate or visible, we succumb to the temptation of convenience. In the meantime we are pushing the limits of the planet’s ability to absorb the waste products of our modern civilization.

So what are we to do?

It sounds quite simple, but it requires the breaking of habits, something that in reality always proves difficult — stop (or at the very least greatly curtail) the use of common plastics.

When you shop, don’t use plastic bags. Choose paper or better yet, bring your own cloth bags. If you do end up with plastic bags, recycle them. Most supermarkets have a receptacle for such recycling right by the front door.

Instead of drinking bottled water, get a reusable drinking bottle and fill it with tap water (essentially what you are drinking in the plastic bottle and certainly no less healthy). Whatever plastics you do use, recycle. Virtually every town has a curbside pickup these days, so this practice should not be difficult to maintain. Not to do so makes you an enemy of the ocean.

These are most certainly not major sacrifices in terms of time or money (as a matter of fact, they will actually save money in the long run). But they are major actions that can help save the oceans. And that means saving the very planet we live on.

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I Stand with Standing Rock

September 19, 2016

standing rock-petitionRight now in North Dakota a scene is playing out that echoes a sorry thread that unfortunately runs through the fabric of this nation.

The Standing Rock Reservation is currently being threatened by the actions of Big Oil. The Dakota Access Pipeline will run through North Dakota to bring oil from the Bakken and Three Forks production areas to pipelines in Illinois. In order to do this, it needs to cross the Missouri River.

The original plans had this crossing north of Bismarck. The population of the area, which is 94% white, protested over fears of a pipeline leak. The plans were then adjusted to reroute the pipeline south to cross the Missouri near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and Lake Oahe, the sole source of water for the tribe.

So what do we have here? A 3.7 billion dollar project by the oil industry. A pipeline that needs to cross a river. A white population that objects and has the crossing rerouted. A group of Native Americans who are expected to accept what that white population did not.

The thread is one of the pervasive and persistent lack of respect for the indigent people of this land and their rights.

It is abundantly clear that through much of our history an institutional effort was made to contain, remove, or eradicate the native Americans. Originally, the legitimized slaughter of “Indians” reflected the values of the time during which they were considered subhuman “savages” whose elimination was much the same as the killing of wild animals. The fact that we (in both cases) encroached on their land and declared it our own seems to be besides the point. The governments of certain states (including New Jersey) promoted this practice by offering the incentive of scalp bounties. George Washington himself compared Indians to wolves and called for their annihilation. Though these practices were eventually stopped, the mindset they fostered still lingers in many to this day.

This may seem of little consequence on the surface, but it reflects an endemic attitude about the native peoples of this country. To me, that is troubling in a nation that insists it embraces tolerance, acceptance, and equality.

Consider that until 1924, these people — who were here before the “founding fathers” ever set foot on this soil — were not even considered citizens of the United States.

Consider that Indians living on reservations have no property rights. They don’t own the land on the reservation because the federal government holds it “in trust.”

Delve even deeper and consider history and its aftermath — the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, the miserable exile into the reservation, and the abjectly dismal record of one hundred percent of the more than five hundred treaties signed then broken by the United States government.

Those who would defend such actions point to the violence committed by the Indians against the colonists and settlers. This is also fact, but it must be looked at in the perspective of the situation.

Consider the following scenario. America has been invaded. The invaders have superior weapons and have captured or killed many. They are advancing and taking over most of the land. Some defenders have given up and fallen under their control and suffered great mistreatment. What would you do? Would you fight using any means necessary to protect your land and people?

Years later, others who look at this will have an opinion about what happened. Who do you think they will feel was wrong in what they did, the invaders or those who resisted?

The majority would do as one might expect —  they would fight (just think of the reaction to the exceptionally popular movie Independence Day). The invaders have no right to take our land and kill our people. It is clear that they are wrong in what they did.

This happens to be the exact circumstance of the Indians, but many Americans have great difficulty in accepting the application of the conclusion above when it makes us the bad guys. However, if we are to be a truly great country, we need to acknowledge our mistakes, not cover them up or make excuses for them, for to do so merely diminishes our stature and makes us appear hypocritical (particularly when we are critical of the record of other countries in such matters).

The bottom line in the current situation in North Dakota is that native people are still considered to be expendable. They are not worthy of the same consideration of the rest of the population.

Some of the area which is to be dug up and plowed through would irreparably violate land sacred to the Sioux, land containing ancestral burial grounds, and land which, incidentally, had been taken from them one hundred fifty years ago. Imagine if a native tribe proposed a project through Arlington National Cemetery that would necessitate invasive construction. Would that be acceptable?

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picture this at Arlington

The threat to the critical water supply of the tribe is a real one despite the assurances of the oil and pipeline industries that it is safe. Consider the record. Since 1995 there have been 2,000 significant accidents involving these “safe” pipelines — 300 in North Dakota alone in 2012-2013 — resulting in three billion dollars in property damage.

For example, in July of 2010, 800,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan. Five thousand acres of wetland habitat were adversely affected. In 2016, 65,000 gallons of oil polluted the North Saskatchewan River in Canada, the source of water for a tribe of the Cree Nation. Just this past week there was a major gas pipeline breach near Birmingham, Alabama.

The pipeline that will pass under the Missouri River will carry about a half million gallons of oil a day. At risk is the potential of an environmental disaster and the catastrophic effect it would have on the Standing Rock Sioux.

The future of these native people’s welfare and tradition hangs in the balance. For many, faith in the belief that this country can honor its own code of values also hangs in the balance. This is, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave with liberty and justice for all.

Except, it seems, for the Native American people.

 

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This Land Is Your Land

August 25, 2016
Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

One hundred years ago this day, an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. The monumental task of protecting the existing 35 national parks and monuments as well as any future additions fell to this new federal bureau. The current system of National Parks and Monuments covers more than 84 million acres in all 50 states and several territories.

These national parks have been called by some our country’s greatest treasure, and I would find that statement hard to argue with. The fact that these irreplaceable areas of natural beauty have been set aside and preserved from the rampant and often irresponsible overdevelopment by private interests that has plagued so much of our landscape is a credit to the foresight of those who led the preservation movement. And that is as it should be, for as Woody Guthrie sang, “This land was made for you and me.”

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Some ask why we should care about setting aside these natural areas. The answer seems clear to me. That we can still find pristine beaches along which to walk, lakes and rivers yet unsullied by pollution, mountain ranges that haven’t been ravaged by mining companies, and forests still abundant with the flora and fauna native to this great land should be of comfort to all who take pride in this country. These places manifest the very soul of our nation. Even if everyone can’t see these parks in person, just knowing they exist can provide a kind of spiritual satisfaction.

Yosemite

Yosemite, California

In the excellent documentary series entitled Our Nation’s Best Idea, Ken Burns retells the story of the parks and the people who were so vital in their establishment and protection, some well-known and some unheralded: John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, Charles Young, Harold Ickes, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Along with many ordinary unsung heroes, they often had to battle against those who sought to gain individual control or personal wealth. It took time and persistence, but the result of their staunch efforts and great vision is available for all to appreciate, for these park lands belong to us. They are part of our American heritage to be entrusted to each successive generation as living proof of the glory of this land.

Mt. Denali, Alaska

Mt. Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

The desire on the part of some to violate the compact made to uphold these grounds as untouchable doggedly persists, though. Proposals of logging, mining, and drilling are a constant threat. I am among the many who hope that those who seek to intrude upon the sanctity of these areas in the name of exploitation of “needed” resources can be kept at bay. These shortsighted actions purportedly for our benefit need to be blocked because once the incursion is made, the damage done will be irreparable. We as a people deserve better than that.

Grand Teton

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Another concern is accommodating the increasing numbers of visitors. That requires a delicate balance that must be struck between the desired mass access to these areas and restrictions imposed to help retain the character of the parks. Those who have experienced the overcrowding during Old Faithful’s scheduled eruptions or bumper to bumper traffic on the Cades Cove Loop through Great Smoky Mountain understand this quandary. However, no prospective visitor should let the possible crowds dissuade him or her from visiting, for simply pulling over to park at one of the many trailheads will provide a portal just a short walk away from the throngs into the wonders of the land.

Zion, Utah

Zion National Park, Utah

I have been fortunate enough over the years to be able to spend time in many of our National Parks and Monuments. Their size and diversity are nothing short of staggering: the vast chasm of Grand Canyon, the incredible stone structures of Arches in Utah, the raw coastal grandeur of Acadia in Maine, the primal power of Volcano in Hawaii, the majestic peaks rising in the wilderness of Denali in Alaska, the serene other-worldly expanse of White Sands. Each has a character and beauty of its own. Every time I go, my spirit is restored as I reflect upon and appreciate the wonders of this land and all its natural splendor, and I am grateful to be a part of this grand American enterprise.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

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Respect Your Mother Earth

April 22, 2015

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“O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!”

We first heard this as children in school, these lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” As a child, it was merely a song, but through the years as I traveled about this great country of ours, the words have taken on new meaning as I saw for myself the incredible splendors sprawled out from sea to shining sea. Each had a character and beauty of its own, and each left an indelible imprint in my memory. I do not exaggerate when I say that the natural wonders I beheld stirred my soul.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands, New Mexico

How could this not be so? Gaze upon the pure white other-worldly dunes of White Sands. Stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and watch the sun rise over the vast crevice. Listen as the mighty waves of the Atlantic crash with a thunderous roar on the rocky coast of Maine. Walk in the sand as the seals bob their heads up in the surf along the pristine shoreline of Cape Cod National Seashore. How can the creations of mankind possibly match the staggering majesty of the Great Arch in Utah or the mighty Mt. Denali in Alaska? If you don’t believe me, next vacation, rather than visiting the artificial monuments of glass and steel and neon like Las Vegas, Hollywood, or Disney World, venture forth to explore the grandeur of the Tetons or Yosemite or Acadia or Big Sur. They all speak far more eloquently for themselves than I ever could. In the words of the great naturalist John Muir, “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Mt. Denali, Alaska

Mt. Denali, Alaska

So today, April 22, the day which has been designated as Earth Day, the often distracted or oblivious inhabitants of this nation are reminded to reflect on and appreciate the wonders of this land and all its natural glory. As far as I’m concerned, this should be done every day. While we are at it, we might perhaps reconsider the shortsighted intrusions we make on it for our own “benefit.”

The native peoples of the past did not need Earth Day, for they had an instinctive reverence for the natural world and a realization of its delicate balance. It seems that “civilization” has made us arrogant, for the view that the land and all that is upon or under it is merely there for our exploitation is now prevalent. This is a shame that can become a tragedy, for humans have ignored this stark reality: if we do not take care of this planet, we will destroy it, and us along with it. This is not crazy talk. It is not the doomsday rambling of some overzealous tree hugger. It is science. It is common sense. And, in the long run, it is a matter of survival.

Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Natural resources are a finite entity. They are not a commodity to be manipulated for the benefit of national power, corporate stockholders, or personal convenience. Modern man has exploited the gifts of this Earth without regard for their potential depletion or the destruction that is the byproduct of their acquisition. We have disregarded the interconnected nature of all things that make up the ecology of this world, and in doing so, have created an imbalance that is spiraling out of control.

History shows that we constantly overestimate our ability to safely extract the materials that we want and dispose of their waste. The result has been the pollution and destruction of our only environment. How many oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, deforestations, slag heaps, chemical contaminations, oceanic plastic “swamps,” animal extinctions, fouled wells, garbage-laden landfills, toxic dumps, and poisoned water sources do we need to understand this?

upstate New York: another site for "fracking"?

upstate New York: another site for “fracking”?

The cry of some at the moment is more oil, more oil, more oil. Why? Because we need it? No, we do not need it. We just want it. We have become energy gluttons who value convenience over conservation. How about downsizing the gas-guzzling vehicles we seem to covet? How about using more mass transit or even walking or biking? How about foregoing the wasteful McMansions and living in reasonably sized houses with moderately controlled temperatures? How about greater support for developing and making use of the technologies that would allow us to produce energy without destroying our planet in the process?

Teton Range, Wyoming: let the drilling begin?

Teton Range, Wyoming: let the drilling begin?

Americans are the biggest culprits. We have perverted the concept of freedom and liberty into I-should-get-whatever-I-want-and-the-hell-with-everyone-else. That is not freedom; it is license. Just because we have the means and the power to do something does not mean we have the right to do it. Our avarice is reprehensible considering the consequences for the future of life on Earth.

I understand that there will be those who read this and shake their heads. They think this view is far-fetched and implausible. I’m afraid it will take nothing short of catastrophe to convince them. Perhaps they should speak to those folks from Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Seveso, and the Love Canal who also once felt that way. Until it happened to them, that is.

We do not have unlimited time to solve the problem even if the skeptics change their view. The very things that make life possible are being endangered, and damage that is being done now to our atmosphere and oceans cannot be reversed. Unlike the dinosaurs, we will have no one to blame for our extinction but ourselves. If you listen carefully at this very moment, you might be able to hear the sorrowful cries of your Mother Earth as she witnesses the betrayal of the humans who inhabit her. Or perhaps that is just the sound of the ice caps melting.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” -- John Muir

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” — John Muir