Pollution Speech

by Bruce Haldane

(Following on the MEC's participation in the California Local Government Commission's annual Pollution Prevention Week, the director of the Commission asked Bruce Haldane to address a conference of pollution-concerned public agency representatives. This is a somewhat amended version of the speech he gave.)

I am a Director of the Mendocino Environmental Center, situated in Ukiah, the county seat of Mendocino County. Mendocino County is a fairly large, sparsely populated county. It is basically a timber-producing county, but there is also a lot of agriculture, particularly, in recent years, wine grape production. In fact, people in Potter Valley, where I live, have now coined the term "grape rape," as they watch good land formerly devoted to production of food being transformed into rows and rows of grapes. While we all appreciate good wine, some of us are beginning to wonder what we're going to have to eat if the present trend continues. I should mention another major crop, marijuana, which may be the county's biggest cash crop. Some of us are interested in growing a different variety of the hemp plant; one which can replace timber for building materials and paper production, and cotton for fabrics, clearly an environmentally benign plant.

The Mendocino Environmental Center, or MEC, came into being almost ten years ago, mainly as a response to the drastic overcutting of the county's forest resource. That has remained a major focus of the MEC, but the Center has been involved in just about every other environmental struggle imaginable, working as a networking center and a resource center. We have an incredible library of books, journals, studies, pamphlets and files on a vast number of environmental issues.

Pollution and the prevention thereof has been high on our agenda. We have worked to see that the provisions of AB 939 are met in ways that preserve the health and well-being of both citizens and environment. We have fought the air pollution spread around by Ukiah's major industry - more on that later. We are a hotline for farmworkers exposed to agricultural chemicals. And on and on. As well, the MEC publicized and got official recognition of Pollution Prevention week this year and we plan to do more along those lines next year.

I have been asked to address three issues: first, why isn't pollution prevention more widely supported by environmental groups? Second, how might pollution prevention advocates get environmental groups to become engaged in pollution prevention? Finally, are there ways to utilize volunteers to help convey a pollution prevention message?

Why isn't pollution prevention more widely supported by environmental groups? That's easy: environmental groups don't support pollution prevention more widely because they couldn't; they support it fully and unequivocally. In fact, many people see Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, which brought pesticide pollution into public consciousness, as the catalyst for formation of the modern environmental movement.

But let's rephrase the question to read: why do agencies concerned with pollution prevention have a problem bringing environmental groups on board? The answer to that leads, of course, into the second question of how to get environmental groups engaged in pollution prevention. So what is that answer? Well, look at what happens: let's start with the mother of all agencies, the U.S. Government. The vice-president of that agency swore that, if elected, the administration of which he is now a part would ensure that a controversial hazardous waste incinerator in Ohio would never, never, never go into operation. They got elected. The plant is up and running, poisoning people. Thanks Al.

Closer to home, take a look at Ward Valley, site of a a proposed nuclear waste dump which will pose a clear risk to the water supply for millions of citizens. The people who live in the area oppose this hare-brained scheme as do many local government officials and environmental groups across the board. Does that make any difference to the people who see this as a solution to their problem of nuclear waste disposal? No. Rather they assure us that nuclear waste buried in unlined trenches in relatively porous strata will stay right where it is and never reach the water table. And no, it won't have any effect on the endangered desert tortoise and the other creatures - all part of the natural balance -- that reside in that region.

By the way, these are the same folks who have been boosting nuclear energy since its beginnings, the same agencies that have been poo-pooing the health problems of the downwinders near the nuclear facility in Hanford, Washington, the very same agencies, in fact, that released clouds of nuclear fallout on those downwinders as an experiment to see what the effects would be. I don't think there is an environmentalist in existence who wants to do business with people like that. We think they should be in prison.

Or we can look, on a somewhat less spectacular level, at our local Masonite mill in Ukiah, where they take chopped wood, bind it together with some really nasty adhesives and mold it into various shapes for various uses. The process involves high temperatures which they get by burning things, including the waste from their own production line. As they burn, they release a number of substances into the air which, it turns out, cause some people to be sick. Those sickened people complained and started asking for some relief. The argument went on for years before the company - which had been operating the new line without the proper permits, a failing which earned them a minor slap on the wrist - finally gave in and installed devices which are supposed to clean up the steam from the stacks.

During those years, who knows how many people suffered health consequences? Why wasn't that plant shut down right from the first, until the problem could be realistically assessed and eliminated or until that molded products line could be removed from the operation? I'll tell you why. Because the authorities who had the power to make that happen, the County Board of Supervisors, were people for whom business can do no wrong.

Environ-mentalists, I have to tell you, aren't going to buy into that system. We feel that people, other creatures and our environment in general come before polluters. And in this business-oriented society, most of our political leaders, many of the agency people - who are, after all, appointed or hired by those political leaders - and even many of those who can bring scientific inquiry to bear on the problems, are willing to let the pollution go on, with whatever dire consequences, until they know with absolute certainty the source of a problem, and even then we find them willing to get by with halfway measures. And in the meantime, people get sick, become disabled, have deformed babies. People die.

The struggle to save Headwaters Forest from the Pacific Lumber/Maxxam ax brings to mind what must be the quintessential example of the influence of business over agencies that are supposed to look out for the public's environmental interest. In 1973, the California legislature passed and the governor signed The Forest Practices Act, which requires that timber companies log their properties in something resembling sustainable fashion. That act created the California Board of Forestry to oversee the logging. Well, since that time, the cut on California's timberlands has tripled and quadrupled; for the Board of Forestry the sustainability requirement has been a dead letter from the get-go. The Board, with members appointed by rabidly pro-business and anti-environmentalist governors has, in fact, been a creature - I should say cretin - of the timber industry from its inception.

What does that have to do with pollution prevention? Look at our northern California fishing industry. It's dead. A major factor in its demise has been the silting up of the creeks and rivers by winter rains washing soil down off the previously protected slopes, now denuded by clear-cutting. Another factor is the illegal removal of stream cover by the timber industry. The fish, just like the cowboy in the well-known song, need clear, cool water; the cowboy to drink, the fish for their spawning. The timber companies have polluted that clear, cool water with silt and heat. Talk about job loss! The Board of Forestry bears major responsibility for the destruction of an entire industry. We're not going to work with folks like that; they're enemies of the people.

I don't need to pile example upon example upon example. Read the papers. There's a story every day about some agency or other coming to a compromise agreement with some company or other which leaves the company in place, leaves their practices in place and leaves some or all of the pollution in place. And people get sick, become disabled, have deformed babies or die.

But wait a minute, I hear you object, what's wrong with working with people, even misguided or bad people, with a view toward bringing them around to righteous thinking and righteous behavior, or at least working out some kind of compromise? Well, sad experience has shown us the fruitlessness of that approach. I'm going to ask you: why is it that Earth First! is criticized for their motto, "No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!", while industrial, commercial and agricultural polluters always act from the unspoken position of, "No compromise in defense of corporate profits!" And everybody goes along as a matter of course, even when the results are disastrous for all but the coupon-clippers and the CEOs?

I have characterized our society as business-oriented, and I challenge anybody to disagree with that. What that means for us in the environmental struggle is that we work long and hard, sometimes for years, sometimes to the exclusion of other, possibly more practical activities, with no or very little payoff. Our victories are few, often partial and almost always ephemeral.

People get tired of banging their heads against these corporate walls, often in the face of governmental resistance, often threatened with or even undergoing arrest. And it doesn't even feel good when you quit because the plunder and pollution of our resources, our air, our soil and our water continue unabated, sometimes at a faster rate. And people get sick; people become disabled; people have deformed babies; people die.

So when the agency in charge of maintaining clean air or clean water or public health or whatever, calls up and says, "Hey, we're starting a project to take care of this or that problem and we want you to help," we take note of the fact that it is an agency that for months or even years has dragged its feet, thrown up obstacles, bent over backward and done everything possible to ensure that the local polluters aren't inconvenienced in any way and we say, "Sorry, we have better ways to spend our time, better ways to deal with the problem," and then we go out and demonstrate, or sit in or file a lawsuit or otherwise get in the face of the guilty parties. And sometimes it's successful and sometimes we gain a temporary reprieve from breathing or smelling or drinking something obnoxious and sometimes nothing results and we end up in the same place we would be had we gone off and worked with the agency.

I hope that serves to answer the first question.

As for the second one, yes. I think it's possible actually to enlist environmentalists in local agencies' pollution prevention efforts. But to do so requires some changes. I haven't dwelt on people or agencies that I feel are responsible for our problems. That is because I don't believe it makes sense to point to a particular agency or a particular person when, at base, the problem is systemic. I know that the agencies are staffed on all levels by competent, well-meaning folks who believe in what they're doing and do their damndest to resolve the problems their agencies are supposed to deal with. And I fully understand the frustration agency people must feel when they attempt to gain the support of folks who say, often very loudly, that they want those problems addressed - folks who, in many cases, are the very people who pointed out the problems in the first place and pushed to get government at some level to do something about them - only to have them refuse resulting in accusations of selling out.

But we have to tell it like it is. We have to say that we cannot resolve these issues without some attitudinal changes throughout society; without the elimination of what I call the "meanness quotient" involved in the corporate culture in which we find ourselves enmeshed at this particular point in our history ( and when I say "our," I mean all of us, speaking globally).

This meanness quotient shows up in the blaming of welfare recipients and immigrants, both legal and undocumented, for the problems facing our society, the castigation of those with AIDS for suffering and dying from a sexually- or needle-transmitted disease, the drive for prisons over education, the push for free global movement of capital at the expense of the poor, both in this country and abroad, the mania for downsizing which enriches CEOs and impoverishes workers; the list goes on and on.

The meanness quotient seems most pronounced in the area of corporate pollution. Why? Because the people making decisions which put pollution into our surroundings are harming their own "loved" ones. I put "loved" in quotes because I question the concept of love as applied to decision-makers who are willing to foul the nests not only of the faceless unnamed masses for whom they have no concern, but as well for their own parents, spouses, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters and so on - even themselves - who also breathe the air, drink the water, and eat the food that the rest of us do. They can wall themselves off in their private enclaves, guarded by their dogs and armed security patrols, but they can't avoid the environment they are poisoning. They can hold that they are mortal so they might as will live as well as they can before their mortality catches up with them, with no thought about those that come after, but their meanness outlives them to destroy their own progeny as well as ours.

Our system allows that meanness to thrive by laying the onus on elected and appointed officials. But we need to get behind all that to deal with what's really happening. By "deal with" I mean, frankly, destroy. This nor any other society can survive the meanness principle and its handmaiden trickle down principle. Trickle down works well for those on top, but the rest of us get pissed on.

So I think what all of us - agency people, environmentalists, all the other folks that are victims of meanness and trickle down - must do is resist. We must say no. No to radioactive waste. No to petrochemical additives in our water. No to poisons in our soil and in our food. And behind that a strong no to the profit-hungry mindset which requires that we rape and pillage our earth mother.

Saying no is not easy. We are, after all, dealing with extremely powerful interests; interests which can and will - entirely disinterestedly - ruin our lives if we oppose them. What it will take, to get back to the question we address here, is a willingness on the part of agency people to put their jobs on the line, with all that entails; a willingness to say to the presidents or the governors or the industries you are hired to oversee that whatever produces environmental pollution is wrong and that you will fight them at every turn until their polluting practices stop. In so doing you risk much, I know, and I know also that there will be casualties. But if you really want pollution to stop, that's what it will take. And, by the way, that is what it will take to demonstrate to the growing environmental community that they can work with you as colleagues and allies in the struggle to clean up and keep clean this spaceship that we inhabit.

The final question: are there ways to utilize volunteers to help convey a pollution prevention message? Of course there are, dozens of ways. But first you have to enlist those volunteers by the kind of demonstrations I've mentioned. But say you've done that; say you've convinced a number of folks that you're serious enough about your mission to take some personal risks for it and they're ready to work with you. Those people can and will put the message out in their own organizations, their churches, their schools, on their streetcorners, their utility poles, everywhere citizens can hear, read or see the message. They can and will go through the regular channels, local government, ombudspersons, the courts and all that - if you can convince them that it might work - or they can confront the polluters directly with boycotts, sit-ins and other forms of interference with business as usual. And it will help if you do the same. They can take a page from the Earth First! book and confront the dominant paradigm with lockdown, trespass, occupation or whatever imagination comes up with.

We can all work together - we must all work together - but you have to be willing, as do those of us who work outside your realm, to take some real risks and you have to make sure we recognize that. We all have to see to it - by any means necessary, as Malcolm put it - that at least as far as pollution is the issue, no longer do people get sick, become disabled, have deformed babies and die.

eal risks and you have to make sure we recognize that. We all have to see to it - by any means necessary, as Malcolm put it - that at least as far as pollution is the issue, no longer do people get sick, become disabled, have deformed babies and die.

Copyright Mendocino Environmental Center 1997
Permission granted to excerpt or use this article if source is cited


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