Focus on the Environment
This month our group focused on the serious environmental issues affecting our planet and discussed possible solutions to that dilemma.
The number of environmental problems facing the earth is enormous. They include climate change, air and water pollution, a profusion of plastic debris, oil spillage into waterways, poisons from weed-killer chemicals, accumulating nuclear waste, lead in our water systems, and many more of which we only are becoming aware.
The following is an overview of some of the main areas of concern, followed by the actions that we believe are needed by people and the governments that serve us. Many areas are interrelated, but all can be solved by determined action on the part of responsible citizens and politicians.
One overriding theme: rather than promoting jobs in dead-end industries such as coal, governments can provide incentives to individuals and industries to adapt sustainable practices that include job training. There already are more jobs in sustainable energy than in polluting industries.
As the earth heats up due to an increase in greenhouse gasses, polar ice caps melt and ocean levels rise. More moisture is retained in the upper atmosphere, which creates a hotter and dryer earth leading to heat waves, droughts and wildfires. When that moisture does drop quickly it results in severe storms and floods. At the 2015 UN Climate Conference in Paris, all major world countries made a commitment to limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but in 2017 the US announced plans to pull out of that agreement. 57 countries actually have brought their emissions down to a level required to reduce global warming. In September, 2018, Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, cited the UN Climate Economy report. The scientific consensus is that we have little time left to reverse climate change. “The mountain is high but we know how to scale it....There is no more time to waste, we are careening toward the edge of the abyss.” Although many nations are moving ahead with efforts to combat this problem, overall worldwide greenhouse gas levels continue to increase. Seas are rising, erasing low-lying islands and increasing the severity of destructive storms along our coasts. At the current pace sea levels will rise 10 feet by 2100, devastating most coastal communities. Guterres called for a shift away from dependence on fossil fuels and moving the world economy toward sustainable energy sources. He highlighted the uneven impact of climate change on poor countries and asked richer countries to do more to help. Many countries are taking their climate responsibility seriously and are moving toward replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, including Norway, Sweden, France, South Korea, and China. These countries also will benefit economically by creating energy policies that bring the world closer to its climate goals, which include greater dependence on renewable energy sources, a reforestation plan to absorb more CO2, and experimental technologies to cool the atmosphere.
→What We Can Do
Everyone is negatively affected by climate change, so it is up to us to pressure our governments to encourage the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable alternatives. Because it is difficult for people to see these effects on a daily basis, continuing education is needed. Support and vote for candidates who understand the crucial role that government needs to play in limiting the CO2 and emissions that are moving us toward environmental disaster, and who advocate for the job-creating industries that fight climate change. Encourage legislators to support new technologies via public-private partnerships and promoting training in innovative technologies that lead toward a cooler earth while boosting the economy. We should support organizations that advocate moving away from fossil fuels, such as the Environmental Defense Fund. We should use public transit as much as possible; better yet get to your destination by walking or bicycling, which also has personal benefits. Encourage our representatives to support a national 100% Clean Energy Law by 2045 like the one in place in California. Self-driving cars based on renewable electricity can reduce pollution and save lives, but they also can increase traffic congestion and must be regulated to coordinate with mass transportation. Home energy management is a viable industry that creates jobs and quickly repays the investment of home owners.
Toxins that Affect the Earth
We have been poisoning the earth for decades, often with products that at first seemed beneficial. As one toxin is exposed, we often replace it with another. We focus on the short-term benefits of new technologies, and only slowly recognize the long-term dangers of environmentally destructive practices to ourselves and our planet. Even then we often refuse to replace dangerous practices because they are convenient or profitable to those who spend millions to influence legislators. In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warned of the danger of insecticides, including DDT, to the ecosystem as they poisoned animals and ourselves via our food. Once DDT was outlawed in most countries, it was replaced with other chemicals with similar results. Monsanto introduced glyphosate-based Roundup in 1974, but it is only recently that this chemical has been investigated as a possible toxin affecting human beings. Research shows that the byproducts of glyphosate damage human cells; there are 4,000 lawsuits pending against the company. Symptoms can include vomiting, tremors or shakiness, and seizures. Laboratory animal studies showed effects on the liver and reproductive system. Pesticides also have led to a reduction or elimination of a number of species, threatening the biodiversity that makes the planet viable. Chlorpyrifos, which US courts recently forced the EPA to ban, causes neurologic damage to farm workers and children. Breast cancer is on the rise and the young are experiencing an increase in neurologic disorders such as autism. Our oil dependency has resulted in numerous leaks and spills that have polluted large bodies of water, fowled beaches and mutilated or killed waterfowl and fish upon which people depend. Oil drilling threatens the pristine Alaskan wilderness. Some incidents have caused human deaths, such as in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf Coast. Fracking defoliates and pollutes the land and permanently poisons the water that it uses to bring up oil. Plastic, a bi-product of petroleum, refuses to break down and continues to accumulate on both land and sea, despite efforts at recycling. Due to oils spills, there already is a small film on our oceans that will increase until oil use as a fuel is eliminated. The waste from nuclear plants continues to accumulate with nowhere to go. In its relatively short lifetime, beginning in the 1950s, nuclear plants have left growing deposits of waste. Disasters have occurred in the Soviet Union, the US, and Japan. Toxic byproducts are carried across oceans, as happened after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The US Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandated that the federal government would identify a permanent geological repository by 1998, but those living near planned disposal sites have resisted. Instead waste accumulates near closed nuclear plants.
→What We Can Do
The accumulation of toxics on the earth is huge and threatens the health of us all. This can be reversed by the combined focus of both private and public efforts. Technologies can be developed that achieve the same goals without toxins. Organic and biodynamic farming is expanding to feed a larger part of the population; it can be used to grow the majority of foodstuffs in the near future. Thirty percent of US households currently seek organic products and this number is steadily growing, but the US government currently is lowering organic standards. With pressure from consumers, who also are voters, our government can outlaw toxic farming methods that are especially harmful to farm workers, and create a “silent spring” that affects the neurologic health of us all. Our oil dependency continues to despoil the earth, while what is needed is a general will to move toward totally sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind. All nuclear plants must be decommissioned in short order to prevent more devastating accidents that create permanent hazard zones and threaten the entire planet. We can lower our carbon footprint by using less or no plastic as new technologies are successfully being developed to create biodegradable plastics. We must support legislators who emphasize these types of solutions. Recycling often leads to moving plastics and electronics into dumps from where they leach into the land and ocean; universal standards thus are needed.
Threats To Our Water Supply
Water shortages are increasing due to global warming. The poisoning of the water supply by lead in Flint Michigan in 2014, and willful neglect by law makers, now is a national scandal. Lead and other toxins are found in water supplies of many cities. Recent stories about lead-contaminated water and slow government responses have come out of Newark, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, to cite a few. There are other toxins that can be found in drinking water, many of which are not monitored by our government and can lead to cancer, neurological disorders, or organ failure. These include arsenic, pesticides such as atrazine, nitrates from fertilizer runoff, radioactive contaminants, vinyl chloride used to make plastics, perchlorate which is used in rocket fuel and explosives, and pharmaceuticals that enter our water supply when released in urine or flushed unused down the sink or toilet. Due to oils spills, there already is a small film on our oceans that will increase until its use as a fuel is eliminated. Toxic algae, created by dumping fertilizer and human waste into waterways, can kill fish and create dangerous fumes.
→What We Can Do
To overcome the effect of increasing droughts, we can build cisterns beneath our streets and water collection stations in rivers which capture rain runoff that now is wasted during droughts. We can insist that our legislators monitor our drinking water and develop non-toxic solutions to sources of toxicity. The relatively new industry of green pest control that can help avoid adding toxics to the environment. As mentioned, we can push to move toward more sustainable fuels to eliminate the threat to our environment and ourselves.
The world’s population grows at a pace of 83 million each year, but currently over 100 nations, among the wealthiest, are at or below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Overpopulation contributes to stressing the environment, including pollution and deforestation, in areas that can least afford it, and threatens the habitats of many species. While access to reproductive health services is under attack, most pregnancies worldwide, and nearly half in the US, are unplanned. Africa’s population is projected to triple to more than 4.5 billion by 2100.
→What We Can Do
Wealthier nations working with the poor areas of the earth to raise their living standards can improve their situation while making them more amenable to education. Populations that are more prosperous tend to be aware of the dangers of overpopulation and take measures to voluntarily limit reproduction. Donations to UNICEF and similar organizations can make a difference.
For Further Reading
4 big takeaways from the UN’s alarming climate change report, Umair Irfan, Vox, October 8, 2018.
A 14-Year-Old California Engineer Transformed Paper and Cotton Into Plastic, Sarah Sloat, Inverse.com, January 5, 2019, Clean-Energy Jobs Surpass Oil Drilling for First Time in U.S.
Clean-Energy Jobs Surpass Oil Drilling for First Time in U.S., Anna Hirtenstein, May 25, 2016, Bloomberg
COP24: UN climate change conference, what’s at stake and what you need to know, UN News Organization, November 29, 2018
Court Orders E.P.A. to Ban Chlorpyrifos, Pesticide Tied to Children’s Health Problems, Eric Lipton, New York Times, Aug. 9, 2018
Extreme Weather, National Climate Assessment Website
Fracking's Total Environmental Impact is Staggering, Report Finds, Samantha Page, Think Progress, Apr 14, 2016
How a nuclear stalemate left radioactive waste stranded on a California beach, Rachel Becker, The Verge, Aug 28, 2018
Let’s focus on the real environmental factors linked to autism, Alycia Halladay, STAT, March 15, 2017
Population Connection Magazine, Volume 50, Issue 2, June 2018
Trump administration reconsiders rule on coal’s mercury pollution, Timothy Gardner, Reuters, August 29, 2018
Weedkiller products more toxic than their active ingredient, tests show, Carey Gillam, The Guardian, May 8, 2018
What’s in Your Drinking Water? Amanda MacMillan, National Resources Defense Fund, May 02, 2017
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.