Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Prosperity ≠ Fossil Fuels

One day last summer at the Wildbranch Writing Workshop, Sandra Steingraber had those studying with her use a zip code for a place important in our lives and the Toxic Release Inventory[1] as starting points for a writing assignment. We were to examine the selected location through a new lens and react to the toxic secrets that may belie that special place.  As someone trained as a chemist, I am by no means a chemophobe.  In fact, I am often frustrated by those who call for a chemical-free world as it is simply not possible.  But having run through this exercise several times now for places in the state of Michigan where I grew up (this is starting to become an obsession), I am having to come to grips with some very dark stories about the Upper Midwestern places I still call home, even though I moved to Pennsylvania in 1986.  I am wrestling with new truths about places that I long thought of as pristine retreats, places that seem wilderness-like compared to the East Coast, the Mid-Atlantic region.  I now have a series of draft reactions to the hidden legacies of the mining, agriculture, and chemical industries historically important to Michigan, some yet too painful to publicly reveal.  And some are still in too raw form; the writing comes slowly as I struggle with the sense of deceit I feel when delving further into these chemical realities.  Below is my most recent exploration, preliminary thoughts spawned by all the media coverage of tar sands oil and my growing frustration that that we have become a nation of addicts  -- fossil fuel junkies who will stop at nothing to get the next fix.


In the summer of 2010, thousands of gallons of oil from tar sands spilled into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River and surrounding wetlands in Michigan.  The accounts vary, but numbers as high as 840,000 gallons have been reported.[2]  This spill, caused by a burst in an Enbridge Energy pipeline, likely didn’t catch the eye of the public – maybe because we were more focused on the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred earlier that year just months after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig went into action.  Maybe the media coverage was scant in areas outside of Michigan.  Or maybe, given that there is already a Superfund Site on the Kalamazoo River[3] people figured it really didn’t matter anymore.  Nevertheless, this incident foreshadows what could happen if the Keystone XL pipeline is built. 

A year later, the waterway was still closed to the public and residents claim that there have been significant health impacts.[4] 

Perhaps even more troubling to me, as someone who spent almost three decades living in Michigan including my formative years as a child, is the fact that this oil spill was not an isolated event.  According to a 2010 report entitled Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit, the state of Michigan ranks in the top 10 states with the most pipeline accidents.  And who thinks of this as an oil state?

Besides the risk of such nasty spills that destroy habitat, kill wildlife, and very likely sicken humans, the production and refining of sands oil is energy-and water intensive.  And, of course, burning of the refined product releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases.  A “game-over proposition for climate change” according to James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute and a world renowned climate scientist speaking of the Keystone XL pipeline project to bring Alberta tar sands oil to Texas.

If you are a climate change skeptic, then think of the less-abstract-than-climate-change toxic implications.  The refining and burning of fuels from tar sand oils release poisonous mercury and arsenic at higher levels compared to conventional oil.  To put a human face to the impact of these contaminants, read some of the stories of people living the legacy of tar sand processing in Detroit.[5]  Multiple diagnoses and deaths of cancer.  Environmental injustices.  Nose bleeds, asthma, emphysema, hypertension, sleep apnea.

I am still not fearful of chemicals.  I understand that there are differences between statistical and perceived risk, and that there are precautions one should take when working around hazardous chemicals.  I know how to look up information on Material and Safety Data Sheets, and I am familiar with the Community Right to Know Act -- legislation aimed at protecting the public.  But many people, in fact most of the public, those community members most in need of knowing, do not know these things and have no ability to protect themselves.  They do not know to grab gloves or a mask or respirator; they cannot move to a safer place, if such a place still exists.

As I wrote recently in a Facebook response to an article describing how we are tearing up pristine places to secure fracking sand to blast underground to free natural gas:  We are tearing up the landscape for sand to blast underground only to allow the buried gases to escape into pipelines and water tables.  We blow the tops off mountains to get to coal buried underneath and extract oil from tar in sands in Canada to pipe to wherever.  We are drilling miles below the ocean for a few more drops of oil. Insanity.  But I am not sure we will ever stop defacing and rearranging the planet until it is gone, all gone.

Yes, oil (and the other fossil fuels) have become “the lubricant of the world economy” as was stated in a recent CNN article about Iran threatening to block shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.[6]  But when the industrial profit reports fail to consider the externalities, the costs to human health and welfare, and the damages to nature and our natural resources, things have gone terribly wrong with “the system”.  This is not national prosperity.  This is indeed insanity.


I started down this dismal line of internet searching because I vaguely remembered there being dark, strange looking sands in the Copper Country region of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  I wondered if they could possibly be tar sands deposits.  They are not.  These are stamp sands, left over from the processing of ores; in this case, they are from the processes used to purify copper.  These sands typically contain traces of toxic heavy metals.  Reportedly, aquatic life in the Keweenaw Waterway (or Portage Canal) is diminished in the areas of these sands.  Sigh.  That is yet another zip code that I need to look up.

On Animal Prosperity - a nod to the Great Ape Diaries Project and the work of the MGVP

Gerry Ellis, a renowned photographer, has worked for a number of organizations including the National Audubon Society, BBC Wildlife, New York Times, and National Geographic.  (You can learn more about him at  I had the great fortune to meet him through the Audubon TogetherGreen Fellows program ( .  Gerry is currently refocusing his attention on the Great Ape Diaries project ( – a project that he began working on in the early 1990s. 

Like so many charismatic mega fauna, gorillas are highly endangered facing a host of threats.  They have the added bad fortune to live in areas that have a long history of poverty, war, corruption, and genocide.  Recently, media attention has been given to the topic of human rights and “conflict metals” – the technology industry’s equivalent of the blood diamond story (for example, see:

Last week, a YouTube video about a troop of gorillas entering a camp near Bwindi National Park, Uganda and having close encounters with humans hit the social media circuit through Facebook and other channels.  It went viral due to the “oh wow” factor it had and most likely had a number of people looking into gorilla-sighting tourism opportunities.   Given Gerry’s familiarity with endangered apes, it wasn’t surprising that he would a) know about the video-gone-viral and b) have something to say about it.  What was surprising, to me at least, was the issue of concern was not one that would immediately come to mind – even amongst many conservationists.  You can read his blog post at:

Gerry and I occasionally chat electronically about a range of topics.  I am deeply grateful to the TogetherGreen program for enabling these types of rich, inspiring, and hopefully lasting personal connections.  Anyway, Gerry’s blog posts and Facebook messages often prompt me to send him a message.  Today, his entry motivated me to draft a much longer response that I posted as a comment on his blog site.  But I thought I would also share these thoughts on my own too-often neglected blog.  It makes more sense if you read Gerry’s post first....

Gerry, I am glad that you posted this message of concern and wish there was a way to get the points you raise out to the masses who watched the YouTube video.  As like countless others, I did watch the experience with some awe and pondered what it would be like to see these extraordinary animals in the wild (not necessarily in the camp; I had that experience with a rogue elephant in the Maasai Mara once).  I even envied for a moment, my vet who is currently on a gorilla trek in Uganda.  But I kept thinking about a different sort of risk than you note; these animals are wild and, as such, unpredictable and possibly dangerous.  The person featured in the video might have been “lucky” to have such a close encounter, but he was also lucky that no harm came from it to him.  We don’t know how the apes were impacted.

You quote from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) report that raises an important dilemma too seldom considered by the mega-fauna adoring public:   “Although human proximity to mountain gorillas is essential for their conservation, also crucial is minimizing the risk for human-to–great ape transmission of respiratory pathogens.”  I teach a course each spring entitled “The Impact of Technology on Diet and Disease”.  We talk about the origins of disease – often through the wild animal/human interface.  Students read pieces from Jared Diamond about the negative impacts of the domestication of animals on human health and from Laurie Garrett (“The Coming Plague”).  But I hadn’t previously discussed this in the reverse direction with these students; that is, the risk we pose to the animal populations.  I suppose if this was one of my conservation courses, I would have thought to do this.  But now I will be sure to call attention to this in this human-focused course too!

So how then, do we raise awareness of the dire need for conservation in general and, in particular, protection of endangered species?  Animals, especially ones that look and act like us or ones that appear too cute to resist, can tug at heartstrings in ways that scientific data cannot.  As a plant scientist, I also know that other species, no matter how beautiful or critical in the ecological web of life, do not have the same sort of power to capture the imagination and interest of the masses in the way that certain large vertebrates do.

I have a strong aversion to zoos, but many animal biologists claim that this is the only exposure to “wildlife” that many people have and thus, can be an important education and conservation tool.  A few years ago in a Conservation Biology course, we had a rather heated discussion about the value of taxidermy animal displays in mega stores like Cabelas.  (I am not opposed to hunting; just trophy hunting.)  And while a trip to Kenya years ago was a childhood dream come true for me, I remember being disgusted by some of the guides/tour companies chasing after animals for their clients, disrupting the animals at rest or in the midst of a hunt just for the rude humans to get a closer look or a better picture -- a trophy of a different sorts.  [I was pleased that on the game drive on my recent trip to South Africa (a Christmas present for my son who also attended COP17), the guide had the utmost respect for the animals and started by saying that we were going into their territory and had to remember to respect that.  No chasing but rather viewing with reverence in quiet, and often from a distance.  No radio calls to other vehicles. No rude interruptions.]

Ecotourism can be good for conservation, but too often caters to the elite, adventure-seeking people and doesn’t put habitat and wildlife protection as the top priority.  Game preserves in Africa can be well-intended, but humans will be humans!  I simply don’t have the answer to this one.  As someone who dislikes the propaganda that PETA uses, I doubt that we want to start showing videos of animals dying of human-transmitted diseases as an awareness campaign strategy!

I don’t know if you have heard of the play entitled “Tooth and Claw” by Pennsylvania playwright Michael Hollinger.  If you ever get a chance to see it – do so.  Set on the Galapagos Islands, the script is filled with environmental science and conservation biology (accurately described), and raises many complex questions including that of which species (including humans) are most important to protect. There is a wonderful debate about removing the "invasive" goats from the islands in order to save the Giant Tortoise from both the perspective of the scientists and the inhabitants of the islands who could describe all sorts of uses for goats, but no practical ones for the tortoise.  They also point out that everything on the island was an "immigrant" including the people. The descriptions of natural selection, species gone extinct, and the tributes to Darwin were beautifully worded.  The author weaves together themes of exploitation of ocean fisheries, poverty, extinction, culling populations, abortion, biodiversity, and the too often unheard voice of the people without power or money.  Ah, but I digress.

I must now go make a donation to MGVP!