Our Environment Is A Big Mess: How Can We Fix It?

You've seen their cars out in the parking lot, beat-up old station wagons plastered with 8,000 bumper stickers reminding you to recycle, keep your laws off women's bodies, save James Bay, brake for endangered species and free Leonard Peltier."Who is Leonard Peltier?" you wonder. "Where is James Bay?" you ask yourself. "And why in the hell would somebody plaster their car with that many ugly stickers?"All questions I had when I first encountered them: the environmentalists.I steered clear of them whenever possible, for any number of reasons. When my friend started dating a guy who tended to get fiery about logging and misty-eyed over such fine manuals as The Art of Monkeywrenching, by Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!, I'd argue with him about why it was useless to get involved in activism. "It all happens so far away, you're fooling yourself if you think you're gonna make a difference," I'd tell him. "I don't have time to worry about all that," I'd say, hefting a bag full of work the size of a small suitcase and heavy enough to rival Fabio's weight-lifting regimen. "Spare me. Puh-leese."Granted, getting involved isn't easy for a lot of good reasons. But there are a lot of even better reasons why it's really important Ñ- more important than I ever thought. And, as with most people who are motivated much more quickly by selfishness than by altruism, there are ways to become active and more environmentally and socially responsible that don't involve signing onto some group's agenda or dedicating the rest of your life to a cause. On the other hand, once you do get involved, you might find you want to.WHY SHOULD I BOTHER?The reasons are all around you. Think about the environment that you live in right now. Commuters clog the freeways and main streets with long rows of shiny cars so the air is thick with exhaust at 5:00. Trash is scattered on the sidewalks and ditches and landfills expand; barges hang offshore overloaded with waste no one will take. You can't go down to the river and take a drink (assuming you'd like to) Ñ- as a matter of fact, the water coming out of your tap may not be all that safe.It's not just your community or home town, either.Driving from downtown Philadelphia out to the airport you'll see Sun Oil's refinery, one of the five largest in the country. Holding tanks, smoke stacks, and buildings without windows loom eerily out at you for several miles. On the other side of the interstate blocks and blocks of low income housing projects run parallel. If you're late for a plane, leaving for vacation, you don't really think about it. But the people who live across from the refinery think about it a lot. Sun Oil has been the target of recent protests and demonstrations because they've released catalyst dust in the air Ñ- they had to pay a whopping air pollution fine of $99,000 for that Ñ- they don't have an adequate evacuation plan for the area should something go really wrong, and they refuse to do anything about it.The families of Wilmington, a low income and minority district in Los Angeles, have the same concerns. They live in the midst of five such refineries. The Texaco refinery alone releases 248,604 pounds of toxins and 6,155,600 pounds of smog-forming pollutants each year. And the Los Angeles Air Quality Management District recently upped the allowable levels of cancers from 39 per million to 100 per million. Surrounded as the folks who live in Wilmington are, that means someone they know is probably going to get cancer Ñ- if they donÕt know someone with cancer already.It's not just oil companies. If you're concerned about our forests, guess how much raw Douglas fir and hemlock logs Mitsubishi International exported in 1993 and 1994? According to the Rainforest Action Network, the multinational logging corporation shipped out 2,277,000 cubic meters of timber. ThatÕs enough to fill 140 football fields six feet high each year. That was from the Northwest alone.If you ever lived on the Eastern seaboard, or have come from family whose income depended on fishing already know how much trouble our oceans are in now. The National Audobon Society's Living Ocean Program points out that Atlantic salmon, Newfoundland cod and New England groundfish have reached commercial extinction. That means there are so few left it's not profitable to fish for those species any more. The adult population of the Atlantic bluefin tuna has fallen 90 percent since the 1970s. And each year, about a fifth of the world's total catch is pitched as "bycatch". In the Gulf of Mexico, for every pound of shrimp caught, nine pounds of fish are dumped back into the ocean, dead.And if you think our new Congress is going to take care of things, you're dead wrong. As a matter of fact, H.R. 9 Ñ- which, as of this printing, has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate Ñ- basically guts most of the environmental legislation that's been passed in the last 25 years. If those regulations hadn't been in place, it wouldn't have been possible to ban DDT and lead, among other things. DDT causes cancer. So does lead, only it makes you stupid first.BUT I'M NOT THE PROBLEMYou probably don't really feel the effects of all this stuff on a daily basis or in a personal way. Even if you're broke all the time, look around at what you do have: computers, a car (maybe), clothes that came from a store, new. You can choose from 20 different kinds of breakfast cereal, so many brands of beer you have to walk around the store for awhile just to figure out what you want. But all of those things have to come from somewhere.When you go pump a full tank of gas at the Texaco station, do you know where the gas came from? Texaco recently pulled out of Ecuador Ñ- though there are still 18 other multinational petroleum companies in the country. On the way out they dumped 17 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of waste waters into the waterways of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Roads they built into the jungles to make it easier to get the oil out deforested 2 million acres of land.That new shirt from Liz Claiborne? If it was made in the Philippines, chances are pretty good it was made by a girl between the ages of 12 and 21 during a 12-hour shift, in a six to seven-day work week. If you think theyÕre getting anything approaching our minimum wage you probably ought to just pull your shirt over your head, go hang out in the basement and think about it for awhile."Our environment is dying not just because human abuse the earth, but because we abuse each other," says Eric Odell, a young activist and a Forward Motion magazine staff member. "To be strong, our movement has to cross lines of gender, race and class."In the face of such widespread environmental and social degradation, it's easy to feel powerless. That's one of the biggest reasons most people don't get involved. That, and a lack of connection to anything. As an AIDS activist at the University of Southern Alabama in Mobile explained to Paul Loeb, in his book Generation at the Crossroads, "You need something on a personal level. For me it wasn't just that my friend died of AIDS, but how he died, and the reaction Ñ- the apathy and ignorance and lack of concern from his family and friends and his employer. I suddenly realized that how he died is not an isolated issue, that it's happening over and over again around the country, and it won't stop unless people take a stand." The same could be said for the state of our environment.WHAT CAN I REALLY DO?You're busy with your hectic life -- is going to a 45-minute long environmental group meeting going to make that much of a difference?Remember, this is important. If it really is too much, there are still things you can do.Ride your bike more, or walk to work. Take a bus or share rides. Use those recycling bins, if you've got them. If you don't, make a few phone calls to your local officials and find out why. Sort and recycle your trash. Stop dry cleaning. Repair your leaky faucets. Put weighted jugs in your toilet tank to save a couple thousand gallons of water each year. Install faucet aerators. Find a shampoo that doesn't leave a ring of scum around your tub; find a cleaning product whose fumes don't leave you woozy. Think about the products you buy. If you're interested, the Boycott Quarterly does an excellent job of reporting on environmentally abusive multinational corporations and their subsidiaries (bet you didnÕt know that among their many holdings, Phillip Morris, the tobacco company, owns Tang; Coca Cola owns Paramount Pictures; PepsiCo owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut).All of these are simple changes you can make in your day-to-day life. It helps Ñ- but the hard truth is, itÕs not going to bring about the kinds of change that are going to slow, never mind put an end to -Ñ the environmental and social injustices which have flourished with the burgeoning of corporate power.If you really want to have a say in your future, get involved. Go to that 45-minute meeting and check out whatÕs going on.If there isnÕt a local group already working on environmental issues, one way to start one Ñ- or jump-start a dying one Ñ- is to do a local environmental audit. Find out about the wastes and hazards you're living with. Find out where your money is invested. Find out if your company has vested interests in corporations or institutions who are decidedly not working in your best interest.CAN ONE PERSON MAKE A DIFFERENCE?Once you begin to make the connections between what's going on in your immediate environment, the larger world, and some of the root causes, you've made a tremendous step. But it's only the first step. You've got your toehold, so why not go with it? Activists from coast to coast have managed to get beyond recycling and sink their teeth into local, national and international issues -Ñ and make a difference.Members of the Environmental Education Project at UCLA are currently working on a video with local grassroots groups documenting communities who are disproportionately exposed to pollution. Basing their work on a 1987 study conducted by the Church of Christ, "Toxic Waste and Race in the United States" Ñ- which showed how big polluters locate much more often in minority communities -Ñ the group is proving it right in their home territory.An environmental group in New Hampshire, fed up with continuing illegal discharges from the local sewage plant, initiated a lawsuit against the state. And students at Albion College, in Michigan, teamed up with community residents to keep a "waste-to-energy" incinerator from coming to town.Working on local levels can often lead to a greater awareness of the bigger picture. With that awareness, lots of people have gotten together to win some important national campaigns. Esther Conrad, an activist working in California, recently saw students and residents team up in beleaguered Chester, Penn., to fight a number of environmental threats. "In Chester, as in most communities facing environmental racism," Conrad says, "the fight has to continue on all fronts: different government agencies and legislatures on the city, county, state and national levels, all the different industries located in Chester and the surrounding area, and in the community itself as residents struggle against poverty, violence, drugs and much more. We need to be aware of this."ISN'T THIS ALL JUST A BUNCH OF HYPE?So you've heard some of the bad news, some of the good news; you've even had the chance to hear about. In light of that, take a few minutes and watch the news this evening, or read a paper, or check out a progressive magazine. Realize that the stuff you're seeing isn't entirely a big bunch of paranoid lies and exaggerations concocted by the Liberal Left to leave you feeling guilty, scared, or both.The decisions that are being made now will impact the way that you live in a short, medium and long term. They'll still be affecting you when the elected representatives and corporate CEOs who are passing legislation and making deals are long gone. The point is that the time to tackle the issue is not when it's convenient to act. The time to act is now, while the environment is still worth the fight and it might just change people's life.


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