"The Biggest Environmental Disaster You’ve Never Heard Of"
September 5, 2011
Participating in the Tar Sands Action was a decision I made with much ambivalence. I was not sure it would produce any results commensurate with the risk of arrest and expenses for travel; I objected to the organizers’ authoritarian remonstrations regarding clothing; I doubted the strategic emphasis on one solitary source of oil; and to ignore the issue of corporate corruption of government, and the unsustainability of American consumerism seemed both a cowardly and calculated, narrow focus.
Now that it’s over and I’m home, all of the ambivalence I felt has only deepened, echoed and articulated in a worthwhile essay by Ward Churchill, introduced by Cory Morningstar in a post titled "Eyes Wide Shut – The Tar Sands Action Protest and the Paralysis of a Movement". I highly recommend reading it in its entirety so I won’t duplicate it here, just my comment to her post:
A scathing description of exactly what occurred at the Tar Sands Action […] – you might have been there it was so exact! Except you missed what Bill McKibben said on the very last day as he congratulated everyone on being serious and grown-up. “It’s not about stunts, and silly costumes,” he said.
Yes he did!! Mothra wept a little at that.
Later everyone wearing black t-shirts lined up and on cue, stripped them off, threw them in the air, leaving them on the ground like little pools of spilled oil. Never have I seen so many pale white hairy tubby potbellies, other than at a beach. But I guess because 350 planned it that was not a stunt.
With uncanny accuracy she illustrated her post with precisely the sort of photo that we had been admonished over and over to avoid:
The reason we were to present a solemn and grave demeanor was supposedly to show the proper respect for people dying from tar sands pollution, and to exemplify the importance of preventing construction of the pipeline. But perhaps an underlying reason is that which was elaborated upon with devastating clarity in [the] essay – that the pre-arranged choreography of arrest is cheerfully accommodated by the police, and those arrested are hardly "risking" very much at all, only because the demands are non-threatening to the status quo – indeed, actually facilitate business as usual, because it enables the participants to have the illusion something is being accomplished.
Even though I have yet to locate a picture of my Mothra costume or Susan’s polar bear in any of the official photostream posted online, I guess we looked sufficiently respectable and glum on the day of our arrest to be featured in the 350.org petition to Obama. (Hey, 614,428 people signed it!!)
Is it too cynical and ungracious of me to speculate that this shot was deliberately posed? The young man in the center was placed there by the organizers, many photos were instantly taken in a rapid blur of clicks by several professional-quality cameras in our faces…and then he was instructed to leave that position. I don’t know where he disappeared to after that, or if he was arrested. Is it possible he was centered in front of the White House, nestled between two older White People, to make the protest look more racially diverse than it in fact was? I don’t know!
Perhaps it was just all part of the reshuffling…but both he and the man next to him were gone later when the police collected the signs and banners.
The campaign seemed to be assiduously careful to post at least one photo of each arrest, and neither of those guys are in any other of that day’s photographs. That doesn’t prove anything, of course, not everybody planned on staying through to be arrested. But I’m just sayin’.
And then too, I feel compelled to wonder why 350 continually holds up jailed protester Tim DeChristopher as a role model, since certainly what he was convicted and sentenced for was a theatrical (and noble) stunt.
Several people in the audience groaned in dismay when McKibben uttered those gratuitous and unnecessary words, "stunts and silly costumes", clapping in support of this creatively tarred and feathered pair in our midst.
Also neglected in the 350 version of events (as far as I can tell) was this enormous mock-up of a pipeline that paraded through the park, which I thought was quite clever.
I especially liked the "Hopeless" stenciling, using Obama’s campaign symbol as a pointed critique.
I guess these colorful signs do not fall into the "stunt" category.
And here are pictures of 350’s "non-stunt" where people took off their black t-shirts and tossed them in the air.
Frankly in my opinion, it was an embarrassing spectacle – and not nearly as fun, interesting or relevant as Mothra, the Polar Bear or the tarred duck.
And I didn’t think that abandoning shirts on the ground was a particularly effective way to promote sustainability, even though they were picked up later to be donated to a shelter.
At least, it started to get a little more exciting as the very last to be arrested were handcuffed and loaded onto the police vans.
Supporters who had been disbursed around the park pressed towards the barricades, and began sweatily chanting, hollering, cheering, and whistling.
Probably by then everyone had learned that Obama instructed to EPA to back off stricter ozone rules, and anger was palpable.
People of all ages were well represented and expressed their outrage vociferously. Judging from the passion unleashed by that decision, and by the participation from the people whose lives are literally poisoned by tar sands extraction and coal mining, the climate change activist and science communities should rethink their obsession with CO2. It’s stupid of them not to forge stronger ties with environmentalists whose first concern is pollution that directly kills people and ruins ecosystems. The emissions come from the same processes, after all. And dying from cancer or starvation is a much more immediate and powerful motivator for most people than melting glaciers. Duh.
They shouted enthusiastically at the top of their lungs, "This is what democracy looks like!"
It was kind of exhilarating!
After the last van pulled out, we gathered obediently in a circle around the rose hedges for the final speeches, promising more action, which I gather is to be Moving Planet on September 24. "A Bicycle Ride" as one person scornfully described it. I suppose the prospect of this show of force and power is making Obama and CEO’s of corporations everywhere lose sleep.
Let’s get back to trees, since that is what this blog is about. Walking back and forth from the hotel to the park afforded endless examples of dying vegetation, even though it was a short distance.
It was all I could do not to warn these children that climbing trees isn’t as safe as it once was.
Their branches are far more likely to break, because they are damaged from exposure to ozone.
On that note, let us digress to storm damage in Wisconsin. A storm occurred earlier this summer but it made news recently, because it wasn’t until August 18 that Governor Scott Walker declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard to help with the cleanup. Appropriately enough, the story ran in the Business Section of the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal SentinalJS Online, because there is a very large timber industry which stands to lose quite a bit of money. Here is part of the article:
"Even for fast-growing trees, it will be decades before some areas recover.
‘It’s really disrupted the forest management plans,’ Schienebeck said. "In spots that were leveled, they are basically starting over now."
‘We’ve got trees that blew down that were 10 or 15 years away from being mature,’ Ericson said. ‘Then you’ve got wood that was 30 years from being mature.’
Mature trees were clobbered, too.
‘That storm blew down 200-year-old white pines,’ Ericson said. ‘I was cutting up white pine that was three feet (in diameter).’
Note the schizophrenia coming, get ready…in 1…2…3…
In other cases, blown-down trees had reached their maximum life expectancy, making them susceptible to wind damage, said Neil Ambourn, a Webster forester who consults with private landowners.
The wind was nature’s way of clearing the forest of old, weak timber.
So young trees and old trees BOTH went over…but it’s nature’s way of clearing old timber. Right.
Even though things are a mess now, the forests will come back.
‘These forests are resilient and sustainable,’ Ambourn said. ‘Most are going to regenerate naturally.’
That means fewer of the tall, stately North Woods forests, though.
‘We’re going to have a lot of young forests,’ Ambourn said.
‘Aesthetically, we may not like those forests. But they are healthy and sustainable and making forest products for future generations,’ he said.
‘Environmentally, it’s not catastrophic.’"
NOT catastrophic – ha! I left this comment:
Determining the speed of the wind by surveying the damage is putting the cart before the horse. The trees are blowing over in such massive unexpected and unexplained numbers, because they are dying. They are dying because air pollution – yep, that same ozone that Obama just refused to tighten regulations on – is toxic to vegetation.
The same extreme tree damage occurred up and down the East Coast from Irene, perplexing many, since the winds WERE measured, and they just weren’t strong enough to account for the actual damage.
Wake up people! Trees of all ages, species and locations are falling over, their branches are breaking off, bark is splitting and oozing, leaves started turning early color in midsummer – or just brown – and were falling off before Irene. Conifers are thin and transparent. They all have one thing in common – the composition of the atmosphere. The nitrogen cascade – reactive nitrogen that produces ozone from sources like transportation and power emissions and fertilizer – is, according to Dr. Townsend of the U. of Colorado, "the biggest environmental disaster that nobody has heard of."
And don’t forget – scientific research has demonstrated in many studies that plants weakened by ozone are more likely to be fatally attacked by insects, disease and fungus. Trees allocate fewer carbohydrates to their root system when battling ozone absorption by their foliage, and hence more likely to fall over.
See this post about the tree damage from Irene.
Here is what NOAA reported:
PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DULUTH MN
305 PM CDT SAT JUL 2 2011
…DAMAGE ASSESSMENT RESULTS FROM BURNETT COUNTY…
A NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE STORM SURVEY TEAM WAS DISPATCHED TODAY TO
INVESTIGATE WIDESPREAD REPORTS OF DAMAGE ACROSS BURNETT…
WASHBURN… AND SOUTHERN DOUGLAS COUNTIES.
IT HAS BEEN DETERMINED THAT THE DAMAGE IN BURNETT COUNTY WAS THE
RESULT OF WIDESPREAD STRAIGHT LINE WINDS. THESE RESULTS ARE A
COMBINATION OF GROUND SURVEYS BY THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TEAM
AND AERIAL SURVEYS CONDUCTED BY LOCAL OFFICIALS.
ACROSS THE ENTIRE COUNTY…DAMAGE WAS GENERALLY ALL BLOWN DOWN
FACING A NORTHEAST OR EAST DIRECTION. THIS IS CONSISTENT WITH
A LARGE PORTION OF BURNETT COUNTY LIKELY RECEIVED 60 TO 80 MPH WIND
GUSTS AS THE LINE OF STORMS MOVED THROUGH SHORTLY AFTER 7 PM CDT ON
JULY 1ST. ALL COMMUNITIES SUSTAINED AT LEAST SOME SORT OF TREE
THERE WERE ALSO SEVERAL CORRIDORS OF VERY INTENSE DAMAGE RELATED TO
SIGNIFICANT DOWNBURSTS. THIS INCLUDED THE AREA NEAR GRANTSBURG…
JUST WEST AND NORTH OF DANBURY… AND NEAR WEBSTER. WINDS IN THE
STRONGEST DOWNBURSTS WERE VERY LIKELY IN EXCESS OF 100 MPH. THESE
WIND SPEED ESTIMATES ARE BASED ON PRIMARILY SOFTWOOD TREE DAMAGE
INDICATORS. ENTIRE STANDS OF HEALTHY PINE TREES…SOME MANY ACRES IN
SIZE AND INCLUDING THOUSANDS OF TREES…WERE COMPLETELY LEVELED WITH
MOST OF THE TRUNKS SNAPPED OFF.
ONE FATALITY OCCURRED IN BURNETT COUNTY DUE TO FALLING TREES AT A
CAMPGROUND. LOCAL OFFICIALS ALSO CONFIRMED 39 INJURIES…WITH MOST
OF THOSE PEOPLE HAVING BEEN QUICKLY TREATED AND RELEASED.
Note there is no PROPERTY DAMAGE mentioned, only TREE DAMAGE…and they based wind speed on the amount of tree damage.
from the same system, NOAA:
PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DULUTH MN
900 AM CDT SUN JUL 3 2011
ON THE NEXT PROPERTY TO THE NORTH…JUST ACROSS RAMEL ROAD…AND TO
THE EAST OF FERGUSON ROAD…MANY TREES WERE UPROOTED. A WINDOW ON
THE HOUSE WAS BLOWN IN AND AN ANTENNA WAS SNAPPED. JUST TO THE EAST
OF THIS HOUSE…ALONG FERGUSON ROAD…SIGNIFICANT TREE DAMAGE WAS
FOUND. THIS INCLUDED A LARGE TREE THAT WAS WELL KNOWN TO RESIDENTS
OF SOLON SPRINGS AND WAS A FEW FEET WIDE AT THE BASE OF THE TRUNK.
TREE DAMAGE CONTINUED TO BE NOTED FOR AN ADDITIONAL 1.4 MILES TO THE
NORTHEAST…BUT NO OTHER STRUCTURES WERE IMPACTED. THE TORNADO ENDED
NEAR COUNTY HIGHWAY A…TO THE WEST OF SOLON SPRINGS.
IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT THE DAMAGE NEAR THE SOLON SPRINGS AIRPORT
WAS NOT ASSOCIATED WITH THIS TORNADO…AND OTHER TREE DAMAGE AROUND
THE AREA WAS ASSOCIATED WITH STRAIGHT-LINE WINDS. THE TORNADO DAMAGE
PATH WAS NARROW AND DISTINCT…AND INCLUDED ONLY THE AREAS
Here’s a letter I wrote to Dr. Townsend, about the report mentioned in my comment. I haven’t heard back from him yet, although I certainly would like to. It’s the usual letter I send – skip past it for photos of trees!
Dear Dr. Townsend,
I was delighted to come across this article that quoted you describing nitrogen pollution as ‘… the biggest environmental disaster that nobody has heard of" since just yesterday I posted about the EPA Science Advisory Board’s report on Reactive Nitrogen.
I have been trying to get people to understand that ozone is an existential threat to trees (and ultimately the entire ecosystem and humans) but of course, nobody wants to hear about it. Now I see that looking at it as a more comprehensive issue deriving from the nitrogen cascade might be more productive.
I’m writing to tell you, in case you don’t know, that trees of all species, ages and locations are dying at a rapidly accelerating rate. The evidence for this alarming trend is plain to see if you just look at them. Of course most people blame insects, disease, fungus, drought, climate change or storm damage. But the trajectory of decline is universal – only the composition of the atmosphere can explain why plants being watered in pots and young saplings in nurseries have the same exact damaged foliage as large old trees in remote forests and urban habitats.
At this point I think we have passed a tipping point and are doomed (on a number of fronts) however, it occurs to me that there is a possibility that the reason that trees and other plants are exhibiting such an abrupt and dramatic decline is due to a large-scale change, rather than just a steadily growing increase in ozone. Having considered and rejected numerous potential sources (methane escape from hydrofracking, UV radiation etc) I believe it could be biofuel emissions (acetaldehyde, PANs) that are particularly long-lived and toxic to vegetation.
Do you think that could be so? Because if it is the underlying reason, then it would be relatively easy to stop burning them and return to a slower pace of destruction.
Please let me know if you have any comments or questions. If you click on the link above it goes to my blog which has reports from many locations of trees turning fall color and dropping leaves in summer.
Thank you so much for your attention.
Following are photos of trees from the past week in Washington, D.C.
Just like in New Jersey, they started turning fall colors in August.
This is looking across Lafayette Park towards the White House. Note the bare branches on the right, and the thin ones on the left.
It’s especially significant to see such injury because this part in the nation’s capital has to be one of the most meticulously maintained spaces in the country.
This once-majestic oak is inside the fence at the White House. It’s got alarming cracked bark, holes, and streaks.
If you follow the branches up from the main trunk into the crown, it is apparent that they have been severely pruned amputated.
This magnolia had a major branch removed recently, it is still raw. Behind it are little trees that are an attempt to replace older, historic trees that have been removed completely.
Trees in the park have leaves that are turning brown.
These trees are giants in the park. Holes like this are indicative of internal rot.
The Japanese maple below shows a common pattern – a crown of older, singed leaves – with newer growth above, which hasn’t been exposed as long to ozone, so it is still green. If, as certain annoying people persist in believing, the reason trees are visibly suffering is because they experienced drought a year or two or three ago, they would NOT be able to produce healthy growth on top of injured leaves this season.
All these photos are from just a few blocks between Rhode Island Ave and the park, and some looking down side streets, like this infamous address.
Crepe myrtle was blooming in many gardens.
The leaves are almost as brilliantly colored as the flowers…but of course, they’re not supposed to be.
The large gap in this crown has dead seed pods.
The Russian Embassy provided a classis juxtaposition. The very old, tallest tree has clearly lost some prominent branches, and the leaves are turning prematurely.
They have planted two maples to take its place but even though their leaves are reasonably green, their branches are splitting.
They have been busy sawing them off, but spectacularly cracked limbs remain.
Both maples have identical cracking.
The blackening of these leaves was nothing short of macabre.
Another example of healthier young leaves above injured foliage.
This has to be one of the most peculiar patterns that are indicative of ozone exposure.
This little Japanese maple, flanked by severely thin saplings, is a prime example. It has lost almost all of the leaves it originally produced in the spring, and has tried to start over with a fresh batch at the tips.
Here is a tuft of the new growth.
Soon all the trees will be either removed, or remain as "snags" like this one. What a poignant monument to the venerable living tree that once graced that corner in the city.
With that, farewell to DC!
It was all worthwhile, because I had a wonderful time with Roger and Susan Shamel…
In costume and out!
Plus, I made a new friend in Judith Joy Ross, a famous photographer from Pennsylvania!
|portrait credit here|