The War on New Mexico’s Water

Not so great news out of New Mexico:

Why, when global warming threatens to make scarce water resources even more elusive, would New Mexico’s regulatory agencies stand idly by and watch extractive industries maneuver to destroy our water? Maybe it’s because the oil and gas industry bought Governor Martinez the Governor’s mansion. Maybe it’s because boards and commissions charged with enacting the regulations governing industrial activities are now stacked with current and former industry employees or people closely associated with industry. Maybe it’s to advance a radical ideology where every person (including corporate persons) are free to pollute the commons in pursuit of a buck. Whatever the reasons, the result is that our Governor has declared war on our water. And with New Mexico regulatory agencies, boards and commissions becoming wholly owned subsidiaries of the industries they regulate, the future of New Mexico’s water looks grim.

Read the whole thing on The Range blog at High Country News. I’ll follow this one and let you know how things turn out.


Edison Had it Right: Save the Light Bulb!

“Edison created a time-tested light bulb that is still the best option for its price,” Brandston said. “Consumer choice is an all-American right. The government has created a light bulb cartel, has crammed the CFL down our throats and the citizens have no antitrust protection.”

That’s renowned light designer Howard Brandston speaking a little truth to the not-so-bright powers that be regarding the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL). I despise the light bulb ban. CFLs are ugly and expensive, their light is poor, they make me not want to read, and they’ve required me to buy all new light fixtures. But these are minor complaints. Here are three absolutely true arguments against the incandescent light bulb ban, in descending order of my disgust:

First, the effort to ban the incandescent light bulb wasn’t all human goodwill and love of the environment. The ban was the result of a hardcore lobbying effort waged by those who stood to benefit. This included General Electric and other bulb manufacturers. Compared to incandescents, compact fluorescent bulbs are more expensive and carry higher profit margins. And their benefits, like Mark Twain’s death, are greatly exaggerated.

Second, CFLs are not clean energy. They are dirty. They contain mercury, and although I’m sure all of us good people are following the EPA’s instructions (insert EPA joke here) to dispose of CFLs with a dedicated recycler, the truth is most CFLs end up in the landfill, where the mercury is just going to accumulate.

Third and finally, this ban is the small and meaningless, which I despise. A ban on light bulbs? Energy conservation has its value, but its place is at the level of the consumer. This is not a job for the federal government, which has bigger things to do. These energy standards, I’m afraid to say, are a waste of energy. They serve as a convenient excuse for lazy members of congress not to take the big, bold steps that need to happen. Of course, the number of pea-sized brains in congress would make a dinosaur blush. So we are left with bans on light bulbs, while our other environmental challenges (other challenges? says member of congress) are ignored.

Look, goodwill gestures have their place. It’s why you buy popcorn from the Boy Scouts, recycle your newspaper, or run a 5k to support a local charity when you already  run that far every other day for free. These things are all good thing for you to do. These are not things that need to be dictated to you by congress. I can take care of my own light bulbs, thank you, just like you can recycle your own glass. You and I can’t, however, do a lot to clean up a power plant’s mercury emissions, or prevent some mining company from blasting the top off a mountain. Yet it’s our habits, our choices, that draw the attention of congress.

You know, we pay for this government. But like the CFL bulb, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Hat tip Instapundit on the story linked at top.

Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse

I hate headlines like this: “Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse.” ‘Hate’ is a pretty strong word, so let me explain.

The content of this Yahoo News! story is dead on. It explains how a team of marine biologists from the University of Queensland (down under) became curious about how long human activity had been altering the ecology of the Great Barrier Reef. They determined that in addition to coral kills associated with snorkeling and climate change, agriculture activities that occurred over 50 years ago had fundamentally altered the coral reef community. They concluded that humans had been damaging coral reefs for far longer than previously believed.

But here’s the last two paragraphs of the Yahoo News! story:

While the findings suggest humans have been damaging reefs far longer than previously thought, the problem has a straightforward, local solution: Reduce polluted runoff into the ocean, Pandolfi said.

“Any kind of measures that are going to improve the water quality should help those reefs to recover.”

That’s the message we want. That’s the headline. “Any kind of measures…improve water quality…help those reefs to recover.” Compare that to “Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse.” “Historic” and “collapse” used together in the headline = instant despair, doesn’t it?

You know, I started writing this post to explain how I hate the way they always write “humans caused” some environment mess, like the mess is due to the mere fact of human existence. I hate that tone – that environmental problems are hopeless as long as we humans are around. But that’s not the case, and never is. Most environmental problems are due to specific, identifiable, and thankfully correctable human activities. And just like the concluding paragraphs of this story – “any kind of measure … should help” – knowing that we are performing some environmentally destructive activity that is entirely correctable places back upon our broad and deep collective shoulders the emphasis and the responsibility and thank God the ability to fix these problems! That’s the right perspective, and is a far more positive message for those of us who care about the state of our environment. Let’s make that the headline.

Enviro Quick Hits

Working on a number of long posts. In the meantime, enjoy these environmental news quick posts:

Environmental regulators at work (via Drudge Report): Business Gets $4,000 Fine for a Missing Trashcan Lid

Kicking our butts in the solar game: Germany’s Solar Power Use Jumps 50 Percent

Someone else wondering why we let sewage flow into our rivers: Fecal Matters

Paul Greenberg on our mistreatment of the American oyster: An Oyster in the Storm

An answer is only as good as the question: Pennsylvania Agency Didn’t Mention Water Pollution Near Fracking Site Because No One Asked

Why We’re Not Hypocrites (as I plug in my laptop).

Hypocrisy! they cry

With eyes alight and fingers fast

Pointed at the man in green.

He stands athwart

Cries ‘Damn your comforts

They’re harmful to the bees’!

But he is no saint

His deeds fall faint

Once he leaves the scene.

At home at test

He’s like the rest

With honey in his tea!

A Free the Commons! first. A poem, about a powerful and ugly and unfair word – hypocrisy. As Samuel Johnson said:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice…

I think about this word from time to time. I’ve leveled it before, and been on the receiving end of it. I’ve joked with it and been serious with its use. But the more I consider it, and study and understand it, the more unseemly the word has become to me. I do not use this word anymore.

Words carry weight – there is meaning and power in their symbolism. We use hypocrisy as an ad hominem, to tear down a speaker and avoid confronting the argument at hand. And why not? Who amongst us can live up to our beliefs? After all, don’t we at Free the Commons! drive our cars, heat our homes, plug in our laptops? Do we practice what we preach even as we write about coal and mercury and other environmental ills?

But to believe one way and behave another isn’t hypocrisy; it’s human. Living in an imperfect world neither keeps us from living nor prevents us from dreaming. If the “is” of life is not yet the “ought” we argue for, we have committed no sin. If I may paraphrase for a moment – I can’t access my source – a philosopher named Mark Sagoff once found that his students, though opposed to the potential development of a ski area in nearby wilderness, would choose to ski there if the ski area were indeed built. As I recall, Sagoff concluded that there was no contradiction here: essentially, the students were behaving in the roles assigned to them. At first, they were citizen environmentalists, saying no to a ski slope development. They then became consumers and, with no role left to play in the development question, they behaved as consumers often do.

And this is the situation we find ourselves in every day. We live our lives within the confines of our worlds. Our power comes from coal and natural gas. We fuel our cars with oil. We live in homes built of wood or brick. But these facts of life do not preclude us from believing in, supporting, and fighting for solar power, new car technologies, protections for our forests and air quality. We do what we can with our limited means to make our daily choices better choices; for most of us that is the best we can do. For this we are not hypocrites, and we won’t allow others to label us as such just so they can ignore our arguments.

Hurricane Sandy Brings Toxic Sludge

Via Drudge Report, news that one of America’s most extensively contaminated water bodies is flooding. The New York Observer has a story short on information and long on photos. It’s not a pretty sight:

Flooding in the canal is troubling as its a superfund site that is home to extensive industrial activity and has a long, well-deserved reputation as a hotbed of toxic sludge and pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency describes the canal as “one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies.”

If this is the worst news to come out of Hurricane Sandy, we will be very fortunate indeed. I have no doubt that every significant storm leaves behind an environmental mess, mostly due to the flooding of sewage and waste treatment systems and generally the washing of all the detritus of human activity into the ocean.

Congratulations. You’ve Pissed Me Off.

This news from my former stomping grounds in Page, Ariz. is just lovely: High mercury lands Lake Powell fish on food alert list. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

Striped bass from the southern reaches of Lake Powell, along with largemouth bass in Quail Creek Reservoir, have joined the list of Utah fish with mercury consumption advisories.

“We thought it was time to get the message out to people,” Amy Dickey of the Utah Division of Water Quality told the Statewide Mercury Work Group on Thursday, noting that methylmercury levels in Lake Powell’s stripers have hovered around the worrisome zone for several years.

With this first mercury warning for Lake Powell, one of the state’s most popular recreation spots, officials suggest pregnant women and children under 6 should eat no more than one 4-ounce serving per month.

Yes, just the pregnant women and children need to worry. Very comforting. Please tell me more:

“We’re not saying: don’t eat these fish,” he [Roger Wilson, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources] said. “We’re saying: eat according to the guidelines that have been issued” and that are kept up-to-date on the state’s mercury web page.

“Mind the eating guidelines” they say. For fresh caught fish, from a fresh water lake, with some of the cleanest water in the nation – other than the damn mercury, of course.

I lived beneath the stacks of the Navajo Generating Station for three years; I studied that coal-fired power plant like one would a painting. I looked at it from every angle – the poverty ridden Navajo who were employed by it, the environmentalists who despised it, the rural economy and downstream power consumers who depend on it. I could see the NGS plant, with all its ugliness and efficiency and necessity, from every perspective, and whenever I felt a little holier-than-thou about an environmental issue somewhere across the globe, I would stop and consider the complexities of NGS, and understand that the answers, while often clear to me, are far from simple to live by.

But Lake Powell is my lake. I spent three years working there as a park service employee, caring for that place, protecting it, promoting it, and deeply appreciating all my colleagues who were doing the same.

And now I feel betrayed.