Tag Archives: pollution

Life in the Wake of Nuclear Disaster

A sign warning of radiation from the explosion at Chernobyl. Photo by Zoriah, used under Creative Commons licensing.

A sign warning of radiation from the explosion at Chernobyl. Photo by Zoriah, used under Creative Commons licensing.

Chernobyl’s explosion in 1986 was the largest nuclear accident ever. In terms of radiation release, it exceeded Hiroshima by a long shot. And although the hulking ruin continues to threaten today, still hot under its cement and lead cap, nature is reclaiming what was once hers—before humans stripped her forests; before they hunted, plowed, and planted; and before they built four nuclear reactors.

In the days following the disaster at Chernobyl, radioactive elements rained down upon towns, forests, and distant landscapes, settling on rooftops, leaves, soil, rivers, and lakes. These unstable elements spewed out high-energy atomic bits that rip apart the molecules of life—killing cells and busting apart strands of DNA. Some will continue discharging these lethal bits for decades; others for centuries.

Even in the days before Google, it wasn’t hard to imagine the utter destruction that enveloped the region as radioactive iodine, strontium, cesium, and plutonium settled into lakes and forests and the bones and bodies of those unlucky enough to live within the disaster’s influence. I was a young graduate student at that time, immersed in the world of cancer-causing chemicals that warped, twisted, and snipped apart bits of DNA, and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine the inevitable menagerie of mutant fish, fowl, and furred creatures that would surely haunt the land for decades to come. Within days of the accident, tens of thousands of acres of pine forest—subsequently known as the red forest—died.

And yet, amidst the destruction and despite the radioactivity that lingers across the landscape today, the abandoned towns, fields, and forests are not inhabited by populations of twisted mutants. Instead, depending on whom you read, at least some of Nature’s children are thriving.

For nearly twenty years, Texas Tech scientists Ronald Chesser and Robert Baker have studied life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Originally a 30-kilometer radius from the explosion’s ground zero, the zone now covers more than 2000 square kilometers, including some of the most contaminated real estate in the world. The pair recalled visiting the site for the first time, eight years after the blast, writing, “We were completely taken aback by what we saw…” Amidst once-unimaginable destruction was life, and plenty of it. “The ‘Exclusion Zone’ has effectively become a preserve.”

A vole of the genus studied by Ronald Chesser and Robert Baker. Photo by Vitalii Khustochka, used under Creative Commons licensing.

A vole of the genus studied by Ronald Chesser and Robert Baker. Photo by Vitalii Khustochka, used under Creative Commons licensing.

But their first observations had been deceiving. Going in, the scientists found just what they had expected. Surveying the local vole population for mutations or signs of mutation, in the form of increased genetic variation, they found plenty. “The mutation rate in these animals,” Baker told a New York Times reporter in 1996, the year their study was published in the journal Nature, “is hundreds and probably thousands of times greater than normal.”

Only, as they write looking back in 2006, “Lesson 1: Beautiful theories are often destroyed by ugly facts”: the findings didn’t hold up. All that variation, it turns out, was generated long before the catastrophe, long before Chernobyl, and long before the USSR. Rather than compressing “several thousand years of evolution into a decade,” as a colleague wrote in an article accompanying the study, it was instead the outcome of the natural process of selection and evolution. A few agonizing weeks after the researchers realized their mistake, thanks to a more accurate analysis of archived samples, they voluntarily retracted their Nature paper. Still, the group continued seeking evidence of Chernobyl’s signature on life in the zone.

But rather than twisted mutants and double-headed voles worthy of B-movie status, studies by Brenda Rodgers, also from Texas Tech, showed an even more surprising effect—life went on, seemingly normally. Rodger’s studies pointed not to wholesale mutation but rather to physiological acclimatization. The voles, in effect, adapted by becoming primed for life in a radioactive exclusion zone (which, Chesser points out, is classified as “chronic low-dose” radiation.)

One explanation for physiological adaptation is hormesis, a sort of “rebound effect” that can follow an initial disruptive or stressful event like exposure to radiation; sort of the proverbial “a little bit is good for you,” an initial small exposure may protect from subsequent exposures. “I do believe that hormetic responses are possible,” says Chesser, “and some of Dr. Rodgers’ research supports hormesis in rodents exposed to low-dose radiation.” Follow-up studies in Rodgers’s lab suggest that hormesis may protect not only exposed adults but also pups-to-be, ramping up protective enzymes and proteins in utero to prepare the fetus for a slightly more radioactive world.

And this is where University of South Carolina researcher Timothy Mousseau, Anders Moller of the National Center for Scientific Research in France, and others come in. For years, Mousseau and colleagues have reported that rather than creating a virtual “wildlife preserve,” Chernobyl’s impact was as insidious and hideous as one might expect of a nuclear disaster. The team found that bird populations—barn swallows in particular—were deformed; beaks, eyes, and tail-feather coloring were impacted; and individuals developed smaller brains. The effects were so detrimental, suggested Mosseau and Moeller, that the population was unsustainable, made up of deformed natives and immigrants from less impacted regions.

But now, despite intense mutual skepticism of each other’s work, the findings of the two groups seem to be converging—at least for some species. Ismael Galvan, Mousseau,  Moller, and others are finding that although some bird species may be feeling the heat others are managing, as suggested earlier by Chesser and colleagues’ work with voles. Birds are adapting, possibly through hormetic changes, enabling inhabitants of Chernobyl’s zone to tolerate radiation that would make others sick.

Normally, this kind of physiological acclimatization tends to protect the individual, but not necessarily its offspring, just as our own decision to exercise, toss back a single glass of wine, or maybe even take in just a little bit of sun—actions that might benefit us—won’t help our kids. Yet some signals leading to protection may be passed on to offspring, as they were in Rodgers’ mice.

“We believe that epigenetics are behind the response we detected in birds,” says Galvan. Epigenetics refers to changes in gene expression not caused by changes in the actual genetic code. It’s not hard to imagine some interplay between epigenetics and hormesis. Whether or not epigenetic changes can be passed from generation to generation ad infinitum remains an unknown. But they most certainly can be passed from one generation to the next.

I asked both Chesser and Galvan about the potential for evolution in response to radiation. In the scheme of life, it isn’t such an outlandish idea—life had to make its peace with radiation in order to survive on Earth in the first place, and there are plenty of examples of life, even vertebrates, evolving within our lifetimes in response to human activity.

Galvan says evolution is one possibility. “On plants from Chernobyl they have found that chronic exposure to ionizing radiation affects the expression of genes that control DNA repair. This would make that environmental exposure to ionizing radiation induce changes that may be transferred to the offspring, generation after generation. For now this is just speculation.”

Chesser isn’t sure. He points to Rodgers’ research on rodents. “I will be careful to point out that this is not ‘adaptation’ in the strictest sense, but rather physiological acclimatization. Traditionally, adaptation requires natural selection that conveys genetic changes that bestow advantages to descendants.… It should also be noted that the radiation doses even in the most contaminated habitats at Chernobyl are classified as ‘chronic low-dose’ for animals living there. Thus, it is highly improbable that any selection pressure is sufficient to cause substantial genetic change in a few generations.”

The footprint of humanity on the planet is large: The chemicals we use, land we have altered, and radiation we have released are changing the world. In many cases our activities are influencing the course of evolution, imposing powerful selective pressures. We are leaving our mark upon the genomes of bacteria, bugs, and countless other animals as they evolve in response to human activity. Whether this is the case for voles, birds, and other small animals living within the Exclusion Zone is not yet clear—although I wouldn’t be surprised if one day someone finds not just adaptation, but evolution in response to radiation. In either case, for all those species that do manage, either evolving or adapting or just scraping along until conditions improve, there are plenty more that cannot. It is too early to know whether life is evolving in response to radiation or individuals are simply adapting—biding their time, surviving until the radiation fades. Yet in comparison to even our most persistent chemicals, Chernobyl’s radiation is here to stay for the long run. In a twisted way, the fact that life goes on in a place that sends the Geiger counter buzzing—whatever the mechanism—is hopeful. We are making a mess of our one and only home planet, but life will go on—with or without us.

Emily Monosson

About Emily Monosson

Emily Monosson is an environmental toxicologist, writer, and consultant. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, editor of Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out, and author of Evolution in a Toxic World. Her forthcoming book, Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene by Gene, will be published in October 2014.

Making Downtowns Liveable

Harold Henderson of Build a Better Burb interviewed author Ned Crankshaw, author of Creating Vibrant Public Spaces: Streetscape Design in Commercial and Historic Districts. He chairs the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Kentucky.

Henderson: If you could give a community  “dos” and three “don’ts” to make it more livable and attractive, what would they be?

Ned Crankshaw: DO center all hubs of activity as close to the center as possible. This includes schools, parks, other community facilities, and, of course, commercial enterprises. Use public buildings to support private enterprise by concentrating more people (customers).

DO develop a pedestrian walkability plan for the community. Use every project – whether it is a street improvement, property development, or a new public facility – to implement the plan and improve the quality of pedestrian spaces in streets.

DON’T design for visitors. Design for your own residents, and visitors will be taken care of in the process.

DON’T tear down buildings unless there is a specific funded plan to replace them with better building(s).

What are the best ways to add parking in a historic downtown? How can it be both hidden and convenient?

Crankshaw: Is there really a need for additional parking? If so, determine the destinations of those who park and locate new parking where it is convenient. “Convenient” places offer a pleasant walking path, a clear view of the destination, and a reasonable-length walk .

Parking shouldn’t be created by demolishing existing buildings, as a general rule. Investigate vacant spaces that may be suitable. Many of the best spaces may be behind buildings or in the interior of blocks and will likely cross multiple property lines.

What makes a place walkable, besides not having to cross four lanes of busy traffic?

Crankshaw: A walkable place provides supportive environments for pedestrians. That is much more than just a safe environment for pedestrians, which is an incredibly minimal threshold. Supportive pedestrian environments provide adequate path widths, buffers from vehicular traffic, visual variety and enjoyment, and shade. They should form a network that takes you places you want to go as directly as possible and with as much choice as possible.

Is it possible to overdo historic preservation?

Crankshaw: Preservation is ideological and mission-oriented. When there are competing values, it’s not always right. But because it is ideological, it always thinks it is right.

In many parts of the United States, the presence (or potential loss) of a town center with thriving businesses is an overriding concern. This is true in smaller cities and towns and in the older suburban communities of large cities. Preservationists need to support that goal even if it means backing off from their traditional fixation on details.

How closely should downtown signs be coordinated?

Crankshaw: Not at all. Towns should place some limits on size, appropriate to their locality, but business and building owners should be free to express themselves without being “coordinated” by someone else’s aesthetic sensibilities. If a town’s economy supports good businesses, those businesses will be smart enough to advertise with the right kinds of signs. People love the vibrant look of nearly cacophonous signs in historic photographs of downtowns and then want to reject freedom of expression in preserved downtowns. It doesn’t make sense.

Are “street trees” an oxymoron? How can they be done right?

Crankshaw: Street trees certainly are not an oxymoron in most residential neighborhoods, whose streets were designed with the idea that there would be trees. In many communities we are neglecting the need to maintain and replant trees in neighborhoods to make our streets more enjoyable.

In downtowns, street trees are a different matter. Trees have demonstrable value in traditional commercial areas. They screen parking areas, provide shade, shape space for pedestrians, and have other psychological and aesthetic values.

Find Henderson’s entire interview here and purchase Crankshaw’s book here.

In the Case of Tar Sands Oil – Oils Well, Will Certainly Not End Well

Canada’s growing interest in exporting some of the dirtiest crude oil in the world is a threat to not only North America’s wildlife but also a rational energy policy and a stable atmosphere. NASA and climate scientist James Hansen called this project a climate game-changer because burning Alberta “tar sands” oil could raise CO2 levels in the atmosphere by 200 parts per million (ppm), pushing us dangerously away from the 350 ppm safety net that he and other scientists have recommend (we are currently at 390 ppm of CO2 and rising at about 1-2 ppm per year).

If President Obama approves the proposed pipeline connecting the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the Gulf Coast (over 1700 miles away), it will show that oil runs thicker than environmental and human health concerns. The so-called Keystone XL pipeline may only be the beginning of more such projects to come. Another pipeline, known as the Enbridge (named for the oil company) pipeline, would connect Alberta tar sands oil with refineries in coastal BC, traversing First Nation’s and other pristine lands over a distance of nearly 800 miles.

To extract the tar sands oil, hot freshwater is combined with caustic soda and mixed with petro-laden sands dug out of the earth by giant excavating shovels. Boreal forests that get in the way are leveled in the process. The slurry is then piped to extraction areas where oil is skimmed off the top and toxic tailings sent to ponds where they pose wildlife hazards. The resulting process has been labeled the dirtiest oil on earth not only because it requires 2-5 barrels of freshwater for every barrel of bitumen (crude) extracted, but because in the extraction process 10-45% more greenhouse gas pollutants are emitted. The oil then needs to be shipped long distances via subsurface pipelines, introducing ground disturbances and possible pipeline leaks to farmlands, forests, and wildlife migratory pathways, including those of the endangered whooping crane. On July 27, 2010 an Enbridge pipeline spewed 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River (largest spill in Midwest history) and on July 2, 2011 a pipeline operated by Exxon Mobil leaked unknown quantities of oil into the pristine Yellowstone River causing local evacuations.

There is no denial that the topic of the moment, whether on Main Street, Wall Street, or the Halls of Congress, is jobs. And while the oil business generates thousands of jobs, it comes with a high cost to future jobs, future economies, life-giving freshwater, boreal forests, and marine life (should a spill occur). What would tomorrow’s labor force think of our quest today for jobs if myopic decisions set the stage for oil spills that will decimate commercial fishing, tourism, marine life, and freshwater?

Simply put, the more we depend on fossil fuel extraction, the further we are from transitioning to sane, rational, and sustainable connections to the very basic life-giving provisions in the natural world that sustain us. Nature has limits, our atmosphere has limits; inevitably, water will someday be worth far more than oil. Destroying boreal forests to extract oil, which absorb massive amounts of carbon, will also add to greenhouse gas pollutants, raising our procrastination penalty even further.

President Obama can block this project. For the plan to go forward, the President must sign off on it (and Congress has no role in that decision). This is a critical test for an administration that has so far failed to show the strong leadership on environmental issues that the nation—and voters—expected. Conservation groups have been protesting in front of the White House to make their point about dirty oil being a threat to the nation’s environmental security and that this pipeline is just bad politics (for more information go to www.350.org). The insatiable demand for fossil fuels by the US as well as China (which is the destination of much of the oil from tar sands) will someday come back to haunt us as it already has in the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and other tragic oil spills. Ultimately, maybe the dinosaurs will have the last laugh, as we liberate extracted molecules from their long-decayed buried bodies that now trap sunlight and cook the planet!

Dominick A. DellaSala is chief scientist and president of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, and president of the North American section of the Society for Conservation Biology.  He is the author of Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation.


About Dominick A. DellaSala

Dominick A. DellaSala is Chief Scientist and President of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, and President of the North American section of the Society for Conservation Biology. He is the editor of Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World.

Assessing Emerging Challenges in U.S. Environmental Health

Lynn Goldman, a pediatrician and epidemiologist, has spent her professional life trying to understand and alleviate threats from environmental sources, including the impact of chemical exposures on children. Her interest in the field dates back to her childhood in Galveston, Texas, where she grew up along the Gulf of Mexico surrounded by oil refineries and chemical plants that lit up the night sky with eerie blue, green, and orange hues.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Goldman — a former assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton — discusses the many challenges that remain. They range from the continuing health toll exacted by air pollution, to the threat posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals found in everyday products. One thing is certain, says Goldman: Without bipartisan political support, urgently needed legislative action to deal with 21st century environmental health threats will never come to pass.

“I can’t point to a single successful piece of environmental legislation that was enacted by one party,” Goldman told Yale e360 contributor, Lizzie Grossman. “Environmental protection has always been the concern of both parties.”

Read the interview at Yale Environment 360 »


About Elizabeth Grossman

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of High Tech Trash, Chasing Molecules, Watershed: The Undamming of America (Counterpoint Press, 2002), and Adventuring Along the Lewis and Clark Trail (Sierra Club Books, 2003). She is also the co-editor of Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Grossman’s writing has also appeared in a variety of publications, including Amicus Journal, Audubon, California Wild, Cascadia Times, Chicago Tribune, Environmental News Network, Grist, The Nation, New York Times Book Review, Newsday, Oregonian, Orion, the Patagonia catalogue, Salon.com, Seattle Times, Washington Post, and Yes! A native of New York City, she has a BA in literature from Yale University. She now lives a minute’s walk from the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. When not at her desk writing she's out exploring—hiking, camping, paddling, sketching, and watching birds.

Going Postal on Junk Mail to Save Rainforests

Have you gotten that uncontrollable urge to send junk mail back to where it came from? We all have some inkling of protest as we sift through the endless stream of junk mail that arrives in our mailbox every day. Marketing distributors of junk mail have become a consumer pipeline transporting forests to their inevitable resting place at the local refuse dump. The good news is you can stop the madness, but it takes some determination, and maybe save the rainforests with it.

According to some estimates, the amount of junk mail received by the average household in Canada is approximately 16 pieces of junk mail each week amounting to over 40 pounds per year. When you multiply that by more than 12 million households (based on 2008 Canadian census data), that’s nearly half a billion pounds of junk each year. Shockingly, about one-third of the entire world’s mail comes from U.S. junk mail. It takes more than 100 million trees to produce the volume of junk mail that arrives in U.S. mailboxes every year. Clearly, the forest pipeline is in full swing in North America.

If we do our part in recycling roughly 30 percent of our trash (based on recent EPA estimates) that still leaves a lot of paper ending up in landfills. For decades, these forests have been cut down and turned into pulp for paper products. Take for instance, the Tongass rainforest in Alaska and the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. Here, towering old-growth trees provide habitat for scores of bald eagles, wolves, and bears. As one of the world’s largest remaining relatively intact forests (where it hasn’t been logged), along with nearly one-third of the planet’s other temperate old-growth rainforests, the Tongass deserves a better fate than ending up in a landfill off-gassing carbon dioxide pollution.

Clearly, our forests are worth more standing than the trash filling up landfills. In fact, in a speech at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in 2009, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack aptly noted that the Tongass rainforest “comprises only 2 percent of America’s forest land base, but may hold as much as 8 percent of all the carbon contained in the forests of the United States.” Thus, if we are serious about stopping global warming, the Tongass would be valued for its irreplaceable carbon storage and other ecosystem services.

So what can we do about the evils of junk mail?  There are several excellent websites and source materials for stopping junk mail in its tracks (see sources below). Here are just a few notable examples:

  • Stop preapproved credit card offers by contact Equifax toll-free: (888) 567-8688.
  • Request privacy information from companies whenever you purchase materials. Companies buy and sell personal information like brokers exchange pork bellies on the stock exchange.
  • Take yourself off national mailing lists by clicking on www.privacyrights.org/Letters/jm1a.htm or www.dmachoice.org/dma/member/regist.action.
  • Stop the never ending slurry of junk ads. Remember to check out the label on the envelope for a return address (to send a cease and desist letter back!) or peek inside the envelope for a phone number and call it.
  • Stop the deluge of catalogs and magazines–email abacusoptout@epsilon.com or call: (888) 5OPTOUT (888-567-8688).

On a bigger scale, thanks to the hard work of conservation groups like ForestEthics, San Francisco has become the first city in the U.S. to officially support the Do Not Mail Registry. We all know that California is often the birth place of national environmental initiatives. So hopefully, this will catch on to enlighten the rest of the nation.

Junk mail is not just a pain, it’s a growing and insidious environmental catastrophe contributing to deforestation and degradation of some of the most important forests on earth. We can stop this destructive pipeline but only if we go postal on junk mail.


About Dominick A. DellaSala

Dominick A. DellaSala is Chief Scientist and President of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, and President of the North American section of the Society for Conservation Biology. He is the editor of Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World.

Where Did Our Water Go? Trading Public Water Fountains for Private Bottled Water by Peter H. Gleick

Peter H. Gleick, author of Bottled & Sold writes on Huffington Post:

First it was Central Florida University, which built a 45,000-seat football stadium with no (that’s right, zero) water fountains. And at their very first game in September 2007, 18 people went to the hospital and another 60 were treated at the stadium for heat-related problems. I describe this remarkable story in Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.

Then, the sports arena that hosts the Cleveland Cavaliers removed its drinking water fountains. The only way for thirsty fans to get water was to wait in line at the concessions counters for a free small cup or pay $4 for bottled water or try to drink water from the bathroom faucets.

Now the 100,000-seat Michigan Stadium, at the University of Michigan (the “Big House”), has just reopened after renovation and they’ve announced that no one can bring water into the stadium. Instead, fans must buy $4 bottled water at the 40 concession stands, find one of four “hydration tents” (whatever those are), wait in line for a free cup, or try to find one of only 28 water fountains (one per 4,000 fans). I’ve looked at the stadium website and the official stadium map: the concession stands are listed, but not the location of the water fountains. And in what seems more like a bad joke than an actual benefit, the University has announced a promotion for the Wolverines’ home opener on September 4th: the first 25,000 fans through the turnstiles will receive a commemorative plastic bottle of commercial water. Oh boy.

Read entire post here

Gulf Coast culture hangs in the balance.

Elizabeth Grossman, author of Chasing Molecules and High Tech Trash, visits the Louisiana coast:

Grand Isle was hit hard by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav. But the community, which island resident Jeannine Braud describes as “a family,” rebuilt. “You knew when that [disaster] was over. You’d wake up and hear hammers,” she says. But then came the financial meltdown and the bad weather winter of 2009 that kept tourists away. “This season was going to be the one that got us over the hump,” says Hopkins.

But coastal residents see no end to this disaster. “It’s not just shut off this year but for years and possibly generations to come,” says [Louisiana resident Karen] Hopkins of the fishing, shrimping, and shellfish harvests that sustain Gulf Coast communities.

Read the whole post at the Pump Handle.

After the oil spill, is there a premature rush for solutions?

Commenting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Rob Young, coastal geologist and co-author of The Rising Sea, writes:

In their rush to react to growing public pressure and do something, federal and state officials are waiving scientific review of emergency measures and embracing dubious solutions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the proposal to begin building a long sand berm to prevent oil from reaching wetlands and beaches in Louisiana. The White House has announced that this project is now moving forward, despite serious concerns among coastal scientists, including myself, that it will not be effective in keeping oil from the coast, could do more environmental harm than good, and would be extremely expensive.

…The EPA directly questioned the proposed berm’s effectiveness, suggesting there is no evidence that the project will stop oil from entering the marshes and estuaries because it is constructed only in front of the barrier islands and will not block the inlets and deepwater passes. In addition, EPA questioned whether a project that will take at least 6 to 9 months to build would be completed in time to have any impact on the spill.

Young expands on his concerns in the full post.

We are all from Wise County

Want to get really angry about health care and global warming? Not the ginned-up rage of the Obama-was-really-born-in-Kenya crowd, but an anger that fires you up to take action in the name of justice? Anger like the rage felt by so many white Northerners and Southerners in 1963 when they saw Birmingham’s fire hoses turned on patriotic African-Americans, a rage so profound that they too joined the civil rights revolution?

Well I invite you, in a brief audio and video tour, to bear witness to what’s happening in Wise County, Virginia. This Appalachian region, only a few hundred miles from the policy fog in Washington DC, clarifies what the health care/climate policy fight is all about. And if you’re not angry enough to take action after hearing these voices and seeing these images, blame yourself when DC-powerbrokers like Don Blankenship (more on him later) once again have their day.

Let’s start with what’s good about Wise County: its hard-working families. Taking a look at this community calendar, you’ll see all that is right with rural American communities and their urban counterparts. From January to December, the citizens of Wise County celebrate the legacy of Dr. King (January 19), perform plays (March 17), honor our country and its veterans (July 4 and October 8 ) and get involved in all of those glorious community, spiritual and volunteering activities that capture the essence of the American experience. In Wise County, it’s not hard to find the best of ourselves.

But one item on the same calendar reveals what is not right: the July 24 – 26 “Remote Area Medical Health Fair” at the local fairgrounds. Sound innocuous? Well take ten minutes to listen to this recent report from NPR on this event, hosted in Wise County, that served 2,700 ‘tired and desperate’ people from 17 different states. In the words of NPR, it was “a Third World scene with an American setting.” It’s heartbreaking: entire families waiting in line overnight to get just some of the basic health care that they cannot afford. Hear about the young boy with a battered nose and an oozing ear; the single mom with a gallbladder so enlarged it’s about to kill her; and the many patients getting all of their teeth pulled. That’s right – for over 20 years, while DC politicians have been promising a better health care system, your fellow Americans in and around Wise County have been suffering. Angry yet?

And take a guess what industry dominates this part of Appalachia. No surprise, it’s coal. Like in so many parts of the country, excessive reliance on coal means high levels of poverty – the kind of poverty that creates the need for this health ‘fair.’ A recent study out of West Virginia University puts it clearly: “Coal-mining economies are not strong economies. [Coalfield communities] are weaker than the rest of the state, weaker than the rest of the region, and weaker than the rest of the nation.” There’s no doubt that the 1000s of employees of the (increasingly capital-intensive) coal industry are hard-working, admirable people; the problem is that in the 21st Century, coal helps them at the expense of others.

The second part of coal’s legacy in this area is mountain top removal. Take this extraordinary virtual flyover of Wise County to view its devastation. The human effects of this destruction are captured in the words of Wise County’s Kathy Selvage. Listen to her speak about the ‘terrible injustice‘ created by coal, literally in her backyard. And memo to the ‘birther’ crowd: if you think that the fight against mountain top removal is some godless liberal conspiracy, see this testimony from Kathy: “It was my Mother’s custom to have her early morning Bible reading on her front porch. [Because of mountaintop removal,] she was forced to move inside because she could no longer stand the noise, dust, and smell that was invading her ‘Morning with the Lord.’”

In Wise County, poverty, environmental destruction and powerlessness come together, and the result – despite the resilience of hard-working Americans who call it home – is sick families, destroyed mountains, a dysfunctional economy and at least one good lady who finds it harder to pray.
Now there certainly are winners in all of this: take Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Coal, a modern version of Daniel-Day Lewis’s ruthless oilman in There Will Be Blood. It’s hard to know where to start with this guy:

And he seems to be a coward to boot. When James Hansen accepted Blankenship’s challenge to debate global warming, the Massey CEO suddenly backed off.

So climate warriors, let’s get angry: about inexcusable poverty, the destruction wrought by coal, and the lobby-laden system that helps Blankenship thrive while too many of the good people of Wise County suffer.

And if you are angry, what are you going to do about it? Will you be willing to get arrested standing up to Massey Coal, like Jim Hansen? Lead civil disobedience against Dominion Power, right there in Wise County? Or at least, show up to your elected officials’ town meetings and speak loudly and clearly in support of health care and climate change legislation? With some hard work, maybe we can reveal Blankenship and his ilk for what they are: the Bull Connors of the dirty-energy age. There’s no time to waste.

About Jonathan Isham

Jonathan Isham Jr. is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College, where he teaches classes in environmental economics, environmental policy, introductory microeconomics, social capital, and global climate change. Since early 2005, he has spoken widely throughout the nation about building the new climate movement.  Isham serves on advisory boards for Focus the Nation, Climate Counts, and the Vermont Governor’s Commission on Climate Change. He was the co-recipient, representing Middlebury College, of the 2005 Clean Air–Cool Planet Climate Champion Award for advancing campus solutions to global warming. In January of 2006, he was featured on National Public Radio’s Radio Open Source program “Global Warming Is Not an ‘Environmental Problem.’” In January of 2007, he was trained in Nashville, Tennessee, as a member of Al Gore’s Climate Project.  He has published articles in Economic Development and Cultural Change, Journal of African Economies, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Rural Sociology, Social Science Quarterly, Society and Natural Resources, Southern Economic Journal, Vermont Law Review, and World Bank Economic Review. He was the coeditor of Social Capital, Development, and the Environment (Edward Elgar, 2002) and has coauthored chapters in books published by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and New England University Press.  He holds an AB in social anthropology from Harvard University, an MA in international studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD in economics from the University of Maryland.

Scott Bonar: Don’t Wait. Communicate!

I know of a scientist who wrote that changes in small constituents of the atmosphere-namely carbon dioxide-could greatly influence the heat budget of the Earth. He predicted Arctic temperatures would rise about 8 or 9 degrees Celsius if atmospheric carbon dioxide was increased 2.5 to 3 times its present value. He later became concerned that man-made carbon dioxide pollution could contribute to this warming, and he even published a few books on the subject.

So what, right? Everybody knows about global climate change! But the scientist, Svante Arrhenius, presented his initial results, based on considerable calculations, at the Stockholm Physical Society in 1895. We have known about global climate change—and the potential causative factors—for over 100 years.

Therefore, I found it surprising that while research on global warming has been out there for over 100 years, most people on the street have only been talking about it for a little over 15 years. Why did it take so long? Why are we only recently taking major steps to combat global climate change?

Well, first off, everyone had to make sure the science was in order. Scientists argued vehemently among themselves whether Arrhenius’ calculations were correct. Next, the effect had to be noticeable. People who were working in the area of climate change had to see for themselves that, wow, there really was something going on here.

However, to attract the interest of the general public, one could argue that the scientists, managers, and policy makers had to communicate their findings effectively. They had to show easily-understandable graphs of the increase in temperature over the last decades; they had to present time-lapse photos of retreating glaciers and shrinking ice shelves; they had to convey data showing animal populations were moving to cooler climates. Once the science was effectively communicated, the interest in the subject snowballed.

You probably noticed great leaps of interest in global climate change following the publication of books that were not just found in the dusty stacks of the science library, but in the stores of the mall. I’m sure you noticed great leaps of interest with the premier of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, simply a movie of a slide show about science, which opened at major theaters and ranked a 93% approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com!

Are you a conservation professional? Are you involved in the science, policy, or management of environmental issues? Do you want to wait 100 years for your findings to make a difference? (My guess is you would probably say “no!” to the latter).

If you want to be effective, you will need to learn to work with people. This includes influence, conflict resolution, negotiation and other skills. In my blog over the next couple months, we will discuss a few issues, tips, and stories about working with people—a critical skill for the environmental professional. I hope you’ll join us!

What do you think? Leave us a comment.


Scott A. Bonar is an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona and Unit Leader of the USGS Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. He has over 25 years experience conducting award-winning natural resources research for federal and state agencies and private industry. In 2007, Island Press published his book The Conservation Professional’s Guide to Working With People, which you can read about at http://workingwithpeoplebook.com.

About Scott A. Bonar

Scott A. Bonar is Associate Professor of Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences with USGS and Unit Leader, Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Bonar focuses on fisheries management, native-nonnative aquatic species interactions and management, desert fish conservation and management, standardized fish sampling, communication in conservation, general fisheries management, management and ecology of introduced species, predator-prey interactions in aquatic systems, and politics and communication in natural resources.