Saturday, April 17, 2010

Earth Day at 40.

Hi everyone,

Earth Day turns 40 this year, which brought back memories of the very first one -- a national observance for which Wisconsin gets bragging rights. Gaylord Nelson kick started it and now we have the EPA, the air and water are cleaner, an annual crew of volunteers are out today cleaning up the Milwaukee River as it bobs and weaves through West Bend, and kids complain when their parents forget to recycle. It was a great start. We have yet to see how well one day, 40 years ago, will serve polar bears -- but here's something to keep in mind: 40 years ago there were roughly half as many humans on the planet as there are today. Connect the dots.

No wonder traffic seems to have gotten worse...

In the meantime, this week on the 20th, remember your Mother.

Saturday's column.

Earth Day at 40 – from 1,000 feet

Earth Day lands on Aprill 22 this year. I remember the first one. I was in seventh grade. Our teachers had arranged for a speaker from the huge local power company to talk about how they were participating in all of this new fangled environmental thinking by cutting pollution levels around their plants.

The speaker explained with slides and graphs and futuristic architects renderings that, in order to cut pollution levels in our area, his coal fired power station had built a new smoke stack nearly 1,000 feet tall. By pumping all of that sulfur di- and tri-oxide a 1,000 feet into the atmosphere, the pollution at ground level dropped of nearly to zero.

“Isn’t that great kids?” he enthused.

Hands shot up all across the room. Every one of us had the same question: “But did you reduce the amount of pollution coming out of the top of the smoke stack?”

The power company hack explained – patiently, condescendingly, with undisguised annoyance, elongating each word now so that even an annoying seventh-grader could understand – that by raising the smoke stacks to a 1,000 feet pollution levels at the ground had ... been ... cut.

The 13-year-olds in the room weren’t buying it. It was obvious, even to 13-year-olds, that the pollution levels hadn't been cut, they’d simply been relocated.

Some of you will remember that those pollutants, tossed high into the atmosphere over the Midwest, fell as acid rain across the sugar maple stands of Quebec and New England for decades, eventually driving maple syrup from a Sunday morning staple splashed across pancakes into a luxury item doled out with an eyedropper.

Thus, my first lesson in corporate responsibility included a powerful environmental dimension. It was this: Big corporations are allowed to duck their environmental responsibilities in order to make a profit – and if that includes screwing up maple syrup production and lying to 13-year-olds, no problem. Welcome, young middle-schoolers, to the free market economy.

That was then. This is now.

Earth Day turns 40 this year and positive changes have followed since Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson pushed for this national observance. The air and water are cleaner and President Nixon signed the EPA into existence to protect the prosperity of our posterity – but, in a lot of ways, not much has changed.

Corporations continue to increase their profits by outsourcing pollution – either by continuing some variation of taller-smoke-stack-Three-Card-Monte, or by relocating the worst kinds of industrial pollution to developing countries that can’t afford environmental protection or enforcement. Politicians with something at stake in those profits continue to help these corporations duck and cover here at home.

Take for example, local politicians Glenn Grothman and weatherman-turned-state-representative Jim Ott. Both have been honored by Americans for Prosperity for standing up to the world's scientific community on behalf of the petroleum industry, by suggesting that global warming is a hoax.

Just a week or so ago, in fact, Sen. Grothman pushed for an amendment to gut the Governor’s Global Warming Bill (SB 450/AB 649) because “Now that the idea of global warming has so thoroughly been questioned a lot of people feel it was a total waste to have the Clean Energy Committee to meet at all.” A lot of people in the petroleum industry, he means.

Grothman’s posturing was supposed to appear courageous (facing down all those elitist scientists and all their data and facts) and was, one imagines, even more profitable than courageous for the companies that benefit. And where does the money go?

The trail keeps leading back to one spidey-hole: Koch Industries. This privately held petroleum mega-corporation, the focus of a lot of press attention since they were discovered to be major contributors to the Tea Party movement and Americans for Prosperity, have now been exposed as major contributors to the global warming denial industry. Greenpeace recently found that the Koch crowd had spent “over $48.5 million since 1997 to fund the climate denial machine” – significantly more than even Exxon Mobil.

I guess it’s not surprising that the petroleum industry would be nervous about letting any accurate scientific reports describing the negative effects of their golden goose appear in public without a full-court press of objections designed to distract or obscure the facts.

It’s darned nice of Grothman and Ott to look after the interests of billionaires this way.

So, not much has changed in the Death-Star intersection of politics and big money since I was 13. That fact may seem a bit gloomy. Major corporations continue to spend tens of millions to make hundreds of billions in profit and they continue to build taller metaphorical smokestacks to bamboozle the public.

But don’t despair. Every year classrooms full of 13-year-olds continue to rise to the challenge and fight back. Join them. Start asking questions and, when you do, start with this one: Where my grandchildren’s world is at stake, isn’t it better to err on the side of caution?

And in solidarity with my activist friends, say it with me: No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!



Kevin Scheunemann said...

"And in solidarity with my activist friends, say it with me: No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!"

Gee, you are trying to tell me this ISN'T religion?

John Jost said...

Well said, courageous, and so true, Mark. One more plaudit.