The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘ecology’ Category

HAPPY DAZE

One of the classic television programs which first aired in 1974 and ran for eleven seasons was “Happy Days.”  What a wonderful image of the America of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  The show explored the day to day lives of the Cunninghams, a typical middle class Milwaukee family and was upbeat, entertaining and extremely popular.

The members of the family were mom, dad, older brother, Richie and younger sister Joanie.  Some of the regulars were Richie’s two best friends and, of course, “the Fonz,” a high school dropout and greaser played by Henry Winkler who, in retirement, is now hawking reverse mortgages.

What a great show.  It was  fairly typical of the output of the time.  This was truly family entertainment – no oversight group needed to rate this or many of the other television programs which were aired on our few channels.  The entire family could watch this program without our parents’ being concerned that there might be violence, cursing, nudity or suggestive commercials.

My father could relate to the hard working Howard Cunningham who made his living as the proprietor of a hardware store.  In those days specialty stores such as his were the norm – places where you not only could buy what was necessary to complete your project but, if you were a little uncertain how to proceed building a birdhouse you could look to the store staff to help you out and give you directions.  We had not yet invented stores the size of football fields where the uninitiated can spend hours trying to find the aisle that has what they need or make the mistake of trying to track down an employee, all of whom seem to go on break together.

Mr. Cunningham did not have to deal with OSHA or any of the other alphabet agencies which had not yet been invented to tell him that the blades for his jigsaws were easily accessible to your average 16 year old and therefore he needed to build a glass, locked case for them so that the little tykes couldn’t accidentally slit their wrists.  No, he had only his common sense and his desire to build his business as a guide for how he laid out the merchandise in his store.

We might have been uninformed in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s but we weren’t complete dunderheads.  Even back then, those of us who were in elementary school were taught the facts about climate change.  I remember distinctly hearing from Mrs. Bounds, my third grade teacher, that it gets cold in the winter and gets warm in the summer.  At least it did in New York.  We did not attribute this to man’s interference with Mother Nature’s work.  She explained to us that the Earth followed an elliptical orbit and sometimes our planet was closer to the sun than at other times which accounted for the variance in temperatures.  Little did I suspect it was all those Nash Ramblers running around which were responsible for mucking up the works.

This evening in the esteemed halls of the United States Senate, a number of those august and most bloviating Democrat members will hold an “all-nighter” to raise the public’s awareness of the gravity of the climate change “issue.”  Personally, I believe that reruns of “Petticoat Junction” will probably command a broader and more informed audience than those busy speechifying.

But I wonder if those stalwarts of climate change are aware that just yesterday we once again resumed Daylight Saving Time – which, at least in theory is supposed to save energy.  (According to a number of studies it also has the unintended side-effect of causing an increase in the number of accidents by altering people’s sleep patterns).

So to the floor of the Senate will come those champions to talk about their favorite subject.  (Actually, almost anything but Obamacare, the IRS or Benghazi is currently on the list of favorite subjects).  But don’t they realize that if their theory is correct, they, in the very act of holding this consortium of the witless, will themselves be contributors to the very problem they rail against?  I mean after all, the lights in the Capitol which would normally be turned off will be on for this event.

Of course, there is a solution.  Let the senators hold their marathon in the dark – which is a comfortable and familiar place from which a good portion of their ideas already come.

AGENDAS AND THE ENVIRONMENT

He is well spoken, succinct and presents his commentary with authority.  Patrick Moore, a Canadian ecologist gave testimony this week before a U. S. Senate committee regarding global warming.  Although the honor goes to many who claim to be in on the founding of the organization known as Greenpeace, Moore’s credentials are are strong as any of the others.

In his testimony he asserted that there is absolutely no evidence that the warming of the earth is other than a natural and regular phenomenon and is not caused by man’s activities.  Needless to say, Moore has earned himself the status of  a “persona non grata” among the most ardent of those in the environmental movement.

Moore went on to explain that the movement had lost its way and instead of trying to save the earth had focused on the far more lucrative potential of raking in the dough both through individual contributions and through government payouts.  There isn’t an “environmentalist” in a university who holds a position that does not start with the underlying premise that man is the contributor to global warming because there is no grant money in holding the opposite position.  Could it really all be about the money?

It’s always hard for me to accept statements that purport to have found global truth and certainty.  There are some exceptions to that statement.  I do believe that the earth is round, the sun rises in the east and that water is wet.  I also believe that litter is both ugly and unnecessary.  We might refer to pollution as aerial litter and therefore I support efforts to reduce or eliminate it.  But not everyone is on that same page.

Take, for example, the Chinese general who recently characterized the question of China’s pollution, the worst on the globe, as a good thing.  If you’ve ever seen a photo of any of China’s cities where the residents are wearing face masks to protect themselves from the foul air, you might question the general’s logic if not his sanity.

The general had a simple explanation for his position.  “The pollution in our cities helps protect us from the laser equipment on U. S. drone planes because it makes it impossible for them to focus accurately on their targets.”  Whether the general really believes that or he is making an excuse for China’s failure to address their  pollution problems is anyone’s guess.  We all have our agendas.

Whether it was in business or in my personal life I have always found that in order to achieve a goal it was important for me first to define what the goal was.  And then rather than leap to the end, I needed to define specific small steps which would lead me to accomplish what I intended.  Perhaps that is my biggest gripe with those who identify themselves as “environmentalists.”  I do not see many of them taking the small steps which would help improve our environment – which is something I  believe in doing.  We cannot tell other nations to meet high standards if we ourselves do not first set an example.

In the United States we produce and consume 50 Billion plastic bottles a year containing water.  Only twenty percent of those are recycled – leaving 40 Billion bottles a year to get consigned to landfills.  In order to produce those bottles we consume 17 Million barrels of oil.  If you were to add in other beverage containers for juices, sports drinks and sodas you can probably double those numbers.  By almost anyone’s definition that’s a lot of waste and a lot of oil.

To my knowledge, there are only three states which require a deposit when the consumer purchases a plastic bottle containing water, those being California, Hawaii and Maine.  The deposit is small at a nickel – although California has a variable schedule based on the size of the container.  Simply put, that deposit amount is probably insufficient for the consumer to take the environmental impact of disposing of plastic bottles seriously.

But what if there were a twenty-five cent deposit on each bottle of water?  Most consumers purchase bottled water in packages containing two dozen or thirty bottles.  Suddenly, seeing an additional charge on the grocery bill of six dollars or seven-fifty might encourage the shopper to make sure that those bottles were returned so they could receive their deposit back.  There might well be additional benefits to implementing this deposit strategy.

1)  In order to process the higher number of bottles which would be returned for recycling we would undoubtedly develop automated equipment which would handle the process and dispense a voucher for the deposit money.  That means a new industry would begin at a time when our economy is only slowly staggering toward recovery and new jobs that would be created in order to make this equipment.

2)  Consumers, faced with a charge – even a refundable deposit – might investigate alternatives to buying water in plastic bottles such as home filtering equipment which would reduce the number of plastic bottles used and the amount of oil consumed to produce them.

3)  The evidence is increasing, though far from conclusive, that plastic beverage containers leech PCB’s into the liquid they contain.  There is some concern that PCB’s are contributing factors to the development of various forms of cancer.  Thus, reducing our consumption of plastic bottled beverages might act as a way to minimize our risk of getting that disease.

There may be some downside to this deposit suggestion but I haven’t been able to think of one – other than the immediate out of pocket cost of making the deposit and the need to return the bottles for its return.  I would welcome any of my readers to offer any opposing views or any positive suggestions which they have.

My agenda for the environment is that, to the best of my ability, I want to do as little as I can to harm it and try to do as much as I can to benefit it.  To that end I produce only one small bag of garbage every two weeks – in large measure because I compost a lot of trash.  I don’t make unnecessary car trips and try to organize my travel so I can accomplish my errands in one organized run rather than multiple trips.  I watch the thermostat and put on extra clothes in the winter rather than turn up the heat and rely more on ceiling fans in the summer than air conditioning.  In the summer I let my clothes sun dry rather than using the electric dryer.  (In addition to saving electricity, the smell is infinitely nicer).

That plan might seem insufficient to some of the more radical environmentalists but it’s my agenda and I’m sticking with it.  And now it’s time to go.  Gracie needs her morning walk and I have bigger tofu to fry.

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DINOSAURS

It’s all their fault – the dinosaurs that is.  Well, they had a pretty good run on the stage of planet Earth as masters of the planet for 165 million years.  But then, whack – a cataclysmic event wiped them out about 65 million years ago.  And that started the whole mess – I mean the energy mess.

There’s poor Nemo, your typical male T Rex out one day looking for lunch, a meteor hits the planet and the rest, including Nemo, is history.  Little did Nemo expect when he woke up that morning that one day his transformed remains were going to end up being pumped into somebody’s Hummer so that mom could take the kids to soccer practice in a place called America.

Fortunately for the dinosaurs they had not developed the telescope so their demise was unexpected and probably nearly instantaneous for most of them.  But had they known that the meteor was hurtling on a collision course to Earth they would have had no more ability to alter its path than we are.  They were the victims of true climate change.

Before the first oil well was purposely drilled in Titusville, PA in 1859, oil and natural gas seeped naturally from the ground in various places in the country.  In many cases mining for salt opened veins into these deposits and they were considered more of a nuisance than anything useful.  Then mankind learned how to make kerosene which began to be used for lighting.  In time kerosene became the fuel of choice, replacing whale oil which was formerly used to illuminate our homes.

In 1859 in a virtually pristine America, consider the conundrum of an environmentalist with imagination who foresees the invention of the horseless carriage and how oil will become a potential threat to our planet because its use releases greenhouse gas.  On the other hand, by using it we are doing the right thing in saving the largest mammals on earth, our whales, from hunting and possible extinction.

As we know, there was no environmental agenda 165 ears ago nor was there a need for one.  But things have changed, and while I do not necessarily agree with the hyperbolic rhetoric that those who forecast our imminent doom use, it is hard to deny that our cities with their dense populations contain worse air than our heartland’s wheat fields and that mankind has an impact on the world.  But we do it one person at a time.

The other day I was engaged on this subject by a fellow dog owner at the park.  Both of us were originally from NYC yet despite that, we have diametrically different views of the world.  He introduced the statement that “Ninety-five percent of all scientists believe that mankind is responsible for climate change.”  The following day he brought me a printout that substantiated his position.  I appreciated his follow up.  To me it demonstrated his passion for the subject and his belief in his position.

Now as a rational person it is clear to me that each of us has an impact on the world or, if you prefer the term, the environment.  For example, a person who murders another person has inalterably changed the world.  The victim was about to get married and might have had several children.  Those children will never be born as a result of the murder.  What if one of those children had turned out to be a brilliant inventor who found an efficient, inexpensive way to produce universal renewable energy?  Or what if that child was left as an unborn embryo on the cutting room of an abortion clinic?

The day following our initial conversation I again engaged this chap on the subject.  I asked him whether he had walked to the park.  He replied that he had driven.  I mentioned that I also had driven there,  the three miles one way.  So I pointed out to him that we both obviously put our two dogs’ need to socialize with others of their kind above our concern for the carbon emissions we were going to cause by using our vehicles.  By extension, anyone who uses electricity to light his home or gas to heat it has made a personal decision that his personal comfort is more important than the environment.  I have yet to hear of an environmentalist who operates his laptop by utilizing candle power.

After years of “study,” the news is finally in that the Keystone XL Pipeline does not pose any grave threats to the environment.  Whether this project goes forward or not is now up to President Obama.  He is finally expected to approve it some time this summer – about five years late.

During the course of this hiatus there have been eleven incidents in which oil was being transported by freight trains that derailed.  Some of the contents of the oil cars spilled – sometimes in fiery explosions.  Mankind will never invent perfect solutions to our challenges until we ourselves become perfect.  That may be awhile.

In writing this post I realized how great mankind’s indebtedness is to our dinosaur predecessors, as unanticipated by them as it was.  I would raise a glass in a toast to them, but there’s no hooch in the house.  So I’ll just add this to my blog and in commemoration of their sacrifice turn the heat up a little.  It’s a bit chilly in the house.

HIT ‘EM IN THEIR POCKETBOOKS

Once every four garbage pickups is recycling day.  Today was that day in our current cycle.  Recycling is something on which I have worked since the late 1970’s when I lived in Chicago.  It is one of those things about which I am very passionate.

With the availability of a recycling service (for which we pay), living in a middle class neighborhood with people who have a higher degree of education than the general populace, you would think everyone would work toward recycling as much of their trash as they could.  That is not the case and I find that most disheartening.

I am guesstimating that only about 50% of us go to the effort to recycle – and that estimate may be a little generous to the high side.  Is this just another symptom of the selfish society?  I mean, how much extra effort does it take to throw an empty soda can in a bin provided by the scavenger service for that purpose than it takes to throw it in the plastic kitchen bag filled with trash that is headed straight for the landfill?

So if an educated population doesn’t see the benefit of recycling, I believe it is a fair statement to make that an uneducated population may see even less.  Which leads me to the conclusion that recycling, as we presently have structured it, needs some help.  I’m prepared to offer a simple solution which may get far more items that could be recycled out of the trash and back into circulation in some other form.

When I was growing up, milk or soda did not come in disposable containers or in plastic or aluminum ones.  They came in one form and one form only – glass.  Glass was expensive and it had the further disadvantage of being fairly heavy.  But it had one big advantage over our modern containers.  It got reused countless times and was only thrown out if it was broken.

At that time, all these containers had a deposit which was charged when they were purchased and was refunded when the container was returned to the store.  For a bottle of soda, which cost ten cents, the deposit was two cents; for a quart of milk the deposit was five cents.  I can assure you that consumers were dutiful about returning these to get their refund.

Now you may laugh at the amount of this deposit and say to yourself, who would go to the trouble for that kind of money?  Well, returning an empty glass milk bottle could buy you a candy bar which today costs a dollar.  And I believe that in order to make this deposit program effective, we would need to adjust the deposit amount to reflect the purchasing power of today’s dollar.

As I sit writing this, I am drinking from a bottle of water which is in the original plastic container in which I purchased it.  I generally try to avoid buying products which have a great deal of packaging associated with them – but I do make an exception for water.  I usually have about a five month supply on hand, just in case the infrastructure breaks down and the tap stops running.  Gracie and I both love water.

By the way, I do not drink a bottle and then recycle it.  I reuse the bottle, filling it from my Brita filter.  This bottle has probably been reused at least 50 times so far.  I mention this bottle because as I look at the label there are three states, Hawaii, Maine and California which charge a deposit.  But that amount is only five cents.  Apparently the other 47 states don’t think this is important enough to have enacted similar legislation.

In order to make an impact and get the attention of the consumer, I would suggest that nationwide we establish a mandatory deposit on all containers.  This is not a tax because the consumer would receive a refund on return.  For a small bottle or can of soda, I would suggest 25 cents as a starting point.  For larger containers 50 cents or more.  This would apply not only to beverages but to other things made of plastic such as laundry detergent and fabric softeners.

I see a number of benefits were this something that we established:

First, we would greatly increase the amount of recyclable containers which actually got recycled.

Second, we would probably find that instead of throwing our containers on the street or in our parks and forests, we would dispose of them properly, thus making those common areas far more comfortable for us to enjoy.

Third, we would foster a new industry at a time when America desperately needs jobs of any description and manufacturing jobs in particular.  I would see the refund process being handled by newly-designed machines intended for that purpose.

Fourth, we would make picking up recyclables by the scavengers less expensive by having central points for collection, thus saving fuel.

Fifth, we might just wake up enough people so that they stopped thinking within the parameters of their own self-indulgent universe and help them start to realize that there is a bigger picture they should consider.  Who knows where that might lead?

I guess if you can’t reach people with reason, perhaps the only other solution is “hit ‘em in their pocketbooks.”

IT’S NOT NICE TO FOOL MOTHER NATURE (PART TWO)

Before the advent of antibiotics if a person developed an infection they either depended on their body to overcome it or they succumbed to it and died.  That we have greatly reduced the number of these deaths through dispensing pharmaceuticals is undeniable.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that by allowing pharmaceuticals to do the work that in many cases our own bodies could and should do – by taking a prescription at every drop of a hat – we are lessening our own bodies’ abilities to fight off these infections.  And in many cases, the bugs we are fighting with drugs are becoming resistant to them.

As useful as antibiotics are I was surprised to learn that only 20% of them are taken by humans – most of the rest going to animal livestock and the vast majority of those are being fed to our chicken population.  What are the effects of this practice which is overseen by the FDA?  Well, for about 8 million at-risk women, the news is not good.

The problem is E.coli which has now evolved as a “superbug” –  and a chicken is apparently the perfect place for it to grow.  Because of the nature of factory farming, even healthy chickens are fed a diet of antibiotics to enable them to survive the unhealthy, overcrowded, (and may I add), inhumane conditions in which they briefly live and die.  Many of these chickens receive antibiotics from the time they are in the egg until the time they appear in your local supermarket meat counter.  And we are the unwitting “beneficiaries” of this drug therapy – designed not only to overcome disease but to make these animals grow faster and larger.

The specific risk that researchers at McGill University and others have noted is that for at-risk women who consume these chickens there is a significant increase in the number and severity of bladder infections which simply won’t go away.

Naturally, the poultry industry denies any evidence correlating the transfer of E.coli from chickens directly to humans and alleges that the reason this superbug is so drug resistant is because of our own willing overuse of antibiotics.  That is a point well-taken.

But is there a rational person who does not believe that if we feed our bodies with sub-standard food, we will get sub-standard and perhaps unexpected outcomes?  As the phrase goes, “Garbage in – Garbage out.”

The reason that we avoid eating foods that contain fast acting toxins is because we realize what will happen if we consume them.  The difference between consuming a poisonous mushroom and eating a lifetime’s worth of “over-medicated” meat is that we can see the effect the mushroom has on us almost immediately.  The evidence takes time to manifest itself when the toxins appear in only small quantities.  But they will appear over time.

In 1907 in Minamata, Japan the villagers convinced the Chisso Corporation to build a plant in their fishing village.  Chisso manufactured drugs, plastics and perfumes which contained a chemical compound which was known as acetaldehyde.  Mercury was a key ingredient in the manufacturing process which began in 1932.  The waste from the production lines was dumped into Minamata Bay.

By the mid-1950’s people started developing symptoms of what has become known as “Minamata Disease.”  People with this disease exhibited a range of different symptoms which  included a degeneration of their central nervous systems.  Some had slurred speech and blurred vision.  Others experienced numbness in their limbs or in their lips.  Others exhibited behaviors which were similar to those that people with Tourette Syndrome display including involuntary body movements and suddenly shouting out words in an uncontrolled manner.

The disease not only affected people but animals as well.  There were numerous reports of cats committing suicide by running into the Bay drowning themselves and birds began dropping from the sky.

One of Chisso’s employees, Dr. Hajime Hosokawa said that an “unknown disease of the central nervous system had broken out.”   He speculated that the disease was linked to the consumption of fish that the people in Minamata ate – fish that were feeding in the waters into which Chisso poured their waste materials.

The company denied any wrongdoing but a few years later transferred their dumping operations from the bay into the Minamata River.  Several months after they began doing this, the people who lived downstream also started exhibiting the same symptoms.  It was clear that Chisso was to blame for this and Dr. Hosokawa proved the effects of consuming acetaldehyde to the corporate officers of Chisso.  They buried his research and the evidence and continued to proclaim their innocence.

By 1974 the board of physicians of Kumamoto Prefecture had certified 798 victims of the disease with another 3,000 waiting to have their cases evaluated.  The pollution of Minamata Bay and Minamata River went on for 36 years and would have continued but that the production method which produced the toxins became obsolete.

Even though many suspected that the fish that they were eating was the cause of their disease, consider the plight of people who had only two choices.  The first was to continue to eat tainted food.  The second was to starve to death.  Fish and rice were the villagers’ only staple food supplies.

We in the United States are more fortunate.  Our supermarket shelves are overflowing with food.  And we have the FDA to protect us from companies which don’t adhere to their standards.  That should make us all feel secure – until we read about superbugs and E.coli.

As powerful as mankind thinks he is, Mother Nature has not exited the stage.  She offers us the richness of an incredibly bountiful earth.  But she also brings us tempests of wind, fire and flood.

She has loaded the revolver and handed us the pistol.  Now it is up to us to see if we pull the trigger.

APOCALYPSE

SIX MONTHS TO GO AND COUNTING DOWN:

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THE DARK SIDE

When “Star Trek” was in its original incarnation, one episode told the story of a planet that was seeking admission to The United Federation of Planets.  As part of this process, the Prime Minister of the planet and his daughter were beamed aboard the USS Enterprise.

The planet seemed as though it would be a good candidate for admission.  They were a civilized people who had ended wars among themselves centuries earlier.  Murder was unheard of among the inhabitants of this distant world.  Disease had been eradicated.

But then as now, politics had evolved very little.  The Prime Minister’s real objective was not admission into the Federation, but rather that his daughter might be exposed to a virus from these star wanderers which she could then take back to her planet and infect the population which had grown far beyond its world’s ability to support.

She indeed contracted a disease and despite Dr. McCoy’s best efforts to convince her that he could cure her of it, she chose instead, on behalf of the people of her world to return and martyr herself, infecting the population so that they might through the deaths of billions regain the balance between man and nature.

This was an eerie and disturbing episode.

So what do pollution, cutting down the rain forests, children dying of starvation and all the other myriad human and ecological problems we face have in common?

The answer, whether you believe in global warming or not, is humanity.  There is no question that we have had the biggest impact on the ecology of our world of any species that has ever walked the earth.  And at the heart of the problem is the fact that we have “been fruitful and multiplied” far more than the planet can handle.   We might have fulfilled that part of the Biblical injunction, but we have certainly failed in another – “that we be good stewards of the earth.”

For a moment I’m going to delve into the murky world of conspiracy theory.  I am going to assert for purposes of discussion that a group, we’ll call them “the Illuminati” exist and that they are truly the master manipulators in our “Deus ex machina” world.  They are the puppeteers and it is our strings they are pulling.

Enter the AIDS virus.  Was this a freak of nature – or was it engineered by man with the express intent of lowering the earth’s population?  “Test it out on the gays – no one really likes them anyway,” went the conversation at one of this group’s meetings.  “After we find out if it’s effective we can introduce it to those who are really our targets – the colored races.”

If that meeting ever took place, as “illuminated” as these people are they would seem to have failed in their mission.  “Only” thirty million people have died since the infection began – which, while a staggering number, still represents a small fraction when considering a total population in excess of seven billion.

Yet the statistics from Avert – an organization dedicated to raising awareness about how to avoid and combat the disease worldwide give some credence to the theory that the targets are indeed races of color.

According to them there are, as of 2010 approximately 34 million worldwide who are living with HIV/AIDS.  Of those a staggering 22.9 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa and another 5.3 million in the rest of Africa and in Asia.  In other words, over eighty-five percent of those with HIV/AIDS are people of colored races.

Is this merely a coincidence?  Perhaps.  We could also argue that many of these people are less educated about the cause of the disease and therefore are not taking the steps necessary to prevent infection.  Or that they are poorer and do not have access to things that are available to sexually-active individuals in the more affluent parts of the world.  Both of those statements are probably true.

But if we assume this is the way AIDS came into existence, how can we support the idea of a conspiracy on the parts of the world’s most “intelligent” people when the outcome certainly did not meet their goals?

Enter short term motivation.  Even the most brilliant of us can be distracted from our ultimate goal by monetary enrichment.  And the amount of money that has been spent combatting this plague has been of Biblical proportions.  Could something as simple as plain old-fashioned “greed” explain the cause for this apparent failure?  I’ll leave that to you to decide for yourself.

Getting away from conspiracy theories and returning to mankind’s relationship with the earth,  Mother Nature may be filling in the blanks in helping us return to a relationship of harmony with her.  It’s called the Chagas Virus – a disease affecting nearly 8 million people in Central and South America.

The number of people who are infected is growing in the same exponential way as HIV/AIDS did in its early years.  It is caused by a blood-sucking parasite – and while far less lethal than AIDS is spreading in epidemic proportions.  It has been referred to as The New AIDS of the Americas.

If humanity is going to survive the journey on the road of our very short history as master of our planet, we are going to have to set aside our sense of domination and replace it with an appreciation for the world which sustains us.  Only then will we be able to emerge from the dark side and with a new vision and respect enter the light.

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