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This year America’s collective gas bill is on track to hit half a trillion dollars. With that comes not only colossal public expenses, but crippling blows to individual finance. Some Americans are reportedly paying up to 50% of their income on their cars between insurance, repairs, fuel and other expenses. Those with the largest burden, of course, are often the poorest. A new website and project from the New America Institute is hoping to bring attention to the high cost of car ownership. The Energy Trap features personal video testimonials from all over the US talking about the time and money being devoted to people’s commutes.

This high cost is starting to take its toll (often literally). The Globe and Mail recently ran an interesting article about “Peak Cars” (RTH link), which notes that rates of driving have already been falling for some time, especially among young people. Because of the high cost of insurance, generally low incomes and already high debt burdens, it just doesn’t make sense for many young people to drive. For most younger men I know especially, it’s pretty much an either-or choice of having your own car or appartment, and I must admit that I would have trouble owning a half-decent car for less than I pay in rent. Putting this in visual and financial terms, Streamline Refinance released this ‘infographic‘ about how much commuting costs in terms of housing or how much it effectively lowers your wages. They claim a thirty mile commute is the long-term equivalent of just under half a million extra to spend on a home (after mortgage voodoo is worked out), or nearly a million if both couples drive it.

Cars provide a perfect example of how costs in our society get hidden by distribution. Governments certainly spend a lot on roads, highways and parking lots, – more than any other form of transport, and most other programs – but that doesn’t buy any vehicles. On top of the horrendous cost of roads (often tens of millions per kilometre for urban highways), there’s also the price of the cars themselves as well as their fuel and parking spaces. These costs are borne by the public, so they don’t show up on government balance sheets except as tax revenues. Instead they’re paid directly by us, or hidden in the prices of everything we buy (“free parking” at malls, trucking costs etc). Despite this illusion, the price of cars is still a very real public cost – simply paid for directly by us and not by the state.

There are, of course, a great many public costs associated with cars. Virtually every part of the industry receives massive public subsidies (oil, manufacturing, roads etc). This includes policing, the incredible increase in regulations needed for traffic management, and the criminalization of many otherwise-harmless activities like “jaywalking”. It includes health care costs related to accidents, inactivity and air pollution, as well as the incalculable price of human suffering for those affected. And then there’s the environment costs – mining, quarrying, oil extraction, roads, parking, smog, sprawl, climate change – any of these, alone, generate billions in “externalized” costs for the environment and society. Oh, and then there’s oil wars…

What this demonstrates is that demanding “jobs” or “growth” as a cure-all to economic issues can in fact lead us into traps that really aren’t economic or efficient at all. Automobile manufacturing is pretty much the primary industry in Ontario, linked by some to one out of four jobs. Taken uncritically, that’s a massive boon to our economy. But is it? We need to be wary of “progress” measured only in hours worked or money spent – neither relates directly to our welfare or quality of life. Health, safety, air quality – these things do. The more intently our economy focuses on the abstractions it creates, the more it loses focus on measuring or accounting for real world value, and the more detached and alienated it becomes.

With the decline in first-world manufacturing, most people (especially in Hamilton) are no stranger to the idea of work becoming more irrelevant and pointless. If you have any doubt that a person can be employed full-time for purposes which create next to no real-world value, I’d suggest a short stint at one of our many call centres. Complex and expensive machines like cars provide an attractive remedy to that, since they’re one of the few things we still make. Unfortunately, making pointless machines is no more useful than making pointless phone calls. Time spent building cars and roads is time which by definition isn’t spent on housing, food or medicine (all are in fact more expensive as a result). Decades of development make it fairly clear that providing a posh fleet of luxury vehicles for the wealthy doesn’t equate to feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. The last decade has shown pretty clearly what happens to the world’s poor when we try using part of our food supply (corn) to supplement our fuel supply.

It’s time to focus on our needs, and not ill-defined amorphous ways of getting them like “jobs” or “economic growth”. If we need to get from one side of town to another, there are ways of achieving that which don’t involve over a hundred horses’ power per person. There are bikes, trains, feet and buses. There are better ways to efficiently use those cars (ride and car shares), and there are far more efficient ways to build and arrange cities so a half-hour car ride isn’t necessary to reach school, work or amenities. If we need homes, let’s devote our funds and efforts toward building the best and most efficient homes possible rather than convoluted methods of financing them. If we need food, let’s grow it. If we need clothes, medicine or tools, let’s make them. Doing these tasks is “work” too, often far more rewarding than most jobs you could name (which is why so many people do them when not paid for it). If the jobs we’re working and institutions we’re relying aren’t meeting our needs, why continue to meet their demands for cash and labour?

With the growing shortages of just about any resource one can name, the environmental struggles of the past century are about to become a lot more “real”. With declining economic prospects and growing energy costs, “green living” is going to go from being a middle-class lifestyle fad into a basic demand of millions of poor people, even more than today. This is a necessary transformation if the environmental movement is to grow and evolve. Rather than asking ourselves what we can do to shame and cajole motoring suburbanites into changing their “evil” ways (cars, meat, McDonalds, Wal-Mart etc), it’s time to ask ourselves how we can help the growing chunk of society who can no longer afford to be a part of this industrial, petrochemical society. How do we help people live through the winter when natural gas and fuel oil are no longer available (Canada has already seen a fuel oil shortage, and our gas reserves are plummeting)? How do we help people get to work, school or grocery stores when they have to sell their car? If environmentalism wants to become a truly popular movement, these are the kind of questions we needs to ask. Most people don’t benefit from pollution and environmental devastation any more than we do from sky high bank and corporate profits. It’s time to stop pretending “the environment” is a separate issue from the political and economic woes faced by average people – all economic issues are ecological, and vice versa. Once we all recognize this, we may finally be able to do something about it.

If recent events in the Gulf of Mexico prove anything, it’s that the price we pay for big toxic industries is often far higher than it appears. The potential for disasters like this is something we live with every day, but seldom talk about. Oil spills from tankers and drilling rigs are one possible source of a disaster which could pose enormous damage to human life and the environment. There are many others, each one of them with the same level of horrific potential as exploding underwater drill rigs.

1.Tar Sands Dam Failure
Oil spills can happen on land, too. And they aren’t always only oil, either. In Northern Alberta there are some very nasty man-made lakes of tarry sludge, held back by some very sketchy dams. It’s been described as “an oil spill in slow motion”. These tailings ponds contain the waste from processing the “world’s dirtiest oil”.Birds often die as soon as they land – 7000 ducks and geese per year. Many of these are sitting a very short distance from rivers leading toward the Mackenzie Delta, with the potential to poison Canada’s largest river system.

2.Coal Mining Disaster
What do you get when you mix high explosives, fossil fuels, and pristine Appalachian landscapes? A war on mountains. Through a type of super-destructive strip-mining known as “mountaintop removal”, mining companies use amounts of explosives on par with the Vietnam War to blow apart entire mountains to get at the coal inside. This process literally remodels the landscape, flattening it. And this means that tailings ponds from the processing are sitting on very unpredictable land. On a small scale, these disasters are common – poisoning farms and waterways. But on a larger scale, it could be very threatening to communities downstream. One Tennessee disaster is said to have dwarfed the Exxon Mobil spill. And though Canada has a lot of potential for ruining lands the size of Western Europe this way, America has a far higher population density, meaning a lot more people would be affected.

3.Uranium Mining Dam Failure
What could be worse than a massive tailings pond full of the by-products of Tar Sands or coal mining operations? The by-products of uranium mining, of course. Canada is a world-leader in Uranium mining, especially in the North (Ont., Sask. and NWT). And we already have seen many dam failures, which led to massive radioactive waste dumps. One of these disasters would mean hundreds or thousands of years of radioactive toxicity for all areas exposed.

4.Nuclear Reactor Meltdown
It’s been said that nuclear reactors are the world’s most advanced tea-kettles. Despite all the high-tech measures used to keep them safe, they are ultimately just steam engines. By piling enriched Uranium together, it heats up and boils water. But if that temperature isn’t kept under control, all sorts of horrible things can happen. A “meltdown” occurs when the nuclear fuel begins to melt, usually melting any safeguards as well(pretty much everything melts and burns at these temperatures). And whether something burns, explodes, hits the water table, or simply just puts off enough of the fuel in smoke that it poisons everyone for hundreds of miles around.

5.Plane Crash
For decades we heard stories about hijackings and plane crashes. The worst we thought could happen was a week or two of icy hiking and eating people. Then 9/11 happened. But while busy office towers during the weekday are terrifying targets, there are a lot of others. And say what you want about the construction of the Twin Towers, but would the average tenement apartment or condo tower stand up any better? How about power plants, especially nuclear ones? Did you know that virtually all of Ontario’s nuclear waste is still stored on site at power plants? And what if they hit a dam, or a water treatment plant? Whether it’s an accident or not, every single plane flying might as well be a cruise missile, and that is something we need to consider when building things which someone might want to hit.

6.Plastic Fire
Thanks to the massive amount of synthetic materials our society uses, there are massive stockpiles of them everywhere. Sometimes this means tire yards, and other times big warehouses full of plastic chips. As one friend who’d worked in local plastics recycling industry put it, “everything that has to do with plastics is super-highly regulated, until you use the word recycling, then you can do whatever you want”.
Plastics are basically oil hardened into solids. And that means they burn fast, hot and put out a lot of toxic smoke. This is a possibility that we in Hamilton know well, after the Plastimet Fire in 1997, one of the most toxic fires in history.

7.Chemical Plant Disaster
A few years ago a fire at a local pesticide plant dumped enormous numbers of toxic by-products into local waterways. This is a small taste of what a pesticide plant can do, as well as many similar chemical industries, if disaster hits at one of their plants. A worst-case scenario would look a lot like the disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed an estimated 20 000 people.

8.Mass Food Poisoning
Never before in history have so many people relied on foods processed in so few places. This massive industrial centralization of our food supply means that when dealing with high-risk foods like meat or sprouts, contamination can spread rapidly over the entire continent. Look at what happened with Maple Leaf sandwich meats. Food borne bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria kill about three Americans a day. There is no reason to centralize our food in this way except to generate massive profits for a few rich corporations.
The elements of our food supply, and especially our meat supply, which take extreme risks in this fashion go well beyond central processing. The Mad Cow scare showed how processing meat scraps into food for cows was putting the whole system at risk. And though it didn’t kill millions, it could have. Modern factory farming techniques concentrate far too many animals together in small, unhealthy spaces. They’re fed cheap industrial food (such as grain-based cattle feed) and given growth hormones and other drugs. And then there’s the massive number of very toxic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers) used in agriculture. I know many in the medical profession, and though the health dangers of pesticides have been disputed in public very effectively, If these products were safe, agricultural workers wouldn’t have the highest risk of cancers like Leukemia and Hodgekins’ disease

9.(un)Natural Disasters
I was in New Orleans the winter following Hurricane Katrina. The scale of the destruction was like nothing I’d ever seen (especially Biloxi). It wasn’t that they couldn’t deal with it – every city has people to re-build homes and put lamp posts back up. But even with hundreds of new workers and volunteers, it was obvious that it would take years to get to all of them. In one of America’s most famous cities, the disaster response effort was like something out of Haiti or Malasia. Both Canadian and Mexican federal agents were on the scene before the American Government. Rebuilding it all is costing billions, and has dumped refugees all over the nation. It was like a nuclear bombing, but with black mold instead of fallout (I slept in a moldy squat while there – not nice to my lungs).
The wreckage was unbelievable. If this happened only a few times every decade to major American cities the entire nation would crumble. This kind of reconstruction effort takes for granted that the rest of the country isn’t suffering the same way.
We may never know if Katrina was caused by climate change or not. The climate is too complicated a system to make that kind of guess. But we do know that we are mucking around with the climate in very serious ways we don’t understand, and that one of the signs we’re seeing is a big increase in hurricanes. Whether this is “natural” or not, we really don’t know. But why take the risk?

10.Business as Usual
None of these disasters put out anywhere near as much toxic contamination, lay waste as many landscapes or kill as many people as the “normal functioning” of our capitalist system. None of them demand anywhere near the cost for eventual cleanup.
An estimated one billion gallons of tar sands tailings leak into groundwater each year. And stelco pumps out twice as many dioxins (one of the world’s nastiest pollutants) each year than the Plastimet fire. Countless corporations which operate in Canada have been linked to death squads in Latin America and elsewhere, such as Coca-Cola or Barrick Gold. More oil is spilled every year from leaky pipes and pumping stations in the Niger Delta than has been spilled in the BP oil disaster in the Gulf. Aging reactors like the infamous Chalk River Reactor near Ottawa regularly spill radioactive materials into waterways. Oh, and around five people die at work every day in Canada.

One way or the other, these processes cause death and destruction on a global scale. These disasters are only the worst and best publicized examples. And while they don’t often factor into the price (how do you insure a nuclear power plant?), they still filter down to every single one of us. And every additional day it goes on makes things worse.

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