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Tag: "environment"

Book Review, Christopher Morris, The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

[ 14 ] November 9, 2014 |

Now that one book is in the can and the other is under review, I have time to read again. So I will review the recent books I get through here on the blog, as I used to do.

Christopher Morris’ environmental history of the lower Mississippi Valley takes readers from the sixteenth century to the present. His central point is that Europeans entered a landscape where wet and dry coexisted, with an ecological balance that supported Native American civilizations, and strove to separate the wet from dry with ever greater technological inputs. In doing so, the French and then the Americans not only rapidly changed the lower Mississippi ecosystem, but also ended up severely degrading one of the most fertile and rich parts of the world.

For both the French and Americans, living in a wet land seemed uncivilized. The constant, if usually low-level, flooding, was akin to savagery and in order to maintain Frenchness or Americanness, separation from nature was required. This led, very quickly, to the building of levees and concerted attempts to dry out the land behind them. For the French, rice culture worked to tame this land and while the Americans continued growing rice, cotton became the economic basis for the ever more vigilance protection of the fields from the river.

But what Europeans found was that water cannot be fully controlled. Damming it, diverting it, channeling it–all of this provided short-term solutions to the water problem, but a force with the power of the Mississippi River strikes back. And when it does, if the pressure is built up because its natural release is taken away by the levees, the damage can be amazing. The most famous flood was in 1927, but the Mississippi has shown Europeans’ efforts to control it futile time and time again. But from the 17th century forward, Europeans sought to engineer the river so that its people could live on dry land without even thinking about the water. This normalized Louisiana and the Mississippi delta as dry land, making floods seem unnatural.

Morris spends most of the book describing these processes. The Mississippi is a young river, having only flowed in its present path for several hundred years. In that time, the river was the home of a tremendous amount of flora and fauna. He details how Native Americans survived in this marshy world, building enormous mounds that remind us of their presence today and thriving off the region’s rich natural resources. They shaped the landscape as well, but lacked the technological ability or capitalist culture to see the river as something that needed taming. After early Spanish and French failures to establish themselves on the lower Mississippi, the French finally succeeded when New Orleans was established in 1718 by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville landed at Biloxi and walked east rather than get lost in the Mississippi delta as his predecessors had done. The French slowly began changing the valley, a process continued by the Spanish during their brief occupation of the area after 1763.

The real changes came with the Americans. The expansion of cotton meant turning as much of the South as possible to its production. This came at a widespread environmental cost throughout the region, with erosion, gullying, and exhausted soils clear problems by the time of the Civil War. On the Mississippi River, floods could replenish that soil, but the ever-more intensive growth of the levee system determined to keep that land dry meant that replenishing rarely occurred, only when flood events broke through the technologies built up to protect the cotton.

This landscape was of course highly racialized, both before and after the Civil War. Morris discusses how slaves lived on the margins of this wet and dry world. For slaves, the marshes provided some level of relative freedom and independence; the ability to hunt for food gave some slaves a bit of control over their own lives. Some slaves hunted full time for their masters, others killed raccoons, opossums, and birds for their own dinners. But those declining marshes meant disappearing wildlife too. Morris closes one chapter by discussing Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 bear hunt in southern Louisiana, which led to the capture of a single scraggly bear attacked by dogs that did little more than disgust Roosevelt. That story, the basis for Faulkner’s “The Bear,” says much about the degraded nature of the lower Mississippi by the early twentieth century.

For general readers, Morris’ last three chapters will be of the greatest interest. Here, he rapidly moves into the twentieth century and what he calls a “pathological landscape.” Three centuries of trying to separate wet and dry had created a landscape where tremendous inputs of pesticides and fertilizers were necessary in one of the most fertile spaces on the planet. Mosquito-borne illnesses became worse through this regime, not better, as standing water made malaria and yellow fever plagues common in Louisiana through the 19th century. Chemicals like DDT and 2,4D became crutches for policy makers to avoid the environmental consequences of centuries of river policy. Coastal erosion became a problem before 1900 as the Mississippi River was channeled to the sea, and as the people of New Orleans discovered during Katrina, this can have devastating consequences.

Yet unlike many environmental histories, there is a bit of hope here. Morris steadfastly believes that humans can live along the Mississippi in a relatively sustainable way. Looking at crawfish farming as an ecologically sustainable way forward, Morris shows how it mimics the river’s natural processes, which means more marshes and more wildlife, as opposed to catfish farming or cotton that have caused great problems within the ecosystem. The crawfish farmers also grow rice in this wet landscape, which builds connections between land and water. Rice fields and catfish farms can become water storage areas that help the region manage the floods in a more ecologically sound and sustainable way than higher levees.

Morris also compares New Orleans to Venice, St. Petersburg, and Rotterdam to note that cities and water can coexist if people see the water as natural and plan for it, rather than view it as an enemy to tame. But New Orleans has not moved significantly in this direction since Hurricane Katrina, nor has the federal government. In a state as devoted to capitalism as the U.S., the short-term economic and political gains of levees means that remains the answer to the threat of water. Yet even in New Orleans, new homes on stilts are coming up, a recognition that this landscape can and flood. Even recognizing that is a positive step toward a more sustainable relationship with the river.

But outside of New Orleans, a somewhat different equation exists because declining populations along the delta has reduced the region’s political power and led to real victories for a more ecologically healthy management regime that has included some natural flooding and rejection of some water technology projects. People are beginning to realize the water is necessary and positive steps have begun to happen. Again, the region’s depopulation has played a role; even in post-Katrina New Orleans, nature is taking back parts of the city, with snakes and alligators in brush replacing people and parking lots.

I suppose some readers might want more on the modern Mississippi, focusing on the oil industry and canals that have received a great deal attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But this history provides a deep background on one of the nation’s most important land management and urban planning problems today. Overall, this is an excellent environmental history with important things to say about modern policy choices.

High Fashion Smog Masks

[ 10 ] October 31, 2014 |

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I’d laugh at this Beijing fashion show having the models wear designer smog masks if it wasn’t so bloody depressing.

What Causes Deforestation?

[ 19 ] October 30, 2014 |

The global deforestation problem is primarily one of a post-colonial economy, with rich nations importing the raw goods of developing world nations for their own luxurious lifestyles, leaving poverty and ecological catastrophe in their wake:

Four commodities produced in just eight countries are responsible for a third of the world’s forest loss, according to a new report. Those familiar with the long-standing effort to stop deforestation won’t be surprised by the commodities named: beef, palm oil, soy, and wood products (including timber and paper). Nor will they be very surprised by most of the countries: Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay.

“The trend is clear, the drivers of deforestation have been globalized and commercialized”, said co-author Martin Persson with Chalmers University of Technology.

“From having been caused mainly by smallholders and production for local markets, an increasing share of deforestation today is driven by large-scale agricultural production for international markets,” said Persson.

This means that much of the deforestation in question is actually driven by consumer demand from abroad.

“If we exclude Brazilian beef production, which is mainly destined for domestic markets, more than half of deforestation in our case countries is driven by international demand,” confirmed Persson.

The biggest importer of these deforesting commodities was China, linked largely to wood products (timber and paper) from Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia, as well as palm oil imports from the latter. The EU was the second biggest importer of the four commodities, due to imports of palm oil from Indonesia, beef from Brazil, and soy from Latin America. India came in third, largely due to palm oil imports from Indonesia.

The U.S. was not a major importer, mostly because it produces the bulk of its own beef and soy.

It is interesting that the U.S. is not a leading driver of this, but that’s only because we have own natural resources to use. Europe doesn’t and for their talk about being more green, which is in some ways true, cutting down tropical forests for palm oil is not exactly a sustainable national ecological footprint.

Obviously there are no easy answers to any of these problems. But problems they very much are indeed.

A World of Dams

[ 20 ] October 28, 2014 |

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Plumer has a good rundown of the complexity of dam building around the world
. The world’s rapidly growing demand for energy means that every way we can turn the natural world into power is going to be considered. Given how many of those methods of energy production also transform the climate in horrible ways, hydropower seems smart. But hydropower also has its own major problems. It forces sometimes hundreds of thousands to move from their homes. It drastically transforms aquatic ecosystems, imperiling fish and other species. It may well create unintended consequences that undermine its clean energy reputation. Building dams also reflects power differentials in society as a whole. Thus you have a nation like Chile seeking to dam rivers over the desires of the people who occupy the land, i.e., the Mapuche. So dam building becomes another round in the 500+ year history of colonialism and racism against indigenous peoples in the Americas.

And mostly, we don’t really know what we are doing when we build dams. In the U.S., this led to a lot of bad dams that provided little power but had significant negative consequences for people and ecosystems. That’s almost certainly happening around the world today.

As with all energy questions, there are no easy answers. But hydroelectric is not a panacea either and should be expanded with the kind of caution one would want to see with gigantic projects that will reshape entire parts of the world. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

This Day in Labor History: October 27, 1948

[ 25 ] October 27, 2014 |

On October 27, 1948, an air inversion trapped the pollution spewed out by U.S. Steel-owned factories in Donora, Pennsylvania. The Donora Fog killed 20 people and sickened 6000 others. This event was one of the most important toxic events in the postwar period that sparked the rise of the environmental movement and groundbreaking legislation to protect Americans from the worst impacts of industrialization.

Donora was a town dominated by U.S. Steel. Southeast of Pittsburgh, the town had both the Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel and Wire plant, both owned by U.S. Steel. The pollution throughout southwest Pennsylvania was legendary as the combination of the steel industry and the region’s hills and valleys meant incredible smoke. While Pittsburgh was nationally famous for its pollution, surrounding towns had similar problems. For the 19th and first half of the twentieth century, this pollution was seen as a sign of progress. But after World War II, with the struggles for mere survival that marked American labor history for the previous century over, workers began demanding more of their employers and government when it came to the environment.

The factories routinely released hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisons into the air. Nearly all the vegetation within a half mile of the Zinc Works was already dead. Donora already suffered from high rates of respiratory deaths, a fact noted at the time, which is significant because people didn’t much talk about that in 1948. The people who had to deal with these problems were the workers themselves. The companies poisoned their bodies inside the factories through toxic exposure on the job and they poisoned their bodies outside the factories through air, water, and ground pollution. Being an industrial worker in mid-twentieth century America was to be under a constant barrage of toxicity.

In Donora, people had been complaining about the air quality for decades. U.S. Steel opened the American Steel and Wire plant in 1915. By 1918, it was already paying people off for the air pollution and it faced lawsuits from residents, especially farmers, through the Great Depression. But in a climate of weak legal repercussions or regulation, this was merely a nuisance for U.S. Steel.

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Pollution in Donora (credit here)

The air inversion started on October 27 and continued until November 2. When it began, this meant that the pollution spewing from the smokestacks just sat in the valley, turning the air into a toxic stew. By October 29, the police closed the town to traffic because no one could see well enough to drive. By that time, people were getting very sick. 6000 people became ill out of a town of 13,000. Almost all of these people were workers and their families who relied upon U.S. Steel for survival. Yet that could also kill them. 800 pets also died.

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The Donora Fog. This picture was taken around noon.

The smog could easily have been worse. An assessment released in December estimated that thousands more could have died if it lasted a couple extra days. Notably, the weather inversion was region-wide (in fact, there were fogs for hundreds of miles during this larger event), but Pittsburgh, long the famed home of American smoke pollution, avoided any serious health problems like Donora because it had recently passed new ordinances against burning bituminous coal, thus lowering the pollution levels and saving its citizens’ lives. Alas, Donora had not passed such regulations.

U.S. Steel of course called the Donora Fog “an act of God,” because only a higher power could have led to a factory without pollution controls. This is standard strategy for corporations when their environmental policies kill people. The Donora Fog put U.S. Steel workers, organized with the United Steelworkers of America, into a difficult situation. Six of the seven members of the Donora city council were USWA members. And they were sick too. But what if U.S. Steel closed the factories? Even in 1948, this was already on workers’ minds. Yet they also wanted real reform. Workers did not trust federal and state regulators. The U.S. Public Health Service originally rejected any investigation of Donora, calling it an “atmospheric freak.” When investigations finally did happen a few days later, there were no air samples from the pollution event itself and the government recommended the factories reopen.

So the USWA and city council filled with its own members conducted their own investigation. CIO president Phil Murray offered the locals $10,000 to start this process. Working with a medical school professor from the University of Cincinnati, the USWA hired six housewives to conduct health effects survey to create the basis for a lawsuit. This continued pressure finally forced a government response. When the Zinc Works decided to reopen in order to “prove” that the plant could not possibly cause smog, locals pressured the Public Heath Service to make the test public. When it did, the health complaints started rolling in, with parents keeping their children home from school. Ultimately, the Public Health Service had no interest in holding U.S. Steel accountable for their subsidiary plants and the company itself wanted to avoid liability without creating a new regulatory structure that would limit emissions. U.S. Steel openly claimed they would close the plants if it had to make major reforms. And in the end, the Public Health Service report, released in October 1949, did not pin culpability on the factories.

The people of Donora sued the plants in response. The company returned to its “act of God” legal defense. The Zinc Works lawsuit paid 80 families $235,000 when it was settled, but that barely covered their legal fees. The American Steel and Wire suit was more successful, leading to a $4.6 million payout. But this was a still a pittance considering the damage done to the people of Donora by the steel industry. Yet in the end, this was an industry the town also needed to survive. U.S. Steel closed both plants by 1966, leading to the long-term decline of Donora, a scenario repeated across the region as steel production moved overseas. Today, Donora’s population is less than half what it was in 1948.

The Donora Fog helped lead to laws cleaning up the air. The first meaningful air pollution legislation in the nation’s history passed Congress and was signed by President Eisenhower in 1955. 1963 saw the first Clean Air Act and 1970 the most significant Clean Air Act. Supporters of all these laws cited Donora as evidence of the need for air pollution legislation.

For decades now, anti-fluoridation nutcases have used the Donora Fog as one of their cases to prove that fluoride is the world’s greatest evil and the government is covering it up.

I drew from Lynn Page Snyder, “Revisiting Donora, Pennsylvania’s 1948 Air Pollution Disaster, in Joel Tarr, ed., Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region for this post.

This is the 122nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Resistance in the Pennsylvania Coal Country: Past and Present

[ 23 ] September 29, 2014 |

Last week, I gave a talk at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, titled “Resistance in the Pennsylvania Coal Country: Past and Present,” although in reality, I talked more broadly about Appalachia in the second half of the talk. Anyway, it was filmed and is here if you want to watch it. I can’t seem to embed it so click the link. I got pretty warmed up during the talk and really laid into the horrors of the coal industry.

On Creeks

[ 53 ] September 17, 2014 |

We drive over little creeks all the time. They don’t register in our consciousness except maybe that the bridge is a bit narrower than the rest of the road. But those creeks and the plants along them, even in urban areas where you have high rates of pollution and too little protection for riparian zones, are actually incredibly ecologically important and very rich in wildlife. Yeah, you aren’t going to see a bear or elk along them so they might not get your attention, but snails, small fish, dragonflies, and songbirds are critical for ecosystem health.

Creeks are really important and we should take them more seriously!

Fifty Years of the Wilderness Act

[ 27 ] September 3, 2014 |

Fifty years ago today, Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act of 1964. This groundbreaking legislation promised a legislative solution to the problem of saving the nation’s most beautiful lands from industrial development, roads, and other intrusive human activities. The law defined wilderness “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This legislation led to the creation of over 109 million acres of wilderness in the last fifty years, slightly over half in Alaska, with California, Idaho, Arizona, and Washington the next states with the most wilderness. Today, about 5 percent of the United States is a wilderness area.

The Wilderness Act had support from many circles, but the leader of it was The Wilderness Society, led by the tireless Howard Zahniser. Zahniser, unlike many of the early advocates of wilderness was not a self-designated manly man but an intellectual not in particularly great physical shape who loved the beauty of the United States, a man seemingly fitting to lead a movement that would attract a lot more dayhikers than people with the money, time, and inclination to spend weeks in the distant corners of the country.

Leading the opposition to wilderness legislation was the United States Forest Service, which saw the designations as undermining its goal to cut every tree in the forest, and western lawmakers like Colorado’s Wayne Aspinall, who saw it as a threat to the development of their states. Yet through a decade of political organizing and compromise and failure to pass earlier versions of the legislation, not to mention a rapidly changing nation that year by year was more in tune to environmental reforms, the act finally passed with only one dissenting vote in Congress. And that’s not because LBJ gave a speech or used his powers of persuasion.

As the historian Nancy Unger writes, this truly was remarkable given the developmentalist ideology that was unchallenged in the United States for most of its history. Today, many Americans tsk-tsk at the developing world for their environmental polices that include the Chinese killing basically ever mammal in Asia and Brazil turning its rain forest into cattle plantation. This was the United States before 1960. Despite the early conservationists and a few national parks, total and complete development is what defined America from its beginning. Yet by 1964, this had begun to change, in no small part because of the economic boom of the postwar period that gave the American working class the chance to play in nature for the first time, thanks to union contracts that gave them higher wages and shorter hours. Unions started lobbying for the recreational interests of their members and many supported the Wilderness Act. This was almost a blip in time, one that ended with the 1973 recession and the decline of industrial jobs in this nation, but it’s an important precedent.

The law has some weaknesses. Allowing horses into the wilderness areas was a terrible idea and as anyone who has hiked along trails popular with the horse riders knows, it gets pretty unpleasant, unless you came to the wilderness to step in horse manure and hike in an eroded, gullied trail thanks to horse traffic. You also run into situations like today where you have fireeaters in one political party determined to stop all environmental legislation in principle. This was fairly unimaginable in 1964, when there were lots of conservative Republicans happy to not only vote for environmental legislation, but to spearhead it. Some of the law’s weaknesses and compromise never fulfilled the fears of wilderness advocates. For instance, the legislation had exemptions to mining operations with preexisting claims in the wilderness areas, but the big mining companies backed away in the face of widespread opposition to butchering what rapidly became seen by the general public as sacred spaces. John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid has a good section on the threat of copper mining in one of the wilderness areas of northern Washington. It’s also worth noting that the language about land untrammeled by man is not only vague but quite value-laden and undermines the possibility of rejuvenating land damaged by timber, mining, and agricultural production back into wilderness.

Today, it does feel that the importance of wilderness to environmentalism has faded significantly. That does not mean that there aren’t vigorous supporters of wilderness; in fact there are across the West especially and they often make a huge difference in individual struggles. But, and perhaps this is a good thing, the popular notion of environmentalism does seem to have moved toward climate change and food activism. I think the two are closely connected. Climate change is the greatest challenge the human race faces and we are failing miserably to do anything about it. It’s so big and depressing that I think a lot of environmentally minded people, and I am primarily talking about the young people I have taught over the past several years, have moved into food activism because it is something they can control on a personal level. The other area of interest for a lot of young people is environmental justice, writ large, which is a major shift away from the concerns of land preservation that dominated the young people of my generation and the generation before.

Still, the impact of the Wilderness Act can not be overstated. As someone who just recently went hiking in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, I can’t state how glorious these gems are. We should all remember how important it is to protect these beautiful spaces, even if we don’t always get to visit them (or even want to).

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There are still new proposals for wilderness today and they deserve our support.

By coincidence, I visited Howard Zahniser’s grave the other day. It’s on the banks of the Allegheny River in Tionesta, Pennsylvania. A beautiful spot. Zahniser had a heart problem and died just a few months before the Wilderness Act finally passed. Sad that he didn’t live to see its passage.

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Yosemite and the Legacy of White Colonialism Upon the Land

[ 38 ] August 16, 2014 |

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This is a fascinating essay on the terrible wrath white colonialism has created in the Yosemite Valley. There are a couple of facets. First, in the early 1850s, whites committed genocidal acts against the indigenous peoples living in Yosemite, clearing out the population. Then in the late 19th century, the Yosemite became the nation’s first “protected” space, based in no small part upon the landscape indigenous people had created in the Yosemite Valley through the applied use of fire to clear brush. In the early 20th century, under the guidance of the supposed father of Yosemite and of the modern environmental movement John Muir, fire was banned entirely, drastically changing the region and, ironically, creating the circumstances for much hotter and out of control fires because of denser and smaller vegetation. As the West dries out and heats up today, the costs of controlling these fires gets higher and higher in harder and harder conditions, thanks a century of white American land management practices.

In other words, the history of white colonialism in the Yosemite Valley is not just about a distant massacre of indigenous people 150 years ago. It’s about land management practices with a series of ideologies–aesthetic, economic, racial–behind them that still profoundly shape the area today, and not for the better.

Americans Don’t Care about Climate Change

[ 80 ] August 12, 2014 |

Environmentalism as an active political movement with the ability to create major change has declined to its weakest point in several decades, with the failure to pass the cap and trade bill a shock to the movement’s leading organizations and a sign that their multi-decade strategy of expertise, lobbying, and fundraising was not working. That said, surveys show people still care about the environment. But they don’t care about climate change (or more accurately, they care about it less than all other major environmental issues). So the chances of really doing anything to stop it seem increasingly remote.

Mining: A Reponsible Industry. Unless You are a Human or Other Creature

[ 10 ] August 7, 2014 |

Oh mining, will you ever even try to be a responsible citizen of the world?

Hundreds of people in British Columbia can’t use their water after more than a billion gallons of mining waste spilled into rivers and creeks in the province’s Cariboo region.

A breach in a tailings pond from the open-pit Mount Polley copper and gold mine sent five million cubic meters (1.3 billion gallons) of slurry gushing into Hazeltine Creek in B.C. That’s the equivalent of 2,000 Olympic swimming pools of waste, the CBC reports. Tailings ponds from mineral mines store a mix of water, chemicals and ground-up minerals left over from mining operations.

The flow of the mining waste, which can contain things like arsenic, mercury, and sulfur, uprooted trees on its way to the creek and forced a water ban for about 300 people who live in the region. That number could grow, as authorities determine just how far the waste has traveled. The cause of the breach is still unknown.

The answer is, of course, no.

The Wages of the Industrial Food System

[ 11 ] August 4, 2014 |

The obscene use of fertilizer and chemicals leads to algae blooms that make the water supply of Toledo undrinkable. The problem is exacerbated by the non-native zebra mussels that eliminate animals that eat the algae to create a perfect storm of 21st century environmental disaster.

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