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Paving Paradise

From the Publisher of Chicago Life


When I was in grade school I discovered an Indian arrowhead in a cave on the bluff behind my Dad's property. From that time on, I felt like I was mysteriously tied to Native Americans of generations past. I wanted to preserve that wonderful spot for generations to come. Unfortunately, the cave site is now the site of a large condominium development.

In my 20s and early 30s, I had a career as a watercolor artist. I spent my days in solitude painting elements in nature and had the good fortune of studying first-hand the inter-relationships of living things--from trees to fossils. It was easy to see how crucial it was to protect the delicate balance of nature.

I often think of a line from a Joni Mitchell song. "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." I'd like to think we don't have to destroy the powerful beauty of our natural wilderness--and clean air and water--just for short-term profits. But I'm increasingly concerned today.

Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed, paints the picture of civilizations that implode because of what he terms "ecocide." Diamond recently wrote in an editorial in The New York Times: "When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts."

Today our country's leaders have reversed decades of regulations on polluting industries. Corporations give campaign donations to candidates who in turn pass legislation favoring their industries. Rather than raise the bar on mile-per-gallon cars and energy conservation--including wind and solar power--we have sacrificed our mountaintops, streams and clean water to coal and hard-rock mineral mining industries. We have permitted the dumping of waste materials into waterways, permitted factory farms to deplete our topsoil, and allowed hog factories to ruin our fish estuaries while releasing terrible toxins in the air. We continue to "study" global warming while reversing regulations on carbon dioxide--the primary cause of global warming.

In Crimes Against Nature, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. addresses many environmental atrocities that have been fostered by some corporations at the expense of public health, Kennedy claims that a 40-mile-per-gallon car would save Americans $1,000 a year in gasoline costs--but then, he says, oil companies would sell less oil.

Kennedy writes about hog factory farms with open-air lagoons of fecal matter that contaminate aquifers and waterways with 400 toxic poisons, including the microbe Pfiesteria, which has already killed 1 billion fish and causes brain damage in humans. The farms also harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria or "superbugs."

Kennedy claims that he and the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance have been the targets of a smear campaign produced by the Pork Producers Council, which created a front group called "Truthkeepers" to discredit Kennedy. He explains how polluting industries and the radical right have created alliances and foundations that mimic public interest organizations in order to counterattack environmental laws that protect air, water, wetlands, food safety, endangered species and public lands. The multinational polluters supporting these organizations include oil, coal and chemical companies whose policies favor narrow interests of the wealthy few at the expense of the public good.

According to Kennedy, organizations adopt environmental-sounding names such as "Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain" while hiring lobbyists and public relations experts to promote "Wise Use" of our country's resources, such as weakening the Clean Air Act--including erasing EPA prosecutions of old power plants that surpass limits on carbon dioxide pollution and the gutting of New Source Review rules-- and permitting coal-bed methane drilling to contaminate aquifers and decimate native vegetation. Unfortunately, it can take 100 to 200 years to replenish an aquifer. Thankfully, Bush's proposed Clear Skies Act stalled in the Senate committee because it permitted the largest producers of mercury, acid rain and smog too much time to meet new emissions standards while failing to address global warming. Meanwhile the EPA announced a welcome rule, the Clean Air Interstate Rule, to reduce smog and acid rain affecting the eastern and midwestern states.

Kennedy writes that 27 percent of urban wells have been contaminated with the gasoline additive MTBE. The costs of cleaning up the contamination are $29 to $46 billion. He writes that oil industry lobbyists pushed and eventually got protection from cleaning up the mess with a quest that ended up in an energy bill that was defeated. The industry spokesman vowed, "This fight isn't over."

Writes Diamond in Seed, "Today, ecocide has come to overshadow nuclear war and emerging diseases as a major threat to global civilization, and it will become acute within the next few decades."

Diamond describes how societies such as the Mayan civilization perished. "Why weren't these problems obvious to the Maya kings, who could surely see their forests vanishing and their hills becoming eroded?" he asks. "Part of the reason was that the kings were able to insulate themselves from problems afflicting the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well fed while everyone else was slowly starving." The author goes on to say that we as a society must take environmental problems seriously. He writes that another factor in the failure of a society is "the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long-term survival."

Diamond continues, "A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions." He points to the Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs who "made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape." Diamond says we have viewed the United States as a land of infinite resources, but we no longer can continue to deplete our own resources and those of other countries on this planet. He also says that we cannot continue to intervene militarily in dozens of countries where we feel danger lurks. We can, however, learn from history and change course before it is too late.

Says Kennedy, this administration and its corporate cronies "talk about law and order while encouraging corporate polluters to violate the law. They claim free markets while advocating corporate welfare."

It is difficult to understand why Americans still vote for public officials who continue to side with polluting industries over environmental protections of our sacred soil. It is as though our leaders are making choices that may eventually irreversibly destroy our landscape--and society. Why do we permit this to happen?

Kennedy quotes Hitler's sidekick, Hermann Goering, who noted: "It is always a simple matter to drag the people along. Whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."--Pam Berns

Published: April 01, 2005
Issue: Spring 2005


"Getting Even"
Dear Pam Berns -- is your article in Chicago Life: "Getting Even" available for me to email to a friend in Paris?
Alan Marty , Jun-30-2018