This Borrowed Earth by Robert Emmet Hernan

As the Gulf of Mexico continues to fill with oil due to BP’s negligence and our own government agencies’ lack of oversight, we are experiencing an environmental disaster of catastrophic proportions. Tragically, this isn’t the first human-caused environmental disaster — and given our track record as stewards of this planet, it’s futile to fool ourselves that it will be the last. In his book, This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the 15 Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World, Robert Emmet Hernan describes in detail 15 environmental crises we must remember so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

In the book’s Introduction — penned mere months before BP’s so-called “spill,” Hernan wrote, “If we forget how and why these disasters happened and what horrible consequences emerged from them, we will not avert future disasters.” As a society, we seem to have done just what Hernan feared: We’ve forgotten. And so another calamity is upon us.

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, writes in the book’s Foreword, “In an age where we’re once again ideologically committed to ‘loosening the reins’ on private enterprise, it’s sobering to remember what has happened in the past. In an age when new technologies are barely tested before they’re put into widespread use—genetically engineered crops, for instance—it’s even more sobering to contemplate a seemingly iron-clad rule: every new machine or system seems to fail catastrophically at least once.”

The BP crisis is still unfolding, but it behooves us all to look back at the crises that came before, to try to understand how to lessen the impact through transparency and owning up to responsibility for what has happened and for fixing it — as much as that is even possible.

Though widely varied in their origins, the 15 situations that Hernan reviews share several elements characteristic of environmental disasters in general. The following points are taken from Hernan’s introduction, and they are worth keeping in mind as we contemplate the aftermath of the current — and future — environmental catastrophes:

  • “[D]isaster-caused illnesses often do not manifest themselves until years or decades after an accident.”
  • “Sometimes, when communities are given inadequate information, they react in ways that exacerbate the suffering of the victims of these disasters.”
  • “Environmental disasters are deeply disruptive to communities in numerous … ways. They often require the relocation of entire communities from their homes, sometimes permanently.”
  • “The emotional toll remains one of the hidden costs of environmental disasters.”
  • “The turmoil that accompanies environmental disasters erupts in a fairly predictable pattern. The initial consequences are often immediate and severe; they are followed by a lull; then finally the devastating consequences emerge.”
  • “Confusion often reigns … and events are not always what they seem.”
  • “As uncertainty sets in, some will invariably minimize the dangers again, in part, to reduce costs.”
  • “Disasters often occur because a particular industry or a single company dominates a local economy.”
  • “Without adequate environmental laws and regulations, companies generally choose the least costly way to operate.”
  • “Ordinary citizens also participate in the destruction of our environment.”

Hernan’s Introduction forms a comprehensive background for the separate disasters he discusses. Each has lessons to teach us — lessons that are being forgotten as our children grow up in a world focused on the “now” and little impressed with the “then.” If you doubt our short-term memory as a society, ask a young adult you know to tell you what happened at Chernobyl (Ukraine), Three Mile Island (US), Minamata (Japan), Bhopal (India), Love Canal (US), or Seveso (Italy). I have to admit, I had no idea about Seveso (or a couple of the others), and I’ve been around a whole lot longer than a young adult.

Here’s the complete list of environmental disasters covered in This Borrowed Earth (Which ones do you recognize?):

Minamata, Japan, 1950s

London, England, 1952

Windscale, England, 1957

Seveso, Italy, 1976

Love Canal, New York, 1978

Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, 1979

Times Beach, Missouri, 1982

Bhopal, India, 1984

Chernobyl, Ukraine, 19886

Rhine River, Switzerland, 1986

Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1989

Oil Spills and Fires of Kuwait, 1991

Dassen and Robben Islands, South Africa, 2000

Brazilian Rainforest

Global Climate Change

Bhopal

A Facebook friend from New Delhi asked me the other day if I would consider posting an article about the gas released from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) plant in Bhopal, India. According to some estimates, the gas leak has caused the deaths of at least 15,000 people in the 26 years since the event — and that’s in addition to those who died immediately in what Hernan describes as “sudden, violent deaths.” He pointed out that Union Carbide paid $470 million — a relative pittance — for the huge loss of life, health, crops, and livestock.

Yet, he reminded me, British Petroleum (BP) has already promised to pay $20 billion, though — other than the tragic deaths of 11 men on the oil rig —  so far as I know,  a total of 2 cleanup workers have died from the Gulf oil disaster. That, he said, is injustice. And, though the Gulf oil calamity is beyond imagination in the scope of the consequences yet to emerge from it — the wildlife lost, the habitats that may not recover in centuries, the lost livelihoods, the shattered way of life, and certainly more human lives lost in the years to come — I can’t disagree that the comparison shows a vast inequality.

In This Borrowed Earth, the culpability of Union Carbide is clear. Workers were poorly trained. Safeguards were neglected. And the safety of the public was completely overlooked, both in preparing for possible leak and in the panic that ensued after a leak occurred: “When it was clear that none of the plant’s safety systems were of use, the workers still at the plant grabbed oxygen masks or covered themselves with wet cloths… and ran as fast as they could to minimize their exposure. As they did, they ran past four buses that were designated for the emergency evacuation of residents from areas adjacent to the plant. The buses remained unused. No workers died that night.”

Though a plant audit in 1982 had warned of serious problems, the warning was ignored. And, Hernan writes, “UCC’s cost-cutting measures and failure to correct safety problems, as evidenced by its 1982 audit of the Bhopal plant, contributed to the events.”

The “events” he writes about were horrific and had catastrophic consequences for the impoverished people of Bhopal:

Doctors worried about the spread of disease because of all the dead bodies. Medical staff had more than they could handle, taking care of the thousands of people who showed up at the hospitals. There was scant record of who or how many had died. The corpses were cremated or buried in mass funeral pyres or graves. Animal carcasses were sprayed with lime and salt and buried in large graves. Vultures circled over Bhopal. Over 500,000 people were exposed to MIC gas that night, and some 150,000 suffered injuries, many of which were permanent. Because of the chaotic conditions and the need to bury the bodies quickly in mass graves, the number who died within the first few days still remains uncertain. Officials estimate that more than 3,000 people were killed by the gas, although others estimate that as many as 10,000 were killed. In addition, an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 deaths over the years are attributable to the exposure.

Like the other environmental disasters in this book, corporate irresponsibility was a large part of the problem. And, like most of the other disasters, financial awards for the victims were pathetically small in comparison to the damages.

Too, those responsible have suffered precious little justice. As of this writing, seven former high-level employees of Union Carbide India have recently been convicted of causing “death by negligence” of the thousands of victims. Their sentences? Less than two years in prison. And, Hernan writes, “Warren Anderson, the former chief executive officer of UCC … remains a fugitive from Indian justice.”

Minamata, Japan

Another theme that runs through this book is the complicity of the government in protecting companies who contributed largely to the tax base of the area they contaminated. This was certainly true in the small fishing village of Minamata, Japan. Chisso, an electrochemical company, was “a major source of jobs and revenue” in the area. This may have been temporarily good for the local economy, but the tight relationship between the government and Chisso led to a massive tragedy.

If you are old enough, you may recall black-and-white photos published in Life magazine and elsewhere, showing humans trapped in twisted bodies, their deformed faces staring at the camera with expressions of hopelessness or devoid of recognition. In one famous photo, a mother is bathing her deformed young adult daughter. The mother’s face shows infinite love and patience, and yet utter despair. The daughter appears not to be aware of her tragic circumstances, but we really do not know if she is that lucky. It’s heart wrenching.

Here’s how Hernan describes the cause of what became known as Minamata disease:

After the war, Chisso developed organic chemical compounds to produce a variety of materials, including acetaldehyde, which employed mercury as a catalyst. Acetaldehyde, first made in 1932, was used in plastics, pharmaceuticals, photographic chemicals, and perfumes…. Increased production of acetaldehyde and other organic chemical products resulted in a concomitant increase in wastewater, which Chisso continued to dump in Minamata Bay.

Once-plentiful fish became scarce, and signs of impaired nervous systems began to show in both cats and humans. “The cats in the village started to dance crazily, bash themselves against walls, jump into the sea, and drown.” Then fishermen and their family members “had difficulty walking and talking and suffered wild mood swings. Their bodies were racked with convulsions. Most disturbing, newborns were exhibiting symptoms, which indicated the presence of a congenital form of the disease.” Physicians reported “scores of patients” with similar symptoms and many deaths.

Fearing contagion, villagers who weren’t affected shunned — and often physically abused — those who were ill. A British neurologist discovered that the brains of the afflicted turned “into a sponge, full of holes.” Those findings were confirmed by a Japanese scientist. “[A]nd a special governmental research committee also found that organic mercury was the cause, although it did not attribute the mercury’s origins to Chisso’s operations. The government disbanded the committee as soon as the report was issued and transferred any further research to a group under the control of several trade ministers who were sympathetic to the company.”

Despite Chisso’s and the government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the source of the problem, individuals with Minamata disease banded together to demand action.

The patients demanded financial support from Chisso to pay for medical and living expenses. Chisso dominated the economy of Minamata, contributing over half of the city’s tax revenue and over one-third of the jobs, and most of the local city officials were former Chisso employees. Because of this, most Minamata citizens were unsympathetic and even hostile to the patients. Through the intervention of the local government … each family ended up with an equivalent sum of about ten dollars. Chisso also provided ¥65 million (about $180,000) for restoration of the fishing grounds, but this was in the form of a loan to the fishermen’s cooperative. Then in December 1959, Chisso agreed to also settle with the patients by offering a take-it-or-leave-it deal: ¥30,o00 per year ($83) support for each child, ¥100,000 per year ($276) support for each adult, and a lump sum of ¥300,000 ($833) for each dead person, of which there were about 30….

As part of the settlement, Chisso received a release from the patients to the effect that if proof ever emerged in the future that identified Chisso’s wastewarer as the cause of the illness, the patients would be precluded from receiving more money from the company. The patients were unaware at the time that Chisso already had the proof … that the wastewater was indeed the cause of their suffering. For seven more years Chisso discharged over 500 tons per year of mercury-contaminated waste into the sea.

A Warning for All of Us

Each of the tragedies described in this book serves as a warning. The ultimate question is, “Will we heed it?”

Of the 15 stories Hernan tells, two of the disasters are not specific, individual events, but ongoing problems we need to recognize and stop immediately. Rainforest destruction is one of those. “In 1800, there were 7.1 billion acres of tropical rainforest throughout the world. By 2000, there were only 3.5 billion acres, with about one-third of those acres in Brazil. The world continues to lose rainforest at the rate of 35 to 50 million acres each year,” he writes. “Between 2000 and 2005, more than 51,000 square miles of Brazil’s rainforest—an area larger than Greece—was destroyed, and in 2006 and 2007 an additional 9,266 square miles was lost.”

Hernan explains some of the reasons why this loss is so devastating:

“About one quarter of all medicines are derived from plants, not synthetic compounds, and 90 percent of the plants critical to medicine are found only in rainforests…. Besides the plants, trees, and animal species, the world is losing the indigenous peoples of the rainforests….

This deforestation is disturbing not only because of its impact on the environment of Brazil, but also because of the far-reaching consequences for regional and global climate change. The Amazon rainforest has been described as the “Lungs of our Planet” because it continuously recycles carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon rainforest. As a result of the burning of the rainforest, and there is no forest to recycle the carbon dioxide. The prevalence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a major contributor to global warming, the next and most pressing environmental disaster facing us today.

And global climate change is the final disaster Hernan discusses. He warns the reader, “The consequences may not rise to the level of an apocalypse, but they will be disastrous. Just how disastrous will depend largely on what we do right now.”

“The challenge,” Hernan writes, “is to convince people to sacrifice now to protect against risks in the distant future. This is a formidable challenge that has to compete with the short-term objectives that dominate corporate bottom lines and the reelection campaigns of politicians.”

He wrote those words prior to the “spill” in the Gulf (a marketing term if ever I heard one; this is no spill, it’s a gusher of historic proportions). Will our global climate change “rise to the level of an apocalypse”? We have very little opportunity to make enough changes to save ourselves from destruction. And with every environmental disaster, our chances of long-term survival lessen. We must learn from our mistakes, if we are to have any hope of leaving a world worth inheriting by our grandchildren. This book provides a lens through which to look into the past and make course corrections for a better future.

The Small Print

Blue  Planet Green Living received a complimentary copy of the book discussed in this review. Other than the review copy, we received no compensation or incentive for reviewing the book. No one influences the content of any of our reviews other than the writer. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.

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Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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