Two decisions by the Obama administration have left me and many others profoundly disturbed. The most recent advice to the EPA to delay further limits on ozone, long in process and widely anticipated, is a clear abandonment of governmental leadership in restoring the integrity of the human environment. Worse, the support the administration appears to be giving the Canadian Tar Sands oil development is a clear sign that no progress in deflecting the climatic disruption can be expected any time soon. What’s to be done?
Ozone is trouble. On earth ozone is toxic to just about everything. It is a serious cause of respiratory problems and a contributing cause of various other ills. Experience is extensive and data define human morbidity and mortality from exposures common from industrial sources. But virtually all life is vulnerable and ozone exposures are to be avoided categorically.
Ozone occurs in the high atmosphere, well outside the normal limits of life, and there absorbs incident radiation from the sun that would otherwise be a problem on earth. So it has been for a very long time and life is dependent on that circumstance.
Industrial activities have changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and the more or less stable layer of ozone in the high atmosphere is being destroyed largely but not exclusively by fluorocarbons used mainly as refrigerants. In the lower atmosphere where we and all the rest of life occur, ozone is being generated in toxic quantities by burning fossil fuels at high temperatures. Both processes are serious matters but the generation of new sources on earth is exposing all life to a serious toxin with especially threatening direct effects on people. Serious efforts have been made over years to avoid the problem. But that simple objective turns out to be more complicated by far than it should be.
Governments, that is, all legitimate governments beyond the ABOTIP (A Bunch O Thugs In Power) stage, are established to define and defend the public interest. The public interest is commonly defined, first, as civil rights: rules establishing fairness in dealing with one another and in managing common property for the advantage of all. Those interests are variously defined, of course, but they have been set out explicitly enough recently in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. The statement constitutes a broad vision as to the core purpose of government. It seems a reasonable extension of those expectations and responsibilities of governments to say that rules are established to protect each from all and all from each. I am not allowed to poison my neighbor’s well nor is he allowed to poison mine. And if he has a business, the business is not allowed to poison mine or anyone else’s. Such rights are commonly established not only in legislation, but also in case law, as legal rights systematically defined by court trials.
Meanwhile, businesses have grown very large over time and become corporations that hire many people and accumulate much wealth and influence. Profits of the businesses are greater if the costs of doing business can be ignored. The costs often, perhaps regularly, include wastes that are difficult, or even expensive, to make innocuous and can most conveniently be discharged into the environment nearby and ignored. My well is poisoned after all and when I object, the business denies responsibilities and asserts that even if true, the jobs and money brought into the community are more important. Government, pressed to support the “economy,” agrees. Governmental purpose has suddenly shifted from civil rights to economic interests. Morbidity and mortality of citizens is now secondary to corporate financial security.
Just as we realize that fossil-fueled corporate industrialization has inverted the global distribution of ozone to human disadvantage we also discover that the flows of money have corrupted governmental purpose and potential. Suddenly, for whatever reason there is pressure on governments to produce jobs at any cost. Neo-conservatives argue that environmental regulations that protect people from ozone are expensive and force industries to close down or reduce activities as profits decline. In the interest of protecting profits and, presumably, jobs, environmental regulations should be voided. The President of the United States has recently agreed, at least with respect to ozone. He and the neo-conservative right are saying that public suffering from poison, enhanced morbidity and mortality, are acceptable in the off-hand chance that corporations will gain profits and hire more people and improve the economy. In the longer run, he asserts, the objective has to be to clean up the air and protect the public welfare. But for the moment, economic interests are more important. Such demanding moments never pass.
So, too, strangely enough, with the climatic disruption. The heavy reliance on fossil fuels is poisoning the world, changing climates globally and generating toxins such as ozone. Here the economic costs as well as the human costs are conspicuous. One of the many long-recognized effects of the climatic disruption includes an increased frequency of large, severe storms. Katrina, fed with energy from a super-heated Gulf, cost us New Orleans, a city whose economic and human costs continue to accumulate and whose salvation is at best doubtful. Irene left a trail of destruction along the East Coast from Florida through the Carolinas, New Jersey and New York into Canada. The damage tallies in billions of dollars. A third tropical storm, Lee, is right now flooding southern Louisiana and Mississippi once again. Flood damage in Vermont from Irene remains today at unprecedented levels and costs that will probably never be tallied or recovered. In such cases the largest costs are diffuse and accrue to the public at large. The causes, however, are industrial activities whose profits are well focused and are supported by the cheap fossil fuels that are in fact poisoning all of the earth. Again, governmental purpose has drifted and the public welfare has been redefined as corporate economic welfare. So we have, apparently, imminent presidential approval of a pipeline connecting the Athabasca Tar Sands of Alberta to our Gulf Coast refineries. That oil is the dirtiest and most expensive in the world in that its mining destroys large areas of the northern forest, dumps that carbon into the atmosphere, and requires a large further direct expenditure of energy in extracting the oil and refining it. Such a decision by the US president would commit the nation to support of production and use of the dirtiest oil on the planet for the foreseeable future and be a clear statement that the US has no plan for mitigating the already raging climatic disruption!
There is nothing right about these decisions. Nominally, they support the public welfare by encouraging economic development. Actually, they both degrade the resource base, corrupt the air, water, land, and health of all. They poison my well, and the wells of all others, now and for the everlasting future. They produce systematic, incremental impoverishment, universal biotic impoverishment, corruption of the human birthright so clearly affirmed in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they scorn the very purpose of government.
What’s wrong here? What is wrong is a fundamental intellectual and political failure, a failure to recognize that civilization requires not only a functional government and a working economic system, but also a functionally intact environmental system. It is that last that is the mystery, not sufficiently defined in our culture and not put forth by our intellectual and political leaders as a compelling model of what must be if we are to continue to occupy the earth in peace and comfort for the century to come. The insight and the shift in emphasis may come now, if it comes at all, from the scientific community expressed in powerful, demanding terms that reach far beyond economics and greed as motivating factors and call on all to acknowledge and respect the core requirements of life as a moral responsibility in protecting the human birthright. This new vision will deal with how to preserve life on earth, not as a casual objective after all profits have been assured, but as the first objective, everywhere.
So far in science and conservation we have only begun the job, just scratched the surface, and our government is still actively poisoning my well and everyone else’s.
September 4, 2011