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After this past term you’ve probably been second-thinking that plastic cup in your cupboard, drinking from the tap, or touching just about anything in this toxic world.  Well, here is a website that was designed by Dara O’Rourke, a UC Berkeley Professor, that gives ratings to consumer products based on their environmental impact, societal impacts, and general health to the consumer:

http://www.goodguide.com

Very similar to many consumer guides, it allows the consumer a metric with which to compare different products and companies.  This simultaneously encourages change within corporations to produce more environmentally friendly products and informs the consumer about which products to cut from their consumption.

Or, in case you’re in need of a little hope, here is a website/magazine that is a self-proclaimed “Survival Guide to the Planet”:

http://www.onearth.org

It has articles about everything environmental.  I found the letter from the editor in the current issue of the magazine especially profound.

Anyway, happy summer and good luck navigating our toxic world!

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Over the course of the term we have focused on the deleterious effects of agriculture on humans, but the effects of this practice on plant and animal life has been left untouched.  In the previous post the “Dead Zone” at the end of the Mississippi was discussed.  As was noted, this is caused by the process of eutrophication in which nitrogen and phosphorus run-off is used as the building blocks of algal bloom.  However, this effect on seas and oceans is not merely bound by the Mississippi and Gulf.  There are “Dead Zones” up and down the east coast, littered around Europe, and some on the Asian border to the Pacific Ocean.

Oceanographers have counted 405 such dead zones worldwide, ranging in size from 1 km^2 to 70,000 km^2.  This number was reported in 2008, up from 146 dead zones counted in 2003.  These hypoxic regions are a direct result of our worldwide use of fertilizers.  Furthermore, with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, our required production of corn for ethanol fuel must triple in 10 years.  Fertilizer consumption and agricultural production are directly related; therefore, a tripling of corn production will require a tripling of fertilizer.  This act will further the growth of these hypoxic regions, destroying increasingly more aquatic wildlife.

Following is a documentation of the worlds dead zones.  Notice the littering of red dots up and down the east coast of USA and the Gulf of Mexico.  Is it even possible to catch aquatic life on that side of the country anymore?  Historically the oceans have been viewed as plentiful and bottomless, but our current practices have seen the decline of aquatic species across the board.  Between the Pacific Trash Island Gyre and the Dead Zones we are destroying 70% of the surface of the Earth to produce food for one species.  That makes sense.

*Image courtesy of NASA.

Curious of the literature produced by the government on energy, I decided to explore their webpage (U.S. Department of Energy) and happened upon the “energy kids” webpage.  This site detailed the production and consumption of energy as a means to educate school children, and a tool for teachers to implement in class.  Expecting little to no remark upon the negative, and toxic, effects of these processes I was caught by surprise to find each non-renewable resource section (natural gas, oil, and uranium) featuring an “(energy source) and the Environment” segment.  These sections articulate the deleterious effects of producing and consuming oil, gas, and uranium by describing the impacts on the environment, emissions and byproducts, effect of technology, and regulation policy.  For example on the oil site it states:

Petroleum products give off the following emissions when they are burned as fuel:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • Carbon monoxide (CO)
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOX) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)
  • Particulate matter (PM)
  • Lead and various air toxics such as benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and 1,3-butadiene may be emitted when some types of petroleum are burned

Nearly all of these byproducts have negative impacts on the environment and human health:

  • Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and a source of global warming.1
  • SO2 causes acid rain, which is harmful to plants and to animals that live in water, and it worsens or causes respiratory illnesses and heart diseases, particularly in children and the elderly.
  • NOX and VOCs contribute to ground-level ozone, which irritates and damages the lungs.
  • PM results in hazy conditions in cites and scenic areas, and, along with ozone, contributes to asthma and chronic bronchitis, especially in children and the elderly. Very small, or “fine PM” is also thought to cause emphysema and lung cancer.
  • Lead can have severe health impacts, especially for children, and air toxics are known or probable carcinogens.

Or for the natural gas site:

“Well drilling activities produce air pollution and may disturb wildlife. Pipelines are needed to transport the gas from the wells, and this usually requires clearing land to bury the pipe. Natural gas production can also result in the production of large volumes of contaminated water. This water has to be properly handled, stored, and treated so that it does not pollute land and water.”

Or for the uranium site:

“The main environmental concerns for nuclear power are radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes. These materials can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years. They are subject to special regulations that govern their handling, transportation, storage, and disposal to protect human health and the environment.”

…and…

“U.S. reactors have containment vessels that are designed to withstand extreme weather events and earthquakes.”

The solution to all of these environmental problems created by these non-renewable resources?  Government.  After every negative impact listed by the website is a section describing the governments use of policy, regulation, and technology to remediate or reduce its effect. They feature headlines for the oil section like: “Laws Help Reduce Pollution from Oil” and “Technology Helps Reduce Drilling’s “Footprint”.  For natural gas: “Fracking involves pumping liquids under high pressure into a well to fracture the rock and allow gas to escape from tiny pockets in the rock. Unfortunately, fracking has become controversial as it is blamed for contaminating water wells and streams with natural gas and the fracking fluids.”  Note the use of “unfortunate” for describing the “controversial” state of fracking, and assigned “blame”.  Lastly, nuclear power: “These materials are subject to special regulation that govern their handling, storage, and disposal so they will not come in contact with the outside environment.”  Basically, they solve all the problems of these resources’ production and consumption by stating that the government is watching out for us.  However, practically everything we have learned this term leads me to believe the antithesis of this conclusion.  Is this the reason so many citizens of the states practice such a devoted faith to our government.  Have they spoon-fed us compliance since kindergarten?

Energy kids webpage: http://www.eia.gov/kids/index.cfm

Did you know that many of the common persistent organic pollutants used in America actually cause some of the most popular life-threatening diseases?  These persistent chemicals are so named because of their exceptionally long shelf-life in organic tissue.  They bio-accumulate in the food-chain, and impart large doses upon the apex of the food chain–humans.  Let’s start with polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCB).  Use of this chemical occurred mainly in lubricants and coolants.  However, it was banned worldwide in 1977, but not before General Electric had dumped more than 500,000 pounds of PCB waste in the Hudson River (residue was found in Sweden when testing for DDT).  PCBs are known to cause a “chloracne” reaction and cause increased rates of skin, liver, and brain cancer.  Further research after its ban showed a correlation between PCB levels and childhood obesity, and early onset diabetes.  Next up is bisphenol A, or BPA.  This little guy is an utter joy to share a body-burden with.  It is most readily found in the plastics of everyday life, including baby bottles.  Among its known affects on animal populations include: higher rates of diabetes, mammary and prostate cancer, decreased sperm counts, reproductive problems, early puberty, obesity, and neurological disorders.  Finally, we have polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).  This chemical, PBDE, is found in almost anything in the modern world.  It’s a flame retardant added to televisions, computers, couches, chairs, etc, etc.  It is known to disrupt proper thyroid function, and leads to neurological and developmental deficits.

PCBs, BPA, and PBDEs account for only three persistant organic pollutants already existing in the American environment.  There is a long list of these chemicals in different stages of use domestically.  But guess what?  Many of these known pollutants are banned in most places of the world, besides America.  The majority of the world has been fighting to exterminate these deleterious compounds from our environment, while we lag behind in our environmental efforts.  In 2001 the Stockholm Convention set up an international environmental agreement against these and other toxins.  Among the 195 countries in the world, 173 signed and ratified this agreement.  USA was not on that list.  How can one of the world superpowers so blatantly disregard the health of its own people when there is sufficient research and viable movements to prevent such health effects?  Fighting obesity and cancer rates in America cost us billions of dollars every year.  Is this a tool to drive the wedge between the rich and poor by substantiating environmental injustice?  Does the health care system have some kind of invested interest?  Or is it the exercise and nutrition market that is interested?  Or something else?  Following is a map of the countries that have joined the Stockholm Convention.  Kind of embarrassing, in my opinion, that most every African and South American country has joined, and we have not.  I like the color choice for agreeing parties.

Currently, the price of a gallon of imported gasoline is far too low.  It stands at about $4 a gallon, which partially covers the cost of extraction, refinement, and transportation (not to mention remediation from spills).  The actual cost of gasoline to the American consumer lies closer to $10 a gallon.  Where then does the extra $6 dollars come from to bridge the gap?  Taxpayers?  Third world denizens?  The environment?  Any of these answers is correct.  Quantifying the dollar values attributable to each of these sources is difficult, but can be entertained in certain applications.  The bulk of the difference comes from our need to secure oil sources that we are dependant upon and the unpredictable nature of the sources with which we import our oil (eg. OPEC). Estimates by economists of the money invested to secure middle-east oil range in the $7 dollar range per gallon of gasoline.  Now it should be noted that this is not money spent at the pump, mind you; it is money spent every April when filling out tax forms to help pay for our military.  Additionally, civil, political or other unrest contained within countries we import from can cause great expenses to American citizens.  During the 1970’s OPEC embargo it’s estimated that the oil shortage cost the American economy between 2.3 and 2.5 trillion dollars.  A staggering figure when you consider it accounts for approximately 15% of our total historical national debt.  Furthermore, our government requires a lower than average corporate tax rate for big oil, lower than average sales taxes on pump prices, and a myriad of subsidy programs to help keep pump prices low.  These figures don’t even take into consideration the environmental damage caused by these companies and the use of fossil-fuels.  This makes no sense to me.

The manner in which gas is taxed, subsidized, consumed, and purchased all contribute to the notion that big oil is running the government, when in theory it should be the opposite.  Big oil should be meant to work for our government, and ultimately the public.  It should lower our national debt instead of causing it to increase.  This is achieved through a higher sales tax on gasoline, higher corporation taxes, increased responsibility in oil companies for their actions, and ultimately a public outcry for more rigorous governmental policies.

Some interesting facts:

For every $1 billion in trade deficits, 27,000 jobs could have been created.  The total trade deficit created by oil imports currently stands at $1.16 trillion (~31,320,000 jobs over 30 years).

Imported oil accounts for ~48% of our domestic oil use.

Regardless of the extent to which a citizen consumes oil, each citizen is taxed at the same rate to artificially decrease the price of oil to $4 a gallon (correlated to what Cody said about the dependence of carbon foot prints on geographic region).

Source: http://ethanolrfa.3cdn.net/1dd8f2f897990c804d_v0m6vzn5d.pdf

Monsters Inc. was an animated movie created by Pixar in 2001.  It featured a monster world short on energy, separated from the human world, in which human screams of fright were the main source of power.  Humans were simply commodities, and toxic ones too, since the very touch was thought to bring death or sickness.

In this manner, I believe, the story supposed an analogy or extended metaphor for the current state of the world.  In this analogy monsters assume the role of current humans; out of touch with the non-human world, and fearful of its existence.  Humans are commodified and exploited for their energy-generating effects, much like any natural resource currently existing in the non-human world.

Throughout the movie “human infestation” plays a central role as the Child Detection Agency mirrors the role of a Hazardous Materials Police.  However, this risk is unfounded and seems to be constructed upon lies.  When the protagonists finally interact with the human world they realize that they have been lied to, and through the combined efforts of the human and non-human world they are able to solve the energy problems in the monster world.