For the Conservation Curious

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Job Loss vs. Health – Cigarettes and Coal April 3, 2017

The current president, Republican congressmen, and others bemoan the “death of coal” and the “war on coal”. They talk about how coal’s demise has resulted in job losses for many across Appalachia and beyond. No one can deny that when a coal mine closes, miners and others lose their jobs, and the surrounding communities’ economies suffer. Yet there is a link that I have not seen anyone discuss or write about, and I think it’s high time someone does… the similarities between health impacts from coal and cigarettes and how no one seemed to say the death of “Big Tobacco” was a job killer that should be re-thought.

The Tobacco Industry

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that smoking kills 480,000 people in the United States each year. That is one in every five deaths per day. As mounting evidence of this, as well as the addictive nature of nicotine and the tobacco industry’s cover-up came to light, there was strong pressure to stop the marketing of cigarettes and educate people on the benefits of quitting. More and more people began to quit smoking, which had a major impact on the tobacco industry’s profits.

The CDC says that the number of tobacco farms in the United States is down from a high of nearly 180,000 in the 1980s to less than 10,000 in 2012, although our country is still a leading producer (4th in the world). Think of how many tobacco farmers, cigarette manufacturing employers, distributers, and others who lost their jobs due to the acknowledgement of the health impacts of tobacco. Where was the outcry about those job losses? Perhaps at a southeastern U.S. scale, where most of it is grown, there was more discussion, but at a national level I don’t recall seeing anything of the magnitude we get about coal.

The Coal Industry

Physicians for Social Responsibility says that the burning of coal can cause asthma, lung disease, and lung cancer, and negatively impact lung development in children. For coal miners, black lung disease is a real and under-reported illness, according to an investigative report from NPR this past December. Hundreds of miners and former miners are dying each year in West Virginia alone, according to the report. Hundreds more in other coal mining states are dying as well.

Why the Silence?

Why is no one making a connection between coal mining and its negative impacts to people’s health with the impacts smoking has on health when trying to counter the “job killing” rhetoric of the current administration? Yes, when a coal mine is shut down people lose their jobs. But the same thing happened when cigarette plants and tobacco farms were shut down as people wised-up about smoking’s negative impacts. The people that worked in the tobacco industry had to adapt and find a new job. Those in the coal industry must do the same. And we as a country must help them take this next chapter in their life.

What the Future Holds

I hope that this blog will inspire others with more far-reaching audiences and greater impact to spread the message that the negative health impacts of mining and burning coal far-outweigh any benefits of keeping that industry going, just as the closing of cigarette manufacturing plants and tobacco farms did in the 1990s and beyond. We need to help miners, coal-burning plant technicians, and others transition to safer jobs that will lead the United States back on a path to innovation and prosperity. Whether that’s through alternative energy sources such as solar and wind or some new, untapped technology, it is high-time for us to move forward together. Let’s let coal go the way of cigarettes and snub it out.

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Why Voting Matters for the Environment October 11, 2016

The title of this blog post may seem like a no-brainer, but I wanted to reiterate the fact, especially as today is the last day people can register to vote in my home state of Pennsylvania. If you haven’t done so already, please, do so ASAP. Your vote does matter!

The economy is one of the most important concerns of US voters and understandably so; most people are not getting ahead, are worried about having enough to send their kids to college or retire, etc. However, there is a less obvious but no less important issue that all voters should have on their mind, and that is the environment and climate change. The simple fact of the matter is, without a stable and well-functioning environment our economy will suffer. Think of all the natural resources our society relies on to thrive: plants for food and medicine, minerals and metals for industry, beautiful beaches for tourism, to name but a few. The diversity and health of our natural world allows us to have myriad businesses that put money in our bank accounts.

But think about what recently happened to Florida, the Carolinas, and Georgia (not to mention Haiti and other Caribbean islands)… Hurricane Matthew. This storm destroyed beaches and the homes crowded along the shores, flooded inland streets and businesses, and grounded aircraft bound for places around the world. The economic impact of that one storm will be in the multi-billions, if not more. Climate scientists expect storms like Matthew to become more common and more serious over the years as a result of climate change. And what is more threatening is that they expect storm surge (what causes much of the damage) to become more of an issue in the future.

Some politicians think that climate change is a hoax, even though the super majority of climate and other scientists are in agreement about its existence and people’s roles in it. Other politicians acknowledge that climate change is real, but think it is not very important in relation to international problems and domestic economic issues. But as I stated before, our economy is intricately tied to the environment. When it is affected by natural disasters like Matthew, or by an oil spill or over-harvesting of a natural resource, that negatively impacts the economy. And international problems like the Syrian crisis could get worse as natural resources dwindle due to over-crowding, bad weather conditions, etc.

Our world is like a web, where one piece is connected to another and another and so on. If you think a heathy economy does not rely on a thriving environment, think again. And if you think all politicians (at the local, state, and national levels) care about these issues, guess again. So be informed and be sure to vote. Our economy and environment depend on it.

 

My Beef with Bottled Water March 18, 2011

The Story of Stuff tells the tale of bottled water best – http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/ – but in honor of the upcoming World Water Day (3/22) I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the conundrum that is bottled water.

I work for a natural resource organization, yet time and again I see my colleagues carrying around bottles of water.  Sometimes they’re reusing old bottles and filling them up with tap water, which is ok, I guess.  But it still means that they had to have bought a bottle of water at some point.  And I am not 100% innocent in this either – although it’s been years since I’ve spent $ on individual bottles of water I have purchased a gallon or two for camping trips in years past.  It seems like we can’t avoid bottled water. I go to a conference – that’s what’s offered, I eat at a restaurant – that’s what they try to push on me.  Even when we’ve organized events with “sustainability” in their title, the event planners can’t understand why we ask for pitchers of water, rather than bottles.  Because it’s not sustainable, I want to shout!

I could tell you that bottled water is less heavily regulated than tap water, which it is.  I could tell you that many bottled water companies just filter tap water anyway, so you’re paying $2 for what comes almost free out of your tap, which is also true.  Or I could tell you that so much petroleum is needed to create a bottle of water – from making the plastic for the bottle to shipping it to the store – that it’s helping to fuel our addiction to foreign oil, which it is.  But what I am most concerned about our the impacts our addiction to bottled water has on the natural world.

When a bottling company withdraws water in state A, but then ships the water all over the country, the water doesn’t end up back in the watershed from which it was taken (in the form of wastewater treatment effluent from, you guessed it, your toilet).  This can lead to aquifer depletion in state A, because the water is taken out but not replaced at a fast enough rate from precipitation (enhanced by all our black top parking lots and roads that impede infiltration).  Without enough groundwater, not only do local residents have troubled getting enough water out of their tap (forcing them to rely on bottled water!) but the plants and animals that rely on that water are also at a loss (and they can’t go to the grocery store to buy some water). 

Another problem I have with bottled water is the bottle itself.  It’s made of plastic.  Some bottles are recycled, which is good, but most end up in a landfill where they won’t decompose, or worse yet, they get washed into a stream and end up in our oceans.  Eventually the bottles will break down in an oxygen-rich environment, but break down into easily eaten pieces of plastic.  Sea life can’t tell the different between tiny pieces of plastic and their normal food source.  The plastic may or may not kill them.  Companies are experimenting with plant-based plastics and recycling is becoming more common place, but we still have a long way to go.

I’ll get down off my high horse in a second.  Thanks for reading my rant.  If I can leave you with any parting thoughts it’s that I encourage everyone to cut down on their consumption of bottled water (and other beverages in plastic bottles, for that matter).  If you live in the U.S., chances are your tap water is very clean, very tasty, and very cheap in comparison to bottled water.  Buy a reusable stainless steel water bottle, fill it up at your sink, and make a statement that you like saving money and protecting the planet.  It’s not just a tree hugger thing to do, it’s a savvy saver thing to do.  And in this economic climate, who could use a few more dollars in their pocket?!