From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #913, Jun. 28, 2007
THE RESPONSIBILITY GAP
By Steven G. Gilbert
From his uncle Ben, Spiderman learned that "With great power comes great responsibility". Humans now have incredible power to reshape the environment and affect human health, but we have yet to fully acknowledge the responsibility that this implies. One area in which we need to take more responsibility is around the manufacture, use, and disposal of chemicals.
It is estimated that there are more than 80,000 chemicals in commerce and 2,000 new chemicals are added each year. Unfortunately, we know very little about the specific health effects of these chemicals because industry has not generated or made available the data. We do know, however, that children are more vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals and that annual costs of childhood related disease due to environmental contaminates is in the range of $55 billion.
Children and adults are exposed to a wide range of chemicals at home, school, workplace and from the products we use. Exposure to some of these chemicals can cause significant adverse health effects such as cancer, Parkinson's disease, immunological disorders and neurobehavioral deficits, resulting in a needless loss of potential for both the individual and society.
A significant report on chemical policy was developed by Mike Wilson and others that both defined the problem and suggested a more rational approach. Their report identified three gaps that contribute to the current failed chemical policy: a data gap, a safety gap and a technology gap. The data gap addresses the need to have health effects information on chemicals and the public's right to know this information. The safety gap results from the government's inability to prioritize hazardous chemicals and its inability to obtain the needed information. The technology gap reflects the failure by either industry or government to invest in the development of more sustainable chemical processes such as green chemistry. To these three identified gaps, I suggest adding a fourth: the responsibility gap.
Responsibility -- An Overview
Humans have amassed an enormous amount of power to change the physical environment as well as affect human and environmental health. Aldo Leopold, America's first bioethicist, summarized our ethical responsibilities in a simple statement in 1949: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." When we expose our children to lead, mercury, or alcohol we are robbing them of their integrity, stability, and beauty. In essence we robbing them of their potential, reducing their ability to do well in school and to contribute to society. We have the knowledge and must accept the responsibility to preserve the biotic community, which will preserve us and future generations. Key institutions in our society, as well as individuals, must address different aspects of a shared responsibility to ensure a sustainable biotic community.
Precautionary Principle and Responsibility
The precautionary principle is defined in the Wingspread Statement as: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." It both acknowledges our power and implies responsibility.[5,6]
One of the central elements of the precautionary principle is that proponents of an activity or product must take responsibility to demonstrate its safety. This concept is applied to the development of new drugs. The Food and Drug Administration requires the pharmaceutical or biotech corporations to demonstrate both efficacy and safety of their products before they are approved for use by the public. This precautionary approach was adapted after several high profile disasters with drugs, such as thalidomide. The same concept and responsibility could be required of chemical manufactures, which would result in data-driven decisions on health and would drive a shift toward sustainable and safer chemicals.
Under current corporate rules and regulations the primary responsibility of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders. Corporate management's primary responsibility is to increase the value of the corporation for its shareholders, which is accomplished by increasing revenue or product sales and by reducing or externalizing costs.
In 1994 an array of suited white male tobacco executives stood before the U.S. Congress Subcommittee on Health and the Environment and swore that nicotine was not addictive. This was clearly false, but they were protecting the interest of their corporations and shareholders to profit at the expense of people's health. The health effects of tobacco are borne by the individual and collectively through taxes and health care costs.
The tobacco companies have a long history of externalizing the health costs of their product onto tax payers while reaping profits for the executives and shareholders. Other corporations have also externalized or not accounted for the costs of dumping chemicals into the air, water or land, which results disease and environmental damage. For example, the Asarco smelter in Tacoma, Washington spewed lead and arsenic across a wide area. Devra Davis brilliantly documented how industry poisoned the air and environment, which sickened the people of Donora, Pennsylvania. While the U.S. has tightened pollution laws, Doe Run Peru, an affiliate of the St. Louis-based Doe Run Resources Corp., continues the practice of externalizing costs by spewing lead from their smelters which sickens children, depriving them of their innate abilities. Our government, through the Departments of Defense and Energy, has created some of the most contaminated sites in the world, such as Hanford, Washington.
Corporations contaminate the environment because it is cost effective and our laws shield executives from personal responsibility. In other words, they operate this way because they can make larger profits by not investing in pollution control or adapting sustainable practices and they can get away with it. Of course not all corporations operate irresponsibly, but enough do, which creates problems for everyone. A new form of capitalism is needed that motivates corporate responsibility to the biotic community and greater social good. Peter Barnes explores some of these ideas in his recent book Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons. The thrust of the book is the idea to create public trusts that are responsible for and account for the value of the common wealth such as that in the land, air, and water. Capitalism must change to account for using this wealth.
The primary responsibility of the government is to protect and preserve the common wealth for the greater good of the people.
Government has a duty and responsibility to ensure the "integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community". In essence government must ensure that future generations have an environment in which they can reach and maintain their full genetic potential. The U.S. Government has made various attempts to control chemicals while the governments of many developing countries such as China are just beginning to consider the problems of uncontrolled corporate exploitation of the environment and people.
A failed effort by U.S. Congress was the passage of Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). This law was meant to empower the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control the introduction of new chemicals into the environment. Unfortunately, corporations are not required to generate or make available health effects data (thus the data gap), which impedes the government or the public from making informed decisions on safety of products (thus the safety gap). Our representatives in the government must take seriously their responsibility to protect common wealth for the greater good of all. A first step would be to fix TSCA by requiring greater chemical testing and disclosure of this information. Our legislatures can take responsibility by supporting the Kids Safe Chemicals Act.
The primary responsibility of the media is to create an informed and engaged public not just inform the educated public. The media has an obligation to produce socially responsible material that is fair, objective, and balanced. This does not mean giving equal time to clearly very minority views as was the case with global warming. Most importantly the media has a responsibility to be open and transparent about sources of information and acknowledge any potential conflicts of interest. The burden and obligation of the media to be responsible must also be shared with the listeners, viewers, and readers. The media has great power to inform and influence people, and with that comes a grave responsibility.
The academic community, particularly those engaged in issues related to public health, have a responsibility to be thoughtful public health advocates and share their knowledge beyond narrow academic journals and conferences. Being a scientist includes the obligation to seek the truth and question the facts, there is also an obligation and responsibility to speak out on public health issues. Scientists and educators have tremendous amounts of knowledge that can be shared with K-12 students, media, legislators, and the general public. Educators and researchers have a responsibility to help create an informed public by sharing their knowledge and being thoughtful public health advocates.
Individuals have the greatest burden of responsibility because we must take into account not only the above responsibilities of our professional lives, but we must also address the responsibilities of our personal lives. We must confront individually and collectively that we have the power, and the means to reshape or even destroy the world. Individually it may seem as if we have little control over global warming, nuclear weapons, or the food imported from other countries. We have a responsibility to consider how our individual actions combine to collectively shape the world and society around us. This extends from who we elect for office to what we buy in the store, to the temperature in our homes, and the pesticides on our farms and lawns. We also have a responsibility to stay informed and demand that the media inform us. Democracy is a participatory sport and we must be well informed to participate. Our corporations run on and will respond to what we purchase. Our government and corporations will respond to our opinions and demands for a fair, just, and sustainable society. We must translate responsibility into action to create a just and sustainable world.
 P.J. Landrigan, C.B. Schechter, J.M. Lipton and others, Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 110, No. 7 (2002), pg. 721 and following pages..
 Michael P. Wilson and others. Green Chemistry in California: A Framework for Leadership in Chemicals Policy and Innovation. Berkeley, Calif.: California Policy Research Center, University of California, 2006.
 Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949.
 Steven G. Gilbert, "Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues: Our Children's Future," Neurotoxicology Vol. 26 (2005), pgs. 521-530.
 Peter Montague, The Precautionary Principle In A Nutshell. New Brunswick, N.J.: Environmental Research Foundation, 2005.
 Steven G. Gilbert, "Public Health and the Precautionary Principle," Northwest Public Health (Spring/Summer, 2005), pg. 4.
 Peter Barnes. Capitalism 3.0 -- A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006, pg. 195.
 Kids Safe Chemical Act. Senate Bill 1391, 109th Congress. Introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg. See discussion here and get the text of the bill here. Reportedly, the bill is presently undergoing significant revisions with input from a broad range of stakeholders.
Steven G. Gilbert, Ph.D., DABT, directs the Institute of Neurotoxicology & Neurological Disorders (INND) (8232 14th Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98115); phone: 206.527.0926; fax: 206.525.5102; E-mail: email@example.com.
Web: www.asmalldoseof.org ("A Small Dose of Toxicology") Web: www.toxipedia.org -- connecting science and people
BLESSED UNREST: JOHN STAUBER INTERVIEWS PAUL HAWKEN
By John Stauber
My first introduction to author Paul Hawken's work was his 1994 book The Ecology of Commerce. It is essential reading for anyone grappling with issues surrounding capitalism, social justice and ecological sustainability. Hawken is, among his plethora of accomplishments, a highly successful businessman, but The Ecology of Commerce pulled few punches in its criticism of even those companies truly trying to set and reach a higher standard of business social responsibility.
I met Paul in person the first time in early 1999 over dinner in his hometown of Berkeley, California, some months before the now-legendary "battle of Seattle" protest, a world-changing event that catalyzed his thinking and eventually led to his newest book, Blessed Unrest, subtitled, "How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming."
The November 30, 1999, anti-corporate protests at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) became a global media moment, a highly visible but inaccurately reported coming out party for the movement Hawken documents and touts in Blessed Unrest.
"More than seven hundred groups, and between forty thousand and sixty thousand individuals, took part in protests against WTO's Third Ministerial in Seattle, constituting one of the most disruptive demonstrations in modern history and, at that time, the most prominent expression of a global citizens' movement resisting what protesters saw as a corporate-driven trade agreement. The demonstrators and activists who took part were not against trade per se.... Their frustration arose because one side held most of the cards; that side comprised heads of corporations, trade associations, government ministries, most media, stockholders and WTO. From the point of view of those on the streets, WTO was trying to put the finishing touches on a financial autobahn that would transfer income to a small proportion of the population in wealthy nations under the guise of trade liberalization."
Hawken penned an insightful and widely read first-hand account of the Seattle protest, an event typically depicted by a surprised and shocked mainstream media as a violent anarchist uprising right out of a bad Hollywood movie. "Most accounts of the Seattle demonstrations refer to them as 'riots,' even though they were 99.9 percent nonviolent," Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest. He relates how a Newsweek reporter in Seattle asked him who the leaders were of this uprising. He named names -- Vandana Shiva, Jerry Mander, Lori Wallach, Maude Barlow -- but was interrupted by the reporter who said "Stop, stop, I can't use these names in my article because Americans have never heard of them." Instead of the many real leaders of the Seattle protests, Newsweek placed on its cover Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, although of course Kaczynski had absolutely nothing to do with Seattle's protests, but he epitomized the corporate media's defaming image of how they chose to portray the event and the movement behind it.
The WTO protests sparked Paul Hawken's investigation to better understand the global movement he is part of, its size and depth, its leadership, its goals, and its potential for birthing fundamental political, social, economic and environmental changes to remedy the intertwined crises of social injustice and ecological collapse. His best estimate is that there exist many more than one million organizations worldwide in this movement that "has no name." Blessed Unrest is his "exploration of this movement -- its participants, its aims and its ideals." Through his own non-profit organization the Natural Capital Institute, he has launched an ambitious new website at www.WiserEarth.org to catalog the movement, give it visibility, and to better enable groups to find each other and work together online.
"Groups are intertwingling (sic) -- there are no words to exactly describe the complexity of this web of relationships. The Internet and other communications technologies have revolutionized what is possible for small groups to accomplish and are accordingly changing the loci of power." Hawken believes that this movement is the last, best hope for humankind, describing its promise as "a network of organizations that offer solutions to disentangle what appear to be insoluble dilemmas: poverty, global climate change, terrorism, ecological degradation, polarization of income, loss of culture, and many more. ... Even though the origins and purposes of the various groups comprising the movement are diverse, if you survey their principles, mission statements, or values, you find they do not conflict.... What its members do share is a basic set of fundamental understandings about the earth, how it functions, and the necessity of fairness and equity for all people dependent on the planet's life-giving systems."
Blessed Unrest is a 342 page book, but the last third is a long appendix from the www.WiserEarth.org website categorizing and describing the mind-boggling areas of focus that the myriad of environmental and social justice groups are addressing. That section is best accessed not in the book but online at www.WiserEarth.org.
The book is not a manifesto and it doesn't attempt to define or proscribe any strategies or tactics for the revolutionary structural changes necesary to solve the interwoven political economic, and ecological crises defining the start of the 21st century. These immense problems often overwhelm one's sense of hope. Hawken has hope and he has faith in his movement; he believes it will "prevail." He also believes that its success will be defined by "how rapidly it becomes a part of all other sectors of society. If it remains singular and isolated, it will fail. If it is absorbed and integrated into religion, education, business and government, there is a chance that humans can reverse the trends the beset the earth."
Blessed Unrest, www.WiserEarth.org and Hawken's related efforts are important contributions to furthering the movement. Perhaps he was wise not to examine too deeply the differences and divisions within the movement, or the real-world political challenges of how to reclaim democracy and to build power at the grassroots, taking it away it from the corporate elite, the ultimate challenge. Congratulations to Paul Hawken for creating a place where the movement can better see itself, meet up and collaborate online. Whether the website he calls "Wiser" will succeed, and to what degree, will depend on how it benefits and is used by the movement. In any case, Hawken has taken his best shot and broken new ground trying to help the movement forward.
I have not had a long face-to-face discussion with Paul since our 1999-dinner meeting, but I caught up with him in cyberspace for this interview below.
STAUBER: Twelve years ago when I was writing Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, I quoted your book The Ecology of Commerce. You criticized the fundamental structural problems of business and you wrote, "Rather than a management problem, we have a design problem that runs through all business."
It struck me reading Blessed Unrest that you do not address in it the issue of replacing the business corporation as the dominant engine of economic activity, with new forms of economic structure that can be more accountable to human needs, human rights and ecological sustainability.
Business corporations are structurally incapable of meeting human and ecological needs, and the largest corporations dominate global politics. Isn't the movement's meta-challenge to bring about democratic structural change in both the economic and political spheres, to make business and government accountable to people and the planet?
HAWKEN: Yes! Absolutely! There is a pervasive subtext to most of the issues NGOs focus on: the abrogation of rights, the damage to place, and the corruption of political process by business. I didn't address the idea of replacing the corporation because the book was about civil society. It is about the largest movement in the world. It is not about what I think the movement should do nor is it about what I think we should do about corporate charters. My record is pretty clear on this in previous writings. I was being more an anthropologist, trying to figure out where this movement came from and how it works.
STAUBER: Thomas Friedman uses and abuses the term "economic democracy" to describe the corporate globalization he promotes. I would like to rescue and revitalize "democracy" and make it meaningful. Do you think that "democracy" is a common theme in the movement for ecological and social justice, and how do you see the movement's relationship with democracy?
HAWKEN: My sense is that the word and concept of democracy has lost much of its meaning. We have these winner-takes-all slugfests in the US where there are truly no ethical or moral limits and have the audacity to call it democracy because there were voting machines. Our democracy is corrupt from the top down and I think this movement is forming from the bottom up to correct the lack of process and governing principles that inform democratic movements. Although most of the media thinks this unnamed movement is about protest, my guess is that more than 98% of it is about solutions, and these are usually about solutions to problems in regions or communities. To achieve this requires the creation of what I call handmade democracies, processes that are not win-lose, and it requires a quality of interaction, respect, and listening that is now lost in US politics.
STAUBER: On pages 64-65 of Blessed Unrest you write about the PR flack E. Bruce Harrison, whose attacks on Rachel Carson in the early 1960s on behalf of the chemical industry gave rise to greenwashing and the tactic of coopting of groups like Environmental Defense to partner with polluters. Given your examination of greenwashing, corporate PR, and front groups, I was surprised that no where in Blessed Unrest do you analyze the shortcomings and contradictions of these Big Green Groups that raise and spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars annually, pay their executives six-figure salaries, partner with corporations, place corporate executives on their boards, and have no meaningful accountability to anyone except a small elite group of funders. You lump these groups with the hundreds of thousands of smaller grassroots groups. Why did you not try to better differentiate groups that are under-funded, grassroots and voluntary, from groups that are essentially large, sophisticated non-profit corporations that, while staffed by well-meaning people, often undermine and thwart fundamental change?
HAWKEN: I don't believe I am lumping. I am describing a movement that is more complex and diverse than any prior social movement. Its strength and resiliency derives from this complexity. I understand your concerns, but I was describing something, not evaluating groups in order to announce to the world which ones I think are good and which are bad. I made it clear that some of the organizations that arose from what I attribute to George Perkins Marsh's influence are wealthy and very establishment oriented, and those that are Emersonian/Thoreauvian in origin tend to be smaller and under- resourced.
We tend to be uncomfortable with contradictions, we want the world to be the way we want it be, and are not happy when it veers. But the world is never the way one person wants it to be. That would be hell. That is why I included Barry Lopez's quote in the beginning: "One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light." I do not like where we are, but I believe in my heart that we will have to figure this out together, and that we will not get out of the situation we are in by throwing each other overboard.
STAUBER: You often make the point that the movement is "leaderless" in terms of a King or Gandhi type leader. Yet obviously some form of leadership and accountability exists and better leadership and coordination are necessary if the movement is going to prevail, as you believe it will. Could you elaborate on this issue of leadership in the movement, and how more leadership might emerge that can begin to better coordinate, synergize, and cross pollinate within the movement, and make the parts more aware of the whole?
HAWKEN: My point is that it does not have a charismatic leader in the traditional sense, that there is no one person or group of persons who speak for it, and thus it can be overlooked by the media that thrives on that kind of centrality. I believe there are thousands and thousands of leaders, stunning in their qualities, courage, and faithfulness to principle. I agree with the sense of your question, that it is time to link and connect up in more powerful ways. The movement is atomized because that is how it came into being. It now has the communication and technological tools to work far more closely and effectively.
STAUBER: I sensed in our dinner conversation in 1999 that this issue of envisioning structural change and how to bring it about might be the focus of a manifesto you were considering. Is a manifesto still in the works?
HAWKEN: I remember well speaking with you about writing down a list of principles that reflected a universal set of values coupled with clear actions that needed to be taken in order to bring about justice, eliminate poverty, and prevent ecological collapse. I think about it all the time. Sometimes when I read Murdock's 63 Universals and other anthropological literature I wonder if there is not a set of such values that inform socio-political-ecologic-economic matters.
STAUBER: Our primary mission here at CMD is exposing propaganda and revealing how the powerful use propaganda and the media to manage public perceptions, opinions and policies. It struck me how the pollution of our information environment and the nefarious role of big media corporations in serving the powerful and preventing fundamental change are not addressed in the book. Likewise, when I looked at the categories for WiserEarth, I see little regarding the pollution of our information environment and the issues of propaganda that we address here at CMD.
HAWKEN: www.WiserEarth.org is an online relational database that can be edited by its users. It is not finished but a work in progress created by its community. We are receiving excellent suggestions and there are lively discussions on how to expand the taxonomy. Your contribution here, given your experience and background, would be so welcome and hugely constructive.
From: The New York Times (pg. F7)
DEPRESSION RAISES RISK OF DIABETES, STUDY FINDS
By Nicholas Bakalar
Depression is associated with an increased risk for diabetes in older adults, even in people who have no other risk factors for the disease, a new study reports.
Researchers studied 4,681 men and women over 65, following them over a 10-year period, after excluding anyone who already had diabetes at the start of the project. They used a well-validated questionnaire to measure symptoms of depression each year, and tested all participants at two- to four-year intervals for blood sugar. They also calculated body mass index and noted alcohol intake, smoking status and antidepressant use.
After controlling for these factors, they found that even a single report of high depressive symptoms was associated with an increase in the incidence of diabetes. Increases in symptoms over time and persistently high symptoms of depression were also associated with the disease. Over all, people with the highest scores on the depression questionnaire were roughly 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes than those with the lowest scores. Adjusting for race, sex, smoking status, alcohol intake and body mass index made no difference in the result.
Mercedes R. Carnethon, the lead author and an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, said there was no evidence one way or the other on whether treating depression could reduce the risk for diabetes. "People in our study who were on antidepressants didn't have an elevated risk for diabetes," she said. "But we don't know if that's because of the antidepressants" or for some other reason. The study appeared April 23 in The Archives of Internal Medicine.
Dr. Jonathan W. Stewart, a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute who was not involved in the work, said that the conclusions "fit with what else we think we know," but he was troubled by one aspect of the work.
"I worry that some of the items on the questionnaire could be attributed to diabetes rather than to depression," suggesting that there is some overlap between the symptoms of the two disorders, he said. "This doesn't make the study wrong or inaccurate, but it's a serious limitation which they didn't mention."
Inflammation has been proposed as an explanation for the connection because it is associated with both diabetes and depression. But this study found that having higher or lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, did not alter the association between the two disorders.
Instead, the authors suggest, other biological mechanisms may be at work in the autonomic nervous system, which controls heart, digestive, respiratory, glandular and other involuntary processes. Previous studies have shown that depression is associated with dysfunction in that system, which has also been detected before the development of diabetes. The stress response associated with depression may increase the risk for diabetes by decreasing insulin secretion from the pancreas, which then causes increasing glucose levels in the blood. This can result in a blood sugar level above normal, the defining characteristic of diabetes.
The authors acknowledge some weaknesses in their study. Measures of physical activity were not consistently available during follow-up, and assumptions about this may have introduced error. Also, some of their data were gathered with self-reports, which are not always reliable. In addition, while their questionnaire detected depressive symptoms, the researchers were not able to make definitive diagnoses of clinical depression.
Still, Dr. Carnethon said, depression "is a novel risk factor for diabetes, so we need to look at factors beyond physical inactivity and diet for an explanation." Depression is common in older people, she added, and 15 percent of those over 65 have diabetes.
"The most important thing to keep in mind," Dr. Carnethon said, "is that depression has a lot of effects on the body, one of which may be the development of diabetes, which can lead to a number of other diseases. So addressing depression is important not only for improving mood, but for protecting overall health."
From: Caribbean Net News
MAIZE OF DECEPTION
By Eliana Monteforte, COHA Research Associate
As the Bush administration continues to push its alternative fuels agenda, it has become increasingly evident that corn-based ethanol could be as much the global villain as a boon to society. Instead of improving the environment and moderating oil prices, corn-based ethanol could result in mass deforestation, strained land and water resources, increased food prices, augmented poverty and swarms of farmers uprooted from the land. While the negative effects of corn- based biofuels are obvious, Washington continues to emphasize their importance, while increasing the size and number of subventions to the ethanol industry. This is being done despite the adverse ramifications that its cultivation is having on the sites where it already is being produced, with the situation likely to further deteriorate in the near future.
The Emergence of Ethanol
Ethanol is a substance created by the fermentation of simple sugars. In the United States, corn is the main source for ethanol production, while other countries like Brazil rely on a sugar cane process as well as other plants and byproducts to be used in making alternative energy sources. Typically, ethanol is mixed into gasoline creating "gasohol," resulting in higher octane ratings, improved combustion, and is viewed as more environmentally friendly. Currently, around 30% of gasoline in the United States contains some ethanol, and US initiatives indicate the possibility for much larger concentrations in coming years.
Before corn-based ethanol became prominent in US industries, lead was used as a performance enhancer when added to gasoline. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that corn-based ethanol began to replace lead -- a very toxic substance -- mostly due to the oil embargo that the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed in 1974. Amid the clamor of American voices calling out for energy independence, President Jimmy Carter gave his memorable speech on April 18, 1977, ushering in a new era in US economic history. From this point on the US would try to cater to its high energy demand from its own domestic resources. To Carter, this decision was the "moral equivalent of war" between the US and OPEC. Thirty years later, it seems that America is losing its own self-designated "war" and is likely to continue to suffer unnecessary losses in this conflict unless it pursues a fundamental change in its economic policy.
An Economic Giant
Over the past few years, a combination of increasing oil prices and generous government subsidies has resulted in the continued expansion of the US ethanol industry. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, as of 2006, 110 ethanol refineries have been built in the US, with 73 more under construction. It is estimated that by the end of 2008, ethanol production will have reached 11.4 billion gallons a year. In his 2007 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush set out goals to produce over 35 billion gallons of ethanol fuel by the year 2017. He added that the US also plans to cut petroleum consumption by 20% over a ten year time span.
The tumultuous ethanol industry receives Midas-like support as a result of direct government subventions which equaled about $8.9 billion in 2005. These include tax cuts, grants, and government loans in order to encourage production and remain economically competitive with conventional gasoline. The federal government for example already has established a tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon the industry produces. Although accompanied by severe consequences, with continued government support at such a high level, it is quite possible that Bush's consumption goals could be fulfilled within the stipulated time period.
Feeding Cars and Starving the Poor
On March 29, 2007, Cuban leader Fidel Castro berated Bush's economic initiatives for ethanol production in the Cuban Communist party newspaper Granma, stating that using corn, or any food source, to produce ethanol could result in the "premature death" of upwards of three billion people. He explained that the drive to produce corn- based ethanol would hike up food prices around the world, adversely effecting poverty in developing countries. Castro then restated his beliefs in a second article, also published in Granma, on April 3. Although the ailing Cuban president is known for adamantly and automatically opposing US foreign policy initiatives, it would be foolhardy for the US to ignore his foreboding message on this subject.
As a result of the Washington-backed initiatives, an enormous volume of corn is being consumed for ethanol production. Consequently, the decreasing availability of it as a food crop and for livestock has contributed to the rise of corn futures from $2.80 to $4.38 a bushel. This recent price hike occurred over the course of several months and is said to be the sharpest increase in the past ten years. Thus, fewer low income consumers are able to purchase corn-based products, which is a very serious detriment to countries where corn is a staple of a population's diet.
Mexico already has been significantly affected by the rising costs of corn. Because 107 million Mexicans rely on corn as their main source of sustenance, its soaring increase has sent shockwaves throughout the country's corn-related industries. The price of tortillas in Mexico has risen by 100%, resulting in mass protests by tens of thousands of enraged consumers last January. Recently inaugurated Mexican President Felipe Calderon stated that the price increase of corn is unjustifiable and "threatens the economy and millions of families." In response to the strike, Calderon signed an accord that limited the price of tortillas to 8.50 pesos per kilogram, and increased the quota of duty-free corn products imported from the United States. Despite Calderon's efforts to regulate corn prices, the situation remains unresolved, since the accord expired in May.
The rapidly changing international corn market also has affected the prices of other produce. Due to the high demand for corn, farmers in the US are now planting more acres of the commodity. This has decreased the production of other crops, such as wheat, soy and rice, making them more expensive and less available. Beer prices also have risen due to the substitution of barley for corn. Even the price of meats and poultry such as turkey, chicken, pork, beef as well as eggs and dairy products are beginning increase due to the high cost of feeding farm animals. Fidel Castro may have a point; current US economic policy seems to indicate greater interest in fueling cars than feeding people.
Is Ethanol Really Better For The Environment?
In May of 2007, the United Nations issued a report warning the world against the production of ethanol. The report stated that thus far, the production of ethanol has resulted in "the destruction of endangered rainforests, contamination of soil, air and water and the expulsion of rural populations from their homes." Because more acreage needs to be cultivated in order to produce the amount of corn, sugarcane and other foodstock needed for ethanol production, farmers around the world are wantonly cutting down forests to make way for new plantations. In the long term, the Amazon Rainforest, for example, will experience vast deforestation due to Brazil's increased sugarcane production in order to meet its ethanol export goals. This inevitably will result in the slow degradation of one of the Americas most precious and fragile ecosystems.
The UN also added that "where crops are grown for energy purposes, the use of large scale cropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and nutrient leaching." Fidel Castro warned the US that corn-based ethanol production will not only damage the environment, but will also put increasing pressure on the world's already dwindling water supplies, possibly resulting in future water wars.
In a COHA interview with Boston University's International Relations professor Kevin P. Gallagher, he asserted that we have found ourselves in a "climate constrained insecure world," where we must shift our dependence away from fossil fuels and have a more climate friendly energy policy. Moreover, Gallagher stresses that "corn-based ethanol is not a panacea to solve a country's climate and security problems." He emphasized that currently the US has the opportunity to develop a more efficient energy path, but with its present, poorly managed corn- based energy policy, the US is "taking one step forward and two steps backward."
Gallagher also pointed out that the corn, wheat and soy sectors are highly concentrated, meaning that at times "only two or three firms can control 75% to 85% of the market." This raises possible concerns that these firms are manipulating the price of their products, thereby artificially impacting the commodity market to their advantage, but not necessarily to society's benefit. Because these mega-firms face so little competition, it is relatively easy for them to drive up the price of their products in order to generate greater profits. At the present time, corn-based ethanol production is benefiting mainly the larger firms.
In Mexico there are only a relatively small handful of tortilla makers whose prices, as mentioned above, have rapidly shot up. Yet it is very important to note that these tortilla prices increased somewhat faster than the price of corn in general. While the situation in Mexico is currently under investigation, its present fate illustrates the importance of rapidly addressing this issue.
It is evident that while ethanol, as an alternative to fossil fuel, may be beneficial to the general population by reducing and stabilizing fuel prices, its consequences may far outweigh such advantages. As Food Rights Coordinator Celso Marcatto at ActionAid in Brazil stated, "The benefits of biofuels cannot be achieved at the expenses of increased food shortages, environmental degradation and poverty." Unfortunately, that is what the US is inadvertently setting itself up for in the future.
Alternatives To Corn-Based Ethanol
The US currently uses more energy per unit of GDP than do most other countries in the world. Yet there are many ways the US could utilize its energy more efficiently. For example, steel mills in the US use more energy per dollar than their equivalent in Germany or Japan. The Japanese car company Toyota is currently using its hybrid technology to manufacture more fuel efficient cars. Germany uses energy efficient light bulbs from which it derives huge savings. The US needs to use the eco-technology which now exists to mirror these countries by adapting them to its own use.
Wind and solar energy, a function of geography, should be a key component in the US's quest for energy efficiency. Professor Gallagher suggests that former President Carter's energy policy had the US "perfectly positioned to, by now, be the world leader." Yet because the succeeding administrations strayed away from Carter's path, the US is now far behind. "We have engineers and ingenuity but the current administration has locked itself into a specific framework and is resistant to change," says Gallagher. The US still has time to alter its course toward a more energy efficient arrangement. Hopefully, the White House will acknowledge its current unwise economic policy and join other governments that value the use of eco-friendly energy.
COHA, The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, visit www.coha.org; or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003-2007 Caribbean Net News
THE TRUTH ABOUT RECYCLING
As the importance of recycling becomes more apparent, questions about it linger. Is it worth the effort? How does it work? Is recycling waste just going into a landfill in China? Here are some answers
It is an awful lot of rubbish. Since 1960 the amount of municipal waste being collected in America has nearly tripled, reaching 245m tonnes in 2005. According to European Union statistics, the amount of municipal waste produced in western Europe increased by 23% between 1995 and 2003, to reach 577kg per person. (So much for the plan to reduce waste per person to 300kg by 2000.) As the volume of waste has increased, so have recycling efforts. In 1980 America recycled only 9.6% of its municipal rubbish; today the rate stands at 32%. A similar trend can be seen in Europe, where some countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands, now recycle 60% or more of their municipal waste. Britain's recycling rate, at 27%, is low, but it is improving fast, having nearly doubled in the past three years.
Even so, when a city introduces a kerbside recycling programme, the sight of all those recycling lorries trundling around can raise doubts about whether the collection and transportation of waste materials requires more energy than it saves. "We are constantly being asked: Is recycling worth doing on environmental grounds?" says Julian Parfitt, principal analyst at Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a non- profit British company that encourages recycling and develops markets for recycled materials.
Studies that look at the entire life cycle of a particular material can shed light on this question in a particular case, but WRAP decided to take a broader look. It asked the Technical University of Denmark and the Danish Topic Centre on Waste to conduct a review of 55 life- cycle analyses, all of which were selected because of their rigorous methodology. The researchers then looked at more than 200 scenarios, comparing the impact of recycling with that of burying or burning particular types of waste material. They found that in 83% of all scenarios that included recycling, it was indeed better for the environment.
Based on this study, WRAP calculated that Britain's recycling efforts reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions by 10m-15m tonnes per year. That is equivalent to a 10% reduction in Britain's annual carbon-dioxide emissions from transport, or roughly equivalent to taking 3.5m cars off the roads. Similarly, America's Environmental Protection Agency estimates that recycling reduced the country's carbon emissions by 49m tonnes in 2005.
Recycling has many other benefits, too. It conserves natural resources. It also reduces the amount of waste that is buried or burnt, hardly ideal ways to get rid of the stuff. (Landfills take up valuable space and emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and although incinerators are not as polluting as they once were, they still produce noxious emissions, so people dislike having them around.) But perhaps the most valuable benefit of recycling is the saving in energy and the reduction in greenhouse gases and pollution that result when scrap materials are substituted for virgin feedstock. "If you can use recycled materials, you don't have to mine ores, cut trees and drill for oil as much," says Jeffrey Morris of Sound Resource Management, a consulting firm based in Olympia, Washington.
Extracting metals from ore, in particular, is extremely energy- intensive. Recycling aluminium, for example, can reduce energy consumption by as much as 95%. Savings for other materials are lower but still substantial: about 70% for plastics, 60% for steel, 40% for paper and 30% for glass. Recycling also reduces emissions of pollutants that can cause smog, acid rain and the contamination of waterways.
A brief history of recycling
The virtue of recycling has been appreciated for centuries. For thousands of years metal items have been recycled by melting and reforming them into new weapons or tools. It is said that the broken pieces of the Colossus of Rhodes, a statue deemed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, were recycled for scrap. During the industrial revolution, recyclers began to form businesses and later trade associations, dealing in the collection, trade and processing of metals and paper. America's Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a trade association with more than 1,400 member companies, traces its roots back to one such organisation founded in 1913. In the 1930s many people survived the Great Depression by peddling scraps of metal, rags and other items. In those days reuse and recycling were often economic necessities. Recycling also played an important role during the second world war, when scrap metal was turned into weapons.
As industrial societies began to produce ever-growing quantities of garbage, recycling took on a new meaning. Rather than recycling materials for purely economic reasons, communities began to think about how to reduce the waste flow to landfills and incinerators. Around 1970 the environmental movement sparked the creation of America's first kerbside collection schemes, though it was another 20 years before such programmes really took off.
In 1991 Germany made history when it passed an ordinance shifting responsibility for the entire life cycle of packaging to producers. In response, the industry created Duales System Deutschland (DSD), a company that organises a separate waste-management system that exists alongside public rubbish-collection. By charging a licensing fee for its "green dot" trademark, DSD pays for the collection, sorting and recycling of packaging materials. Although the system turned out to be expensive, it has been highly influential. Many European countries later adopted their own recycling initiatives incorporating some degree of producer responsibility.
In 1987 a rubbish-laden barge cruised up and down America's East Coast looking for a place to unload, sparking a public discussion about waste management and serving as a catalyst for the country's growing recycling movement. By the early 1990s so many American cities had established recycling programmes that the resulting glut of materials caused the market price for kerbside recyclables to fall from around $50 per ton to about $30, says Dr Morris, who has been tracking prices for recyclables in the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. As with all commodities, costs for recyclables fluctuate. But the average price for kerbside materials has since slowly increased to about $90 per ton.
Even so, most kerbside recycling programmes are not financially self- sustaining. The cost of collecting, transporting and sorting materials generally exceeds the revenues generated by selling the recyclables, and is also greater than the disposal costs. Exceptions do exist, says Dr Morris, largely near ports in dense urban areas that charge high fees for landfill disposal and enjoy good market conditions for the sale of recyclables.
Sorting things out
Originally kerbside programmes asked people to put paper, glass and cans into separate bins. But now the trend is toward co-mingled or "single stream" collection. About 700 of America's 10,000 kerbside programmes now use this approach, says Kate Krebs, executive director of America's National Recycling Coalition. But the switch can make people suspicious: if there is no longer any need to separate different materials, people may conclude that the waste is simply being buried or burned. In fact, the switch towards single-stream collection is being driven by new technologies that can identify and sort the various materials with little or no human intervention. Single-stream collection makes it more convenient for householders to recycle, and means that more materials are diverted from the waste stream.
San Francisco, which changed from multi to single-stream collection a few years ago, now boasts a recycling rate of 69% -- one of the highest in America. With the exception of garden and food waste, all the city's kerbside recyclables are sorted in a 200,000-square-foot facility that combines machines with the manpower of 155 employees. The $38m plant, next to the San Francisco Bay, opened in 2003. Operated by Norcal Waste Systems, it processes an average of 750 tons of paper, plastic, glass and metals a day.
The process begins when a truck arrives and dumps its load of recyclables at one end of the building. The materials are then piled on to large conveyer belts that transport them to a manual sorting station. There, workers sift through everything, taking out plastic bags, large pieces of cardboard and other items that could damage or obstruct the sorting machines. Plastic bags are especially troublesome as they tend to get caught in the spinning-disk screens that send weightier materials, such as bottles and cans, down in one direction and the paper up in another.
Corrugated cardboard is separated from mixed paper, both of which are then baled and sold. Plastic bottles and cartons are plucked out by hand. The most common types, PET (type 1) and HDPE (type 2), are collected separately; the rest go into a mixed-plastics bin.
Next, a magnet pulls out any ferrous metals, typically tin-plated or steel cans, while the non-ferrous metals, mostly aluminium cans, are ejected by eddy current. Eddy-current separators, in use since the early 1990s, consist of a rapidly revolving magnetic rotor inside a long, cylindrical drum that rotates at a slower speed. As the aluminium cans are carried over this drum by a conveyer belt, the magnetic field from the rotor induces circulating electric currents, called eddy currents, within them. This creates a secondary magnetic field around the cans that is repelled by the magnetic field of the rotor, literally ejecting the aluminium cans from the other waste materials.
Finally, the glass is separated by hand into clear, brown, amber and green glass. For each load, the entire sorting process from start to finish takes about an hour, says Bob Besso, Norcal's recycling- programme manager for San Francisco.
Although all recycling facilities still employ people, investment is increasing in optical sorting technologies that can separate different types of paper and plastic. Development of the first near-infra-red- based waste-sorting systems began in the early 1990s. At the time Elopak, a Norwegian producer of drink cartons made of plastic- laminated cardboard, worried that it would have to pay a considerable fee to meet its producer responsibilities in Germany and other European countries. To reduce the overall life-cycle costs associated with its products, Elopak set out to find a way to automate the sorting of its cartons. The company teamed up with SINTEF, a Norwegian research centre, and in 1996 sold its first unit in Germany. The technology was later spun off into a company now called TiTech.
TiTech's systems -- more than 1,000 of which are now installed worldwide -- rely on spectroscopy to identify different materials. Paper and plastic items are spread out on a conveyor belt in a single layer. When illuminated by a halogen lamp, each type of material reflects a unique combination of wavelengths in the infra-red spectrum that can be identified, much like a fingerprint. By analysing data from a sensor that detects light in both the visible and the near- infra-red spectrum, a computer is able to determine the colour, type, shape and position of each item. Air jets are then activated to push particular items from one conveyor belt to another, or into a bin. Numerous types of paper, plastic or combinations thereof can thus be sorted with up to 98% accuracy.
For many materials the process of turning them back into useful raw materials is straightforward: metals are shredded into pieces, paper is reduced to pulp and glass is crushed into cullet. Metals and glass can be remelted almost indefinitely without any loss in quality, while paper can be recycled up to six times. (As it goes through the process, its fibres get shorter and the quality deteriorates.)
Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, are somewhat different. Although they have many useful properties -- they are flexible, lightweight and can be shaped into any form -- there are many different types, most of which need to be processed separately. In 2005 less than 6% of the plastic from America's municipal waste stream was recovered. And of that small fraction, the only two types recycled in significant quantities were PET and HDPE. For PET, food-grade bottle- to-bottle recycling exists. But plastic is often "down-cycled" into other products such as plastic lumber (used in place of wood), drain pipes and carpet fibres, which tend to end up in landfills or incinerators at the end of their useful lives.
Even so, plastics are being used more and more, not just for packaging, but also in consumer goods such as cars, televisions and personal computers. Because such products are made of a variety of materials and can contain multiple types of plastic, metals (some of them toxic), and glass, they are especially difficult and expensive to dismantle and recycle.
Europe and Japan have initiated "take back" laws that require electronics manufacturers to recycle their products. But in America only a handful of states have passed such legislation. That has caused problems for companies that specialise in recycling plastics from complex waste streams and depend on take-back laws for getting the necessary feedstock. Michael Biddle, the boss of MBA Polymers, says the lack of such laws is one of the reasons why his company operates only a pilot plant in America and has its main facilities in China and Austria.
Much recyclable material can be processed locally, but ever more is being shipped to developing nations, especially China. The country has a large appetite for raw materials and that includes scrap metals, waste paper and plastics, all of which can be cheaper than virgin materials. In most cases, these waste materials are recycled into consumer goods or packaging and returned to Europe and America via container ships. With its hunger for resources and the availability of cheap labour, China has become the largest importer of recyclable materials in the world.
The China question
But the practice of shipping recyclables to China is controversial. Especially in Britain, politicians have voiced the concern that some of those exports may end up in landfills. Many experts disagree. According to Pieter van Beukering, an economist who has studied the trade of waste paper to India and waste plastics to China: "as soon as somebody is paying for the material, you bet it will be recycled."
In fact, Dr van Beukering argues that by importing waste materials, recycling firms in developing countries are able to build larger factories and achieve economies of scale, recycling materials more efficiently and at lower environmental cost. He has witnessed as much in India, he says, where dozens of inefficient, polluting paper mills near Mumbai were transformed into a smaller number of far more productive and environmentally friendly factories within a few years.
Still, compared with Western countries, factories in developing nations may be less tightly regulated, and the recycling industry is no exception. China especially has been plagued by countless illegal- waste imports, many of which are processed by poor migrants in China's coastal regions. They dismantle and recycle anything from plastic to electronic waste without any protection for themselves or the environment.
The Chinese government has banned such practices, but migrant workers have spawned a mobile cottage industry that is difficult to wipe out, says Aya Yoshida, a researcher at Japan's National Institute for Environmental Studies who has studied Chinese waste imports and recycling practices. Because this type of industry operates largely under the radar, it is difficult to assess its overall impact. But it is clear that processing plastic and electronic waste in a crude manner releases toxic chemicals, harming people and the environment -- the opposite of what recycling is supposed to achieve.
Under pressure from environmental groups, such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, some computer-makers have established rules to ensure that their products are recycled in a responsible way. Hewlett- Packard has been a leader in this and even operates its own recycling factories in California and Tennessee. Dell, which was once criticised for using prison labour to recycle its machines, now takes back its old computers for no charge. And last month Steve Jobs detailed Apple's plans to eliminate the use of toxic substances in its products.
Far less controversial is the recycling of glass -- except, that is, in places where there is no market for it. Britain, for example, is struggling with a mountain of green glass. It is the largest importer of wine in the world, bringing in more than 1 billion litres every year, much of it in green glass bottles. But with only a tiny wine industry of its own, there is little demand for the resulting glass. Instead what is needed is clear glass, which is turned into bottles for spirits, and often exported to other countries. As a result, says Andy Dawe, WRAP's glass-technology manager, Britain is in the "peculiar situation" of having more green glass than it has production capacity for.
Britain's bottle-makers already use as much recycled green glass as they can in their furnaces to produce new bottles. So some of the surplus glass is down-cycled into construction aggregates or sand for filtration systems. But WRAP's own analysis reveals that the energy savings for both appear to be "marginal or even disadvantageous". Working with industry, WRAP has started a new programme called GlassRite Wine, in an effort to right the imbalance. Instead of being bottled at source, some wine is now imported in 24,000-litre containers and then bottled in Britain. This may dismay some wine connoisseurs, but it solves two problems, says Mr Dawe: it reduces the amount of green glass that is imported and puts what is imported to good use. It can also cut shipping costs by up to 40%.
The future of recycling
This is an unusual case, however. More generally, one of the biggest barriers to more efficient recycling is that most products were not designed with recycling in mind. Remedying this problem may require a complete rethinking of industrial processes, says William McDonough, an architect and the co-author of a book published in 2002 called "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things". Along with Michael Braungart, his fellow author and a chemist, he lays out a vision for establishing "closed-loop" cycles where there is no waste. Recycling should be taken into account at the design stage, they argue, and all materials should either be able to return to the soil safely or be recycled indefinitely. This may sound like wishful thinking, but Mr McDonough has a good pedigree. Over the years he has worked with companies including Ford and Google.
An outgrowth of "Cradle to Cradle" is the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a non-profit working group that has developed guidelines that look beyond the traditional benchmarks of packaging design to emphasise the use of renewable, recycled and non-toxic source materials, among other things. Founded in 2003 with just nine members, the group now boasts nearly 100 members, including Target, Starbucks and Estee Lauder, some of which have already begun to change the design of their packaging.
Sustainable packaging not only benefits the environment but can also cut costs. Last year Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, announced that it wanted to reduce the amount of packaging it uses by 5% by 2013, which could save the company as much as $3.4 billion and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 667,000 tonnes. As well as trying to reduce the amount of packaging, Wal-Mart also wants to recycle more of it. Two years ago the company began to use an unusual process, called the "sandwich bale", to collect waste material at its stores and distribution centres for recycling. It involves putting a layer of cardboard at the bottom of a rubbish compactor before filling it with waste material, and then putting another layer of cardboard on top. The compactor then produces a "sandwich" which is easier to handle and transport, says Jeff Ashby of Rocky Mountain Recycling, who invented the process for Wal-Mart. As well as avoiding disposal costs for materials it previously sent to landfill, the company now makes money by selling waste at market prices.
Evidently there is plenty of scope for further innovation in recycling. New ideas and approaches will be needed, since many communities and organisations have set high targets for recycling. Europe's packaging directive requires member states to recycle 60% of their glass and paper, 50% of metals and 22.5% of plastic packaging by the end of 2008. Earlier this year the European Parliament voted to increase recycling rates by 2020 to 50% of municipal waste and 70% of industrial waste. Recycling rates can be boosted by charging households and businesses more if they produce more rubbish, and by reducing the frequency of rubbish collections while increasing that of recycling collections.
Meanwhile a number of cities and firms (including Wal-Mart, Toyota and Nike) have adopted zero-waste targets. This may be unrealistic but Matt Hale, director of the office of solid waste at America's Environmental Protection Agency, says it is a worthy goal and can help companies think about better ways to manage materials. It forces people to look at the entire life-cycle of a product, says Dr Hale, and ask questions: Can you reduce the amount of material to begin with? Can you design the product to make recycling easier?
If done right, there is no doubt that recycling saves energy and raw materials, and reduces pollution. But as well as trying to recycle more, it is also important to try to recycle better. As technologies and materials evolve, there is room for improvement and cause for optimism. In the end, says Ms Krebs, "waste is really a design flaw."
Web resources recommended by The Economist:
William McDonough's book, Cradle to Cradle.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports on waste and recycling. The Waste & Resources Action Programme has a profile of Julian Parfitt. The University of Amsterdam has a biography of Pieter van Beukering. See also William McDonough, the Danish Topic Centre on Waste and Resources, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and TiTech.
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF A GREEN WAL-MART
By Stacy Mitchell
With its recent flurry of green initiatives, Wal-Mart has won the embrace of several prominent environmental groups. "If they do even half what they say they want to do, it will make a huge difference for the planet," said Ashok Gupta of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Environmental Defense, meanwhile, has deemed Wal-Mart's actions momentous enough to warrant opening an office near the retailer's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. "If [we] can nudge Wal- Mart in the right direction on the environment, we can have a huge impact," said the organization's executive vice president, David Yarnold.
Wal-Mart's eco-commitments are not without substance. The two most significant are a pledge to make its stores 20 percent more energy efficient by 2013, which will cut annual electricity use by 3.5 million megawatt-hours, and a plan to double the fuel economy of its trucks by 2015, which will save 60 million gallons of diesel fuel a year.
Acting with unusual transparency, Wal-Mart has even published a benchmark calculation of its carbon footprint [Excel]. The company estimates that its U.S. operations were responsible for 15.3 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2005. About three-quarters of this pollution came from the electricity generated to power its stores.
This cannot be dismissed as greenwashing. It's actually far more dangerous than that. Wal-Mart's initiatives have just enough meat to have distracted much of the environmental movement, along with most journalists and many ordinary people, from the fundamental fact that, as a system of distributing goods to people, big-box retailing is as intrinsically unsustainable as clear-cut logging is as a method of harvesting trees.
Here's the key issue. Wal-Mart's carbon estimate omits a massive source of CO2 that is inherent to its operations and amounts to more than all of its other greenhouse-gas emissions combined: the CO2 produced by customers driving to its stores.
The dramatic growth of big-box retailers, including Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot, over the last 15 years has been mirrored by an equally dramatic rise in how many miles we travel running errands. Between 1990 and 2001 (the most recent year for which the U.S. Department of Transportation has data), the number of miles that the average American household drove each year for shopping grew by more than 40 percent.
It's not that we are going to the store more often, but rather that each trip is an average of about two miles longer. The general trend toward suburbanization is only partly to blame: shopping-related driving grew three times as fast as driving for all other purposes. The culprit is big-box retail. These companies have displaced tens of thousands of neighborhood and downtown businesses and consolidated the necessities of life into massive stores that aggregate car-borne shoppers from large areas. During the 1990s, for example, about 5,000 independent hardware stores, dispersed across almost as many neighborhoods, were replaced by just 1,500 Home Depot and Lowe's superstores, most erected on the outer fringes of our cities. The same trend is under way in virtually every retail sector. According to the market research firm Retail Forward, every time Wal-Mart converts one of its stores into a Supercenter with groceries, it leads to the closure of two existing grocery stores, leaving many residents with farther to drive for milk and bread.
Altogether, by 2001, Americans logged over 330 billion miles going to and from the store, generating more than 140 million metric tons of CO2. If we conservatively estimate that shopping-related driving over the last five years grew at only half the rate of the 1990s, that means Americans are now driving more than 365 billion miles each year and producing 154 million metric tons of CO2 in the process.
Since Wal-Mart accounts for 10 percent of U.S. retail sales, the company's share of these emissions is at least 15.4 million metric tons -- and likely higher, because Wal-Mart has led the way in auto- oriented store formats and locations. This amounts to more than all of its other domestic CO2 output combined.
Land-use consultant Kennedy Smith notes that another way to estimate these emissions is to start with the 100 million shoppers Wal-Mart says its stores attract each week, generously assume two shoppers per car, and then multiply by the average length of a shopping trip. This produces an almost identical result: over 15 million metric tons of CO2.
Shopping-related driving has been growing so fast that even a phenomenal improvement in the fuel economy of cars would soon be eclipsed by more miles on the road. Nor is CO2 the only environmental impact of all of this driving. Tens of thousands of acres of habitat have been paved for big-box parking lots, which, during rainstorms, deliver large doses of oil and other petrochemicals deposited by cars to nearby lakes and streams.
By embracing Wal-Mart, groups like NRDC and Environmental Defense are not only absolving the company of the consequences of its business model, but implying that this method of retailing goods can, with adjustments, be made sustainable.
Worst of all, they are helping Wal-Mart expand. In the Northeast and West Coast, where Supercenters are relatively few and environmental sentiment runs strong, a greener image is just what Wal-Mart needs to overcome widespread public opposition to new stores.
In January alone, Wal-Mart opened 70 U.S. stores. At current growth rates, by 2015 Wal-Mart will have enlarged its domestic footprint by 20,000 acres, turning CO2-absorbing fields and forests into stores and parking lots. Big-box stores make incredibly inefficient use of land. While 200,000 square feet of retail spread over several two-story downtown buildings with shared parking takes up about four acres, a single-story Superstore of this size, with its standard 1,000 parking spaces, consumes nearly 20 acres.
Wal-Mart's new stores will use more electricity than its energy- efficiency measures will save. By making its existing outlets 20 percent more efficient, Wal-Mart says it will cut CO2 emissions by 2.5 million metric tons by 2013. But new stores built this year alone will consume enough electricity to add about 1 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.
It is not as though we need these stores. Between 1990 and 2005, the amount of store space per capita in this country doubled, while consumer spending grew at less than half that rate. The predictable result is that the U.S. is now home to thousands of dead malls and vacant-strip shopping centers. City planners are not the only ones alarmed. "The most over-retailed country in the world hardly needs more shopping outlets of any kind," advised PricewaterhouseCoopers in a report to real-estate investors.
Yet Wal-Mart continues to build -- consuming land, inducing more driving, and, perhaps most perilous of all, destroying what remains of small-scale, locally owned businesses. Tucked close to their customers in neighborhoods and downtowns, and sized to fit sidewalks rather than regional highway systems, it is these stores that are the true building blocks of a sustainable way of distributing goods. It is they, not Wal-Mart, that deserve the admiration and support of the environmental movement.
- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -
Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega- Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses.
Copyright 2007. Grist Magazine, Inc.
Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all. The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few. In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what might be done about it?" As you come across stories that might help people connect the dots, please Email them to us at email@example.com. Rachel's Democracy & Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject. Editors: Peter Montague - firstname.lastname@example.org Tim Montague - email@example.com
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