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This last post will discuss some local environmental toxins, and ways people have been trying to address them.

This story brings to light some notable toxicity in West Eugene. Relevant snippets of text:

“West Eugene Industrial Corridor…has  numerous industrial companies that produce telephone poles, railroad ties, paint, chemical resins and other substances.”

“97 percent of toxic air pollution in Eugene is emitted in that area.”

“58 percent of those surveyed detected air pollution through smell; 52 percent indicated they had respiratory problems; 12 percent had cardiovascular problems, and 34 percent saw their symptoms get worse when they detected pollution.”

“health problems cited included nausea, headaches, coughing, chest pains, fatigue and irregular heartbeats [and asthma].”

“Approximately 30,000 people live in the area. Many are poor, elderly, disabled or ethnic minorities. Many of the Latino families recently moved to this country and work manual labor jobs. All speak Spanish as a first language; not all could speak English.”

I found the most intriguing part of the article to be that, “34 percent saw their symptoms get worse when they detected pollution.” It repeats the questions we asked about Safe: is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?  Are their symptoms due to physical toxins, or personal interpretation of supposed toxins? I find myself not necessarily caring about the answer, as either way it would be largely solved if the toxic pollution could be reduced to a level that residents wouldn’t get sick over. It’s more important to address the damages we know about than to only act on perfect information, which is a rarity (some might say impossibility).

This website monitors level of pollen in the air; Eugene has reportedly the highest pollen levels in the United States. Pollen is certainly a concern for those who know they have allergies, but it may affect you even if your hometown didn’t. It’s a good idea to check out the symptoms and figure out if your sniffles and itchy eyes are due to pollen. It’s also a good idea to look at this if you have plans to be here for the summer, when the pollen levels should go even higher.

This post discusses some concerns of pesticide drift, which may be a concern for organics. While organics are required to be free of pesticides, if testing agencies are reporting “no exposure occurred,” instead of “[study is] inconclusive,” then even foods deemed safe may actually contain some pesticides.

And finally, links to the organizations that are working to address the problems listed above:

Pitchfork Rebellion

Oregon Toxics Alliance

Centro Latino Americano

I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw in a link to the Climate Justice League, we’re starting new campaigns in the fall. Come to our meetings if you’re interested in getting involved in solution-oriented student campaigns!

We’ve spoken before in class about the varied views different environmental groups bring to any one discussion. While running through the news, I can across this gem that gives a pretty good example of just such a thing. (here’s another source that’s more readable, but less technical).

Short summary of the relevant information: California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) was recently sued by an environmental justice organization known as the Association for Irritated Residents (AIR), for three reasons:

1) CARB’s plan would not result in reductions for agriculture businesses, meaning that the costs of polluting are not fully internalized by major sources of pollution.

2) The proposal does not adequately consider all of the costs and benefits to their proposal, specifically in relation to the environment, public health, and economy.

3) CARB did not consider Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission programs that currently exist in the US and around the world, as the law requires.

I found the differing approaches each group took to addressing an environmental concern interesting. On the one hand is ARB: the Board tried to pass a piece of legislation, cap and trade, that has already experienced much negativity in the rest of the country, yet for many politicians it represents the most politically viable option for addressing issues of global warming. On the other side is AIR: this Association is worried that whatever is done, won’t be done right. I imagine that most members of AIR support some kind of environmental regulation, and sued ARB’s policy only because they feel that ‘getting a foot in the door’ means what’s being purposed is too little and too late.

The basic problem inherent in this case is one that progressives have struggled with over every proposed change to the status quo: how to merge all the different values people assign to a problem into one solid, unifying voice. Some people question if this is a good idea, preferring each group maintains the integrity of their ideals rather than compromise what they view as a necessity.

This problem rears its head in our reading, but thankfully so does a partial solution. While I hope (and largely believe) that most scientists studying and communities impacted by environmental issues share a concern over the environment, it may not appear for each group that the other one actually does share concerns, due to a difference in experience and values. From our reading of Corburn’s Introduction to Street Science, it appeared that the public and the government officials experienced difference that made working in collaboration difficult. “The locals were skeptical of the experts and the experts, while sympathetic, largely dismissive that the dust cloud was causing any serious illness” (2). The solution Corburn proposes is the co-production model of expertise. While this would go a long way in reconciling differences of experience, it would not nearly solve issues of value-differences, where all parties know of a problem but believe it cannot or should not be addressed in the same way. So here is my customary finishing question-session:

How does an environmental issue continue when people concerned for the environment push in two separate directions? What’s a way to reconcile differences in belief and values? Should that even be something people try to deal with, or is it best left up to policy makers?

We talked about this a bit in class today, and I wanted to provide more information with how economists calculate a life’s worth.

A few different ways economists go about it:

The economic value of human life involves the length of life, and the net economic contribution that a person could be expected to make during his or her lifetime.”

“…the amount will vary according to age, sex, color, and degree of educational attainment.”

“…estimates based on the human capital approach -reformulated using a willingness-to-pay criterion- produce the only clear, consistent, and objective values for use in cost-benefit analyses of policies affecting risks to life.”

In a nutshell: there are two main ways to determine the value of a human life. One way attempts to measure how much you’ll make in your lifetime, but it’s subject to a lot of variability, especially for younger people not yet in careers. Another way, more commonly used, measures an individual’s willingness to pay (WTP) to increase their probability of survival (alternatively, an individual’s WTP to decrease the risk of death).

There have been multiple studies that attempt to find the value of a life. While these numbers are subject to political maneuvering by different agencies, recent estimates made by government agencies range from $6-$10 million. Older estimates from 2008 put the number somewhere around $5-$8 million; so the number’s rising, which is good news for anyone feeling worthless.

One possible consequence of valuating a human’s life is the cruelty of money. How much are you willing to pay for treatment of a possibly terminal illness, like cancer? That number will change depending on circumstances, but would theoretically represent the moment you would ‘pull the plug’ on a sick individual.

The implications of the first measurement methodology are disturbing, to say the least. It implies those who make the most money have the most valuable lives -which is bad news for the underprivileged, poor, and otherwise economically worse-off members of society.

The implications of the second are less ethically worrying (for the economist, at least) as they rely on a consumer’s own valuation of risk, but still shows some dubious calculations. How much does this amount change if an individual actually gets in a risky situation? How does an average relate to the statistical outliers, individuals who would either spend more money to save themselves or cannot afford the average amount (and thus are told to pay more than they are able for some surgeries)? How does it affect social costs, like the price some families incur from being near a factory that a consumer will not internalize thousands of miles away?

A last question, ever present during these discussions: why would we put a price on a human life? Isn’t that callous?

Callous, yes. Economically, the theoretical reasons for calculating life are the same as the reasons for calculating any other type of economic measurement: limited resources in the face of unlimited wants. Everybody wants to live a healthy life, but we also want products that have certain features. Valuation of a life attempts to measure the risk one will trade for the greater benefits from attributes like speed, quality, and cheapness.

If we don’t all agree with this, as I suspect many of us don’t, what’s the solution? Make everything as best and as safe as we can? This would economically disadvantage the least wealthy amongst us, as for many the cost of safety is unfairly prohibitive. Label the risks on the package? That’s certainly an option, but one that has only achieved some success for smokers, and would be difficult to implement for thousands of products.

For the time being, it looks like evaluating the priceless is the best option economists have for modelling equations. The role of the humanist, then, is to make sure there’s a higher price on the lives of the many than on the convenience for the few.

The opening for this trailer reminded me of an oft-used example for environmental activists, the “Babies in the River” story. Read on, and I’ll tell a tale of bobbing babies in a babbling brook (sadly, that’s all the alliteration this post contains).

Babies in the River

You’re walking with your friends along the edge of a river one fine day, basking in the warmth of the sun, when suddenly you notice something strange. There’s a baby floating past you in the river! You jump in to save the baby from drowning, and manage to carry the baby to the shore where your friends stand. Just when you get the baby onto the sand, another friend makes an exclamation and you turn back to the river. There, you see one baby, then another, floating downstream like the first!

Quickly, you organize your friends into a chain. This allows you to simply stay standing in the river, and more efficiently pass them along the human safety line back to shore. This allows you to save both of the babies that you saw, but by the time they are safe, there are more babies floating down.

One friend, more curious than the rest of you, decides to see where all of these babies are coming from. While the rest of you are saving babies, your friend follows the river a ways, and happens across a stranger scene than most people encounter in their daily lives: a person is pulling babies out of their truck, and chucking them in the river!


This story was introduced to me as a way to distinguish between the different types of action that a community can take when they see an injustice being committed. We can deal with the problems that crop up, making a safety net and cleaning up for others. Or we can address the heart of the issue, and campaign against the perpetrators that are creating the problems.

Having experienced this story in more than a few organizations, and seeing that one version (albeit, a baby-less version) set the tone for Living Downstream‘s trailer, it seems readily apparent that the message itself is part of a larger environmental movement. We should not just plant trees to repair the effects of mountain-top removal, we should stop mountain-top removal and not have the effects at all. This brings to mind more than a few questions, but I’ll limit myself to the most important for now.

Is it obvious to people uninvolved with the environmental movement that addressing the root cause of the issue is the environmentalist’s concern, and not just on solving the problems? Or does Steingraber’s parable represent a shift in messaging for the movement, one that highlights an otherwise less-apparent intent?

For those of you who haven’t visited any social media sites, at all, between Sunday night and your reading of this post:

Osama bin Laden is dead.
Watching the news spread, I found it interesting how many people started questioning if this was the time to pull out of the Middle East. Surely, some suggested (on my facebook page, of course), that his death means “mission accomplished,” we can leave the region now.  While true in part, the comments are a gross oversimplification of the issues the US sees in that part of the world. Besides terrorism, there also exist economic, idealistic, militaristic, and diplomatic concerns that directly involve that region. Any comment that attempt to make one issue represent the whole seems to me a hasty generalization, and either involves a fair amount of political intent or ignorance. But that’s not the important part. Whatever the intentions for posting the comments, saying that one event’s success symbolizes the success of an entire campaign is a falsification that applies to more than just the issues in the Middle East. These false epitomes can also be seen in public opinion of environmental and social issues after a significant milestone appears to have been achieved.

A great example involves the gulf oil spill. Once the oil seemed to disappear, the public outcry against the spill dwindled. Save an occasional scientific report on the long and short term effects, the news from the spill has largely dried up. One friend posed the following question to me last night, when I insisted that we watch a video about the oil spill: “Why are you so interested in the gulf still? It [the oil] is all gone now!” She wasn’t aware that the oil spill was still affecting the aquatic life, and that the oil was still present in the water. It seemed that after she heard the title of this article, she ignored the rest of it.

The tendency for humans to focus on the visible and ignore the subtle details is interesting, and even understandable -it’s hard to stay up to date on everything going on in the world. But to hold a strong opinion when one knows little about the subject is less understandable. Willful ignorance on important matters is something that environmental groups have to face all the time: whether it’s from oil spills, climate change (the weather versus climate debate), or even to atmospheric damage (“the ozone’s fixed, so the air is probably alright”), public opinion always seems to turn against environmentalists when the problems start to be fixed.

Why does an achievement, or apparent achievement, slow environmentalist movements? What can be done to mitigate this sense of comfortable change? Arguably, it can’t be mitigated -as we see with the Osama example, people oversimplify in more areas than just the environment. And the media is quick to capitalize on these oversimplifications, as they offer good publicity. It’s easy to say that nothing can be done, but this would also be an oversimplification. Over the years, here are a few things I’ve found to help on these issues.

1) Education: constantly reminding and informing people about the actual risks could help keep them concerned about an issue. For instance, there are a lot of terrorist leaders within Al Qaeda. While Osama may have been killed, his terrorist organization is more like a hydra than a snake; cut off one head, and two more will appear.

2) Reframe the issue: Sometimes, it’s easier to see problems when issues are framed in certain ways. If the oil spill is framed about sea life destruction and not about the apparent amount of oil, problems that the spill still poses are easier to convey.

3) Encourage discussion: We don’t have all the answers. At least, I don’t. A discussion will foster thought on an issue and may bring up ideas or problems that you and others may not have considered.

Any other suggestions?