Tag Archives: pollution

Shrink-Wrapped World: the Anthropocene

“If all the plastic in the last few decades was clingfilm, there would be enough to put a layer around the whole Earth,” said paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz, quoted in this month’s Economic Times “We now make almost a billion tons of the stuff every three years.”

Not only have we “shrink-wrapped” the Earth in plastic, we’ve paved and entombed huge portions of it in cement. More than half of all concrete ever made was produced in the last twenty years. Our construction and convenience products are taking over the world, with only 25% of ice-free land left in its natural state. Rates of wildlife extinction are rising.

British geologist Colin Waters, co-author of a Science article on the subject, says, “What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age. This is a big deal.”

Scientists are discussing whether we are in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, defined by human activity. Just as the Holocene Epoch can be seen in Earth’s sediment as the end of the last ice age, humans have, in a very short time, created sufficient significant markers to call for the naming of a new epoch. Some say it started with the Industrial Revolution while others mark its beginning with the presence of isotopes, measurable all over the planet, from nuclear weapons testing after WWII. Plastics and concrete are other lasting markers.

Arizona

Arizona

Remember looking at layers of sediment in geology class or while visiting someplace like the Grand Canyon? It’s awesome to realize we are looking back in time at evidence of events long past. Future generations, if there are any thousands of years from now, will be able to look back at what we left behind and measure time as well. What will they think of the choices we made?

Geological Periods

Geological Periods

 

Basic information about the Anthropocene proposal and terminology are here.

 

With Modern Agriculture, Green Giant Not So Jolly

In southern Minnesota, the Jolly Green Giant soars more than fifty-five feet above Interstate 90.  Though modeled after the Green Giant brand “mascot,” he was erected by the Blue Earth community and stands for the prominence of crop production in the area.  Many farmers here make a good living from the soil, but often at a cost to the health of the environment and themselves that is not so jolly.

Green Giant

Green Giant

Through hail and thunderstorm, I drive over the flat plains of my home state.  In Martin County, I  talk with a resident who says, “This is the biggest ag’ county in the state, maybe the whole country.”  Evidence of agriculture is all around us in vast brown fields.  It’s April and the bare dirt awaits cultivation of corn and soybeans.

Average farm size around here is 443 acres.  The chemicals and machinery of modern agriculture mean bigger farms with fewer workers required.  The population of the 730 square mile county is just over 20,000 and has been decreasing.

Cancer, however, is on the rise.   The county lies west of Rochester, home of the famous Mayo Clinic.  “At Mayo Clinic,” the local guy says, “they see cancer and they say, oh, yeah, you’re from Martin County.”  Farmers here tend to make liberal use of insecticides, pesticides, and all those “cides” that can also lead to subtle, slow, unintended homicide and suicide.  They seem to be killing themselves and their neighbors with poisons.

Do such toxins remain in frozen peas and corn we buy at the grocery store?  That concern is one reason I buy organic when I can.

According to Scorecard that keeps track of pollution by area, Martin County is known as one of the worst counties in the United States for “air releases of suspected carcinogens,” along with endocrine toxicants and immunotoxicants.  In other words, substances designed to disrupt hormonal and immune systems in pests can affect us, too.

While people on huge combines and tractors profit off the land, they repay Mother Nature by altering just about every inch of her.  How do people earn an income while protecting an ecological system?  Is recovery possible?  Martin County is forever changed and will probably never be the prairie land it once was.  The bison and other factors that helped create the prairies are too long gone for that.  Poet Wendell Berry writes, As the machines come and the people go/ the old names rise, chattering, and depart.  We humans have the knowledge and ability to live well with the land.  Berry says, do not tell it to a machine to save it.  Reach back to other times and reach out to other cultures, beyond the corporate giants to people themselves.  The land teaches us, if we watch and listen.  If we take time.

Landscapes are slow to change, but we humans can change today by treating environments as our communities rather than our commodities.  In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold wrote that our land ethic depends on our attitude: “man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.”  There is no separation between our health and the health of the soil, air, and water upon which we depend.

Let me end on a hopeful note for Earth Day (and Week).  The Martin County resident tells me he’s raising bees now.  He thought about the needs of the bees and started growing native plants for them to visit and pollinate.  One conscious, sensible, loving step leads to another, and that is jolly good.

Midwest farm

Midwest farm

 

Here’s the Kingsmen’s goofy song about the Green Giant, ho ho ho.

Wilderness Act Commemorated on Lake Superior

It’s Saturday, September 27, and we are boating from Bayfield.  I’ve never seen the Apostle Islands before, so I drove from Chicago to northern Wisconsin for this chance to have a cruise with fellow Sierra Club members and some knowledgeable speakers.  It is a beautiful day to see the fall colors and  the islands of Lake Superior.

Our ship, the Island Princess

Our ship, the Island Princess

The first speaker is Tia Nelson whose father Gaylord Nelson was a Wisconsin senator and governor.  Nelson established Earth Day and his daughter is a conservationist, too.  She explains how it wasn’t just her dad who created the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Act fifty years ago.  Many people worked together to protect this natural area.  Now, with a colossal Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine proposed for nearby Penokee Range that will pollute land, air, and water, Tia urges us to work together again to protect our resources that are not only aesthetically pleasing but vital to our existence.

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

There are about 136 passengers on board.  We visit the snack table and talk with each other during our two-hour cruise.  Devon Cupery tells me about the film she produced about the mine issue.  Neil Howk, a park ranger with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, describes each of the islands we pass.  All but one (Madeline Island) of the 22 islands are part of our National Park system, so they are no longer clear-cut for timber or quarried for brownstone but are left for wildlife and people to enjoy.  The boat pauses by Raspberry Island so we can take pictures of its lighthouse.

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

The last speaker, Mike Wiggins, is a compelling storyteller, painting a broad, almost mythical picture of the issues at hand.  I stop taking photos out the window of the boat and listen to him talk about protecting this rich land of fresh water, forests, and wildlife.  Mike is Chair of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe whose 125,000 acres of reservation would be hugely impacted by the taconite mine.  Their wild rice beds and Lake Superior itself, the holder of 10% of the world’s surface fresh water, would be polluted by mercury and other run-off from the mining process.  Chris Cline of GTac and the governor of the state eliminated laws and rules regulating the disposal of toxic mine wastes, following Cline’s pattern of destruction in other states and countries.

Mike calls Cline a windigo, a ravenous giant from Ojibwe tales.  He always wants more.  “Chris Cline is so hungry, he ate the state of West Virgina!  After he ruined that place, he took bites out of Illinois and now he’s coming for Wisconsin,” Mike says, explaining that windigo is the spirit of excess and can be vanquished by the powers of love and cooperation for the greater good.  Both humans and Mother Earth, he says, are endowed with an energy from the Creator, and when we call on that, there will be no mine.  Mike and the other speakers are role models for challenging the motives of greed and profit.  We can do better, they tell us.

I remember the Gordon Lightfoot song about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.  The 29 lives on board that Great Lakes ship were lost partly due to greed.  The Fitzgerald was carrying 4000 tons more taconite iron ore than it was designed to hold, making it hard to maneuver when pounded by waves in a storm.  It sank in Lake Superior in 1975.  As the lyrics go, “That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed/ When the gales of November came early.”

Will our natural resources be chewed to the bone by  storms of windigos?  As Tia Nelson said, it’s up to us to appreciate and protect what we have.  And on this September day, what we have is spectacular.

Apostle Island sandstone formation

Apostle Island sandstone formation

Cormorant on the pier

Cormorant on the pier

Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

Earth Day Persuasion

Debris tree

Debris tree

How do we do good without doing more harm than good?

 

My husband and I are in the habit of picking up litter as we walk along the path behind our house. As piles of snow melted away in March, piles of trash came into view, dotting the wetlands and prairie with the sheen of clear plastic, the bright colors of newsprint advertisements, and—most ubiquitous of all—shopping bags. We didn’t have to bring our own trash bags, simply loading up the ones we found before depositing them, plump as beach balls, into the trash bin along the trail.

 

Could we recycle them? Probably not, if they’re dirty. About 80% of newspaper is recycled while only about 7% of plastic is. More than 85% of plastic, especially if it’s soiled, goes to landfills. Lightweight as they are, bags often go sailing in the breeze to end up snagged on trees, in the ocean, or clogging storm drains.  (See the National Geographic article about plastic trash online.) One billion tons of plastic bags have been discarded in the last 60 years and will persist virtually forever. It takes centuries or longer to break down their high-density polyethylene, a byproduct of petroleum and natural gas, containing benzene and other toxic chemicals.

 

To sea turtles, the floating bags look like jellyfish, their favorite food. Turtles, birds, fish, and other animals die from ingesting or respirating the trash, or getting it stuck around their mouths, heads, or abdomens. Researching plastic bags online, I see that three hours of work yielded 1.4 million bags during the 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day. Plastic bags were the second most common trash item found along lakes, streams, and beaches.

Turtle that tried to eat plastic trash

Turtle that tried to eat plastic trash

 

My biggest challenge at the duck pond behind our house was a plastic shopping bag mired in the middle of it. We saw it there all winter. The ducks and geese seemed to ignore it, but I didn’t like seeing that petrochemical flotsam in their midst. Last week, after the snow was gone but before the grassy banks thawed to mush, I stood at water’s edge, casting an oak branch toward the slimy bag. The branch was too short. I got some string from the house and tied it to the branch. I hung onto the string and threw the wood with all my might.  After a few flings, I lost my grasp on the string and the branch floated out of reach. I fetched it back with another branch. My husband, chuckling at the spectacle from across the pond, shouted, “Tie them together.” Good idea. The length of the two branches was sufficient to rake in the beige bag. I dumped out the mud inside and carried it away. The pond looks much better.

 

Collecting pound after pound of garbage is a good way to reflect on the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I’ve been composing letters in my head as I walk through the dry grass, wondering if nearby residents would heed a reminder to be more careful, such as bundling up their recycling good and tight before setting it at the curb for pick-up. The winds blast at high speeds across this part of Illinois, scattering paper from recycling bins and assorted junk from trash cans. If such a letter were in our local newspaper, would it help decrease the amount of debris along the path? Or would it just annoy readers and earn me a reputation as an over-zealous nag?

 

A few years back, I was irritated by just such a “do-gooder.” We happen to drive a hybrid car. We bought a Prius when they first came out and still have our old one, the kind with the trunk before they made hatchbacks. Because our two children had active lives in high school with music and with equestrian and lacrosse teams, we also got a red minivan. It was the only vehicle we found that could carry our daughter’s string bass, not to mention saddles and sports equipment and players. One day I found a note tucked under the wiper on the van’s windshield. The typed words said that, wow, what a big vehicle we had! It then said that we should get a smaller, more environmental car.

 

Now who would leave that note? I pictured a woman a lot like myself, concerned with the state of the planet and wondering what to do about it. She had a brainstorm to deliver these leaflets to people like me, people she assumed had to be persuaded by her (or him) to change our ways. I should empathize with, or even applaud, such an activist! Instead I wanted to slap them upside the head for being so preachy and presumptuous. This is precisely the outcome I seek to avoid. I want to write about and protect nature without turning people off by sounding judgmental or shrill.

 

After all, one of my reminders to myself on a regular basis is to avoid “shoulding” on myself. I don’t want to “should” on others either, telling them what they should and shouldn’t do, “guilting” them into compliance. That’s one way to make people go suddenly deaf. I could do more harm than good.

 

What does persuade people to act with the greater good in mind? Perhaps peer pressure. A sign was posted at a petrified forest asking people not to take bits home with them. Trouble is, the sign mentioned that pieces of petrified wood were disappearing from the park at an alarming rate. The message, for some people, was, “Everybody does it.” The rate of pillaging went up rather than down. This is why, instead of the “just say no” campaign, our kids’ high school started spreading the word that the vast majority of students do not smoke, drink, or do drugs. The goal was to normalize staying sober and healthy. Just say yes to intelligent norms.

 

How do we normalize diligent trash containment and also the use of reusable bags when we shop? (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/reusable-grocery-bags_n_1409065.html.) One thing I can do is clean up this patch of the world.  With no butts on the ground, smokers won’t see it as a giant ashtray.  With no random bags or papers stuck in the grass, people may just chase the next one that gets away.  It sets a standard.

I can write a letter, too, asking my neighbors to remember the land. Remember the birds.  Earth Day, April 22, is for everybody.

The pond is clear of bags

The pond is clear of bags