One disaster: The tip of the iceberg?

By Ralph Bates

Where is our outrage when it’s needed? Why is it needed? When and how do we act on it? Tim Rowland in his editorial-page column last week cited an environmental disaster in neighboring West Virginia that polluted the water for 300,000 residents with a toxic chemical spill into the Elk River about a year and a half ago.

Freedom Enterprises, the polluter, walked away with little penalty. Congress, at the early outrage, tried to act by passing regulatory law to require the testing of tens of thousands of chemicals flowing through our rivers, foodstuffs, air, clothing, carpets, etc. Outrage faded, and there’s been no action to date of any significance.

Like the frogs sitting in cool water oblivious to the fact that the temperature is rising slowly and will soon boil them before they can jump out (just Google “boiling frog syndrome”), we too let our outrage subside, get on with our daily obliviousness to serious societal, global problems, and, even if we’re aware of them, retreat to the “it’s complicated” mantra and enter living denial.

The West Virginia disaster affected just 300,000 people. Let’s look at a few facts that could affect billions of us.

In a 2005 study by the Environmental Working Group entitled “Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns,” the group reported the presence of more than 200 industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in the umbilical cord blood of newborns. That alone should be enough to outrage you and raise your awareness of the dangers we perpetrate (they are our businesses and industries!) coming home to roost in our bodies and those of our loved ones.

More specific, and frightening: Of those chemicals detected, the EWG said, “we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animals.”

Looking elsewhere, there are more facts to frighten. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its Pacific Marine Environmental Lab have known for years now that “fundamental changes in seawater chemistry are occurring throughout the world’s oceans.” One phenomenon is known as ocean acidification. Why is it important to know that and pay attention to it? Because it is further proof that our frogs will suffer a rising temperature in the pond. The oceans have always absorbed about a quarter of the carbon dioxide, so the more we have been pouring into the atmosphere since the 19th century puts stress on that natural buffering system, and the result has been a rising PH, now seen as acidification.

Here’s the potential downside of this sea change: “Studies have shown that a more acidic (ocean) environment has a dramatic effect on some calcifying species, including oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton. When shelled organisms are at risk, the entire food web may also be at risk. Today, more than a billion people worldwide rely on food from the ocean as their primary source of protein. Many jobs and economies in the U.S. and around the world depend on the fish and shellfish in our oceans.”

I could cite many more instances of the damage we humans have, over the last few centuries, perpetrated on ourselves, unintentionally for the majority of us. (We all know that is not true of some of our industries who often knew and hid the facts of the harmful consequences of their products and chemicals.) Just to name a few: cigarettes, DDT, lead in gasoline and paints, sugar and its addictive qualities, salt, PCBs, mercury, the chemicals used or produced by most mining operations . . .

There is hopeful evidence. In the last decade or so, hundreds of millions have made changes in their purchases, trash disposal, the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and in their support of environmental groups; these trends are accelerating. But is this fast enough?

Add to this trend an encouraging change taking place in the board rooms of powerful and respected companies. Recently, 13 companies have pledged to invest $114 billion in efforts to fight climate change. Among them are Google, Microsoft, Walmart, Pepsico, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America. More will be joining and others were on the bandwagon months and years before.

Two prominent Republicans, George Schultz and Henry Paulson, lead a bipartisan group called the Risky Business Project, which acknowledges climate change as the biggest threat to the world’s economy. The report offers a number of risk mitigation strategies that can only be accomplished through government and business partnerships and independent actions appropriate to each sector.

Have you heard? The Department of Defense considers climate change a serious threat to our national security!

Finally, let’s not forget Pope Francis, whose recent encyclical acknowledges the valid science of climatologists and agrees with theirs and other experts’ recommendations for reversing global warming. He goes further to say that “climate change is now an issue of social justice”; that the brunt of the dire consequences will be felt by the developing world and the poor. “The Earth, our home,” he adds, “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”.

Whether it is climate change, ocean acidification, chemical spills contaminating our drinking water or the collusion of some industries to hide the truth about their harmful products, there is plenty of room for action, taking a stand, letting your opinion be known, contributing your time or charity to a cause to protect and regenerate our environment.

To purposely be alarmist, the frog’s water is heating up more rapidly than you may wish to believe and there comes a point in time when it will be too late to reverse the rise in temperature from boiling. Will we have jumped out, unlike the oblivious frog?

A longtime community volunteer and retired management consultant, Ralph Bates lives in Huntly.

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