Humanity may well be running headlong into extinction. The news is grim in every part of the world. And the oil gushing out of the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico just keeps getting worse and worse. But human beings aren’t generally satisfied to sit back and let the world slip out of our grasp. People like you and me have ideas — lots of them — that can make the planet more habitable and more hospitable to all of us. But having ideas is worth little if you don’t share them. And sharing ideas is one thing that social media can do better than ever.
The power of a shared idea is limitless. The Gulf oil disaster (I refuse to call it a mere “spill”) has generated a groundswell of potential solutions. If you’ve had your hair trimmed at a salon recently, you are probably participating in one of them. Stylists around the world are collecting and donating hair clippings to Matter of Trust, which stuffs the hair into pantyhose to make booms that absorb oil on beaches. Matter of Trust also collects wool, fleece, and feathers to create booms. (Now I know what to do with those lumpy, old feather pillows.)
The booms they make certainly can’t solve the entire problem, but they are an important part of the solution. And they’re working because ordinary people shared the concept with each other through social networks, phone calls, and conversations. Without sharing and communication, that good idea would have been no more than a fleeting thought.
Here’s another idea for soaking up oil: hay. In a YouTube video, two men demonstrate the dramatic difference before and after dropping a pile of hay into water with a heavy coating of oil. Is anyone listening to them? I have no idea. But we should be. And by spreading the message, you and I can help them make their case with the powers that be in the Gulf. Why not add their method to the booms made by Matter of Trust?
Today on Facebook, one of my high school friends, Critt Jarvis, invited me and others to visit his blog. His post, “When Earth Cries Out…,” contains links to three positive activities that can make a difference in the Gulf crisis. These aren’t Critt’s ideas, but he is a conduit for sharing them. He’s asked his old friends to share them, too, if we find them worthy. And now, I’m asking you. Please visit Critt’s blog and go to the links he posted. Then tell your friends.
A few days ago, I wrote about Nadilyn Beáto’s beautiful necklaces, which she is selling to benefit the Environmental Defense Fund’s Gulf Coast Response team. Nadilyn had a good idea, but she had no way to share it. Then Ashie Hirji, a visionary I’ve been privileged to work with on several projects, suggested that Nadilyn set up a Facebook page. The young ecopreneur got it done in a flash.
Ashie, who works with youth around the world through a secure multimedia platform, was so impressed by the art student that she shared Nadilyn’s idea with me. “Write an article about Nadilyn’s jewelry for Blue Planet Green Living,” Ashie suggested. “Let’s help her sell her jewelry and save more sea turtles.” And so we did. Nadilyn would eventually sell her jewelry on her own; it’s lovely, and the cause is so important. But by working together — Ashie, Nadilyn, and I — we are promoting her cause to a wider audience than she could have reached on her own.
Though I was a reluctant participant in Facebook at first, I’ve learned so much through posts and links to stories on the Web that I’m a true believer now. My friends Sam (real) and Bob and Annie-la (both virtual, but just as real) are among those who share fascinating stories and compelling ideas with me frequently. They always make me think, and often inspire me to action.
Sharing ideas to find solutions is the rationale behind SoAct, which we wrote about on BPGL a few months ago. SoAct members are invited to tell other members what matters to them, what ideas they’re working on, and what support they’d like to receive. It’s a free social network that has the potential to solve many of the world’s problems through collective action.
And now LinkedIn has a group called “Collective Creativity.” Deepak Chopra, the renowned author, physician, and speaker, began the group to connect people with ideas to each other. He started the conversation by asking, “How can we help the people affected by the current disaster in the Gulf? Let us come together collectively to create more proactive solutions and innovations to prevent problems like this from happening again.”
People are responding with their own creative suggestions, meditations, and proposals — as well as potential solutions proposed by others. But Chopra’s question is really larger than the Gulf disaster. In his second “Collective Creativity” post, he suggests “Eight Actions for the Gulf and Beyond.” (Note: You may not be able to access his pages unless you have a LinkedIn profile and join the group.) Paraphrased here, they are:
1. Donate to the United Way or other reputable groups.
2. Support groups that are “healing our ecosystem.”
3. Become a volunteer — or recruit more volunteers to help the planet.
4. Use social networks for good causes.
5. Choose — and use — green products.
6. Invest in solution-oriented technologies.
7. Learn about solution makers and solutions.
8. Teach the interconnection between all life forms.
Perhaps, like Dr. Chopra, you have been thinking of ways to help now and in the future. Why not reach out to others and get them thinking about your proposals? Collectively, we can do far more than one person working alone. The momentum is building, and you can be part of it.
You’ve got ideas. You have expertise. So what are you waiting for? Share your vision with the larger community, and make an impact for the better. You can make a difference.
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June 23, 2010 by Julia Wasson
Filed under Blog, Books, Chemicals, Climate Change, Conservation, Contamination, Ecology, Environment, Events, Front Page, Global Warming, Hazardous Waste, India, Japan, Mercury, Pesticides, Slideshow, Sustainability, U.S., VOCs
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
Global Climate Change
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.”
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
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