The Environment Could Use Some Rich Friends

By William A. Collins

Healthy forests,
Seas, and air;
Takes big bucks,
To keep them there.

It seems likely that the environment here on Earth is doomed. Sure, we all want clean air, clean water, biodiversity, pretty coral, precious neighborhoods, and the like. But there are other things we seem to cherish even more: gasoline, air conditioning, heat, cheap food, bright lights, swift highways, and meat.
Americans are notoriously excessive consumers. But now it turns out that the rest of the world, approximately another 6.7 billion people, covets many of the same things we have. Indians want air conditioning, Latin Americans want cars, Arabs want refrigerators, and Africans want food they can afford.

Our love affair with oil has unleashed Middle Eastern wars. Likewise, human craving for air conditioning and the electricity to run it pays for blowing the tops off coal-rich mountains in Appalachia and the building of hydroelectric dams in Brazil’s priceless rain forests. Similarly our lust for cell phones pays Finnish manufacturers to buy rare metals from Congolese smugglers who hire militias amid violent wars to dig them up.

Voters might side with the environment if the options were clearly laid out on a ballot, but that’s not usually how it works.

Instead, our craving for expensive resources means we pay dearly to the corporations that supply them, which in turn provides those businesses with the cash to purchase the laws and regulations they need to devastate the environment. It’s all very tidy.

Sometimes this resource conflict surfaces in a real war or disaster. At other times the conflict is political. Just now such a battle rages over the “tar sands” in Alberta, Canada, the site of the dirtiest form of energy yet devised: a carbon-intensive process of gobbling up water and natural gas to get oil out of low-lying sands, leaving behind devastated forests, polluted groundwater, and toxic chemical pools. Still, the Calgary, Alberta Sun calls for slashing regulations that make it so darn hard to get a new mining permit.

Current plans call for scraping off a portion of Alberta’s oily surface equal in size to Florida. Meanwhile in this country, thousands of environmentalists demonstrated for weeks in front of the White House to stop the U.S. pipeline that would make this unprecedented devastation feasible. More than 1,000, including actress Daryl Hannah, were arrested. But the effort didn’t attract nearly the attention a tea party rally might have.

But you can bet that, one way or another, pipeline or not, the tar sands will be exploited. America’s thirst for fossil fuels, oil companies’ thirst for profits, Alberta’s thirst for jobs, and politicians’ thirst for campaign contributions will see to that.

Unfortunately, the environment does not have the kind of well-heeled lobby it needs to fend off all this pillaging. It depends on the goodwill of sensitive volunteers, donors, and governments to formulate laws and regulations to protect it. This is a thin reed to lean upon.

Meanwhile leaky oil rigs drill farther down, coal ash piles climb farther upward, nuclear vessels break open, and clean water resources dwindle.

Nature is already punishing us for these excesses, and without more funding dedicated to its protection, those punishments will only worsen.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. http://otherwords.org

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October 13, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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