New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

The Natural World

February 05, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Ecology, Evaggelos Vallianatos

From Abuse and Fear to Serving the Public Good

by Evaggelos Vallianatos

When I lived in Alexandria, Virginia, my home was near the Holmes Run Creek in the west side of the city. The Creek separated my neighborhood from high rises. It was partly natural and partly a cement ditch. Trees and bushes and flowers and the running water made the Creek beautiful, the only stretch of land that had the appearance of wild nature. I used to bike or walk some of the length of the Creek alone or with my dog.

In time, the Creek became my world, a place I went to reflect, exercise, and enjoy the natural world. I was not alone in appreciating the Creek. From 1979 to 2008, the 29 years I lived near the Creek, I noticed the number of people walking or biking by the Creek increased tremendously. The Creek became our neighborhood, where people visited for enjoyment.

Despite the value of the Holmes Run Creek, every so often and quite surreptitiously, crews of city loggers would invade the Creek, cutting down most of its luxurious trees on the excuse they protected us from muggers and the “one hundred year flood.” City loggers would repeat their atrocity at their convenience.

Since 2008, I live in Claremont in southern California. This is a small town with enough beautiful trees and a life-giving breeze that I thank the gods for their gift of this exquisite part of the natural world. Yet, like Alexandria, southern California has mad loggers, too. On December 29, 2012, the US Corps of Engineers destroyed some 43 acres of trees next to the Los Angeles River in the Sepulveda Basin. The Corps said they cut down the trees for “public safety.”

This anti-tree mania — fortunately, absent from Claremont — is one of many examples of America’s anti-environmentalism.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published her manifesto, which she shrewdly called Silent Spring. She warned America of the insidious effects of toxic pesticide sprays. The book became a best seller but nothing practically changed. Farmers continue to douse their crops with increasingly more potent toxins.

Several years later, in 1996, another American woman scientist, Theo Colborn, issued Our Stolen Future in which she spoke of a chemical plague striking America’s babies and children. Countless synthetic chemicals have been disrupting the endocrine system of human beings, thus fouling the normal development of both people and animals.

Colborn repeated her charges in a letter she wrote to President Obama on October 26, 2012. She Said to Obama: “Today, one out of every three babies will develop diabetes and if you are African American or among other minorities that will be every other baby. One out of every 88 babies born today will develop autism.” She urged Obama to go after the chemical industry hurting, primarily, the newly born. She also informed Obama that the endocrine disrupting chemicals are the very petrochemicals causing global warming.

Why are America’s rulers indifferent, nay hostile, towards the natural world? After all, the first victims of pesticides and the warming of the Earth are animals and, inevitably, humans. I suspect one of the reasons America’s industry captains don’t think about the natural world is probably fear — fear they have gone too far with their exploitation, though they refuse to admit it.

Most of these powerful people have been making money primarily at the expense of nature: logging, destructive fishing, damming of rivers, mining, oil business, and hazardous agricultural practices like livestock feeding operations and growing one crop on vast plantations.

A major problem with the exploitation of the natural world — which economists call “resources” — is that the exploiters don’t pay for the damage they cause to nature or to people affected by the vast pollution of their activities. This knowledge causes fear to the polluters who understand one day the victims of their pollution may seek revenge. Certainly, nature does not remain silent to abuse. Contaminated food and water deform and kill.

Livestock is responsible for enormous amounts of wastes, which untreated seep into groundwater and rivers. According to “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, livestock releases up to 18 percent of carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gases; 37 percent of methane and 65 percent of nitrous oxide and 64 percent of ammonia. Methane is 23 times and nitrous oxide 296 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And ammonia contributes to acid rain.

The UN report emphasizes that the impact of livestock on the environment is “on a massive scale”: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” And yet, the owners of livestock pay practically nothing for the harm they cause to life on Earth.

If it were for me, animal farms would cease to exist. I would tell farmers, either stop polluting our food and the natural world, or you are going out of business. After all, organic farmers produce food without pollution. And when animals are raised with crops, their footprint is very light. Indeed, they fertilize the land.

But, at the very least, we should tax polluters, making them pay the true cost of what they produce. If the pesticides of farmers kill the fish of a river, the farmers will pay for the replacement of the fish and the decontamination of the river. Livestock wastes, for example, must be treated before disposal. And livestock owners and the entire energy industry must pay for every ton of greenhouse gas they emit. If the price for pollution is high enough, polluters will see and feel the light, if not that of public good and healthy nature, but that of enlightened self-interest.

Evaggelos Vallianatos teaches at Pitzer College. He is the author of several books, including Poison Spring (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press).

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