I’m not hating on Norman Borlaug. His innovations in improving the yield of agricultural crops through genetic modification and cross-breeding have undoubtedly contributed to curbing hunger and malnutrition in under-consuming countries, particularly in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Totally not hating! Look at that smile
But the Green Revolution he inspired has left behind a toxic legacy. In order to support the new breeds of plants produced, the agricultural industry produced hundreds of thousands of tons of pesticides a year through the 1950s, 60s, and onward. Unfortunately, it turned out that many of these pesticides contained/contain toxins and persistent organic pollutants. Things like lindane, aldrin, dieldrin, chlordane, heptachlor, and DDT – carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, bioaccumulators.
While, to the international society’s credit, we did manage to ban the production and use of many of these chemicals through instruments like the Stockholm Convention, we are left with tens of thousands of tons of these compounds, idling in sometimes poorly stored containers worldwide. Africa alone has 50,000 tons of these now obsolete pesticides, which have occasionally been unintentionally released into communities by leaks and poor disposal practices.
Fortunately, through the help of funds by the World Bank, and with the support of the Stockholm Convention, the international society is starting to get rid of these pesticides in a reasonably safe manner, but this should introduce a note of caution in the rapid industrial production of poorly tested compounds.
I suppose this was inevitable. Yesterday was Saturday, and being in the Yucatán, with no interviews lined up for today, my options were 1) hang around the hostel, and continue working on my paper via notepad and pencil (taking it back to ’92, y’all), or 2) go to the beach. Only a madman would have chosen number 1.
The Obvious Choice
So: I took a shared taxi to Puerto Juárez, then a $7 ferry to Isla Mujeres. Lovely beach on Playa Norte – you can walk out 100m, and never have the absolutely crystal water go further than chest high. But here’s the thing: this is a highly touristic zone, and the sun-sensitive visitors to Mexico also take this ferry all day for sand-and-beach. I happen to be highly allergic to oxybenzone, one of the most popular ingredients in sunscreen, and all it takes is one brush against, say, a deck chair recently used by a Coppertone-slathered individual, for me to break out in rashes, itching, and suppurating swelling (helpfully alleviated right now by very, very high doses of Benadryl – which also has the side effect of making me high as a kite).
Now, I’ve thought a lot about oxybenzone over the years, having had multiple reactions and exposures to it, despite my best efforts to avoid it (I once unwittingly shared a straw with an amiga that used an oxybenzone-laden chapstick and came off looking like Mick Jagger), and have focused on two things that I find interesting/aggravating. First, as many of you will find out, it is found in a wide, wide range of cosmetic products – look at anything that has the letters SPF on it, and chances are it has oxybenzone, or its relative, benzophene-3. Second, it is an endocrine disruptor (see above link). Now, it’s not the only way to get sunscreen; you can use anything that has inert chemicals, such as titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide and get much, much better coverage. Problematically, the metallic sunblock is oldschool, and leaves a faint, whitish layer on your skin when you brush it on. Not very stylish, yeah? Plus, I am sure that the vast, vast majority of users are completely unaware that oxybenzone is harmful, not just to myself, but to all users, in particular infants and small children.
Spraying DDT in the United States
But this I thought was symptomatic of one of the major challenges to human health: we are surrounded by potentially harmful chemicals every day, ostensibly in the name of convenience. Eventually, we learn about them, but often only after concerted action against the inertia, apathy, and perhaps active resistance of those who receive some benefits from distributing them.
While we, as an international community, have eventually responded to some of these concerns, banning some harmful but ubiquitous products at the domestic level in the 1970s and 1980s, and by internationalizing the campaign against toxic substances through instruments such as the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, it is still clear that in many ways, our attitudes towards dangerous chemicals hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. The types of chemicals and products vary, and over time, awareness-raising leads to some civil society challenges to particular compounds, but toxins remain profitable, and information moves more slowly than commerce: hence, the continued ubiquity of harmful chemicals.
Now that we know that the only thing coming out of the recent COP-17 at Durban is an agreement to agree in the future, and the Zombie Protocol, the question becomes: what are nations going to do to address climate change? In a move straight out of a Schumacher film, Mongolia is planning to engineer ice shields to keep their capital city, Ulaanbaatar cool – particularly since Mongolia has warmed 3x faster than the rest of the world on average.
While this may or may not work (and it’s very doubtful that it will), it’s somewhat unfortunate that Mongolia, with a mere 15.6 million tons of CO2e (PDF), or 3 million tons per capita is both a tiny contributor to global warming, and particularly vulnerable to the changes already being observed worldwide. Moreover, while climate mitigation is almost certainly something that countries should be investing in, engineering solutions to global warming is only a small and potentially problematic response to the emerging crisis.
Approaches like this, or other, more complex geoengineering solutions such as (seriously) space mirrors – contemplated by the UN and IPCC, no less – are flawed in that they 1) take away attention from the root causes of the problem, by not addressing underlying consumption (indeed, they make it easier for richer societies to continue consuming, as long as they pay their way in technological solutions); 2) may cause environmental problems of their own – particularly in doing things like (again, seriously) dumping iron in the ocean; 3) in the words of David Attenborough (yes, THE David Attenborough), are “fascist” – they place too much power in the hands of rich nations. I mean, controlling the weather is something straight out of a bad science fiction movie. We’ll keep an eye on things, but hopefully we’ll spend more time investing in ways to cut consumption, rather than punting it down the road. In the mean time, enjoy these chilling puns!
Wow, this is flattering: my blog has been listed as a useful resource tracking the Durban climate talks. This plug provided on the Forest Carbon Portal, a website run by the Ecosystem Marketplace, a research organization dedicated to analyzing the benefits of marketizing ecosystem services, including biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and water. As indicated, their primary goal is to help “…give value to environmental services that, for too long, have been taken for granted.”
They have a wealth of information on forest and carbon markets, including work on REDD. Check their site out, see what you think, or see the new links provided to their reports in the Research and Resources tab.
Second, the Obama administration and the State Department recently announced that the project would be sent back for review, citing the environmental and socioeconomic considerations raised by the specter of continued oil dependency and dirty extraction.
…And One Giant Leap Back
However, any optimism about these developments should be severely tempered. While the guaranteed protection of the Ogallala aquifer is a good thing, the obvious question that emerges is, why were they threatened in the first place? Moreover, a careful examination of the State Department’s announcement on the Pipeline clearly indicates that the delay 1) is primarily to find a less contentious route for the proposed oil; 2) times the final decision-making such that the policy will be determined after the election. A more cynical person than I would suggest that Obama is primarily trying not to alienate his remaining progressive-environmentalist constituency, while intending to go ahead with it anyway. But, if the next President is a Republican, well, the possibility of the Pipeline becomes a certainty.
An Eminently Reasonable Man
Take a look at the rhetoric surrounding the issue: obviously, you have industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute stating that the Pipeline will create “…thousands of jobs almost immediately,” something that has to be a concern for Obama given his poll figures as of late.
More colorfully, Rick Perry has pointed out that our dependence on foreign oil, much of it produced by nationalized companies in countries such as Saudia Arabia, places American troops and security at risk. We strengthen hostile regimes, because we fill up our SUVs with their product. (Ironically, this is an argument made by environmentalists for reducing oil consumption – inimical to the Keystone XL).
Something Else to Keep in Mind
In any case, despite the superficial progress, there are a plethora of well-reasoned objections, on clearly stated environmental grounds, to the project as a whole – not just the proposed expansion through the Sand Hills. In the Colbert Report, Middlebury’s own Bill McKibben critiques the whole idea of the project.
Adding Insult to Injury: the First Nations and Injustice
One final point: while McKibben’s argument is sound, it seems as if there was not enough time on the Report to get into one of the more troubling aspects (to me) of the whole production of the Keystone. Even if we were guaranteed that the transit of oil were safe in the US, oil extraction is severely problematic for the people who live near the tar sands: indigenous and First Nations peoples.
As can be seen in this report by the NRDC (TarSandsInvasion-full [PDF]), the extraction of oil from tar sands is immensely hazardous to the local ecosystems upon which indigenous people depend. Air pollution, and the seepage of toxins into groundwater, aquifers, and local ecosystems have led to high rates of cancer, asthma, acid rain, and the accumulation of toxins such as cyanide and ammonia. Not surprisingly, and as is the case in the US, indigenous people in Canada are at the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole. It is important to keep in mind, when we think about environmental problems, that some populations are more vulnerable than others. Thinking about the Keystone XL (and other environmental issues) should raise questions, not just about consumption, local ecosystems, and wellbeing – but also about demographics and social identity. Who benefits? Who loses? Do certain populations lose more? In so doing, we should oppose environmentally harmful projects, not just on the basis of ecological concerns, but also on the basis of human rights, justice, and socioeconomic equity.
For many, the 2010 decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC (PDF) seemed like a further step in the reification of corporations. Briefly, the decision held that it was unconstitutional to restrict the political speech of corporations (read: spending on political campaigns), as doing so violated the First Amendment rights of persons within the United States – the underlying assertion is that corporations are legal persons. Critics pointed out that the norm of corporate personhood – giving corporate entities legal rights equivalent to those of ordinary citizens – would likely mean the concentration of political power in the hands of corporate CEOs and the wealthy. Well, it turns out that, in addition to empowering them, the norm of corporate personhood may be used to hold corporations accountable for their actions.
Background: Environmental Injustice and Shell in Nigeria
In the 1990s, oil exploration in Nigeria was a travesty of environmental injustice. In the Nigerian Delta, the practice of extraction was incredibly dirty – oil spills, and gas flaring devastated the local environment, and displaced residents. Moreover, the federal government of Nigeria monopolized the control of national oil wealth, giving a disproportionately low share to the residents of states in which oil exploration was taking place.
To make matters worse, Shell, seeking to maintain oil extraction, facilitated the displacement and murder of residents of the Delta region, largely of the Ogoni tribe. As indicated in this book excerpt (PDF), Shell contractors bulldozed farmland and houses in order to gain access to oil-producing land. When people protested, they were shot by the Nigerian army. When they protested those shootings, they were shot. When they blocked the community to further oil exploration, the Nigerian army and police went to ‘dialogue’ with the community, and they were shot. In these instances, army and police officers were paid field allowances by Shell, who later wrote to “reiterate our appreciation for the excellent co-operation we have received from the Nigerian Police Force in helping to preserve the security of our operations.” This pattern continued until several people were killed, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, poet, author, television personality, and environmental activist.
However, on October 16th, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on appeal. At the heart of it, this case raises the question of whether corporations can have the rights of citizens without their corresponding responsibilities. Obviously, the most optimistic outcome, and one which we will find out next year after the case is concluded, is that the SCOTUS finds that corporations are, in fact, liable for human rights violations – that at least would indicate some conceptual consistency among the conservative branch. If, however, they find that Shell is not liable, as non-juridical persons under international law, it may expose the hypocrisy and emptiness at the core of the idea of corporate rights.