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April 14, 1998

The Four Elements of the Apocalypse

by Neil S. Milligan

The ancient Greeks originated the idea that four elements make up the entire universe. The Four Horsemen in the book of Revelations foretell of imminent destruction of the world, great devastation and the salvation of the righteous. Eco-activists lobby for four environmental rights: clean air, clean water, clean soil and clean energy. Just coincidence? Only that and no more: an ecosystem collapse will be total with no "salvation of the righteous." When this ship strikes the iceberg there are no lifeboats for any of us, rich or poor, pious or sinful, green or greedy.

EARTH

You are what you eat and what you eat depends on where it is grown. The soil provides nutrients and trace elements that are used by "producers" (growing plants) to make their physical structure. "Consumers" (in the ecological, not marketing, sense) utilize the compounds stored in plant-growth to build and repair their own tissues. For eons the building blocks have been recycled between plant and animal and earth with no ill-effects because everything available in the process was natural and unadulterated. Early agricultural practices, even animal husbandry, smoothed out the extremes of feast and famine and were generally sustainable. However, modern agribusiness, the intense commodification of agriculture, has resulted in fractured natural systems that require stop-gap measures and technological accretions just to function, and their long-term bounty is in question.

Generations of monoculture cash-crop farming broke the soil's permanence and stripped the land of its sustaining qualities. Tons of rich soil dried up and blew away. Water tables were depleted. Nutrients were removed and hauled away for use elsewhere, with the result that organic material was no longer on hand to replenish the soil; instead "waste" products were amassed in sewage collection facilities for treatment, and ultimately buried in landfills and discharged into waterways. Artificial enhancements developed to restore vitality to over-farmed land worked enormously well for awhile, but the gains have leveled off. Increasingly larger applications -- and residual concentrations from cumulative use -- bring the concern about what else is present in synthetic fertilizers. Manufacturers find a cheap source of trace nutrients in industrial waste, and industries are eager to unload such waste because it can contain arsenic, cadmium and lead

Additionally, some areas promote the application of collected municipal sludge to farmland as a win-win strategy: it is a means of doing something with an accumulating byproduct of dense human settlements; and it is an alternative to more expensive (and energy-intensive) artificial fertilizers. This would be acceptable (and logical) if the sludge contained only biodegradable results from the consumption-digestion-elimination process. But city sanitation systems accept everything from all the drainage pipes in its domain. Such wastewater can contain toxins and metals that are neither removed nor moderated by treatment methods. Some of these added substances come from illegal sources (industrial chemicals mandated to be handled by other methods), and others are the poisonous compounds used in households everyday for cleansing our living spaces to sterile conditions. A great deal of the toxic content remains in the sludge, while the valuable soluble nutrients are discharged into water-bodies (creating a host of problems for aquatic life).

Deposition of airborne pollutants can reduce the nutritive value of grains and vegetables and may contaminate farms and fisheries with metals such as lead and mercury and with radioactive isotopes. Broadcast biocides wipe out beneficial control organisms, promote resistance in the targeted pest species, and some of them leave residue on crops destined for livestock feed and for human consumption. Some of the most popular agri-chemicals have demonstrated extreme persistence in the environment, resulting in bio-magnification up the food chain.

Despite evidence pointing to increased human-health problems, government policies and subsidies promote diets high in animal-based protein. Most of these animals are factory products raised on an assembly line: injected with a witch's brew of antibiotics; fed hormone-laced fodder and the remains of other chemically-dosed animals; slaughtered, packed and shipped in an industry lacking any real oversight. Against a suspicion that these improvements may not be good for us, industry fights the public's right-to-know by lobbying against labeling requirements for bioengineered products and lobbying for food-libel constraints.

As if food safety were not already in question, the USDA is ignoring the advice of the National Organic Standards Board and accommodating corporate agribusiness to undermine the proposed "organic" label. A USDA memo rationalizes its omission of pesticide-residue limits, for example, with "this establishes organic as being a 'safer' food, and our program is not a food safety program." Organic farmers were scoffed at, but now their share of total food sales is about one percent, and the big boys want a piece of that pie. New regulations will certify food products as "organic" even if they:

(The public comment period on the proposed rules ends on April 30, 1998. Information is available on-line at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop and the Pure Food Campaign http://www.geocities.com/Athens/1527/.)

AIR

The envelope of gases has changed in composition over the planet's history, first due to physical processes and then by the influence of developing life. Once an equilibrium was reached between the atmosphere and the biosphere, things remained fairly stable with the exception of catastrophic events (comet collisions, volcanic events) and cyclical variations (glacial advance and retreat). The first group of events were completely natural in cause, and in the second, change was gradual as well.

Humankind has been transforming the chemical composition of the atmosphere to ill effect. We are destroying ozone in the stratosphere where it screens deadly ultraviolet radiation, and producing an excess of it in the troposphere where it deteriorates membrane elasticity and lung function. Carbon dioxide, necessary for plant growth, has increased in concentration to a level that is altering average temperatures, the hydrologic cycle, and global weather patterns. Nitrogen is a basic building block of life, and nitric acid and ammonia, brought to earth in rain, are part of the natural cycle. Excess nitrogen oxides from automobile exhaust, industrial combustion, forest-burning and fertilizer evaporation increase acid rain, which poisons plantlife directly, upsets the chemistry and biotic make-up of soil, and causes algae blooms and altered pH in aquatic ecosystems. Likewise, sulfur is an essential element in small quantities, but anthropogenic increases from fossil- fuel burning are blamed for dead forests, dying lakes, and regional health problems. Suspended lead and mercury from fossil-fuel burning drop out over time, spreading their toxic effects across wide areas.

Air is supposed to be colorless and odorless. Stand on Dauphin Island and view the brown haze hanging over Mobile and the bay, or smell the odor permeating the Highway 43 industrial corridor, and common sense tells you that something isn't right. Particulates and ozone are monitored, sulfur dioxide emissions are regulated, but regional cumulative effects of multiple sources and long-term impacts of low-level exposures on public health are not scrutinized. Individual contributions of automobile emissions and vapors from household maintenance products are significant sources of air pollution.

And the worst pollutants are not always so overt. Annual Toxics Release Inventory reports consistently place southern states at the top of the list, and Mobile County air emissions are typically the highest in Alabama. Overall discharges are permitted at whatever level is economically convenient, and monitoring relies on the integrity of the pollutant's source.

WATER

Besides the health hazards of human exposure to contaminated water -- children swimming or playing in polluted creeks and wetlands -- this area is popular for year-round fishing. Sportfishing has a major economic impact, and many people rely on their daily catch for sustenance or at least as a supplement to an otherwise insufficient food budget. The fish are also what they eat, and populations of preferred species decline in step with water quality, and persistent toxic chemicals collect in species used as food-fish.

Threats to clean water include regular sewer transport failures resulting in overflows to surface waters. Non-point pollution in the form of runoff contributes whatever happens to be lying on roads, parking lots, lawns and industrial yards: engine oil, hydraulic fluids, poisonous cleaners and biocides. Agriculture contributes pesticides and fertilizers applied in excess that seep into groundwater and flow into streams. As more wetlands and shoreline are subverted for human habitation and vegetated creeks are converted to cement-lined ditches, degraded water is sluiced quickly through the drainage basin without benefit of flood-moderation or pollutant-filtering.

Urban sprawl and rampant greed result in frenzied construction and development efforts that yield thousands of acres of exposed, disturbed soil at any one time. Unsuitable site selection, inadequate engineering, and impotent enforcement of preventive measures all promote an "oops" mentality. Scarred open wounds lie in wait until storm events scour hillsides and flush tons of soil downstream. The resulting sand fills creeks and buries wetlands leading to higher floodwaters, costly personal property damage, and eroded roadways. Finer clay material travels farther into the bay where it chokes aquatic life and blocks penetration of sunlight.

Fish advisories are in place due to mercury contamination. Oyster beds are closed to harvest on a recurring basis, and some parts of the bay are perpetually off-limits. We can almost predict jubilees by the discharge of raw sewage from overburdened, inadequate treatment facilities. ADEM warns us to not swim or fish while fighting EPA orders to either upgrade water classifications or justify their claimed non-attainability. Rather than protecting the health of state resources, ADEM adds more water-bodies to the "degraded" list, effectively writing them off as worthless for all but industrial uses.

FIRE

Unable to directly convert solar power as plants do, humans still have a great demand for energy. Energy for comfort and convenience, enough to waste as long as it's cheap. Oil spills (major from the producers, and individual, from cars and recreational machines), automobile exhaust emissions, smokestack fumes from generating stations, global climate change, intrusive pipelines and electrical lines, federal subsidies for highways and resource extraction, mining spoils, nuclear waste, air pollution's health effects, suppression of human rights, military actions half a world away -- the whole infrastructure reeks of unsustainability.

There are energy sources kinder to the planet, but the free-marketeers encourage overconsumption without responsibility and that is an easy line to swallow. Gods forbid that we be required to take any personal action! Solar and wind power are uneconomical to develop, but just let them drill in the last unspoiled remote wilderness. Technology won't support conservation, but how about buying Detroit's new overpowered Behemoth 5000X for your solo commute? Nuclear power is expensive only because of those extra safety measures forced on the industry by eco-nazis; and it's a real bargain when you factor in the beneficial nuclear weapons spin-offs.

Our hunger for unlimited gratification creates problems in all four of the elements listed above. What's more, the non-renewable resources squandered today will not be available for future generations, though the ill-effects will continue. This is obviously a finite planet with limited matter and, though many dreamers are looking to other bodies in our solar system to harvest, nothing is as inexpensive or sensible as the intelligent use of what we have.

The assaults on the planet are driven not by monsters or aliens but by humans. Industries are quick to point the finger at consumers, saying "If you didn't want the product, we wouldn't make it." And they have a point: we have the obligation to know the effects of our options and to make choices we can each live with, at whatever personally tolerable inconvenience. After the Exxon Valdez spill, how much time passed before you were filling your gas tank with blissful indifference? You can't very well complain about new oil-wells or pipeline construction if you haven't taken a step to reduce your own energy consumption. When the new SuperShopper or JiffyQuick invades your neighborhood -- covering wetlands and leveling forests -- you might get indignant at the intrusion (not-in-my-backyard!) but how long before you are giving them your business? Poisonous air and water (if they are important issues to you) must be combated with personal involvement and determined oversight.

"We didn't inherit the Earth from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children."


The Harbinger, Mobile, AL