How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year and the Promise of Renewal

2011 has gone out with a bang, both literally and figuratively. Early in the month of December, my husband was in a car accident and suffered a mild concussion and whiplash. The car was totaled. Then my son’s partner was sandwiched between two eighteen-wheelers. Again her car was totaled, although she miraculously walked away unscathed. On December 19th, we lost our beloved friend Prudence the beagle. Her loss still leaves an emptiness in our home. But by far, the worst December happening was on the 21st, when our precious daughter was also in a car accident. She suffered a broken collar bone, torn ligaments in her left ankle and a sprained wrist. All who analyzed the disaster concurred that if she had not been wearing her seatbelt, she would not be with us today. The gratitude I feel for fortuitous fate, unknown realities and responsible progeny is too profound to elaborate upon.

Given the above scenario, the commencement of a New Year is a welcome development. There is something about the prospect of starting over with a clean slate that is eminently appealing. And indeed, nature provides us with myriad examples of death and rebirth and the endless capacity for renewal. The fall leaves and carcasses of the unfortunate nourish the ground from whence they came. Each year the dormancy of winter gives way to sprouting buds and the fragrant breezes of spring. The birds return from their winter holidays. Snow melts. And green sprouts shoot out from a brown and desolate landscape. New Year reminds us of this promise of perpetual renewal.  

Every 365.25 days, give or take, the Earth makes a complete revolution around the sun. Although we mark off days on a calendar and mark each revolution with a successive number, 2010, 2011, 2012, the Earth, sun and universe make no such distinction between one revolution and the next. Sometimes an axial wobble will tilt the Northern hemisphere to a slightly less illuminated trajectory, setting off a chain of reactions that plunge the Earth into an ice age. A correction in the opposite direction will set off an opposite chain of events, causing polar ice caps to melt. The tides ebb and flow, but the constancy of a solitary planet revolving around its sun in a predictable pattern remains timeless.

Nature teaches us that in spite of the eternal need of Western Homo sapiens for solutions, conformity, deeper meaning and happy endings, reality is a harsh affair. Everybody dies, justice is not always served, good people suffer, while the criminally insane prosper, and happy endings are the stuff of Hollywood movies and rarely reflect the real world. Shit happens. Our insistence of making the “best” of the situation obscures our seeing a larger, more fantastic truth.

Everybody dies, but each decaying carcass is the essential fodder for new life. Justice is not always served, but every hardship usually brings profound enlightenment. Good people suffer and bad ones prosper, but the good generally enjoy lives filled with love and friendship, while the sociopath is incapable of appreciating such blessings. By looking for happy endings we miss the bliss of everyday life.
Until the time that the sun implodes upon itself, our beloved home, Earth, will continue to revolve around it, predictably and profoundly, and this miracle should give us hope. Here is my wish for all to enjoy a sentient New Year surrounded by loved ones, community and purpose.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Darkness into Light, Death and Rebirth, Endings and Beginnings – The Promise of Winter Solstice

A Requiem for Prudence

On Monday, we lost a dear friend. Prudence was “just” a dog, an 18 year-old beagle who has been a part of our family for what seems like forever. Our youngest son Arthur was only a year old when we acquired Prudence on a holiday in Colorado Springs. She survived the Parvo virus as a puppy and later an attempt on her life by a temporarily deranged neighbor who clobbered her over the head with a two-by-four when she was 2.

During her short, albeit long dog life, Prudence made an impression on everyone who met her. She had a loving personality coupled with the typical woe-is-me visage that is frequent in canines of the hound persuasion, making her an object of adoration to all but the most hardened of hearts. It’s a good thing she was so lovable, because she was also the naughtiest dog to ever walk the face of the planet.  Prudence never obeyed a command in her life that didn’t suit her own purposes and made a habit of peeing on the floor when it was colder or wetter outside than she liked. She was a woman who above all else, looked after her own interests. Fortunately, she found herself in a family of similar personalities, so she fit right in. She was an independent soul, and unlike other canine companions, who are often submissive to the master, it would seem that Prudence viewed herself as on equal footing with us, as we did her. Our loss is thus one of a true friend and not just the loss of a “pet.”

For 18 years, she persevered, beating the odds and coming back stronger than ever. As she aged, her hearing and then her eyesight began to dim, but still, she never refused an offer of a walk and continued to pursue the scents at the end of her nose with the gusto of a young pup. We were lulled into the belief that she was invincible and that she would be with us for at least another 18 years. Then about a month ago, she started lagging behind on walks, and eventually she stopped joining us completely. Her breathing became labored and eventually, her aged heart and lungs could no longer combat the realities of old age.  Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Some Buddhist and Native American cultures have the belief that the soul resides near the body for a period of three days after death. These three days are a period of adjustment for both the living and the dead.  When the three days are finished, the soul is released into the infinite possibilities of the universe. I think it is apt that Prudence decided to leave us on Monday.  According to the above tradition, she will find her final peace tonight, entering the world of the eternal on this longest, darkest night of the year, Winter Solstice. The darkness mirrors the vacuous emptiness that her passing leaves in our hearts and home but also reminds us of the promise of light and rebirth even in the darkest hours.

Tomorrow the night will be shorter and shorter still with each subsequent day. We grieve the loss of our friend, but tomorrow the sun will shine its light once again. The New Year and newly born sun will bring the promise of spring and new life, and so it goes.

For more info on Winter Solstice, see previous post:

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Keystone XL Make or Break Time. Send an Email to President Obama Today

The following is a letter I sent today to the White House, urging President Obama not to cave in to the blackmail being perpetrated by Congress. As you may be aware, today the Senate passed a bill that has tied the payroll tax cut, a measure that will bring dramatic economic relief to millions of Americans, to pressuring the President into signing off on the Keystone XL tar sand pipeline, a completely unrelated issue. You can send your own letter to the President here.

President Obama,

You campaigned on a promise of clean energy for America, and it was based on this promise, in addition to others, that I voted for you.

I am an environmental scientist with 15 years of professional experience studying environmental impact assessment. As you are aware, the scourge of anthropogenic global climate change is the most significant environmental challenge of our lifetime, perhaps of all human history. The nation's leading climatologist, Jim Hansen, has said that if the Keystone XL pipeline is allowed to go through, it will be "game over" for the climate. Do you really want to be the President whose legacy is tied to such a pronouncement?

2008 was a year of unprecedented hope. On election night, I cried tears of joy, watching you, our first African American President, deliver your acceptance address. The Bush years had worn many of us to the point of not believing in a government of, by and for the people. Instead, we were convinced that the welfare of the corporations who sponsored our politicians was now the government's only concern. You promised to rectify this great injustice and restore our democracy to the people.

As you have managed your Presidency over the past few years, it has become painfully obvious to us spectators that taking government back from powerful private interests has not been an easy task for you. Nevertheless, I choose to believe that you were sincere in your promises to the American people and that every concession you have made to corporate interests has been painful for you. Many of my progressive peers do not agree with my sentiment and believe you have sold out.

If the above is true, then  one can only conclude that a democratic United States is a cleverly crafted illusion of propaganda. It means that whomever the citizens of this country vote for, their interests will be secondary to the interests of corporations.

You are an intelligent man and cannot plead ignorance when it comes to the grave threat of global climate change. Thanks to the brave members of the Occupy Movement, 2012 promises to be a landmark election year. This is the year voters will take our country back from private interests. Have no doubt that with your vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, we the voters will know definitively which side you are really on and vote accordingly.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What the Frack? – Why Deregulation is Turning the United States into a Third World Country

Yesterday, I took my last final exam and turned in my last paper, so I am free again to share some of the information I gleaned this semester from the amazing faculty at Harvard and my fellow classmates, who are also quite an impressive bunch of individuals. In my daily professional life out in the swamps and bushes of the Caribbean counting plants, I am usually blissfully working outside of the U.S. legislative framework, which can be onerous to say the least. On the other hand, working in countries with little regulation also makes clear the need for such requirements. In spite of what right-leaning pundits would have you believe, relieved of any requirements to act in an environmentally responsible way, polluting industries will externalize their pollutants and harm into the environment without thinking twice about it. In the fifteen years I have been doing environmental impact assessment, I have never experienced a single case where a developer simply volunteered to do the environmentally correct thing unless it was going to save him money.

We need regulation. Countries where regulations are lax or non-existent invariably become dumping grounds for toxic waste or the homes of polluting industries that can’t be bothered with the costs of cleaning up their acts. There are several million synthetic chemicals that have been produced by humans. About 70,000 of them are currently being regularly used by industry and at least 35,000 of those have been identified as toxic to humans and/or ecosystems. Without regulation, these chemicals end up in our bodies and environment, many of them, like dioxin, PCBs and mercury, permanently.

But we live in the United States of America, and since the enlightened years of yes, the Nixon Administration, we have enjoyed the protection of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Over the years since these landmark regulations have been in place, air and water quality in the United States has improved dramatically, even as the population has increased. Most Americans take for granted that industry is sufficiently regulated and cannot pose a threat to people and the environment, and for the most part, this would be true, unless the polluter’s name is Halliburton. In a 2005 ruling known not ironically as the “Halliburton Exemption,” the Bush/Cheney/Halliburton Administration specifically exempted the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” from the Clean Water Act on the basis that it posed “no serious threat” to water resources.

The Bush Administration was never known for its transparency or honesty, and since that ruling much information has come to light that shows that fracking not only poses serious threats, but that the impacts of such activities may be catastrophic. Self-promoting ads present natural gas as the “clean” fuel, and it is true that when burned, natural gas produces about 1/3 of the carbon dioxide of coal and oil, but the half-truth of clean natural gas is overshadowed by pesky reality. Several recent studies reveal that impacts to the environment and public health, known in the industry as “externalities,” may occur throughout every phase of natural gas drilling and power generation.

 The contamination begins from day one. To drill a gas well, Halliburton and their colleagues have developed drilling “muds” that are applied to the borehole edge of the drilling rig. These muds are slurries of undisclosed toxic chemical compounds and are applied to the bore hole edge of the drilling rig to facilitate the process. The chemicals are undisclosed because Halliburton et. al. claim they are “proprietary” blends. Like the eleven herbs and spices in Kentucky Fried Chicken, they are a secret recipe. Once the well is drilled, between two and nine million gallons of fresh water are combined with sand and chemical products (also undisclosed under the claim of “proprietary” information) and injected into the recovery zone under high pressures in order to fracture the substrate and release the natural gas contained within.

Since fracking conveniently isn’t regulated under the Clean Water Act, all those proprietary blends of chemicals would be completely anonymous in the environment except residents in communities where fracking is taking place started to notice a few issues like brown water coming out of their faucets that ignites when lit with a match. Fish and wildlife in nearby streams started dying and the smells of water and air started to burn the nasal passages. In response, several heroic scientists took it upon themselves to investigate.

Theo Colborn and associates set out to determine exactly which chemicals were being used and were able to identify 632 chemicals.  75% of these chemicals could have negative skin, sensory organ, respiratory and gastrointestinal effects, 37-50% could have negative effects on the nervous, immune and cardiovascular, endocrine and excretory systems and 25% are potentially carcinogenic (Colborn, Kwiatkowski, Schultz, & Bachran, 2011).

In addition to the toxic chemicals added to the fracking brew,  natural gas is recovered with a host of naturally-occurring contaminants such as hydrogen sulfide, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, heavy metals and radioactive materials, to name a few. These contaminants are stored in pits along with used drilling mud and fracking fluids where they can and do leach into groundwater and run off into waterways.

On January 1, 2009, a private drinking water well in Dimrock, Pennsylvania, exploded as a result of methane gas migration from a nearby natural gas drilling operation. Residents reported foul-smelling tap water the color of apple cider, and spills of fracking liquids and drilling mud leached into aquatic habitats resulting in fish kills (Federman, 2010). In Pavillion, Wyoming, residents are experiencing similar effects. These people have had their lives permanently contaminated by fracking. Their once-pristine rural communities are now cesspits for the toxic wastes of the natural gas industry.

The myth of clean natural gas joins a host of other fossil fuel industry lies like clean coal and safe offshore oil drilling. The industry hopes that if it tells a lie often enough people will believe it, and unfortunately their strategy works. In the absence of oversight and public awareness they are free to carry out their dirty deeds in relative obscurity.

The other big lie we get from the fossil fuel industry is that it is the most economical way to meet our energy needs. The lie is reinforced by our electric bills that tell us that coal-fired or gas-fired electricity costs pennies per kilowatt hour. We are told that renewables such as solar and wind cost at least twice as much. But reality isn’t as simple as the math on our electric bills. Fossil fuels are first subsidized by tax dollars, and when all of the health and environmental costs, such as increased rates of asthma in children, ruined water supplies and decapitated mountains in Appalachia, are added up the clean energies of wind and solar are actually cheaper than fossil fuels, much cheaper. In reality, we are paying the fossil fuel industry with our tax dollars, ecosystems and health, for the privilege of lining their pockets. 

Write a letter, a real letter not an email, to your Representatives and Senators and tell them its time for them to represent the interests of people and the environment, rather than the interests of the corrupt fossil fuel industry. Enlighten them about the economic and environmental realities of fossil fuel. Let them know that you know the truth and that all the efforts of industry to hide that truth were in vain. Perhaps in this election cycle, with their asses on the line, they might listen. It's worth a shot.  

Sources Cited