And it Spreads... Where do the Walls End?

At the risk of veering off on a tangent about human rights in South America (after all, this is a blog about the environment), I decided to follow up my last post with an additional one on the disturbing phenomena that seems to be immerging in the region; this time in Argentina.

To refresh your memory (or for those too lazy to scroll down), I recently reported on the plight of the poor citizens in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil who are being walled in, somewhat against there will. According to a spokesperson from the Rio government, this is a necessary measure to stop individuals from entering the Amazon rainforest in an effort to clear land for home building or to illegally harvest trees for trade on the black market. While saving the environment is a noble cause to undertake, I would argue that garnishing the human rights of the citizenry to do so is not a fair trade.

While debate on this issue simmers, Brazil’s neighbor to the far south, Argentina, is facing a similar yet far more grave situation. A similar plan spearheaded by Gustavo Posse, mayor of San Isidro, a wealthy region of the capital Buenos Aires, is causing massive amounts of controversy due to the fact that he is way more shameless in the fact that the goal of the project is to separate the rich and the poor regions with a physical barrier. Additionally, unlike in Brazil, outraged citizens have taken to the streets in protest and have gone as far as to physically damage and graffiti the wall, which is now being guarded by the armed forces of the state. The wall has been dubbed “The Wall of Discord” and is being compared to the Berlin wall for its class driven, discriminatory connotations.

The official story from state government officials on the matter is that the reason behind the decision to erect this wall is to, like Brazil, halt the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Luckily, the people of Argentina are less willing to swallow that farce and are helping to shed some light on this unfortunate situation. The mayor of San Isidro has also been quoted as saying that the wall is necessary to for the protection of the citizens and will result in decreased crime because criminals from San Fernando, the poor region of Buenos Aires, will not be able to get in to San Isidro. If that isn’t blatant discrimination than I don’t know what is. Posse is generalizing the people of an entire area as vagrants and criminals when that is certainly not the case and frankly, the people of San Fernando are right for not lying down and taking it.

My main criticism of the Argentinean government, who has vehemently spoke out against the actions being taken in the capital, is that they have failed to protect the rights of the citizens and have allowed the state, which is inherently under the jurisdiction of the national government, to act against its judgment. What type of political system would allow individual entities under the all-encompassing to just act with out any uniformity or checks? (cough, cough) While the Argentinean government has pledged to halt further construction of the wall, it’s the principle of the matter. But then again, everything is always about the principle. I just don’t get how the mayor thought he could pull something so egregious and get away with it. But then again, they managed to do it in Brazil so anything is possible.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Environmental Nazism: How to effectively mask human rights violations with environmental concerns

While the notion of returning to 1940’s Nazi Germany would be a horrendous idea to entertain, the government of Rio de Janeiro seems to be taking a page from Hitler’s play book with the enactment of the state’s latest environmental protection legislation. Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is a huge concern and a major contributor to the global warming problem. However, walling in the slums of the area to prevent the poor and destitute citizens from sprawling into the rainforest and cutting down trees for personal consumption or sale seems like a less than subtle way to recreate a class based version of the Warsaw ghettos or the Japanese internment camps that still mar the history of our society. Whether or not this type of action is a necessary evil for the protection of the environment, erecting walls throughout a city to separate different classes of people violates these individual’s human rights and beckons us to question the true motives of the Brazilian government which seem to be cloaked by environmental interests.

The majority of Rio de Janeiro’s population lives in extreme poverty which, in turn, has a unique yet distinct effect on the preservation of the adjacent Amazon rainforest. The favelas that plaster the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro house continue to house the masses, however, space is not unlimited. As the impoverished population continues to grow, the slums are forced to sprawl out into the rainforest that it borders, clearing its trees and shrinking its size more and more each year. Additionally, one source of income for some in the slums are the trees themselves. Logging in the Amazon rainforest is not permitted, however, the forest produces valuable wood resources that some are willing to obtain illegally for a price. Poorer citizens are willing to enter the forest and harvest trees to sell illegally as one of the few means they have of making money. These two reasons among others are contributing to the loss of 60 million acres of rainforest each year.

The situation is becoming increasingly dire for the environment as global warming becomes more and more of an issue; however, the solution that the government of Rio de Janeiro has developed will ultimately hurt the poor population of the city as well as the environment. The state government has already begun to erect over seven miles of concrete walls that stand at about 10 feet high around 11 different slums in the region. According to Icaro Moreno, president of Rio de Janeiro’s state public works department, the only objective of this project is to protect the rainforest.

However, the situation has generated mass amounts of controversy being that the walls are only being erected around the slums of the region, which some would consider to be a class driven policy play from the government of Rio de Janeiro. The ulterior motive for walling off the slums from the wealthy areas of the city would be to segregate the two groups and increase the aesthetic look of the rich Rio coastline. Obviously, there is no way this reason could justify the essential boxing in of millions of poor individuals living in the slums, so the environmental protection twist is necessary to carry out this project. However, lack of political power is what is really allowing this ill-conceived plan to be carried out along with the disenfranchisement of the poor in Rio de Janeiro.

The real problem in this situation is poverty rather than the destruction of the natural environment. Clearly, if the poverty problem were addressed in Rio de Janeiro then the rainforest would not be in jeopardy the way it is now. The government of Rio de Janeiro is more concerned with its image than it is with the welfare of its citizens. While it is necessary to protect the environment, we shouldn’t do it at the expense of human rights. There are other options to curb deforestation that don’t involve walls around people such as investing in programs sponsored by the UN to treat the deforestation problem under the carbon trading system already established to slow global warming. But as long as Brazil is content with handling global issues with an isolationist and uncompassionate attitude, the walls will continue to stand.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Happy Feet... for the Environment

Best movie ever… Happy Feet! Ok, well maybe not quite, but it is one of my personal favorites. I mean who could resist with all of those cute penguins running around. But the fact that it is an animated children’s film does not detract from its relevance as a fairly accurate depiction of the plight of many species in habitats around the globe that are increasingly being encroached upon by humans. When the protagonist, Mumble the penguin, sets out to find the culprit responsible for the fish drought that had been decimating his clan of penguins and ultimately ends up being captured by humans and placed in wild life prison the zoo, I was compelled to consider how my actions affect the environment at large. This film raises many important questions about the relationship between human progress and animals in the natural environment which, depending upon how we as a society choose to address them, will determine the viability of many species.

Industry is a vital part of the economic system that we have grown accustomed to, however, 9 times out of 10 its existence jeopardizes the natural environment. A good example of this is the oil industry. Oil spills are a reality and a fairly regular occurrence. These events have devastating effects on the natural environment surrounding the oil rigs and miles in the distance. In the film there was no oil spill, however, the abandoned rigs and housing areas for people who worked on the rigs caused problems for the penguins. Not only did the construction affect the natural habitat and migration patterns for the penguins, but trash left behind by the crews polluted the area and even strangled one of them nearly to death. Humans entering environmentally sensitive areas for economic purposes may be a necessary evil for now, however, we must take additional steps to insure that the least amount of damage possible is incurred by the environment.

In our sometimes overzealous quest for knowledge we intrude upon the natural environment to study it. While this may seem like a noble quest, its enactment many times show no compassion for the animals it effects. Many studies involve animal testing in which animals are removed from their natural environment and caged so they may be monitored. However, we can all agree that this is devastating for the lives of the animals involved. The protagonist of the film, Mumble the penguin, is captured by humans while in pursuit of the ship carrying the oil rig workers that were seemingly responsible for the fish drought in his habitat. They examine him and place him in a zoo in a traumatizing manner that leaves Mumble disoriented, forlorn, and longing to return home. So much so in fact that he begins to have delusions. The main point here is not that we should stop studying animals, but rather we should avoid test tube studies and view them from the natural environment.

Additionally, the human disregard for the environment or the animals extends further in the way that we ignore environmental issues until it is nearly too late or it becomes fashionable to care. While an array of environmental issues exist, only a few immerge to the forefront as they become part of the popular media for one reason or another. Mumble the penguin only is able to help his penguin clan through his unique ability to dance. If Mumble had not been able to gain human interest through this ability, his clan would have certainly become extinct because no one was interested or aware of the effects of the oil drilling in the area. Why does it take a miraculous or out of the ordinary event for us to care about how we are destroying the natural environment? Although we can not negate all of the negative externalities of human activity, we should make ourselves at least more aware of the problems so that we may find more solutions.

The environment is an issue that more and more people are taking notice of and media outlets such as films are helping to spread awareness. However, if people don’t understand the message, is it really helping? Happy Feet is an animated children’s film, but it does outline many problems that the environment faces as human society continues to evolve. The true test of this type of environmentally aware media will be to see how much action it elicits from those that view it.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Progressing into a Bird-Less Era

Look! It’s a bird… No, a plane… Wait, it’s both?

Progressives and environmentalists alike cringe to hear stories of man and nature colliding in highly preventable accidents, such as the recent flight 1549 plane crash into the Hudson River which was apparently caused by a large bird striking the plane and taking out one or more of its engines. However, are problems like this resolvable for both humans and nature, or is it inevitable that human progress will always come out on top in the struggle for human consideration?

Well, if you believe that very little consideration for the birds at all to be a reasonable amount, then yes. Leading researchers are developing new technology to allow airplanes to withstand the force of even larger birds than they already can. According to reports, instead of sucking up birds of 4 to 5 pounds or smaller, researchers are trying to achieve propeller strengths that can obliterate flying objects (unidentified or otherwise) of up to 20 pounds. Watch out flying geese!
But wouldn’t it be way smarter for someone to figure out a way to keep objects out of the plane’s vortex all together as opposed to the steam roller approach in which anything in the plane’s path is destroyed? Well, that sounds reasonable enough, but I’m far from a scientist myself and I have very little power in persuading the great minds of the world to make that technology available in the future. So until then, mitigating the damages that these two parties can and do inflict upon each other must be considered.

Proposed alternatives to solve the problem include re-routing bird migration patterns, relocating bird habitats farther away from runways, utilizing natural predators of the birds such as falcons to catch and ward off the birds, and remodeling airport areas to include less water and foliage so that they attract fewer birds. All of these seem like fairly feasible ideas; however, none seem to take into consideration the plight of the birds. Climate change and habitat destruction coupled with increased accessibility to food, decrease in natural predator populations, and birds becoming increasingly “familiar” with humans and their civilizations are responsible for an explosive bird population boom over the last few decades. The bird population in North America has quadrupled since 1990 and, in turn, the number of bird-airplane collisions has increased from approximately 1500 to nearly 8000 during that same time period. Additionally, over the past few decades commercial airplanes have converted from four or six engines to two quieter engines per plane, making them less detectable by birds and more prone to crashing in the event of a collision.

All of these factors contributing to the increase in bird-airplane collisions have been the result of human activity. Yet no proposed solutions involve curtailing or modifying human activity. The major problem in this situation is not the fact that birds and planes are coming into contact more often. It is the fact that humans, the more advanced of the two species, have developed a blatant and unabashed disregard for the proliferation of other species. Countless innovations in human society have developed at the expense of nature, yet very little has been done to innovate solutions for the benefit of nature. Human activity and advancement seem to be spurred by selfish motives such as prestige or monetary compensation rather than a sense of obligation to protect the environment that we live in.

While it is obvious that humans will continue to evolve more sophisticated technology that may or may not endanger the natural environment, it is important that we consider the consequences of such advancements for the future of the environment and the humans that will inhabit it. Right now problems such as the bird-plane collision dilemma that effect both humans and the environment in a negative way are being examined. However, I guarantee if the birds were the only party being negatively impacted by the situation this problem would get very little attention if any.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Improving the Air for All: Tokyo, Japan

As we have seen from the industrial revolutions of Europe and North America, developing a nation has grave environmental costs, especially during the initial development stage. Along with an inherent population boom, comes the issue of controlling pollution and production so that the limited resources of the nation are not depleted or damaged. Tokyo, Japan is one city that not only has to deal with these same issues as it develops, but also faces geographical challenges and limitations that exacerbate theses issues. Although Tokyo is a developing city that must deal with the daunting environmental implications of industrializing as well as rapid population growth, the city has been able to implement some effective measures to improve the air quality and the overall quality of life for its inhabitants while developing the city in a way that will sustain its current population boom and populations to come.
Tokyo, Japan is one of the most densely populated areas in Japan with a total population of 12.79 million people or 5,847 persons per sq. kilometer as of 2007. These numbers suggest that Tokyo houses about 10% of Japan’s population on 0.6% of Japan’s total land area (Tokyo Metropolitan Government). Tokyo’s population has been increasing steadily since 1997 and has seen a great increase in immigrant population as well as natural population growth. The United Nations estimates that by the year 2015, Tokyo will remain the city in the world with the largest urban population at 27.2 million inhabitants, more than doubling its current population (The UN). Economically, Tokyo has been in a recovering stage since the mid 1990’s. After experiencing a burst in its economic bubble in the late 80’s, Tokyo has been working to recover economically by creating more jobs and cutting taxes for struggling workers. Although Tokyo, Japan is known for its automobile industry, it experienced a slight lull at the beginning of 2000, causing a major resurgence in recent years. But as the rise of automated assembly of cars came about, this still left many workers in Japan looking for jobs.
Because of Tokyo’s large population (and the population boom predicted for the future) and its need to expand economically to support this population, it is increasingly becoming one of the world’s largest air polluters. It is estimated that the Tokyo region of Japan alone emits 60 million tons of green house gases per year (Kubota). The city remains 5th on the list of biggest greenhouse gas emitters as it struggles to meet regulations set out by the Kyoto Protocol. The main causes for Tokyo’s inability to completely curb air pollution in the city include geography, increased industry, and increased use of the automobile.
One of the main components of Tokyo’s air pollution problem is its natural geography. Tokyo is situated on the mountainous island-nation of Japan. Although most people would assume that, since Tokyo is off the coast, the ocean breeze from the Pacific blows away some of the emissions and pollution, this is not the case. The high mountains on the island act as buffers and cause air pollution to become trapped in the basin area where the city lies. It is also is key to note that the mere fact that Tokyo is located on an island makes it more susceptible to air pollution due to the fact that all of the countries industry, resource extraction, and land use must be done in on a very finite amount of land. Although Tokyo has taken part in massive land reclamation efforts, we can see from the sheer number of office building and factories in the city that too much industry is taking place on a small amount of land.
It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of factories and office buildings in Tokyo that emit a large percentage of the world’s green house gasses and pollutants. These factories and other businesses are emitting large amounts of sulfur oxides into the air, the main cause of acid rain. Acid rain is a natural phenomenon where pollutants such as sulfur oxides get into the air and mix with rain water. When the rain water falls and comes into contact with plants and other natural resources it can seriously damage them as well as the natural water supply. This is a huge problem for the agricultural sector of Tokyo’s economy as well as for the health and safety of its inhabitants. The government has also recently faced multiple class action law suits against its citizens who have faced grave and irreversible health problems due to the amount of air pollution in the city. It is estimated the government has issued over $55.2 million in settlements for wrongful death and injury suits due to air pollution. Although Tokyo has tried to encourage limited emissions and less industry in the city, opponents argue that Tokyo cannot afford to limited its economic industries no matter what the environmental costs are because doing so would damage its economy to a point where it is no longer a contender in the global market.
Lastly, when discussing air pollution, it is inevitable that the role of automobile use be looked at. As the automobile becomes cheaper to buy for personal consumption, more and more people are compelled to buy it for not only transportation but for status symbols. It is estimated that total passenger car consumption in Japan reached 50 million units in 2000 (Associated Press). Apparently this many cars on the road cannot be good for the environment or the health of the citizenry. Shintaro Ishihara, the Governor of Tokyo, was quoted in a speech in 2002 stating that “over 20% of all lung cancer fatalities in Tokyo are attributed to particulate matter released from diesel cars” (Tokyo Metropolitan Government). In tests done by the Japanese government, only 47% of the automobile emission testing sites achieved acceptable environmental quality standards (Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Bureau of Environment). The governments of Japan and Tokyo recognize the problems faced by not only automobile use, but also green house gas emissions from factories and other polluters.
Tokyo has, in recent years taken many measures to curb air pollution in the city, although some might argue that these efforts have not been very effective. In 2000 Tokyo began its wave of air pollution policy reforms with a completely amended version of the Pollution Control Ordinance introduced that year in late December. The city also passed the Municipal Environment Protection Ordinance of Tokyo that year. Both aimed to curb pollution from big business and an influx in car use in the city (Tsunoda). Governor Shintaro, Ishihara in 2002 that the government of Tokyo was working to accelerate measures already taken to curb air pollution. His statements were followed a few months later by regulation to limit emissions from diesel vehicles and a new program for small businesses where they could access government loans to help with the costs of complying with the new laws (Tokyo Metropolitan Government). The government of Tokyo has also agreed to implement a new cap and trade system in the city so that any violators of the new emissions regulations will be fined for any over emissions of green house gases.
Aside from policy efforts the government of Tokyo has taken other measures to reduce air pollution. The government has participated in purchasing carbon offsets, which are supposed to cancel the negative effects of pollution by planting greenery to absorb it. They have also built a highly efficient transit system to help reduce automobile usage in the city (Tsunoda). In 2002 the road system was expanded to alleviate some of the traffic congestion in the city, however, some might argue that expanding roads only encourages car use rather than getting more people to use public transportation, a more environmentally viable solution (Associated Press). The government has also spent money on the promotion of higher quality fuels in automobiles and the development of a 24 hour air pollution monitoring system that will track the city’s progress in reducing air pollution and pin point problem areas (Tokyo Metropolitan Government).
To supplement the efforts of limiting air pollution and jointly cope with the increasing population of the area, Tokyo has been the world leader in developing sustainable living and building plans. In a National Geographic documentary, the leading architects of Japan show their plans to develop the city upwards rather than sprawling into the limited space that they already have. This plan relates to air pollution because the new city development will decrease the need for cars and will and will limited future need for additional residential and commercial development. The main sustainability features of the plan include a bullet train linking the entire project together, a super elevator, and over 100 stories of residential and commercial development.
The successfulness of the government’s efforts is arguable at best. Although it has been stated that clear progress has been made in reducing air pollution and can be seen in the fact that the far mountains of Japan can be seen on a clear day from Tokyo, the statistics still show Japan as one of the major air polluters of the world. The government of Tokyo reports that its tests show that automobile emissions have decreased after the implementation of stricter regulations on diesel fueled cars. However, other resources point out that the amount of nitrogen oxides emitted has been steady over the last decade. These figures are clearly inconsistent and require further scrutiny if the real data is to be found, but I am willing to assume that the figures from the government are skewed due to personal bias. It has also been noted that Tokyo still accounts for over 5% of the nations green house gas emissions, even after all the regulations and reforms passed. However, all sources agree that the amount of particulate matter in Tokyo’s air has steadily decreased in the past decade, which accounts for the amount of clearness noted in the Tokyo skies.
The US and Japan both have similar outlooks on pollutions and it is my opinion that they are both very naïve to the reality of it. Tokyo’s government clearly believes that it is doing what it can to protect the environment just as the US does. But it is clear that one solution that neither has tried is to limit the amount of industry in the area. Neither is willing to take the economic hit. The economy is important but if 100 or 200 years down the line there is no environment or supply of natural resources to support life I think that people will begin to realize that the economy isn’t as important as they thought it was. Since the US has a large amount of land compared to the limited amount of land that an island-nation has, I think that planning and land use do not factor in the same way in these two areas. Tokyo is limited in land area which explains why it has so much industry concentrated into one area. The United States, however, doesn’t really have an excuse as to why it has so many dense population centers when that really isn’t necessary. I think if there is one lesson that the US can learn from the city of Tokyo, Japan, it is that if it continues to sprawl the way it has in areas such as Southern California it could face some of the very same environmental problems that Tokyo has in the future.
The air quality in densely populated urban areas has a tendency to be poor. However, the best way to limit the pollution that causes poor air quality without limiting industry is highly debatable. In Tokyo, Japan poor air quality and pollution due to industry and automobile usage is worsened by the area’s natural geography and limited land area. Because of this the government has made numerous efforts to try to curb air pollution for the health and safety of the environment and its inhabitants. These efforts, however, have had mixed results. It is important for a country to sustain itself economically and environmentally. The developing cities of the world, however, are having a tougher time find a good balance of both as natural resources and more scarce and environmental protections become more urgent.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Water: A Non-renewable Resource

Water is one of the few life sustaining resources that can be found all around us. However, the majority of it can not be utilized in its current state. Salty ocean water, contaminated water, and water in the atmosphere make up a large portion of the water supply, but none of it can be used for human consumption, leaving our ground level and underground water supplies the sole provider of clean water. The levels of clean water are being vastly depleted and many people have not grasped the urgency of water conservation. Although there are many programs being developed to solve this problem, we must still increase our efforts to conserve water for now and future generations.

Some of the new technologies being developed to increase or at least slow the decrease of our current water supply include desalinization, a technique used to remove salt from salt water, purifying, and water conservation efforts. These, when done correctly, will have a tremendous effect on the livelihood of the worlds water supply.

However, there are negative effects to these solution. Desalinization produces salt byproduct, called brine, that will ultimately end up in fresh water sources if it is not disposed of properly. Purification involves using chemicals to eliminate the contaminants in dirty water, however, the chemicals themselves could make the water harmful for drinking if they become too concentrated. Water conservation efforts only work when the majority of the population acts on them.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Obama Hearts the Environment

Probably not as much as I heart penguins, but we won’t hold that against him.

While the Bush administration single handedly set America’s environmentally conscious policy push back to the 20th century, the current administration led by commander-in-chief Barack Obama already in its first few weeks seems to be working to undo all of the missteps made by its predecessors and put America back on the path to successfully preserving the environment. However, with strong Republican opposition at every turn, one begins to wonder if Obama and company will have the political fortitude to withstand the barrage of attacks from the Republican Party that are seemingly inevitable, especially on controversial issues such as global warming policy and off shore drilling practices that set deep party divides.
To put it simply, I think he will.

Although the goals of the Obama administration may seem a bit ambitious, it’s pretty likely that they can be achieved with the same amount of ease that the Bush administration had in weaseling its inexplicable and border-line reckless actions past the American people. Granted, Obama doesn’t have an imaginary war to cloak his true motives, but I think that the American people can see that his only motivation is to get America back on track. And with the environment at the top of the nation’s priorities, it is clear that America will no longer stand for a President that refuses to invest in its proliferation.

With that being said, hopefully the damaging effects of such possible policies initiated by the Bush regime such as drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol can be rectified or circumvented all together. And while it is very possible to do so, the majority of the work that this administration faces will be in gaining universal support in a Congress where the Democrats favor regional politics over party concerns and the Republicans favor anything opposite the Democrats. However, I think that strong political pressure from the people will be the guiding force that enables Obama’s new policies to be implemented.

Thanks to the environmental calamity that has ensued over the past 8 years the slate is open for the new administration to make new policy that will erase the bad habits that America has sunk into and restate America’s environmental goals in a way that shows our commitment to making a successful transition into a new, environmentally conscious era. Obama has already pledged to reduce green house gas emissions, develop clean coal technologies, reduce oil drilling on and off shore, and increase protections for endangered species. All of which have the ability to stimulate the economy rather than cause a net increase to the deficit, which some critics claim will happen with increased investment in the environment. What America needs now is environment saving policy that will, simultaneously create new jobs and help drive us out of the recession; change that will make everyone happier.

See, the penguins are happier already.
*See article in USA Today Obama Veers From Bush Environmental Course by Traci Watson for more research.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

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