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What We Can Do

From the Publisher of Chicago Life

By PAM BERNS

This is the time of year when even the most stoic of people reflect on their responsibilities towards others. In 1961 we were stirred by the words of President John F. Kennedy, who called us to action with the words, "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."

The world is a different place today. Our president is not calling on us to think beyond our immediate wants. In a land of haves and have-nots, those with means--who have been rewarded with tax cuts--are becoming wealthier as the poor struggle to survive. According to a recent study published by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, the CEO in some companies actually makes as much in one day as the worker makes in a year. If the minimum wage had grown in recent years as much as the compensation of the CEO, the minimum wage would now be more than $23 an hour--not $5.15. The study found that with contractors who receive more than 10 percent of their revenues from defense contracts, average CEO pay doubled from 2001 to 2004. The study said that the CEO of DHB Industries, a company that makes bulletproof vests, earned $70,000,000 in 2004.

The inequity of worker compensation is only one measure of the state of our country, of course. If our country's poorest had a good quality of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--including health insurance--we could all sit back and enjoy our good fortunes. But we have many mountains to climb. At this time of the year, it's imperative that we look beyond our immediate concerns and quick profits.

The short sightedness of our values has been transparent if we look at the way we have tolerated--and even encouraged--businesses to pollute our waterways, estuaries and lakes in the name of free-market development. Factory hog, cattle and poultry farms have been dumping and spraying animal waste into open air lagoons that often leak. We have permitted the factory farms to pollute 35,000 miles of rivers and groundwater sources in the United States. According to Oxfam America, the U.S. livestock industry produces 2.7 trillion tons of waste each year--130 times the volume of waste from humans. A billion fish and other forms of aquatic life were killed between 1995 and 1998 in North Carolina alone because of the waste polluting waterways. Hogs are fed growth supplements, which contain heavy metals that, through excrement, create permanent soil toxicity. The air in rural communities that house these animal factories is often contaminated, as well. The toxic stench can cause headaches, nausea and even seizures and death.

The problem with unsustainable factory farming goes deeper than polluting the aquifers: the giant conglomerates pump up animals with antibiotics "to keep them healthy". As a result, humans eating the meat can become antibiotic-resistant, thus making it harder to treat illness, according to the National Resources Defense Council, which is fighting to keep our waterways clean by challenging polluters before disastrous leaks happen.

According to the NRDC, the current administration has taken to date 150 actions to undermine the environment, such as in the drilling away of our public lands, mining the tops off mountains and weakening the Clean Air Act, lessening mercury pollution control. Seventy-six percent of fish samples taken from U.S. lakes have been found to contain unsafe levels of mercury for children 3 years or younger.

Since 2001, annual beach closings from sewage contamination have increased 36 percent. Also, today, more than 90 percent of lettuce and milk samples contain perchlorate--a toxic rocket fuel additive leaking from military dumps. Despite EPA experts' recommendations, the Bush administration has refused to take action.

According to EPA data, at the end of 2004 the agency was poised to permit inadequately treated sewage into waterways as long as the water was "blended" with treated sewage. That month the president was quoted as saying that his environmental policies have improved habitat on public and private lands, even though the U.S. Forest Service has nullified the wildlife protections in place since the Reagan years, making it now possible to eradicate some fish and wildlife populations.

What all the above statistics show is the heavy price we have paid to put our immediate profits ahead of the world we will leave for our future generations. What right do we have to pollute the air and water, thus ruining the natural beauty of pristine national parks, untouched mountains, clean rivers and abundant fish? Will tomorrow's generations experience the wonder of gazing up at trees and mountains that have existed on this planet since Biblical times? Will our children have the I.Q.'s that we have, or will we have permitted mercury to whittle away their full potential?

The term, Precautionary Principle--arrived at in 1998 in Wisconsin by an international group of scientists--must be our guiding rule in preventing harm to the environment and human health, especially when deciding whether to permit toxic substances and nuclear materials into our lives. When it comes to the release of carcinogenic or toxic substances into the environment or preventing global warming, we must err on the side of caution. New chemicals must not be introduced into the marketplace unless proven safe. As of late, the Precautionary Principle has been drowned out by the self-serving propaganda of special interests. We cannot permit the destruction of our environment.

In this, our 21st anniversary, issue, Jessica Curry has interviewed Robert F. Kennedy Jr. His tireless dedication to preserving our natural resources has reawakened the spirit of thousands of Americans who have heard him speak and who have seen the difference his grassroots work has made in fighting companies that continue to pollute. We have the power to create positive change if we join him in fulfilling the vision of leaving this world a better place for future generations. We must ask what we can do for our country.

Published: December 01, 2005
Issue: Holiday 2005