This is the third in a series of diaries about John and Teresa Kerry's book, "This Moment on Earth." Yesterday, we discussed Rachel Carson and her work in getting DDT banned. She was a citizen activist with little resources and little to go on but her concern, yet she succeeded in putting a halt to one of the most dangerous pesticides of modern times in this country.
Today, we are going to talk about how good intentions are not good enough, which is the next thrust of Kerry's argument. We will also hear from Teresa for the first time as she talks about the revival of Pittsburgh, which was formerly one of the dirtiest cities in the country.
John Kerry starts out by pointing out that modern industry operates on the faulty premise that all of the resources on the earth are limitless. As a result, for the last 80 years, people have traded their environmental well-being for convenience. As a result of this devil's bargain of convenience for the long-term environmental health of this country, we have reached a critical point at which we must either go green and make radical changes to the way we do business or end human life on this planet as we know it.
As we have to be specific in order to back these assertions up, we have to pick some victims, and Kerry picks two -- disposable diapers and the Model T. These are two prime examples of how we have picked convenience over environmental well-being. I say "we" here purposefully -- because of the fact that we are responsible for making the choices that we do. It is the easiest thing in the world to become a follower of Ralph Nader and blame Big Corporations for all the evils of pollution. And they are responsible for a lot of it. But the fact of the matter is, what we buy is just as responsible as well, as Al Gore has repeatedly hammered home as well.
In fact, following Ralph Nader can be an evasion of responsibility for what one does to contribute to the problem. It is all Big Corp's fault; therefore, it is not my problem if I buy disposable diapers, a gas-guzzling SUV, drive to work when I could carpool, etc. It is a matter of mutual responsibility to change the world for the better, not the responsibility of a strong man or Big Corps.
Disposable diapers can seem like the most harmless product in the world. However, they are one of the biggest contributors to the pollution problem in the country today. Kerry gives the following statistics:
--82,000 tons of plastic are used to make them; meaning they use crude oil.
--250,000 trees are cut down each year to make the pulp for the inner layer.
--It is bleached with chlorine gas, which contains dioxins.
--It is the third largest contributor to solid waste dumps.
--They take over 500 years to break down.
It is amazing what a seemingly harmless product can do to destroy the environment for the next 500 years. That is more than twice as long as the history of our country.
The next victim Kerry chooses is the Model T. It was chosen because it is the prototype of the throwaway car -- the kind of car that is towed off and hauled away to the junkman to rust away for decades and to contaminate the surrounding groundwater as well. Kerry points out that computers, cell phones, iPods, and other such technological gadgets are also designed to be thrown away when they are no longer needed.
Kerry then goes to his conversations with Bill McDonough, a man who is working to do something about it. Instead of making cradle to the grave products, McDonough is an inventor who designs products that are built to be reused. From the book on page 11, Kerry quotes him as follows:
"We are not victims of unfortunate physics," he says. "Neither physical or economic laws require that we lock ourselves up in buildings that don't breathe, or that we fill our surroundings with chemicals that poison our bodies, or that we be made to use tools that hurt us physically. Those outcomes are dictated not by the laws of nature, but by our failure to remember a cardinal principal of design -- products do what you ask of them."
For instance, here are some of McDonough's ideas in action:
The staging ground for Ford's innovation revolution is the top-secret Piquette Project. Unknown by all but the very top-level Ford executives, the program is aimed at nothing short of reinventing Detroit. It's named after the third-floor Piquette plant skunk works where Henry Ford and a group of engineers first developed the idea of the assembly line and experimented with lighter materials to create a car that could be mass-produced. The specific goals and the deadlines of the Piquette project are secret. But company officials say it harks back to Henry Ford's innovative experiments with soy-based polymers and the idea of agriculture and industry being closely linked. "The mission was, 'Could Ford design the Model T of the next century?'" says William McDonough, an expert on green architecture who is running the sustainability part of the project, involving recyclable and biodegradable materials.
No, not the Republican Party...
It is actually insulting to the elephants to compare their dung to the Republican Party, as it can be made into paper, meaning that no trees get killed. McDonough would like to see various kinds of biodegradable materials replace trees for paper.
Evergreen Solar is one company that makes solar ribbons to put along highways; they also make solar panels for people's homes as well.
Paper or plastic? Neither, say William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Why settle for the least harmful alternative when we could have something that is better--say, edible grocery bags! In Cradle to Cradle, the authors present a manifesto calling for a new industrial revolution, one that would render both traditional manufacturing and traditional environmentalism obsolete. Recycling, for instance, is actually "downcycling," creating hybrids of biological and technical "nutrients" which are then unrecoverable and unusable. The authors, an architect and a chemist, want to eliminate the concept of waste altogether, while preserving commerce and allowing for human nature. They offer several compelling examples of corporations that are not just doing less harm--they're actually doing some good for the environment and their neighborhoods, and making more money in the process. Cradle to Cradle is a refreshing change from the intractable environmental conflicts that dominate headlines. It's a handbook for 21st-century innovation and should be required reading for business hotshots and environmental activists.
gDiapers are environmentally friendly and can be flushed. They are biodegradable, unlike traditional disposable diapers; they are also not made with any chlorines which contain Dioxin.
This newsletter discusses ways of constructing buildings that actually generate solar energy and that are no more costly than traditional buildings.
Teresa Kerry then takes up the narritave and writes about the economic revival of Pittsburgh, formerly one of the dirtiest cities in the country. She reasons that if all this stuff can be applied at an individual level, then why can't it be applied on a municipal basis?
She goes on to list many of the people who worked to clean up the city once described as "Hell with the lids off:"
He was a powerful banker for the city during the middle of the 20th century. He saw that the city of Pittsburgh's low quality of life was driving people away in droves and actively worked to reverse that trend. He had a passion for the outdoors; he would actively twist arms to get people to reduce their emissions and pushed for tougher environmental laws. He was one of the main forces behind the city's tearing down of 100 old buildings and replacing them with greener and more modern buildings.
He was the mayor of Pittsburgh for 12 years and was one of the key allies of Mellon. Both shared a passion for the environment that allowed Lawrence to reach across party lines and help transform the city.
Among some of the building projects that were part of the revival of Pittsburgh:
One of the largest Green buildings in the world; it uses natural daylight to heat the building and utilizes a water reclaimation system that reduces water usage.
This is a place that will has 13 miles of open space and has a continuous flow of trails, walkways, and bridges.
This institute contains the Center for Environmental Oncology, an institute which specializes in identifying and diagnosing environmental diseases and identifying the links between environment and disease. The Magee Womens Hospital also does extensive research on the relationship between environment and disease as well.
Now, Pittsburgh has gotten to the place where it is one of the most liveable cities in the country. Not only that, it has provided inspiration to economic revivals in other cities as well.
And Teresa Kerry then poses the question, if we can do this with Pittsburgh, one of the bleakest cities in the country for a long time, then why not the whole country and the whole world? Many of the facts and figures in Inconvenient Truth seem glum and apocalyptic. But if Pittsburgh can turn around and become a world-class city that is one of the most environmentally-friendly cities to live in, then why can't we apply the lessons of Pittsburgh to the country and the world?
Teresa then takes her husband's thesis, that all environmental politics is local, and takes it a step further -- environmentalism involves the choices that each of us as individuals make. For her, this is not an ivory-tower theory that she learned from some university or think tank -- this is a conclusion based on observation from her childhood growing up in Africa. As a child in Africa, she constantly observed the interplay between nature, health, and survival. Nature has rules that each of us must follow -- for her area, it was not swimming during dawn and dusk, because that was when predators were most active -- like crocodiles. In addition, the rules involved not creating problems for nature.
Much resistance to environmentalism is based on the faulty premise that we are somehow the dominant race on this earth and the rest of the world is there for our benefit. Right-wing fundamentalists constantly misuse Genesis by claiming that we do not have to worry about the environment because God will provide everything that we need. But the fact of the matter is that if we love God, we love the creation. If we show our indifference to creation, or even our hate, that is an act of hate towards God. It is just like how we would regard an artist -- we cannot claim that we love Da Vinci to death and then promptly destroy the Mona Lisa painting. That would be the ultimate act of hatred against Leonardo. Yet numerous fundamentalists claim to love God and then look the other way as people constantly desecrate his creation.
And returning to the fact that we are nature's guests and that we follow nature's rules -- the fact of the matter is that we make rules that are in accordance with sound science -- i.e. based on observation. That means that we should not take the slightest chance that something seriously destructive to the environment should be approved. It is better to go back to the drawing board and design a better product than it would be to take the slightest chance of ruining the environment.
Teresa Kerry's father was Dr. Jose Simones-Ferreira. He practiced medicine for people in West Africa and he understood those lessons well -- he was constantly trying to relate their diseases to the conditions of their environment.
The fact of the matter, as Teresa Kerry points out, and her father understood as well, is that we cannot take ourselves and then separate the environment from ourselves into the background. Environmentalism is not a matter of throwing $25 at Greeneace to save the whales every time they write you begging for money. Too many people do that, pat themselves on the back for being good liberals, and then make personal choices that are destructive to the environment -- choices such as littering along the highway, buying a gas-guzzler, making unnecessary trips, violating the local hunting regulations. Environmentalism is a matter of local issues and personal choices.
And as I state in the title, good intentions are not good enough. Teresa Kerry gives a prime example of this -- a few decades ago, the WHO decided that it would be a good idea to spray DDT to wipe out malaria in Boreno. It worked, but it also killed the wasps in the area, which resulted in a lot of collapsed thatch roofs. It killed all the lizards and killed all the cats that ate the lizards, which meant that the area became infested with rats. The WHO had to airlift 14,000 to control the resultant rat infestation.
Tomorrow, we will talk about the unintended consequences of chemical use, the rampant prevailence of chemicals in our country, and the price that we have to pay for using them.