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This spring is anything but silent on university campuses when it comes to the issue of climate change. Many colleges and universities have been making powerful efforts to speak about the climate problem.

On March 26, Clark University in Massachusetts — a private institution with approximately 3300 undergraduate and graduate students — held a campus-wide teach-in on the topic of climate change. The event included 45 sessions organized into four tracks, two keynote speeches, “councils,” and a film festival. The 600 or so participants at the teach-in formed a diverse community who understand the gravity of climate change and care enough to do something about it.

Professors and invited speakers led the sessions, most of which were followed by lively discussions among the participants. Students chose from a rich collection of sessions. Speakers approached climate change from a diverse array of disciplines — including physics, biology, chemistry, geology, geography, engineering, sociology, political science, business, international and community development, history, English, philosophy, psychology, and visual and performing arts.

Climate scientist and Clark graduate Susanne Moser gave the first keynote speech, summarizing climate trends and urging the audience to take action. Quoting former South African President Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done,” Moser provided numerous examples of humankind having achieved the “impossible” — such as defeating Hitler and putting a man on the moon. Because government action on climate change remains tepid, grassroots action is required, Moser said.

Pennsylvania State University biology professor Christopher Uhl gave the second speech, addressing the big-picture question “How can humans live in harmony with each other and with the Earth?” He spoke about the culture of separation — from our bodies, our feelings, and our true meaning and purpose; and from each other and from our Earth. Uhl proposed that the answer to climate change, as well as to other dire problems, lies in ending separation.

The councils — a forum unique to Clark and employed in prior Clark programs — were small groups of students, faculty, and other teach-in participants. Participants came from diverse academic, social, and ethnic backgrounds and disagreed in many ways — for example, their outlook for the future ranged all the way from complete despair to hopeful confidence — yet the meetings were characterized by a sense of respect and unity. Participants sat in a circle and took turns speaking their thoughts and feelings about climate change. The councils provided a forum for genuine and heartfelt expression.

The teach-in is not over. Discussions on campus are underway about ways Clark can build upon all that has been accomplished thus far and share with others outside the university. Clark offers suggestions about how other universities can build their own climate change teach-ins.

The day after the Clark teach-in, the University of Michigan (UM) began a two-day climate change teach-in, 50 years after the university hosted the country’s first teach-in on the war in Vietnam. The historic Vietnam teach-in became the seed for other teach-ins across the country, which led to massive demonstrations in Washington, D.C., which in turn led to the end of the war in Vietnam. This March’s climate change program provided an opportunity for people to learn, collaborate, and demand action on a different, divisive conflict: climate change. The UM teach-in included a rally, speeches, panels, open meetings, and brainstorming workshops.

In recent years, many higher-ed institutions have hosted climate change teach-ins. For example, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell held its fifth annual climate change teach-in in 2014. In 2008, more than 1500 U.S. colleges, universities, schools, and community organizations held a student-organized climate change teach-in that was billed as the largest teach-in ever. Climate change teach-ins have been held at the University of Louisville, Swarthmore College, LIU Brooklyn, Winona State University, Colleges of the Fenway, and Roanoke College, to name a few. International examples include the First European Climate Teach-In Day 2009 and the World Climate Teach-In Day held in 2010.

Universities also engage in other sorts of climate change-related activities. For example, on March 26, Antioch University New England (AUNE) in New Hampshire presented a webinar on climate change communication strategies. AUNE’s Center for Climate Preparedness and Community Resilience, launched in 2014, partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to convene the Local Solutions: Northeast Climate Preparedness Conference. The Center’s mission is to prepare for, respond to, and recover from climate impacts through collaborative, innovative solutions, on a local, as well as national and international, scale.

The AUNE webinar was one in a series of climate change webinars co-created by the Center and the EPA. Participants hailed from Canada, Lebanon, Greece, Oman, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Zambia, Columbia, Egypt, France, China, Grenada, and Mexico. The Center and EPA are currently partnering, along with the City of Baltimore, to co-create the 2016 Local Solutions: Eastern Regional Climate Preparedness Conference.

Universities also lead on climate change by piloting and modeling practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Example practices include energy and water conservation, alternate transportation, carbon-free energy, green buildings, and recycling. The American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment serves as a high-visibility effort to address climate change on campuses. To date, 697 colleges and universities have signed the commitment, which entails completing a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, scheduling reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, taking immediate steps to reduce emissions, integrating sustainability into the curriculum, and making the action plan, inventory, and progress reports publicly available.

This spring, students and others have been staging demonstrations at a number of colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and abroad, urging them to divest their fossil fuel company holdings. A growing number of colleges and universities have already committed to divest — including at least 22 in the U.S., two in the United Kingdom, and one each in the Marshall Islands, New Zealand, and Sweden.

Universities lead on climate change by working in partnerships with other universities and other institutions. For example, the Harvard China Project was founded in 1993 as an interdisciplinary program to study China’s atmospheric environment, energy system and economy, and the role of environment in U.S.-China relations. Harvard President Drew Faust calls the partnership “an engine of broad environmental knowledge that has influenced policy in both countries, and improved the lives of our citizens.”

People at universities are — to some extent — allowed to think differently, work across disciplines, and speak out in ways that others cannot. For example, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Climate Research investigates climate change globally, assesses climate change impacts on state resources, develops adaptation strategies, and held a two-day climate change symposium in March 2015. But a month later, Wisconsin officials banned employees of a state agency from discussing climate change or even responding to an email about the warming climate. Similarly, the Florida Climate Institute, with eight member Florida universities, performs extensive climate change research, education, and outreach. Meanwhile, Florida Department of Environmental Protection employees are barred from using the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports.

Universities are unique in bringing the full array of disciplines to bear on the problem of climate change. Universities in all parts of the world research climate change origins, trends, and impacts; develop new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and shape institutions and policies.

Will universities rescue our climate? Not single-handedly. But students, educators, researchers, and administrators are leading the way, lending hope that we will successfully address our climate problem.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.

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In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama said, “No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” Yet worsening climate data prove we’re not doing enough. Why do we delay action?

People are daunted by the gradual nature, incomprehensible consequences, and global scope of the problem. No siren blares “Act Now!” as the problem gradually snowballs. We respond to sudden, “bite-sized” disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis. But we leave a major cause of these events, climate change, unaddressed. This is partly because future scenarios—for example, our world after four feet of sea level rise—boggle our minds.

Many countries responsible for creating the global problem refuse to act unless others act, stymying efforts to reach agreement, while the situation grows increasingly dire. The United States’ historical lack of leadership at global climate talks is particularly galling in light of U.S. cumulative greenhouse gas emissions that exceed those of any other country. American commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which CNN news characterizes as “intermittent,” may have changed in recent years and especially with last November’s historic emissions deal between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Many people blindly hope scientists are wrong about the climate or that we can afford to wait to act until we know more. The variable nature of climate makes it hard to squarely blame any event—such as a hurricane—on climate change, creating uncertainty.

Mixed messages compound the uncertainty. The climate issue has become politicized, with Democrats generally concerned and Republicans, at least until recently, generally unconcerned. Senator James Inhofe, now head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, declared climate change to be the greatest hoax played on mankind. Last month, the Republican-controlled Senate acknowledged that climate change is real but refused to say humans are to blame. In perhaps more encouraging news, a recent poll of the American public found that half of Republicans now support government action to curb global warming.

Further stalling efforts to address the environmental problem, powerful special interests use their clout to preserve the status quo. For example, timber industry lobbying has ramped up in recent years. The industry is pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ignore scientific data and write regulations as if carbon dioxide emissions from wood-burning electrical biomass plants didn’t harm the climate. When citizens see that their representatives work for special interests instead of the public good, their confidence in government erodes. They stop telling their representatives what to do, which only makes it easier for their representatives to work for special interests in a deepening, downward moral and environmental spiral. As political economist Robert Reich explains, “Many people have become deeply cynical about politics…. If we give up on politics, we give up on our democracy. And if we give up on democracy, we don’t stand a chance. That’s what the moneyed interests want…. Then they run everything, and they get everything.”

Even if we acknowledge that we have a climate problem, we’re confused about what to do about it. While feasible, cost-effective remedies stand at the ready, some people warn that fixing the climate will hurt the economy. Still others bet wildly on unproven, quick-fix technologies—such as blasting particles into the atmosphere to cool the planet.

Many people—frazzled by information overload and consumed with other problems in the world and in their personal lives—have done little or nothing about climate change. Yet growing numbers are taking and demanding action. Millions made a ruckus in the massive People’s Climate March last September, which included thousands of rallies in 162 countries. Young people in the U.S. are suing states and the federal government, based on the doctrine of public trust, for not protecting the climate.

If we care about the Earth’s people and other species, we’ll demand that our public servants at all levels of government fix the problem. Politicians will comply if they understand they will lose their constituents’ votes otherwise. In my local area, the City Council of Springfield, Massachusetts unanimously voted last October to develop a Climate Action Plan, thanks to citizen pressure. On the international level, the U.S. will take bold action at the pivotal United Nations Climate Change Conference this December—if enough Americans insist.

With its global scale, complexity, potentially epic consequences, and creeping progression, climate change poses the ultimate test for the human species. This test could be pass–fail, threatening the human species with extinction, according to some experts. Will humans adapt quickly enough and muster the necessary intelligence, will, caring, and survival instinct to meet the challenge?

Blogger Brad Friedman’s “Better World for Nothing” cartoon depicts a person making a presentation at a climate summit. On a large screen viewed by the summit audience is a list: “energy independence, preserve rainforests, sustainability, green jobs, livable cities, renewables, clean water and air, healthy children, etc., etc.” A member of the audience asks, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” If we luck out and discover the problem isn’t as bad as we thought, we’ll still benefit from all the ancillary benefits of reducing greenhouse gases, in the form of health and environmental improvements as well as economic growth. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón points out that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires action in the very same areas that throughout history have driven economic growth: investment in efficiency, infrastructure, and innovation.”

Let’s stop saying that the climate problem is too big and that we’re too small, too unsure, or too busy to fix it. It’s time to set aside all our excuses and get to work.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.

Discuss

People around the world see climate change as a major threat, and Americans are becoming increasingly concerned. Yet the World Meteorological Association writes that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “reached a new record high in 2013, propelled by a surge in levels of carbon dioxide.” Clearly, we are not doing enough about this problem. However, it is not for lack of available solutions.

A 2014 report by the Global Commission on Economy and Climate (GCEC) concludes that “countries at all levels of income now have the opportunity to build lasting economic growth at the same time as reducing the immense risks of climate change.” The report states that the necessary fixes may be effectively free. When the ancillary benefits of greener policies are taken into account, the fixes may wind up saving us money. The report points out that the longer we delay taking action, the more it will cost us to address the climate problem.

Opportunities for addressing greenhouse gases lie within our reach. The potential environmental benefits of these opportunities are linked to other benefits, such as an improved economic climate, better human health, and remediation of other environmental problems. Green technology keeps improving. However, our policies are stuck and work against wider implementation of green technology.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the primary sources of global greenhouse gas emissions are energy supply for electricity and heat (26%); industry (19%); land use, land-use change, and forestry (17%); agriculture (14%); transportation (13%); residential and commercial buildings (8%); and water and wastewater (3%). To begin to address the climate problem, citizens should press for effective policy changes like these ones:

1. Eliminate subsidies for combustion-based energy. This action would affect most of the greenhouse gas sources. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that energy subsidies for petroleum products, electricity, natural gas, and coal amount to $1.9 trillion per year worldwide—the equivalent of 2.5% of global gross domestic product (GDP), or 8% of government revenues. The IMF predicts that eliminating energy subsidies would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 13% by discouraging excess energy use and encouraging investment in renewable energy. Proven clean energy technologies are ready, right now, for wide implementation. According to the GCEC report, “Renewable energy sources have emerged with stunning and unexpected speed as large-scale, and increasingly economically viable, alternatives to fossil fuels.” By eliminating combustion-based energy subsidies, we can reap many ancillary benefits. These include increased economic growth—due to the freeing up 2.5% of GDP for productive use; increased energy security—we’ll never run out of sunlight or wind; improved environmental quality—reduced air pollution, and lessened environmental degradation caused by coal mining and oil exploration and production; and improved health. Health costs from poor air quality, for which combustion-based energy is largely responsible, account for more than 4% of GDP.

2. Provide access to modern contraception. Newsweek magazine reports that in 2012, the estimated number of unintended pregnancies was 80 million and world population growth was 80 million. “In other words, if women all over the world had the ability to prevent the pregnancies they don’t want, the world’s population would stabilize.” Newsweek estimates that the reduction in unwanted pregnancies would translate into an 8% to 15% reduction in global carbon emissions. Potential ancillary benefits of stabilizing the birth rate include improved health and quality of life, not to mention economic growth due to women’s greater participation in paid work. A stable human population would also result in reduced habitat destruction, species extinction, and pollution. In the developing world, 222 million women want contraceptives but can’t get them; meeting this need would have prevented 54 million unwanted pregnancies, 26 million abortions, 79,000 deaths of mothers, and 1.1 million infant deaths in 2012 alone. Cost is not an obstacle—the U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that every $1 spent on family planning saves $6 on health care, immunization, education, and other services.

3. Remove subsidies for logging. Trees sequester carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and storing it in wood and soil. Deforestation is a double-whammy: carbon dioxide is released when trees are cut down, and we also lose future carbon capture capacity. Forests in the United States sequester 10 percent of the total annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, and uncut forests store more carbon than do forests that are logged. Trees help us in many other ways. They clean the air and water, moderate the water cycle, provide the earth’s heat shield, house and feed animals, nourish our souls, and provide other services we are only beginning to understand. Even though the GCEC report recommends halting deforestation, nearly every country in the world subsidizes its timber industry. One way they do this is by allowing private entities to log national forests. Another way is through tax and credit incentives. In the U.S., the Forest Service routinely produces and sells timber that isn’t worth the direct harvesting and marketing costs. The elimination of logging subsidies would save taxpayers’ their money as well as their forests.

4. Get rid of agricultural subsidies. The U.S. paid out $292 billion in agricultural subsidies from 1995 through 2012, mostly to large, petroleum-intensive, industrial-scale farms. In doing so, they rewarded greenhouse gas emitters at the expense of climate-friendlier organic farms. The United Nations reports that carbon dioxide emissions from organic agriculture are 48% to 66% lower than those generated by industrial agriculture and that agriculture could become carbon neutral in two decades by moving to organic practices worldwide. Organic farming can successfully feed the human population and address the climate problem while providing numerous other benefits. These include preventing soil erosion and water contamination, protecting wildlife, and improving consumer and farm worker health. By eliminating subsidies for industrial-scale farms, we would create a level playing field for farmers. Author and organic farmer Joel Salatin writes, “We don’t want subsidies for anybody, including ourselves.”

the above changes would go a long way toward solving the climate crisis while at the same time addressing other dire problems. What are we waiting for? Energy expert Daniel Kammen wrote in 2011, while working for the World Bank, “At long last, scientists, governments, and significant elements of the business community are in agreement that we can build a low-carbon, sustainable, global energy economy…. The constraint in making this a reality is not technology, land area, or resources, but willpower.”

America enjoys a leadership position in the world. Americans should take the lead in replacing climate-damaging policies with climate-friendly ones. After all, we have emitted more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other country.

We might hope that our elected officials—on their own initiative—would create sound policies that serve citizens’ interests. But too often this does not happen. The fact that the tobacco industry was among the top 20 recipients of U.S. agricultural subsidies between 1995 and 2012—when politicians and the public knew full well about tobacco’s destructive impacts—pretty much says it all. Many American politicians drag their feet, wring their hands, or make excuses for inaction instead of getting to work to take on our climate problems.

Therefore, citizens—as usual—must drive the policy changes that can heal our environment. Politicians will follow if they understand that they will lose their constituents’ votes otherwise. We have an environmental problem. Let’s tell our politicians to stop waffling and get to work on it.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.

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Given current concern about the Ebola virus, it’s surprising that the public isn’t more alarmed about “superbugs.” Superbugs are infectious bacteria that have mutated to adapt to antibiotics that were designed to kill them, making the drugs ineffective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the U.S. annually, resulting in at least 23,000 deaths—the equivalent of 46 jumbo jets crashing, with no survivors. Many others die from conditions complicated by antibiotic-resistant infections. Superbugs cause an estimated 8 million days in U.S. hospitals each year, costing between $21 and $34 billion. My friend, in her fifties, recently died in the hospital of an antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus infection. A friend of a friend—even younger—after five days in the hospital conquered a staph infection, but he suffered gastrointestinal problems because the powerful antibiotics that killed the staph also killed his healthy gut bacteria.

These statistics can scare us, or they can empower us to demand safer agricultural practices. The recent Frontline episode “The Trouble with Antibiotics” investigates a major cause of the resistance problem—antibiotics administered to farm animals. With the discovery of antibiotics in 1929 and the rise of industrial agriculture in the 1940s, many of the large farms that replaced smaller family farms began the practice of confining the animals in crowded spaces. Antibiotics were routinely administered to the animals to prevent infectious diseases, with the fortuitous side effect that animals also grew faster. The use of antibiotics enhanced growers’ profits—they enabled the animals to grow faster in crowded and filthy conditions. As farm animals developed antibiotic resistance over time, they required more antibiotics, boosting drug makers’ profits. Between 2009 and 2012, agricultural antibiotics sales in the U.S. jumped by 16 percent. As much as 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to farms.

What is the fate of these antibiotics? Some end up in meat, milk, and eggs, but around 90 percent end up in manure, the vast majority of which is spread on agricultural land, including land for growing organic crops. Then what? Antibiotics in soil are taken up by plants, end up in groundwater or surface water, or stay in the soil. In the soil, they kill “good” bacteria that are critical for soil fertility and high crop yields—while promoting harmful bacteria.

Though the Frontline story focused on antibiotics dosed to farm animals, the drugs are also sprayed on crops. They are increasingly used in antibacterial soaps, toys, furniture, clothing, and other products. Originally, antibiotics were available to humans only for fighting infections—with a doctor’s prescription. Now many Americans unwittingly take antibiotics every day.

Antibiotics kill essential beneficial bacteria that help us fight pathogens, produce vitamins, and bolster immune response. Martin Blaser, M.D., writes in Missing Microbes that overuse of antibiotics has disrupted the bacterial cells in our body (mostly in the gut) that outnumber human cells ten to one—fueling our “modern plagues” of obesity, asthma, allergies, diabetes, and cancer. Since agricultural antibiotics are proven growth promoters, it’s no wonder that antibiotics might drive our obesity epidemic.

Superbugs reach humans through food, water, soil, air, and direct contact with animals. In 2001, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged governments to take action against this “threat to global stability and national security.” This year, WHO issued a report concluding that antibiotic resistance is happening now in every region of the world, with the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.

Yet the U.S. government merely fiddles. Why? Using their enormous political clout, agribusiness trumps public health. Frontline interviewed former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Donald Kennedy, who in the 1970s proposed restrictions on penicillin and tetracycline, two of the most widely used farm antibiotics. Agribusiness attacked the proposal, claiming the FDA had not proven human health impacts. Warning of financial ruin, they turned to their congressional buddies, including the chair of the committee controlling the FDA’s budget, Jamie Whitten. Representative Whitten threatened that unless the agency provided more scientific evidence supporting the call for restrictions, he would “cut the heck out of the FDA budget” if the proposal went forward. Kennedy had little choice but to back down.

The FDA has dithered ever since. Last December, the FDA rolled out a new approach, calling for the pharmaceutical industry to voluntarily phase out antibiotics used solely for growth promotion, combined with increased veterinarian supervision of antibiotic use. Because the pharmaceutical industry claims that only 12 percent of agricultural antibiotics are used for growth promotion, however, the phase-out will likely have minimal impact. This baby-step approach also does not include data collection for evaluating progress.  

Government failure to address the deadly problem of antibiotic resistance illustrates that when there is a concern about the safety of industrial practices, the burden of proof falls on government or ordinary citizens to show harm, rather than on industry to show safety. Tom Chiller, M.D., associate director of the CDC, told Frontline that the use of antibiotics in animals is breeding resistance. “We see resistance pretty much everywhere and in everything we test,” he said, “… in cattle, in pigs, in chickens, in humans, in the retail meat that we buy in stores. Anywhere you use antibiotics, you’re going to have resistance and propagate resistance.” He added, “It’s very challenging to link the use of a particular antibiotic in a particular herd of animals to a particular human illness.” But why should he have to? Agribusiness employs practices that create antibiotic resistance, and we are witnessing the effects. Shouldn’t agribusiness be required to prove that their practices are safe?

Industrial farm operations raise animals in buildings without windows and in which cameras are prohibited. Frontline was granted access only to several facilities that remained unidentified. It is time to bring animal farming operations into the light of day, not unlike in medieval London, where—in response to the sales of putrid and disease-ridden meat—butchers were ordered to sell their products only during daylight hours, not by candlelight. The current practice of denying farm animals’ basic needs—for adequate living space and sanitation, for example—and then compensating by dosing them with antibiotics has backfired, creating superbugs. We, and the species upon which we depend for food, would benefit from a more humane and considered approach. Denmark, for example, banned the use of growth-promoting antibiotics and cut antibiotic use in half without a loss in productivity—thanks to more frequent cleaning of enclosures, increased ventilation, additional space for animal movement, and other improvements.

U.S. Representative and microbiologist Louise Slaughter is spearheading H.R. 1150, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which would prohibit nontherapeutic use of eight classes of antibiotics in food animal production. PAMTA is supported by more than 450 medical, science, and consumer organizations—including WHO and the American Medical Association— and more than 30 city councils across the U.S. Agribusiness fiercely opposes it.  

“Real change requires a large public outcry,” writes Slaughter, “including voting with your wallet by purchasing meat raised without unnecessary antibiotics—to prevent a nightmarish future in which antibiotics are obsolete.” Concerned citizens can easily sign petitions in support of PAMTA via Mark Hyman, M.D., Food Policy Action, Food & Water Watch, Takepart, Center for Food Safety, and Environmental Working Group.

Agribusiness’s practice of chemical warfare—causing disease, driving up health care costs, and killing people—is a losing battle. “Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders,” says Keiji Fukuda, M.D., WHO’s assistant director-general for health security, “the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.”

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.

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In a reckless, “hope-for-the-best” approach that puts us all at risk, U.S. policy allows the release of synthetic chemicals into the environment—before their potentially devastating impacts have been adequately evaluated. Multiple Senate bills to fix this toxic system over the past decade have been snuffed out.

On July 24, 2014, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a bill, the “Protecting American Families from Toxic Chemicals Act” (S. 2656), which would ban a number of “persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic” synthetic chemicals such as brominated fire (or flame) retardants (BFRs).

BFRs are chemicals used to reduce the flammability of consumer products. In the early 1970s, the increasing use of flammable materials such as plastics, synthetic fibers, and polyurethane foam led to the widespread use of BFRs. BFRs are added to couches and upholstered chairs; mattresses, pads, and futons; carpet padding; fabrics; electronics; building materials; and children’s products such as booster seats, changing table pads, and crib mattresses.

BFRs enter our bodies mainly when we inhale or swallow dust. Various BFRs have been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, early puberty, and reduced fertility. Ironically, BFRs start “fires” in our bodies by causing inflammation.

Citizens have endured a parade of poorly studied BFRs. When one is found to cause problems, it is switched out for another, which invariably is also found to cause problems. In 1977, brominated tris (TDBPP) was banned from use in children’s pajamas after the National Cancer Institute showed that it causes tumors in laboratory animals. Tris was replaced by another closely related BFR, TDCIPP, which later was phased out of use in children’s sleepwear due to similar concerns. Even though TDCIPP causes tumors in animals—and the State of California lists it as a known carcinogen and the Consumer Product Safety Commission classifies it as a probable human carcinogen—TDCIPP is still widely used. In 2011, the U.S. manufactured or imported 10 to 50 million pounds of TDCIPP. As another example, in 2004, when certain highly toxic BFRs were pulled from the U.S. market, other concerning BFRs took their place.

Worldwide demand for BFRs skyrocketed from 526 million pounds in 1983 to 3.4 billion pounds in 2009, and BFRs are now nearly ubiquitous in our world. They are in peanut butter, bacon, salmon, chili, sliced lunch meat; honey from Brazil, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal; Antarctic penguins; Arctic orca whales; North American kestrels and barn owls; bird eggs in Spain; fish in Canada; and in tree bark samples worldwide.

From samples collected in 2003–2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 97 percent of Americans had BFRs in their blood; Americans 12 to 19 years old had the highest levels. Blood levels of certain BFRs doubled in adults every 2 to 5 years between 1970 and 2004. Levels have not since declined, even though some BFRs have been pulled from the market. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations among infants in the world.

These exposures and their negative health effects have been for naught. Recent studies by government scientists and others suggest that BFRs do not protect consumers from fire. Furthermore, during a fire, BFRs generate invisible toxic gases—which are the leading cause of death in fires. More than half of all line-of-duty deaths in firefighting are now caused by cancer, and many firefighters believe that BFRs are a major cause. The St. Paul, Minnesota fire department is backing a state bill that would require manufacturers to report to the government which products contain BFRs, as a first step in addressing the problem. Firefighters from Stockton and San Gabriel recently implored the California legislature and governor to eliminate BFRs, testifying that “These chemicals don't offer much fire protection—they just add to the toxic exposure faced by firefighters and the citizens we serve.”

If BFRs don’t work and cause so much damage—and even firefighters don’t want them—why are they still manufactured? In 2012, the Chicago Tribune reported that BFR manufacturers “worked to preserve a lucrative market for their products” in a “decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems, and impaired fertility…. These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals.” They also “created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the public's fear of fire.”

According to the Tribune, the watchdog group Citizens for Fire Safety (CFS) described itself as "a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders, united to ensure that our country is protected by the highest standards of fire safety." Yet the (now defunct) CFS had only three members: the largest flame retardant manufacturers. The Tribune also reported that a prominent burn doctor and star witness for the manufacturers repeatedly told stories—in testimony to state legislators—of babies dying in fires due to a lack of BFRs. The doctor reportedly told the Tribune that his testimony was "an anecdotal story rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn’t under oath.” Furthermore, the CFS web site claimed that the organization was conducting studies with the International Association of Fire Fighters, whose spokesman told the Tribune, “They are lying. They aren’t working with us on anything.”

Continued BFR manufacture is enabled by the antiquated and toothless federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976—which protects hazardous chemicals from citizens rather than protecting citizens from hazardous chemicals. The law allows manufacturers to sell chemicals, typically without evaluating them for safety, and to conceal the names and physical properties of chemicals from government agencies and consumers. The law places a heavy burden of proof on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to show harm, rather than on manufacturers to show safety. The EPA acknowledges that it knows little, if anything, about most of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use, and has banned only a handful. The Obama administration launched an investigation of 20 BFRs last year, but the EPA is encountering limitations of the Toxic Substances Control Act that make it “practically impossible” to ban hazardous chemicals.

Policies in Europe are more human-friendly—for example, requiring testing and evidence of safety before chemicals are sold. Perhaps this explains why a 2008 study found that BFR levels in American mothers were 75 times those found in European studies.

Many U.S. citizens erroneously assume that the U.S. government protects them from toxic chemicals. On the contrary, the government stands by as chemicals that are used to solve one problem can create many others—while not even solving their target problem and, indeed, sometimes making it worse. States and citizens have had to fend for themselves. Thirty-four states have passed chemical restrictions of some kind, and California, Washington, and Maine have banned BFRs.

Protection at the federal level is needed—to provide universal protection of citizens and uniform rules for industry. We need to fix the Toxic Substances Control Act to incorporate the “precautionary principle,” which would require manufacturers to prove that their chemicals are safe before they are put into use.

Concerned citizens can signal their desire for real reform by signing petitions drafted by the Environmental Working Group: one opposes the inadequate “Chemical Safety Improvement Act”; another opposes the “Chemicals in Commerce Act,” which would continue giving chemicals a “green light” without adequate review. Citizens can also tell their senators to support the “Protecting American Families from Toxic Chemicals Act,” S. 2656, to ban at least some of the worst chemicals. As long as manufacture of BFRs continues, contamination of the entire biosphere increases.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebookor find more information on her website.

Discuss

In the 1960s the Nashua River was starved of oxygen, biologically dead, and one of the ten most polluted rivers in the United States. The sludge-filled river, which flows through New Hampshire and Massachusetts, was a different color every day, depending on what was discharged that day. People could smell its stench from a mile away.

In 1962, Marion Stoddart moved to the area with her family. Stoddart made it her life mission to restore the river to its pre-industrial condition--running clean and clear, teeming with fish and wildlife. She mobilized industry leaders, government officials, and concerned citizens and ultimately accomplished her goal.

At that time in the United States, it was legal to dump sewage and industrial waste into rivers. One of Stoddart's initial tasks was to push hard for federal and state legislation. The federal Water Quality Act in 1965 and the Massachusetts Clean Water Act of 1966 made the cleanup of the river possible and set the stage for other states to follow suit. She then persuaded municipalities to appropriate their share of funds for wastewater treatment. Wastewater treatment plants were constructed and put into service in the 1970s.

In 1969, Stoddart founded the Nashua River Watershed Association (NRWA) to protect the river and educate adults and children. A key objective was to permanently protect the land adjacent to the river--continuous "greenways" extending at least 300 feet back from the river and major tributaries. These buffer zones protect the river from storm water runoff--which often contains lawn care and agricultural chemicals, petroleum from vehicles, and other contaminants. Greenways also provide wildlife habitat and corridors, protect the floodplain and wetlands, and enable people to enjoy the river. With its goal nearly half completed, and approximately 200 miles of shoreline currently protected, continuing efforts are seeded via contributions to the Marion Stoddart Greenway Fund, which was created last year on her 85th birthday.

Animals--including fish, turtles, mink, otters, ospreys, and bald eagles--returned to the river. People flock there to fish, boat, hike, and bicycle. The clean river boosted the economy of cities along its route, increasing property values and attracting new businesses. Ordinary citizens learned that they have the power to create change.

Today, segments of the river are candidates for "Wild and Scenic" designation. The designation would provide federal funds to preserve the river and bordering land in their natural state due to outstanding scenic, recreational, ecological, and historical values (see before and after photos).

In 1987 Stoddart received a United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Award. She was profiled by National Geographic in 1993 and in Lynne Cherry's best-selling children's book, A River Ran Wild. In 2009 the National Women's History Project honored her as a "Woman Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet." In 2010, Susan Edwards released the 30-minute film Marion Stoddart: The Work of 1000, which documents Stoddart's life, and an accompanying leadership handbook.

Recently, I asked Stoddart how she turned her vision of a clean river into a reality. She attributes her success to the following factors:

Longing for a Larger Purpose--Shortly after moving to Groton in 1962, Stoddart asked herself, "Why am I here?" She wanted to do more than simply make her family happy.

Inspiration--Stoddart was inspired by a radio program that asserted that with vision and commitment, one person can do the work of 1000 people. Through her work in the League of Women Voters, she knew the successful environmental advocate, Allen Morgan, and admired his commitment, drive, and collaborative approach. Rachel Carson's 1962 masterpiece, Silent Spring, further ignited her.

Vision--One day, standing in her back yard looking out over the fields and woods toward the reeking Nashua River a mile away, Stoddart created a vivid picture in her mind of the river and adjacent land restored to its original beauty, abundant with wildlife and attracting people as in times past. The vision came easily, never left her mind--and eventually became reality.

Commitment--Stoddart thought to herself, "I will never know what it is I am supposed to be doing, but I will take on the greatest challenge I believe I can accomplish in my lifetime, and commit to that." She made a lifetime commitment to herself to restore the river--certain that she would find a way--without initially discussing the idea with anyone or knowing how she was going to do it.

Homework--She informed herself on the issues, players, politics, existing laws, and process for creating new laws. Having earned a B.A. in anthropology and sociology, and claiming to be of only average intelligence, she studied ways to change the laws to stop the polluting. Says Stoddart, "You don't have to be super-smart or super-anything, only committed."

Collaboration--Stoddart's work required thousands of helpers. In the 1960s, Stoddart contacted the leaders of every local industry; service, social, fraternal, recreational, and conservation organizations; and city and town mayors and boards of selectmen, planning boards, conservation commissions, boards of health, and recreation commissions. She met with state and local leaders, stakeholders, and citizens, becoming their friends, and listening, educating, and successfully enlisting them in her vision. When the NRWA was formed, the largest paper company joined. Its chief executive, Don Crocker, sent a letter to the executives of other local industries to convince them that they all would benefit from clean water. He told Stoddart, "I'm tired of wearing a black hat. I want to wear a white hat." Crocker and Fitchburg Mayor Bill Flynn joined NRWA's board of directors. Stoddart's team amassed 6,287 citizen signatures protesting the condition of the river and presented them to Massachusetts Governor John Volpe, along with a bottle of the revolting river water--with mayors and selectmen from all the riverside cities and towns, as well as legislators, photographers, and reporters, in attendance. The bowled-over governor vowed to keep the bottle of water on his desk as a reminder of what needed to be done.

Asking for What You Want--Many thought Stoddart's goal of a clean Nashua River not only preposterous but threatening to the local economy as well. One riverside industry asked its employees, "Which would you rather have--clean water or your jobs?" (This false choice was later dispelled.)  Stoddart received death threats. In 1966, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy toured polluted rivers in the northeast with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. At the airport, Stoddart and her entourage of hundreds of citizens greeted Kennedy and Udall with a bottle of putrid Nashua River water. State officials, including the governor, also attended. As she prepared notes for a brief speech, Stoddart listed ways in which the public desired to use the Nashua River. She wrote "fishing, boating, irrigation, swimming." Then she crossed off "swimming," thinking the idea would strain credibility, given the horrific state of the river and because making the water clean enough for swimming would greatly escalate wastewater treatment costs. As she was pondering whether to add "swimming" back in, Lieutenant Governor Elliot Richardson leaned over and whispered in her ear, "Ask for swimming. If you don't, you'll never get it." So Stoddart asked for swimming. On returning to Boston that same day, Governor Volpe signed into law the Massachusetts Clean Water Act.

Surrounding Yourself with Positive-Thinking People--She avoids spending time with negative-thinking people, noting "you'll never change their minds and they'll only pull you down." When you work with positive-thinking people, she says things move quickly and become synergistic and fun, magnetizing more positive-thinking people to the effort.

Seeing Challenges as Opportunities--Stoddart treats obstacles as exciting challenges. When blocked, she simply looks for another way--devoid of anger, frustration, or discouragement.
Involving the Media. Doing so creates pressure for change and informs citizens that their voices are being heard, supported, and acted on.

Welcoming Help--Stoddart says support sometimes arrives unexpectedly. In 1968, she received a call from Commanding Officer Jack Cushman of Fort Devens, a nearby military installation. Eight miles of the river flow through the army base. Cushman offered to help. Stoddart met with him and he gave her everything she asked for, plus more--a two-story building including heat, lights, and a telephone, as well as the services of engineers, draftspeople, and other staff with specialized training. Fort Devens designated the land beside the river as greenway. The army provided approximately 13 Green Berets with dump trucks to transport and supervise approximately 400 high-school dropouts sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor to clean up riverbanks and build trails along the river.

Persistence--Mayor Flynn remarked that in the 1960s, activists visited polluted rivers to protest and make headlines, and then they left. Stoddart was different--she was "in it for the long haul" with her relentless, collaborative approach.

Knowing the Work Will Never Be Completed--Today, Stoddart continues advocating for greenways and ensuring that laws are implemented and kept strong to prevent backsliding.

Stoddart's approach is not necessarily the remedy for every problematic situation. Yet she provides a powerful example to us all. Through collaboration, passion, and persistence, Stoddart overcame seemingly impossible obstacles to manifest her vision.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is principal of Greenvironment, LLC, a consulting firm dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.

Discuss

The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s third National Climate Assessment (NCA), released on May 6, stridently warns us to act immediately to address climate change, saying it’s not too late to prevent the worst effects, including but not limited to inundation of land by rising sea levels, food shortages, water shortages, spread of infectious diseases, dislocated populations, destroyed coral reefs, species extinctions, damaged infrastructure, and economic disruption. This article is not about whether humans caused this crisis, the severity of the impacts, or when impacts will hit—the NCA says “yes,” “dramatic,” and “now”—but about our capacity to deal with this crisis.

The “boiling frog” parable, though fictitious, illustrates failure to react to significant changes that are occurring gradually. If you put a frog in a pot of room-temperature water and then slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog remains in the water until it dies. With its powerful leg muscles, the frog could easily jump out early on, but—lacking awareness—it doesn’t.

Like the frog, we already have the technical tools to solve the climate crisis—unlike, say, putting a man on the moon for the first time, which required development of new tools. We have clean energy technology—solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal. We have conservation and efficiency practices, solar-electric vehicles, and green development strategies such as mixed-use cluster development. We have carbon-neutral organic agricultural methods, and we know how to peacefully stabilize or reduce the human populationby increasing women’s access to education and reproductive choice. We have the internet and telephones. We know how to remove carbon dioxidefrom the atmosphere, simply by letting trees live.

But do we have the necessary intelligence, will, and institutions to prompt us to jump out of our lethally warming climate pot, which in this context means turning off the heat?  

Unlike the frog, many humans know of the problem and its urgency. Even the president of the Flat Earth Society, a group of skeptical freethinkers, believes climate change is at least partially influenced by humans. Increasingly frequent and severe catastrophic weather events—droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, fires, freezes, and heat waves—are hard to ignore. Even so, many people are not convinced by the evidence, or they maintain that it’s inconvenient to act now, essentially saying, “Let the kids deal with it.” The latest Gallup poll on global warming indicates that 39% of U.S. adults are “Concerned Believers,” 36% are in the “Mixed Middle,” and 25%, “Cool Skeptics” don’t worry about global warming much or at all.  

So far, we haven’t had the will, and the sense of responsibility, to do what’s often inconvenient in order to change the climate trajectory. Too many attempt to stay comfy in individual cocoons, avoiding action and seemingly unconcerned even about their own children, let alone their neighbors on this planet.

Our institutions so far have not been up to the job of solving this crisis. Global institutions such as the United Nations facilitate communication and coordination but lack authority. Other institutions—driven by 2-, 4-, and 6-year election cycles and quarterly and annual business cycles—aren’t structured to deal with gradual problems such as climate change. Furthermore, U.S. government institutions are compromised by corruption. They increasingly do the bidding of rich and powerful corporate people who profit from the status quo at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Success or failure to address our climate crisis boils down to a question of citizens’ will. Waiting for politicians and CEOs to fix the problem won’t work.

Consider a second frog allegory. Once upon a time, a community of frogs held a competition to climb to the top of a tall tower. Throngs gathered around the tower to watch. No one believed a frog could reach the top, and throughout the competition, spectators said things like, “It’s impossible.” Sure enough, the climbers fell, one by one, and dropped out of the competition. But one frog reached the top—the one that was deaf. “Concerned Believers” need to turn a deaf ear to climate-change disbelievers and procrastinators and demand that politicians change the game, even if corporate buddies push back.

Simply fixing our ass-backwards government subsidies—which promote climate-damaging, combustion-based energy, logging, junk food, and sprawl—would help immensely. The International Monetary Fund estimates that energy subsidies alone amount to an astronomical $1.9 trillion per year worldwide—the equivalent of 2.5% of global Gross Domestic Product, or 8% of government revenues—and that eliminating energy subsidies could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 14% or more. Think of the potential benefits of employing that money for climate-restoring clean energy, conservation, efficiency, recycling, green development, forest preservation, organically grown food, and women’s equality.

On spring nights, I listen to a chorus of frog species in a nearby wetland singing in bass, alto, and soprano voices. I worry—will future springs be silent? Climate change kills frogs—tragically, this is one frog story that is not fictitious. Amphibians play an important role in ecological systems by eating small creatures, including mosquitos, and serving as food for larger creatures such as birds and snakes. Because amphibians occupy the middle of the food chain and are sensitive to environmental disruption, their health is often used as an indication of ecosystem health. One-third of amphibian species are globally threatened or extinct. Scientist J. Alan Poundswrites that global warming is wreaking havoc on them and “will cause staggering losses of biodiversity if we don't do something fast."

Like the frog in the warming pot, the longer we procrastinate, the harder it will be to jump, and at some point, jumping will become impossible. But ordinary citizens have power over institutions. We have the right to vote. We can make energy-efficient purchases and use them efficiently—our many, small actions, repeated day after day, add up significantly. If politicians and CEOs must fix the climate to get our votes and dollars, they will. Let’s jump out of the warming pot and into their faces and say, “We mean business—turn off the heat and up your game on climate change, or you’re out.”

Climate change tests of the viability of our species. We’ll pass if enough of us jump now.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green and sustainable practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.

Discuss

Thu May 08, 2014 at 04:50 AM PDT

The Power of Our Food Choices

by Ellen Moyer

We see the problems in our lives and in the world and ask, “What can we do?” The answer is, “We’re doing it now.” Whether we like it or not, or know it or not, our small actions repeated day after day add up to huge impacts. Consumers weigh in on a vast array of issues every day.

As for any species, from microorganisms on up, food is at the heart of our lives and how we fit into the web of life. Our eating habits profoundly affect our individual health and well-being; our social, economic, and political systems; and our environment. Our future success as a species may hinge on our food habits.

Diet is a significant factor in three of the major causes of death in the U.S.—heart disease, cancer, and stroke, which account for more than half of all deaths—as well as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which affects one-third of Americans. Food allergies can lead to a whole host of "mental" symptoms, including fatigue, “brain fog,” slowed thought processes, irritability, agitation, aggressive behavior, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, hyperactivity, autism, learning disabilities, and dementia.  

Americans spend 18% of gross domestic product (GDP) on health care, a percentage that may reach 30%. Obesity alone accounts for 21% of U.S. health care costs. Yet politicians largely ignore a major root cause of skyrocketing health care costs—our disastrous diet—as revealed in the documentary film Fed Up!, which is scheduled for release on May 9. Most of the work doctors do wouldn’t be necessary if people took care of their own health, in particular, by eating a healthy diet.

The food industry wields immense political power in the U.S. through political campaign contributions and other means. The government paid out $256 billion  in farm subsidies from 1995 through 2012. “We subsidize large agribusiness and the wealthy at the expense of the family farmer and the taxpayer,” says U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan, who describes the practice as “an egregious example of cronyism.”

The U.S. food industry has defeated efforts to require food labels that disclose genetically modified (GM) ingredients, even though 64 other countries  already require such disclosure. Food choice is democracy in action, giving ordinary citizens a potentially enormous amount of power, including veto power. Industrial food producers in the U.S. know this, and by aggressively fighting  food labeling campaigns they are doing their best to make it difficult for consumers to choose.

Our food choices influence whether we protect or devastate our environment and our fellow species. Approximately 38% of the world’s ice-free land is dedicated to raising crops and livestock, and the clearing of grasslands and forests for agriculture is a major driver of wildlife extinction. As much as half  of all the food produced in the world ends up being thrown away. Only 55% of world crop calories feed people; 36% feeds livestock and 9% is used for biofuels and industrial products. Livestock production requires vastly more  water, land, and energy that plant foods and is a major cause  of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.  

Our present style of industrial agriculture emits more climate-disrupting greenhouse gases than transportation does. Industrial agriculture applies excess nutrients, which end up in groundwater, rivers, and oceans. Nutrient-caused oxygen depletion has created more than 400 dead zones in the world’s oceans, some as large as New Jersey.  Industrial agriculture practices cause us to lose precious topsoil 17 times faster  than new topsoil is formed. They deplete organic carbon and micronutrients in soil and contaminate soil and water with pesticides and herbicides—chemicals that kill wildlife, including vital pollinators such as birds, bees, and butterflies. Almost 90% of all plant species, including 75% of crop plants, rely on animals for pollination. Wasteful agricultural practices deplete finite water resources; as much as 60%  of the water diverted or pumped for irrigation is wasted.  

Consumers’ food choices can influence whether crop-pickers make a decent wage or are consigned to lives of poverty and chemical exposure. Consumers’ choices can help determine whether small farmers in India can enjoy a decent life, or whether to continue unworkable agricultural policies and practices such as those that have driven 250,000 Indian farmers  to commit suicide since the mid-1990s.

We subject industrial farm animals to tormented lives in unsanitary, crowded conditions, sustained by antibiotics. We hide this inhumane treatment using “ag gag” laws  (another sign of food industry clout) that criminalize taking photographs of “concentrated animal feeding operations.”

The U.S. has lost 93% of its agricultural genetic diversity over the last 80 years, as a handful of agricultural corporations have taken increasing control of our seed supply,  threatening the resiliency of our food supply to withstand challenges such as climate disruption.

Although studies variously prove or disprove that short-term organic and industrial food yields are similar, industrial agriculture cannot deliver over the long term due to its negative impacts on soil, water, air, pollinators, and seed biodiversity.

Now, the good news: The problems described above are largely reversible, and solutions to them already exist. Organic outperformed industrial yields in 30-year-long side-by-side trials growing organic and industrial corn and soy, while emitting less climate-damaging greenhouse gases, using less  energy and water, decreasing erosion and groundwater pollution, and enhancing soil quality and biological resources. With a shift to organic farming practices, agriculture could become carbon neutral.

The biggest hurdle for organics is the added cost of sustainable practices. If the indirect costs of industrial food production—such as the impact on public health of chemicals released into our air and water—were factored in, industrial food would not enjoy a price advantage. Currently, citizens pay for the health and environmental damages of industrial agriculture, not the food industry. While the unfair advantage of massive public subsidies provided to industrial food producers persists, healthy food is largely out of economic reach for poor people. Nevertheless, the health care costs of forcing poor people to eat unhealthy food will be paid, one way or another.

For people who aren’t poor, changing diet is easy and sustainable. Healthy food tastes good and makes its consumers feel good.

Americans spend 14% of GDP on groceries and restaurants. Most of us need or want others to provide our food. The food industry, which just wants to make money, need not fear that it will go out of business; it can thrive by providing healthy foods produced by sustainable, ethical methods. In a perfect union of interests, if consumers demand healthy, sustainably produced food, the food industry will provide it.

We make a difference with each bite we take, and by reducing food waste. By choosing whole, real, organically grown food—preferably favoring plant foods—we vote for everyone’s health, including our own. We also help the economy by reducing health care and environmental costs.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green and sustainable practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn  and Facebook  or find more information on her website.

Discuss

The 300-acre landslide in Oso, Washington, which killed at least 30 people and destroyed the local community on March 22, 2014, reveals a consequence of a relatively unregulated and unseen industry: logging. Logging was not the sole cause of the disaster—March was the wettest on record, a condition possibly exacerbated by climate change, and the geology of the area features soft soils—but logging apparently played a major role.

The media often do not investigate the reasons behind an event such as the landslide, attributing to “Mother Nature” or “Acts of God” disasters that were actually manmade. For example, Time magazine called the Oso landslide a “natural disaster” without mentioning the likely influences of logging and climate change.

The plateau above the hillside that gave way has been logged for almost a century, and the hillside has a history of landslides dating back more than 60 years. For more than 25 years, as the slope became more unstable, scientists challenged the timber cutting and warned of possible calamity. Yet the state continued to allow logging on the plateau. A “clear-cut” is an area of land in which all the trees have been cut down. One suspected trigger of the Oso landslide is a clear-cut, undertaken 9 years ago, that apparently encroached into a restricted area and is only now being investigated.  

The landslide, which occurred near the banks of the Stillaguamish River, was not only predictable; it was also predicted. New York Times reporter Timothy Egan recounts touring the headwaters of the Stillaguamish 25 years ago with Pat Stevenson, a biologist with the local Stillaguamish tribe: “Stevenson pointed uphill, to bare, saturated earth that was melting, like candle wax, into the main mudslide. Not long ago, this had been a thick forest of old growth timber. But after it was excessively logged, every standing tree removed, there was nothing to hold the land in place during heavy rains. A federal survey determined that nearly 50 percent of the entire basin above Deer Creek had been logged over a 30-year period. It didn’t take a degree in forestry to see how one event led to the other.” Forest root systems hold the soil in place, and old-growth forests absorb about ten times as much water as clear-cut land.  

Logging usually occurs far from the public eye. Most people remain unaware of the devastation wrought by typical modern logging practices, which rely on large machines and few workers to clear-cut the land. Near public roadways, uncut “beauty strips” of forest give passing motorists the illusion of unspoiled landscapes. Satellite images, however, often provide a very different, bird’s-eye view of shorn forests.

Logging plans are not widely publicized. In my home state of Massachusetts, logging plans are filed with the town’s conservation commission, which is often a group of volunteers. Even in the small town in which I live, and where I am relatively plugged-in to the goings-on, I was taken by surprise by the sound of logging machines near my house several years ago.

When people complain about rapacious logging, the toilet paper argument is invariably used to shut them up. The fact that we all use toilet paper is supposed to provide a carte blanche for loggers to do whatever they want to the forest. Yes, we all use wood, but many of the trees that are cut are wasted, often used to fuel biomass power plants, which have disastrous environmental impacts, or to create single-use pallets, junk mail, and excess packaging. Much wood and paper ends up in a landfill or incinerator instead of being recycled or reused.

Logging proponents trivialize the damage from logging, arguing that although the land initially looks ravaged, the trees will grow back. They neglect to mention that this process takes decades and that invasive species may be what grow back. Forester Gordon Robinson writes, “If logging looks bad, it is bad. If a forest appears to be mismanaged, it is mismanaged.”  

A system of belief that defies science and justifies irresponsible logging has become entrenched in our government agencies and universities (particularly, in university forestry departments largely funded by the logging industry). One popular excuse for logging is to claim that the trees are diseased and need to be cut down for the good of the forest. Another popular excuse is that trees should be cut down to help wildlife. Loggers escape the burden of proving such claims. Government agencies often green-light logging without adequate environmental impact analysis or protection of vital resources.  Rather, the burden of proof that logging may be damaging unfairly falls on unpaid citizens.

In 2006 and 2007, a group of citizens in Massachusetts applied modern science—bringing in experts as needed—to refute one unsupported excuse after another attempting to justify logging in Robinson State Park. The would-be loggers floated out 22 reasons to log the land, and the citizens shot down each one. The state ultimately denied the timber company a permit; not one reason to log could be found that had any legs. Today, Robinson State Park is safe from logging and proves that intense public pressure can overcome even entrenched pro-logging bureaucracies.

Logging is treated as a presumptive right, even on public land. For example, in Washington, if a permit application to log is not reviewed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) within 30 days, it is automatically approved. And not only is enforcement of logging regulations lax, but the regulations themselves are inadequate.  

Forestry seems to operate in the fantasy world of the 1950s, before the advent of modern environmental regulations. Paul Kennard, a geomorphologist with the National Park Service, explains that the DNR is pressured by timber companies, in a “no tree left behind” environment: “It's a don't-rock-the-boat culture … a very cronyistic, forester-friendly, we're-gonna-help-these-folks culture."

Forests provide much more than wood. They hold our earth together, mitigate climate change,  filter the air and water, cool the earth, provide flood storage, offer habitat and food for countless species, and create a refuge for the human soul. Irresponsible logging erases these benefits, rolls out the welcome mat for invasive species and Lyme disease carriers, and releases carbon dioxide, worsening climate change.

It’s time to halt irresponsible logging practices and bring the timber industry to accountability. Citizens can speak up to loggers and legislators. Wood harvesting can be done intelligently to supply what we need without damaging our lands, undermining our other resources, and endangering our citizens.

Is our society unable to make change until catastrophic, headline-making fatalities occur? With the Oso landslide, this prerequisite has been tragically satisfied.  

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green and sustainable practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or find more information on her website.

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