Earth Day as usualApril 22, 2012
Earth Day is celebrated today, another one of the few occasions where frustrated environmentalists can feel good and hopeful. Speeches and proclamations will address environmental concerns and speakers will assure, that relief for the endangered biosphere is on the way and that the world’s leaders know what they are doing.
We will be heartened to hear that the concerned agencies act appropriately and are able to meet the environmental challenges.
Optimists will view Earth Day as the ultimate proof that mankind is ready to stop the destruction of nature, stop the poisoning of food, water, and air, and repair the damage that is already done.
Sceptic people will regard Earth Day as window dressing and as a cheap tool for politicians to pacify the environmentally conscious part of their clientele.
US President Barrack Obama issued a “Green Schools Proclamation” and lauded the Department of Education’s new Green Ribbon Schools program. What President Obama’s didn’t tell, is that his budget proposal to Congress recommends eliminating nearly 40 million US$ for environmental education programs at the EPA, NOAA and NSF.
The proposed cuts are worse than the funding cuts during the Bush Administration and would cripple local and national environmental education programs across the USA. To make the proportions of the involved money and the priorities of US politics clear, these spending cuts are the equivalent to one quarter the cost of a F-22 fighter jet.
This cuts are not necessarily a part of the US war against environmental ideas, because public education in the USA is defunded in all areas and at all levels. Schools are closed or privatized, teachers are laid off, class sized are increased up to 60 pupils.
The author of this blog post lives in a small and unimportant European country where education budgets are actually increased and teachers are well paid. It will be interesting to see in a decade, how this two so completely different policies turn out.
Will the US system, by making it increasingly difficult to acquire a proper education consequently ensure, that the unfit are filtered out and cleared away? Will it enable the best and brightest to cruise to success without being impeded by less talented peers? Will the European system lead to a dumbing down of the pupils and to their indoctrination with socialist and humanitarian ideals by “activist teachers”?
But this is another story for another blog post.
Earth Day is celebrated since 42 years now. Environmental issues have been addressed since the early 60s (Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”), but environmental pollution has nonetheless steadily increased.
Marvin Gaye’s song “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” from his 1971 album “What’s Going On” (one of the most important Soul records of all time), tells this story:
Woo ah, mercy mercy me
Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows
From the north and south and east
Woo mercy, mercy me, mercy father
Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our sea
Fish full of mercury
Ah oh mercy, mercy me
Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Radiation under ground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
Oh mercy, mercy me
Ah things ain’t what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land
How much more abuse from man can she stand?
Has anything changed in the meantime? Not according to statistics and scientific research:
The chemical industry has rapidly grown for more than fifty years (especially synthetic organic polymers) and is a 3 trillion US$ global business. Global chemical production could further increase at about 5 percent in 2012 and 2013. Chemical production in China and India increased by 5.4 percent in 2011, while 6.2 percent in 2012 and 7.5 percent in 2013 are forecast.
In 1990 the production volume of the top 100 chemicals was 400 million tons, in 2000 500 million tons, in 2010 nearly 600 million tons. The global production of organic chemicals is now about 400 million metric tons per year, the volume of chemical pulp is 130 million tons, the volume of plastic materials is 110 million tons. Global lead production is 8.6 million tons per year, mercury production is 2,000 to 3,000 tons.
Global consumption of lead has increased around 2.5 percent a year since 2000. Lead consumption in China has increased 17 percent.
Humans produce four billion tons of waste a year.
While human population increased five percent from 2004 to 2008, gross energy production and annual CO2 emissions increased ten percent.
In 2010 the global output of heat-trapping CO2 jumped by the biggest amount on record.
The unprecedented levels of CO2 are leading to an unprecedented increase in ocean acidity:
90 percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone, coral reefs decline everywhere, threatening fish biodiversity, dead zones increase and have now reached the size of Great Britain.
There’s six to ten times as much plastic as phytoplankton in parts of the ocean.
Humans are causing the biggest mass extinction since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. 20 percent of vertebrates are endangered or threatened with extinction, half of all species will be extinct in less than 100 years.
Humans are not yet acutely threatened but negative health consequences become more and more apparent:
Asthma rates doubled since 1980 and about one in 12 people in the USA now suffer from asthma.
There are up to four million cases of pesticide poisoning per year, with several thousand fatalities.
An estimated 24 million agricultural workers may suffer pesticide poisoning and around 300,000 deaths per year are caused by pesticide ingestion.
The WHO estimates, that unintentional poisonings kill an estimated 360,000 people globally each year.
Various chemicals (lead, mercury, PCBs, manganese, brominated flame retardants, toluene, certain pesticides) are assumed to cause neurodevelopment disorders like IQ deficits, psychomotor retardation, and neurobehavioral disorders.
DBCP and phthalates are suspected to diminish fertility and exposure to solvents could cause birth defects like oral cleft, defects of the heart and the nervous system.
BPA and phthalates are linked to Type 2 diabetes.
The statistics and numbers are not really moving or awe-inspiring without concrete examples, like for instance the the ubiquitous use of BPA (bisphenol-A) in food packaging, reported in a recent piece in the Washington Post.
Articles like this have been published since twenty years now, because it is very clear even to non chemists that softeners, dyes, and other additives in plastic materials used for food packing or in the lining of tin cans will be dissolved by food and subsequently leach into food.
BPA use was not significantly affected by such reports.
In the rare cases where the authorities take action the chemical compounds are replaced by other chemicals which often are even more harmful.
It is not really surprising, that the thousands of chemicals in our daily life are contaminating our food and it is also not surprising, that the chemicals are potentially harmful. These compounds are synthetic, they are created by human technology, they were not there before and the creatures of this planet, including humans, didn’t have a chance to adapt their biological processes to the new substances.
The organ systems of animals or humans mistake many of these chemicals for other, familiar substances, resulting in the disruption of important body functions with unforeseeable and often severe consequences (allergies, general weakening of the immune system, cancer and various organic diseases).
We know that all, yet the production and the use of these chemicals continues. Packaged foods are cheap and convenient. Plastic is cheap and convenient, therefore plastic is everywhere.
It is business as usual and it is Earth Day as usual. The downside of our lifestyle and of the thoughtless and unscrupulous use of technology are ever more noticeable, the negative effects ever more harmful and widespread, but the majority of the population and the political leaders are either ignoring or denying the writing on the wall.
What shall a member of the minority of environmentalists (also nicknamed tree huggers) do in the case of omnipotent ignorance? Descent into despair? Become an eco-terrorist? Give up and retreat into a safe cage?
US peace activist (dissident) Cindy Sheehan wrote about Earth Day in her soapbox message:
Tomorrow is Earth Day and I feel that Earth Day is like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or Grandparent’s Day…and I know most of you do, too. I don’t own a car, am a vegetarian, and I try to tread as lightly on my planet as I can, but I know that I have enormous room for my own personal improvement while calling the world’s Robber Class to lighten up.
Fukushima Daichi is in crisis, sea life in the Gulf of Mexico is cancerous and ulcerous and humans are reaping the poison of corporate profit. Peace is an urgent imperative, but life on this planet is tenuous — the planet will heal, but we better be active in that process before it’s too late (if it isn’t already).
My personal solution:
Take it easy. Try to avoid the poisons as good as possible, find a less polluted place (in or near the woods), prepare for the inevitable breakdown of parts of the ecosystem and the ensuing scarcity of resources.
Some problems will solve themselves, for instance overpopulation (the crowding of this planet by more and more humans) will not be a threat anymore when billions die from pandemics, life expectancy is reduced to 50 years or less, and chemical pollution curbs fertility.
The ensuing suffering and pain for billions of people may be hard to stomach, yet considering the suffering and pain that we already cause to billions of fellow creatures right now it will be just a change of magnitude. We have to accept the world as it is and try to make the best out of our life.
Increased background radiation will be our lasting legacy for million of years, new chemical substances will remain for thousand of years, but if we don’t survive, other species will adapt and thrive in the environment, that we so profoundly changed.
It could be of course, the we mess up the planet so severely, that life based on proteins/RNA/DNA is not possible anymore, but other life forms based on other processes will emerge and populate the planet. Maybe these creatures are already there, invisible, unrecognizable for us with our limited senses, unrecognizable and unimaginable with our limited cognition. Maybe they watch us interested and amused, or astonished. They hopefully will take their cues and avoid our mistakes.