Energy and the Environment

If Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger.

The Earth has enjoyed moments as the cause célèbre in America but nothing trumps our good mother like a great recession. To the best of my recollection she even failed to make an appearance during the presidential debates. This lack of information makes deciding which candidate would be better for the environment over the next four years difficult.

We do have the benefit of some information, however. For example, the Republican platform has been virulently anti-environment. Each candidate during primary season took turns trying to out-pollute the other in the name of progress, calling for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, the loosening of drilling restrictions and the construction of a pipeline from Canada to Texas. Green energy was mocked and global warming ridiculed. Republicans eagerly portrayed every Democrat as Jimmy Carter in a cardigan and an eco-zealot.

If only that were true.

The fact of the matter is that the Democrats have little to point to in the way of environmentalism themselves. Sure the pipeline was stalled and fuel efficiency standards were increased, but that’s about it.

Our understanding of the environment and our relationship to it through food, water, air and energy is far more sophisticated than our politics and policies. But no matter how broad the consensus on climate change is in the scientific community or how widespread the anecdotal evidence of our decaying Earth and corrupt food supply is, we are all guilty of willful blindness with respect to the urgency required to face our challenges.

President Obama talks a good game, which indicates he is aware of both the seriousness of our environmental peccadillo and the political reality that prevents meaningful change. And, in fairness, when presented with a clear opportunity to affect change he did so by sending billions of dollars flowing into the clean energy research field when the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, aka “Obama stimulus,” was passed. Of course, the only thing people now associate with this act is the failure of Solyndra despite the fact that the funding mechanism for this particular company was established during the Bush administration. The stimulus simply added liquidity to an existing plan.

But it was Obama’s calculated risk against overtly touting this investment into clean energy that blew back on him in two ways. The first is that the American public, particularly those who consider themselves champions of the environment, have little idea these investments were made and therefore believe he failed them. Compounding this sentiment is that these investments have little short-term payoff and are therefore less tangible. The second is that the opposition was able to make Solyndra synonymous with the stimulus, thereby presenting it as the rule instead of the exception.

This risky decision of quiet messaging does, however, make political sense. After all, any attempt on the part of the White House to put the environment in the spotlight before the economy would have had terrible repercussions to Obama’s polling figures. He is already derided by paranoid right-wing conspiracy theorists (with national talk shows) as being a closet Muslim and a socialist who sympathizes with terrorists and apologizes for America every chance he gets. Oh, and was born in Africa.

But as I have often contended, if Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger. But, he’s a black Democrat whose re-election is for many in this nation a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

So, politically, I get it. Below-the-radar environmental work is better than installing solar panels on the White House roof again. There’s proof that this is a bad reelection strategy. Morally, however, I was hoping for what everyone else who voted for Obama was hoping for: that he would enthusiastically champion a progressive social and environmental agenda—one that took aggressive action against oil companies and Wall Street speculators and fought evil agra-giants like Monsanto and ConAgra.

Unfortunately, any hope we had of Obama challenging the Koch brothers to a duel on Pennsylvania Avenue or executing a hostile takeover of ExxonMobil were dashed when moderate policy Vulcan Barack Obama took the Oath of Office instead of liberal cigarette smoking Chi-Town radical Barry Obama.

To really confuse matters, no one pressed either guy into stating plans to protect the environment. Moreover, they have both adopted this mantra of “all of the above” with respect to energy policy. Nothing bold, sensible or sustainable. Just “yes” to everything and deal with the consequences later.

So what makes this week’s topic so hard to dissect is that no one seems to care much about it. Perhaps more than any other topic I’ve covered thus far in this election series, the fight over Mother Earth has been reduced to choosing between the lesser of two evils. I know it’s a hackneyed phrase, but it’s appropriate, nonetheless. Essentially it boils down to this: Mitt Romney’s “all of the above” plan includes eliminating the EPA and letting oil companies drill in Central Park if they want to; whereas, Obama’s “all of the above plan” stops just short of that.

Sorry, Mother Earth. When unemployment dips below 5 percent and the Dow reaches 15,000, we’ll be sure to call and check in. Until then it’s the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon.

Slight edge to Obama.

Binge and Purge

Conservative, anti-environmental activists such as Michele Bachmann like to portray the EPA and other environmental regulatory bodies as proof of America’s increasingly hostile, dystopian government when in practice the very opposite is true.

Part V of The Season of Our Disconnect

Jon Huntsman, President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to China, broke away from the field of Republican presidential candidates in bellicose fashion this week. He chose to take on his opponents by slaying a sacred cow in today’s GOP by thumbing his nose at unconventional wisdom with the most scandalous pronouncement thus far in the campaign. If you are sensitive to radical ideas and harsh language, I urge you to stop reading now.

In a tweet to his followers, Jon Huntsman said: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

Crazy, indeed.  What’s next? Dinosaurs roamed the Earth?

Huntsman is reacting to the growing anti-environmental platform in American politics, a curious development in an even more curious nascent silly season. Sorry, Planet Earth. Due to the ongoing recession it is increasingly evident that the Earth-friendly platform will not be making an appearance this time around as our current president seems to favor the corporate interests of companies like Monsanto and Cargil; the opposition candidates… well… quite frankly it looks as though they just flat-out hate you.

For example, the winner of the ridiculously un-scientific Iowa Straw Poll, Michele Bachmann, has promised to shutter the Environmental Protection Agency on her first day in the White House. Rick Perry won’t close the EPA, but he’ll make gall-derned sure he castrates it like a bull calf to keep it from killing our jobs. Rick Santorum has said that because humans exhale carbon dioxide, regulating carbon emissions is therefore ludicrous. (No, I’m not making any of this up.) Most of the people running for president on the GOP ticket seem to believe that even though we are still the wealthiest nation on God’s greenish/brown Earth that environmental standards are holding us back. That maybe—just maybe—if we allowed ourselves to revert to pollution standards from the height of the Industrial Revolution, we would be better off. 

Mind you, although we haven’t lost our standing as the No. 1 economy on the planet, we do rank second behind China in carbon emissions. This loss of status has somehow translated into a sort of clarion call for deregulation activists who equate progress with the relaxation of environmental standards. Never mind the fact that on many days one would have trouble seeing clearly through the window of a building in Linfen, China, or that the Beijing government instituted “emergency air-quality measures” in the days leading up to the Summer Olympics.

Our narrow view on environmentalism has left everyone already suffocating from American ignorance and Chinese malfeasance nonplussed and defenseless. In his book Harmony, A New Way of Looking at the World, Prince Charles talks about his experience at the UN Conference in Copenhagen and the “all-out assault on the evidence base” of climate change, calling it “a deliberate attempt to dampen the justified concerns about the climate change threat.”

Presidential candidates who call for dismantling the EPA to help America reclaim its hegemony in destroying the atmosphere are nothing more than hucksters handing out licenses to operate toxic apothecaries stocked with volatile organic compounds. Conservative, anti-environmental activists such as Michele Bachmann like to portray the EPA and other environmental regulatory bodies as proof of America’s increasingly hostile, dystopian government when in practice the very opposite is true.

Ironically, common ground regarding the environment can be found in yet another profound area of intensely partisan disagreement: universal health care. It is in this debate that one can find room for both ardent anti-climate change deniers like Rick Perry and fervent environmental activists like Al Gore, whom Perry once supported. It’s far easier to agree that noxious emissions and pollutants increase the risk of disease and that a sick population is an expensive one to treat. Therefore, isn’t universal disease-prevention by regulating pollution a more efficient way for the market to deliver robust health care? Hell, there’s even room for Ron Paul under this tent.

Whether or not our society wakes up to the fact that we are indeed killing the planet and sacrificing human health along the way, there is an inevitable truth greater than all of us. Those who are most attuned to changes in weather patterns, the degradation of the world’s food supply, the rise of chronic health problems, and the rapid disappearance of clean water understand that humans will ultimately pay the price for our sins, not the Earth.

This is not the first time the Earth has been in such a precarious position. Moreover, there is mounting evidence of how she handles crises. We binge, she purges. The most succinct explanation of this phenomenon is from the great orator and environmentalist Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation. Rather than paraphrase, I’ll leave you with his sentiment:

“What if we choose to eradicate ourselves from this Earth, by whatever means? The Earth goes nowhere. And in time, it will regenerate, and all the lakes will be pristine. The rivers, the waters, the mountains, everything will be green again. It’ll be peaceful. There may not be people, but the Earth will regenerate. And you know why? Because the Earth has all the time in the world and we don’t.”

– Oren Lyons

Toxic World

Some people are innately tuned to the earth while others see it as a resource to be burned, twisted and manipulated. One person stands at the foot of the mountain, admiring its grace and majesty as it protrudes from the earth and pierces the sky. Another sees the untapped riches beneath its shell waiting to be exploded and used to heat our homes, fuel our cars or dangle from our ears. Is one more environmentally sensitive than the other? Both appreciate the beauty and wonder of Earth but feel differently about its purpose and what it yields.

Is the earth a natural wonder to behold only with the eye and leave untouched for future generations, or a raw material to be pounded by the human hand to serve our purposes today? Can both visions peaceably coexist? I think they can.

This is where I tend to differ from hard-liners on both sides of the green movement. One has to admire the incredible advances humans have made by tinkering with our surroundings. Some are better than others, of course, but overall the last 100 years have been nothing short of a spectacular display of human ingenuity. Unfortunately, we as a species are sometimes too fascinated by progress to acknowledge the potential downside and health risks associated with it. We also don’t know how to stop after things have gone too far in the wrong direction.

If we simply evaluate everything from the vantage point of human health, the discussion comes more into focus. We also have to learn to trust our instincts as people more than we have in the past few decades. But sometimes it’s hard to walk away from something that you have worked so hard for. For example, people stay in toxic relationships longer than they should because it’s difficult to give up on something you have so much invested in. No one enters a relationship with the intention of ruining another person’s life and their own in the process; it just happens that way. The key is to walk away before it kills you and makes everyone around you sick.

Likewise, when a corporation spends billions to develop a product, it too can be difficult to walk away from. Tobacco company executives know their products aren’t safe. But they sure make a lot of money from them. Monsanto executives know their products make people sick, but the cost of settling the lawsuits against them is a lot less than the profits generated from injecting our food and spraying our crops with their synthetic madness.  Do vaccinations and prescription drugs have negative side effects on some people? Yup. Just not enough to dissuade pharmaceutical companies and their lobbying firms from pushing the government to make sure everyone is required to get vaccinated and has access to drugs. Does the president of McDonald’s know that you cannot possibly produce a healthy meal for three bucks? I think you get the point.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there and it’s difficult to sift through and digest. The key is to use your head when evaluating the information presented to you and do your own cost/benefit analysis. From the smallest to the largest detail, America’s environmental balance sheet is better analyzed with common sense rather than dollars and cents.

If emissions from fossil fuel power plants are contributing to killing the planet and have definitively harmful effects when inhaled, it’s probably better not to build more of them. Especially when we know there are other ways to generate clean energy. (And no, there’s no such thing as clean coal.) If girls in elementary school are developing breasts, they’re probably drinking milk and eating food laden with hormones. That’s what hormones do. Therefore, we should probably stop injecting cattle with hormones and antibiotics that are making our children ill.

If we know that certain chemicals from stain-resistant carpeting, dust from drywall materials and fumes from paint can cause respiratory harm, why would we still allow people to build with them? When nearly half of the kids in school have an inhaler it should tell us that there’s something unusual and very, very wrong.

These things don’t require white papers, demonstrations or lengthy debate, just a little bit a common sense. Then maybe our grandchildren too can stand at the foot of the mountain in wonder—because it will still be there.

Wouldn’t we be better served if our government made policy decisions in the context of public health? Rather than being guided by a strict set of ideological standards, every debate should settle on one question: Will this decision negatively impact human health? It’s surprising how disruptive this question can be. Ironically it is the one question missing in the debate that is currently raging over healthcare reform in America. The centerpiece of the discussion thus far has been money; this will inevitably have disastrous consequences.To illustrate this point I want to share a personal healthcare story that opened my eyes to a new way of thinking that is actually a fairly old way of thinking. It’s just that it was new to me.

My wife and I have two girls, 6 and 3. Our eldest came into the world and landed softly in a nest of first-time parent neuroses. A couple of years of over-parenting, a completely sterilized environment and a diet consisting of canned/jarred/packaged “nutrients” more appropriate for an astronaut than a baby and our 21st century experiment was on her way. Except her little adventures kept taking familiar turns toward the doctor’s office, where she was met with more solutions in a bottle concocted by science, sold by drug reps to over-booked doctors being greeted by angry mobs of parents demanding pharmaceutical solutions to the most mundane health issues.As the story goes, better safe than sorry—just take the antibiotic.After being on antibiotics one too many times for the dreaded ear infection, my wife noticed behavior in our daughter that was unsettling. Other children exhibited similar behavior and talk of occupational therapy, pathologists, and early intervention was the norm in our circles. None of this was acceptable to my wife who believed there had to be something we were missing.Looking back on it, so many disparate pieces of the puzzle that is our daughter had to come together that it could only have been fate or divine intervention that interceded on our behalf. Many of these pieces are people who deserve dedicated columns and praise. But this is about the man they all unwittingly conspired to bring us to.Dr. Larry Palevsky is quite unlike any doctor we have ever met. That is, until we met his partner in the practice, Alan Sherr. Together they own and operate the Northport Wellness Center. Larry is the resident pediatrician in the group.Our first meeting was caustic. A total shock to our parental systems that assailed everything we knew to be true about raising a healthy child. After only 90 minutes my wife was reduced to tears and I was left speechless, the latter being no small feat. He deconstructed the ear infection in the simplest of ways and offered the riskiest advice to new parents in today’s world.The lessons he taught me made me resolve to not stay silent for too long.Strip away, if you can, everything you have ever learned about antibiotics, viruses and colds and consider the following logic. An infection, such as common ear infections in children, presents itself in three primary ways—inflammation, pain and heat. Antibiotics pinpoint these symptoms by reducing inflammation, mitigating pain and cooling the body. Problem solved? No, problem masked.It’s at this point in the story I usually lose people, and am pegged as a New Age crazy. This is because my wife and I traveled down the rabbit hole and emerged into an alternate (or, alternative) medical universe that looks amazingly like the 1940s.Larry contends that the antibiotics place the virus in a dormant state, only to return in short order in a slightly more aggressive fashion. After several reoccurrences the antibiotic may even cease to be effective, at which point the prescribed antibiotic is either changed or the dosage is intensified. All the while these foreign chemicals are gradually wreaking havoc on tiny bodies and systematically breaking down their natural immune systems.He was delivering this information very cautiously. He spoke in measured sentences and never changed his tone. He was used to having parents storm out of his office at this point in the initial consultation. But we were transfixed.This is not a new age healer with a wild look in his eyes talking about government conspiracies. This is a board-certified medical doctor who believes the patient holds the key to healing common ailments; a man who believes in logic and common sense and thinks that listening is the most important thing a physician can do. But his words are strangely frightening. I suppose it is because he questions conventional wisdom. As the publisher of an alternative weekly newspaper, I get that and therefore I get him. But it was only after this consultation that I realized I was so busy questioning everything around me that I was blinded when it came to what matters most—the health of my family.Thankfully my wife had the audacity to question commonplace medical practice and seek out other voices who speak so softly that they are drowned out by the chorus of the pharmaceutical industry. Larry’s didn’t have to speak loudly to be heard. His words, absent any outside influences and noise, were so clear and piercing they were all we could hear.The truth has that effect.Larry told us that we had to make up our own minds. He said children’s bodies allow second chances and that we could begin again. Our first task was to allow the next virus to run its course. Do nothing. Let her body retrain itself and do what it is better equipped to do than any human-made drug: Heal.Her fever hit 103 and she was in pain. We held her close, called Larry (what seemed like 1,000 times) and did nothing. During every phone call he told us that this was a choice and that there was no shame in wavering and choosing antibiotics. If we had any doubts, he encouraged us to take her to a conventional doctor.“Conventional doctor.” It was the first time I had heard that term.Needless to say our daughter made it. It has been more than three years now since her last antibiotic. Our youngest has never been on one. Neither of them is sick that often and when they are it never lasts more than 36 hours. All this by caring enough to do nothing. And doing nothing turned out to be a lot more difficult than doing something.Every circumstance is different and no one diagnosis fits all. Doctors should always be consulted and not even Larry has all the answers. The point is that we have become detached from our senses and instincts as parents and reconnecting with them, while painful, is more important than ever.We live in a far more toxic world than our parents and grandparents did, so we need a new way of looking at the world, no matter how old these views may be.