Monday, April 27, 2009

Of Piracy and Environmental Degradation

Though it is already common knowledge that most of our on-going conflicts have environmental causes, is the scourge of piracy in the Gulf of Aden have their roots in environmental degradation?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since it became fashionable – or just right – to award worthy eco-activists the Nobel Peace Prize, the world-at-large has now become more aware the strong link between most of our on-going military conflicts and of environmental degradation. Even though at present eco-activists like the 2004 Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai and 2007 Nobel Peace laureate Al Gore are too busy to point out the environmental roots of the on-going scourge of piracy in the waters of the Gulf of Aden. The question now is, is the on-going scourge of piracy in the Gulf of Aden can be traced to environmental degradation?

Even though it was the dramatic rescue of the Maersk Alabama skipper Capt. Richard Phillips by the US Navy SEAL team that grabbed the headlines. The lesser-known environmental scourge off the coast of Somalia – namely the illegally dumped hazardous toxic chemical and radioactive wastes – has been largely ignored for more than a decade.

During the past few years, proof have started to emerge that points out that the waters of the Gulf of Aden had been used as an illegal toxic hazardous waste dump. The United Nations envoy for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said that there is “reliable information” that European and Asian companies are dumping toxic wastes, including nuclear wastes, off the Somali coastline for over 20 years. Which could explain why a majority of the Somali pirates are former fisherman who can no longer eke out a living from their ancestral fishing grounds due to the environmental devastation caused by the illegal dumping of these hazardous toxic chemical and radioactive wastes.

It was primarily the tsunami of December 26, 2004 that literally dumped the evidence of such illegally dumped toxic and radioactive wastes on the beaches of northern Somalia. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) reported that that the tsunami had washed up rusting containers of illegally dumped toxic wastes in the shores of Puntland.

UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall states that when the barrels were smashed open by the force of the waves, the containers exposed a “frightening activity” that has been going on for more than a decade. The bad news is that the UNEP cannot simply send scientists to collect evidence and various data of the illegally dumped hazardous wastes on the shores of Puntland in Somalia so that it can be fully vetted and peer approved. Because of the on-going conflict there poses a clear and present danger, which the scientists could be, kidnapped and held for ransom by lawless elements. Worse still, given the UN-style bureaucracy, the peer approval and vetting process of the data proving the existence of the illegally dumped hazardous toxic wastes and radioactive wastes in the Gulf of Aden could take a long while.

Even though there has already been talks in the UN to bolster the effectiveness and legitimacy of the Somali government in order to effectively tackle the scourge of piracy. In the long-term solution would be to tackle the issue of environmental degradation – which is the root cause of the scourge of piracy in this region – should be addressed. And given that the commercial shipping traffic can – and would eventually – just find an alternative route whenever the insurance premiums exceed the fuel expenditure and length of travel time, the environmental problems faced by Somalis could easily be swept under the rug.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Earth Day: Strange Days Through The Years?

Ever since everyone around the world began celebrating Earth Day as a show of concern for the world environment, has it been more rhetoric than action?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since its start in America back in April 22, 1970, the annual observance of Earth Day – which has since become a global phenomena – was always seen by the skeptical as a prime example of an exercise in futility. After all, what good does it accomplish if citizens recycle and adopt a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle while their elected officials are “beholden” by the highly-polluting conglomerates who are empowered to keep their environmentally destructive industries as long as the government gets some of the profits.

Although the growing environmental awareness since that fateful day back in 1970 eventually prompted then US president Richard M. Nixon to sign the Clean Water Act of 1972. But the clouds of speculation hangs on whether his adoption of a “green conscience” was merely a reflection of his guilt of doing a bad job while serving as the leader of the free world has always been a subject of speculation. But all things considered, is our annual Earth Day celebrations that had came before only serve to highlight the uneasy relationship between those in power and the growing cadre of the environmentally-aware multitude?

Our annual observance of Earth Day did manage to get across the message of environmental awareness through the years. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, news about the extent of illegal toxic waste dumps and the resulting groundwater and wetland contamination did manage to get printed on the front page – if not headline status. As opposed to being relegated to an obscure column on page 26. News about finding ways to efficiently harness renewable energy sources and finding alternatives to greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuel-burning energy sources started to be seen as factual progress in science, rather than mere science fiction stories published by the liberal press. So too does the search for less dangerous alternatives to our current nuclear fission power plants.

While the start of the 1990s did hold promise when then US president George H.W. Bush – or President Bush Senior – signed the Executive Ban on crude oil exploration on the continental United States, which provided both incentive and urgency to search for more environmentally friendly alternatives to crude oil - thus proving that the US Government is not “beholden” to the crude oil lobby back then. Add to that the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm which highlighted the high cost of America’s over-dependence on imported crude oil not only in environmental terms, but also politically as well.

But it all went downhill when the Republican Party managed to gain control of US legislature in a 1995 mid-term election. The “Think globally, act locally” mantra of Clinton Administration-era environmentalism was starting to become an object of ridicule of those in the extreme Christian Right. Thus paving the way for President George “Dubya” Bush and his Neo-Conservative Cabal to roll back every progress made with regards to environmental law legislation of the past 30 years. Probably the weirdest thing that the Bush Administration’s Neo-Conservative Cabal managed to do to undermine environmentalism is their success in labeling it as a “heathen ideology” and “not part of Christendom”, while allowing the petroleum / crude oil lobby free reign on Capitol Hill.

But the Bush Administration’s disregard for environmental concerns did eventually create a backlash. It made former US presidential candidate Al Gore’s Myspace-and-personal-You-Tube-site-made-into-a-movie called The Inconvenient Truth a global blockbuster success, and probably the only documentary film that is pirated in Southeast Asia. So does Leonardo DiCaprio’s 11th Hour. All of which made environmentalism fashionable again like it was during the late 1960s Flower Power revolution.

Even though the Bush Administration / Republican Party “stuck to their guns” when it comes to the rhetoric about their take on the environmentalism versus America’s economic security issue, their hackneyed rhetoric literally backfired on them during the height of the 2008 US Presidential Campaign when the Republican Party constituents failed to save Lehman Brothers in spite of giving the oil and coal lobby free reign on Capitol Hill. Thus denying them a “third term” and securing the victory of Barack Obama as America’s next president.

While the positive results of the Obama Administration’s overhaul of the Bush Administration’s profits over the environment policies are yet to be seen, crucial steps are now made to truly tackle the problem of global warming after it has been swept under the rug during the past eight years. And we have also learned something from the eight-year environmental nightmare of the Bush Administration that to save our environment effectively, the almost 40-year mantra of: reduce, reuse, and recycle should also include conscientious choices that should be made in the polling place. Remember that politicians now play a major part in our ability to protect our environment. Setting aside April 22 as Earth Day back in 1970 is a good thing, but everyone should be reminded to protect our planet everyday of the year, especially now where our environmental problems affects us globally.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hormone-Mimicking Plastic Softeners: Killing Every Living Thing?

Are plastic softeners – a convenience item of our overly industrialized society – inexorably killing every form of life on the surface of the Earth?

By: Ringo Bones

Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund had been calling for a ban on plastic softeners for a number of years, because of their deleterious effects on biological reproduction as a hormone mimic. The two leading environmental groups were concerned of the effects of plastic softeners on developing infants because these chemicals are usually found in babies’ teething rings. And when these plastics break down, they don’t only release hormone mimics, which can lead to future developmental and fertility problems. But also significant levels of dioxins as these plastics age.

Plastic softeners are now so ubiquitous in the industrialized world that incidents of infertility on us humans are on the rise. Plastic softeners can even be found in flexible PVC – i.e. polyvinyl chloride – floor tiles, which release the hormone-mimicking plastic softeners every time they are washed. Over time, these hormone-mimicking plastic softeners wind up in the marine ecosystem. Tests done on marine animals like fish, mollusks, and crustaceans show substantial amounts of these hormone-mimicking plastic softeners. Not only affecting these animals’ reproductive health, but given they form a significant portion of our diet, but also the reproductive health of people as well.

These hormonally potent plastic softeners has a robust enough chemical structure to survive their journey into the Arctic regions. Biologist studying the Arctic wildlife recently discovered male polar bears with multiple penises during the past few years. While infertility of the female polar bear population is on the rise. Given that global warming is already affecting the polar bear’s food supply, the effects of hormone-mimicking plastic softeners only hasten the polar bear’s journey into extinction.

Even though widespread data now document the deleterious effects of hormone-mimicking plastic softeners, policymakers are very reluctant in legislating laws banning these chemicals. Not because they are ignoring the scientifically verifiable data that’s available, but it is because most of them are already “beholden” by these multi-billion dollar multinational petrochemical corporations. Plus, plastic manufacturers say that finding substitutes cost time and vast sums of money, which will have to be eventually passed to us – the consumer as higher-priced goods. But given what’s at stake, it seems like inaction will only do more harm. Not only to our ever-diminishing wildlife, but to our future generations as well.