Column, 568 words

Let’s Treat the Planet Better

Our magical flood of electronic devices, from television sets to cell phones, harbors long-lasting poisons.

William A. Collins

Greed and war
Do ne’er relent,
Defiling our
Environment.

Who would believe that modern-day pirates are some of nature’s best friends? It seems that those troublesome Somali buccaneers have scared off the cursed international factory trawlers from a long stretch of African coastline, thus allowing fish stocks to revive. This is a bonanza for local populations.

Unfortunately, the learned United Nations Convention of International Trade and Endangered Species isn’t quite as helpful. It just turned down a ban on hunting bluefin tuna so that Japan may continue enjoying top quality sushi, at least briefly, until the fish are all gone.

In an unusual spasm of environmental virtue, the United States had led the failed tuna crusade. Strict limits on shark capture met a similar fate, so that the Chinese may temporarily continue to savor shark fin soup. Coral took it on the chin too, with international trade allowed to continue. Elephants were a rare winner as the ivory trade ban was extended.

Of course, we Americans have costly environmental tastes of our own. At a restaurant the other night the menu contained both swordfish and Chilean sea bass, two acknowledged struggling species.

But at least those bureaucratic battles over nature in the United Nations are decided by public bodies, even if their votes are by secret ballot. Other travesties are conducted more privately.

Take Okinawa. Geezers may recall that in WWII the Japanese battled to the last man to protect the island from the Americans. As it turns out, 65 years later, they may have known what they were doing. Today the U.S. is dickering behind closed doors with the Japanese government to vastly expand its already huge military bases there at great cost to nature’s creatures, including humans.

This is scarcely a new phenomenon. Armies and navies of every nation are the world’s most dreaded polluters. The United States itself is dotted with military wastelands. The largest is the Hanford nuclear toxic waste center in Washington State, whose escaped poisons are gradually seeping into the Columbia River. Best to stay upstream.

Abroad it’s worse. Deformity and death have overtaken millions of Vietnamese due to America’s liberal application of Agent Orange to their fields and forests during the war. And since the dioxin it contains is persistent, the suffering will continue for generations. More recently, we’ve donated millions of pounds of depleted uranium dust to the Iraq and Afghanistan landscapes with parallel results. Cancer, this time.

Other widespread toxins trace to nearly every nation, but heaviest to the West. Our magical flood of electronic devices, from television sets to cell phones, harbors long-lasting poisons. Savvy cities have banned them from landfills and incinerators and try to recycle them instead. This means they are gathered up into shipping containers and trundled off to Asia, where each item is crudely dismantled. The marketable parts are then sold off while the toxins are retained by each site’s land and water, and within the bodies of the children and other paupers who perform the work.

Yes, the press does sometimes pick up on a few of the better-known public battles. We often do hear about blowing the tops off mountains, catastrophic oil spills, and the collapse of coal-sludge dams. But while we heroically combat many of these ills, our own taste for military domination, fine food, comfort, speed, gadgets, convenience and profit gradually erodes the welfare of the planet. It’s not pretty.

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OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.