Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Key Environmental Issues Today

Current Environmental Problems (in progress....but you have to start somewhere!)


Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a drilling method to obtain 'natural gas'. Anti-fracking activists, or Fractavists, contend that fracking causes permanent groundwater contamination and air pollution as well as multiple negative health effects.  Josh Fox’s brilliant documentary Gasland (2010) first brought great attention to the dangerous effects of fracking and Fox now has a loyal, almost cult, following. As a result of this film and many actions by Fox, Sandra Steingraber, Mark Ruffalo, and numerous environmental groups and individual activists, fracking has become one of the hottest items in the environmental movement today in the U.S.-- especially in the northeast regions of New York State and Pennsylvannia.  Fox's film, Gasland Two, will be released soon.

According to the EPA, hydraulic fracturing is “a well stimulation process used to maximize the extraction of underground resources; including oil, natural gas, geothermal energy, and even water. The oil and gas industry uses hydraulic fracturing to enhance subsurface fracture systems to allow oil or natural gas to move more freely from the rock pores to production wells that bring the oil or gas to the surface” ( 

The EPA announced on December 6th, 2011 that fracking does indeed lead to ground-water contamination, yet gas and oil companies argue that fracking will add thousands of jobs to impoverished communities, and that utilizing gas will reduce the need for the use of "dirtier" oil and coal.  Another pro-fracking argument in the U.S: it will reduce our dependency on foreign oil. 

Cons: fracking causes earthquakes and this is dangerous several US nuclear power plants sit on fault lines and are not built to withstand quakes.  Additionally, the process of fracking causes ground-water contamination, adds to greenhouse gas pollution, releases radiation from uranium, and leads to serious air pollution as well.  The negative health effects from fracking are vast.  Watch Gasland, listen to Sandra Steingraber speaking below.

Dr. Sandra Steingraber speaking on fracking.

Josh Fox video on fracking and the Delaware River

Josh Fox "The Sky is Pink"

Flash animation of exactly how fracking is done.

My Water's on Fire Tonight!

Tar Sands/Keystone Pipeline

Greenpeace describes Tar Sands as “huge deposits of bitumen, a tar-like substance that’s turned into oil through complex and energy-intensive processes that cause widespread environmental damage” ( 

There are many problems associated with Tar Sands exploration and like most methods of gas and oil extraction these are extremely hazardous to human health.  Tar sands exploration and production destroy acres upon acres of land in order to find precious oil reserves. After the crude bitumen is collected, it must be processed and this produces large amounts of greenhouse gases. Before the bitumen can be processed it has to get to the processing plant and this is where the Keystone Pipeline comes into play. 

The Keystone XL “project is a 2,148 mile tar sands crude oil pipeline running from Hardisty, Alberta through the Dakotas, Nebraska, across Kansas and Missouri and then into Illinois, with a spur into Oklahoma” (  The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline will deliver crude bitumen to Texas and the Gulf Coast to fulfill their oil demands.  It is intended to cross 3,000 miles of land and has the potential to leak bitumen into the soil and water of vast areas of America's farm heartland.

According to Dr. James Hansen and Bill McKibben, the Keystone project means "Game Over" for climate change should it go forward. was/is one of the key players in the anti-Tar Sands movement until they teamed up with Bill McKibben’s to form the US Climate Action Team. Bill McKibben is a key leader and spokesperson in the fight to halt climate change and global warming. He is the author of End of Nature (1989) and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2011).  McKibben also leads major environmental protests-especially Tar Sands protests- throughout the U.S., but most notably in Washington, D.C.

Find out more about Tar Sands here:

Mountaintop Removal and Coal Production

Coal is the most widely used fuel in the world, yet it is an extremely dirty and environmentally damaging source of energy. Although coal enabled great industrial development over the past few hundred years, the earth pays a high price for its use. 

Of particular concern today: Mountaintop Removal.

The contemporary procedure in the United States for mining coal is mountaintop removal or MTR. describes mountaintop removal as “a relatively new type of coal mining that began in Appalachia in the 1970s as an extension of conventional strip mining techniques. Mountaintop removal takes place in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Coal companies in Appalachia increasingly use this method because it "allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while reducing the number of workers required to a fraction of what conventional methods require” (   Aside from the burning of coal itself, which creates dangerous amounts of methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide gases, the production of obtaining coal requires the burning of oil and other fossil fuels.

The burning of coal is the number one carbon and other pollutant to the environment, topping oil, nuclear and other fossil fuel use.

What you can do to reduce the negative impact of coal pollution?
· Use less heat and air conditioning
· Use energy efficient light bulbs
· Buy energy efficient appliances
· Turn off the lights when not in use
  Unplug appliances when they are not in use, especially cell phone chargers
· Turn off electrical appliances when not in use
· Invest in alternative energy solutions

Consume LESS!

Find out more information:

Nuclear Issues

Pro-nuclear advocates and scientists say that nuclear power will lessen our dependence on foreign oil and reduce coal and oil use throughout the world and C02 emissions.  Anti-nuclear advocates counter that nuclear is not carbon free: the building of nuclear plants contributes significantly to carbon pollution.  Additionally,  organizations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Sierra ClubPhysicans for Social Responsibility, and activists such as Bill McKibben, Sandra Steingraber, Helen Caldicott,  and others contend that the health risks and immense dangers associated with nuclear accidents, leaks, and waste produced by reactors (for which we have no means of safe disposal) do not outweigh the benefits.

Nuclear waste contaminates the environment for hundreds of thousands of years and causes death, cancer, and other health problems.  Radiation damages the gene pool of living beings for many, many generations.  Recent research shows that women and children are more adversely affected by nuclear radiation (women are twice as likely to get cancer from the radiation exposure than men, and twice as likely to die from cancer as well), yet the standards set for "acceptable levels of radioactive exposure" are based on that of an adult male body.  Children are even more vulnerable to radiation than adults, and female children even more so than male children.  Infants and fetuses are most vulnerable of all.  Another often overlooked negative fact: Extracting uranium from the earth also pollutes and destroys local mining environments for many years to come. 

The Fukushima (2011) and Chernobyl (1986)  meltdowns demonstrate the high risks involved with nuclear accidents.  Fukushima (where there are three full meltdowns) remains an ongoing problem.  While we won't see the complete negative health consequences for several years to come, only one year post-disaster, 33 percent of Fukushima children have been found to have enlarged nodes on their thyroid glands.  This is worrisome, as such results were not found until five years after the Chernobyl disaster.

All nuclear power plants leak and none are fully protected against the possibility of a meltdown.  The lifespan of a nuclear plant is limited and the cost of decommissioning old plants is immense.  U.S. nuclear companies are not economically prepared for decommissioning and there is no place to safely store the tremendous amount of nuclear waste accumulated worldwide so far.  French studies show high incidents of childhood leukemia in areas close to nuclear reactors.  

In the year following the Fukushima catastrophe, anti-nuclear activism surged and continues to surge worldwide.

Find out more information here:

Toxics (or Rachel Carson was right)

After World War II, chemicals became all the rage in the U.S.  In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson sounded the bell of alarm about the links between DDT and other toxic chemicals, vast animal deaths, and the links to cancer in humans.  She warned that more research needed to be done before introducing lethal chemicals into our environment for the supposed purpose of enhancing agricultural expansion through the eradication of "pests".  In the 1990s in  Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber, followed up on the work of Carson, and added to this study the many additional chemicals introduced into the environment post 1950s and 60s and their links to rising cancer rates.  Steingraber's work shows the devastation toxics wreak upon our world and all living beings.  She determines that the rise in high cancer rates since the 1950s can be attributed to the flood of carcinogens introduced into our environment through many toxic chemical products.

Toxics are all around us (stuff, water, air, soil)  and can be found in many household and personal items that we assume are safe.  Our bodies are filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of chemical pollutants.

In the U.S., there are almost no regulations in place that say what these companies can and cannot put in their products.  Toxic chemicals are found in pesticides, food, personal body care products, cleaning products, air fresheners and candles, carpeting, paints, plastics, treated wood, water and cell phones, carpeting, furniture, building materials, and more (Grassroots Environmental Education).

Today, a movement of  "green chemistry" scientists (John Warner and others) and organizations such as Environmental Working Group as well as numerous cancer awareness groups, have begun to look at the health impact our toxic body burden.  EWG writes: “For decades, scientists have been studying pollution in land, air and water. Now we're documenting the industrial chemicals that are building up in our bodies, from grandparents to babies still in the womb” (Environmental Working Group).   

The President's 2009 Cancer Panel Report confirms the dangers of our toxic body burden and its links to the enormous rise in cancer rates since the 1950s.  Read the report and discussions about it here:

To find out more information, go to these sites:

What can you do: sign petitions, talk to your friends, family and politicians, watch what you eat and put on your body (organic food is preferable and for what goes on your body, check out the EWG cosmetics database), and support legislature to ban toxic products and force companies only to make what is safe!

Senator Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act in 2012.  Fingers crossed that this legislation goes through.   Follow the happenings of this Act through the link --The Safe Chemicals Act! --and tell your politicians to support it.

Climate Change and Global Warming

According to Dr. James Hansen and 98% of climate scientiests worldwide, manmade production of CO2 is the leading cause of global warming and climate change.  Global warming threatens our human future on this earth, and the future of all living beings.

One of the most outspoken leaders of the movement to halt global warming is Bill McKibben. According to McKibben's organization, “[f]or all of human history until about 300 years ago, our atmosphere contained 275 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. About 300 years ago, humans began to burn coal and oil to produce energy and goods. By now—the planet has reached 391 parts per million—and this number is rising by about 2 ppm every year” (

For Mckibben's most recent take on Climate Change, read this article in Rolling Stone.

McKibben warns that the dangers that face us as a result of global warming are immense; unless we make drastic changes to reduce our CO2 emissions, life on earth as we know it will disappear in the very near future. Natural disasters will increase, land mass will be reduced, islands and countries will vanish.  We will see famine, clean water depletion, excessive heat and intense weather patterns.  As we have seen with Hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami in Fukushima, natural disasters increase in an extreme change in our climate.  According to McKibben, we've passed the tipping point, but we don't want to make things worse by sitting on our hands.  The U.S. government will not sign important commitments to reduce C02 emissions--such as the KYOTO agreement.

Actions to radically reduce Carbon emissions must take place immediately or the consequences will be dire in the near future and for years to come.

Other key leaders in this movement: Al Gore.  Gore's movie An Inconvient Truth, brought great worldwide attention to the crises of global warming.  Dr. Heidi Cullen of Climate Central educates on this issue.  Elizabeth Kolbert,  author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe” (2006) writes about global warming for The New Yorker.

Tim DeChristopher, an important global warming activist, recently went to jail for three years for his protest of climate change.  Read about his powerful story and the large community of activists who support him here: 

What you can do?
Consume less!  Conserve your energy! 
-Walk, bike, carpool, or use public transportation
-Turn down your heat
-Unplug what you are not using.
-Use LED lightbulbs.
-Don't waste electricity or leave your car running.
-Don't eat meat--believe it or not, meat production is one of the largest sources
of CO2 emissions.
-Eat locally, live locally.
-Reduce, reuse, recycle.
-Encourage businesses to burn less carbon!
-Go solar.

To find out more:

Watch An Inconvenient Truth
Watch Earth 2100
Go to:

Get involved with!

Food and Agricultural Environmental Rights

"We are what we eat."  The documentary Food, Inc. helps bring to light many of the issues that we face with food rights today.   Supersize Me is another good one.

A key issue in food rights: Genetic Modified Food or GMOs.  Environmentalists believe GMOs are not safe to eat and should be studied further before being sold to the general public.  Genetically modified food should be labeled.  Currently, in the U.S., they are not, so anything you eat that isn't 100% "organic" may be genetically modified.   There are many health concerns associated with GMO foods, including obesity and decreased fertility. Europe bans GMO seeds.  Environmentalists believe these should be banned worldwide.

Farmer's rights and environmental justice: If  GMO seeds unintentionally end up on farmer’s soil and he/she did not pay for the GMO seed use, then the seed patent holder has the right to sue the farmer for not paying the licensing fee.  As a result, large corporations holding the seed patents drive smaller farmers who cannot afford these lawsuits out of business.  In many instances, as the food rights leader Vandana Shiva points out, many small farmers in locations such as India, cannot afford to buy GMO seeds (nor do they want them).  As a result, massive suicides have occurred among indigenous farmers in India who cannot feed their families anymore.  Food, then, is an environmental justice issue.  GMO corporations put small farms and family farms out of business.

Monocropping is another environmental problem facing the food industry today. In a monoculture, farmers grow only one kind of crop; these are usually soy, wheat or corn. The U.S. government subsidizes these crops and therefore makes it easier for corporate and other farmers to produce this one single crop.  However, monoculture depletes the vitality of the soil and leads to the need for increased pesticides.

The overuse of chemicals of pesticides in our food, water and soil remains one of the biggest problems that we face today.  Environmentalists believe that all food should be organically produced whenever possible.  According to the ecofeminist activist Vandana Shiva, agricultural production should be chemical and pesticide free, and should be locally produced, sold and eaten.  When we ship food worldwide, this contributes to CO2 production and global warming.  Eat local!

A world leader on food issues: Vandana Shiva.  We recommend her sites and all of her many important books.  For more on Shiva, go to her site:

For more information on food rights, please go to these sites:

What you can do:
--Eat organically and locally grown food.
--Eat low on the food chain (less biomagnification and better for both you and the environment).  Eat veggies, whole grains, legumes, and fruit!
--Stay away from processed foods, they are loaded with corn, chemicals, and GMO products.  They'll make you sick and they're bad for the planet.
--If you can't afford to buy organic, start your own garden, or join a community organic garden.
--Tell your grocery stores you want honest food and GMO labelling and you don't want GMO foodstuff products.
--Participate in food labelling activism.

Animal Rights

Much of the debate on animal rights stems from the food industry.  Twenty-first-century meat industry animals are “grown” in factories where they are pumped with growth hormones and anti-biotics so that they will become as large as possible, as quickly as possible.  This goes for milk and egg production, too.  These animals reach their maximum potential rapidly, which means that factory farmers are able to produce twice the amount of livestock and twice as much dairy. They live their short lifespans in horrific conditions and are fed foods not natural to their species (e.g. meat and a wide variety of toxic waste products).

PETA or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and ASPCA work on behalf of animal rights.  Millions of animals currently live in shelters or roam the street. Most of these animals will end up euthanized or tortured.

Factory farming (where most of us get our meat) contributes significantly to global warming and the polluting of water and soil.

Find out more information:

What you can do:
--Eat less or no meat, and eggs or dairy
--Only eat organic, locally grown meat, eggs and dairy, from local farms that allow their animals to "free range"

Marine Pollution

The impact of human behavior on the ocean is vast.   We dump everything in our oceans, including plastic debris, plastic bags, toxic chemicals and nuclear waste.

Carbon dioxide pollution causes ocean acidification and this is of tremendous concern to scientists. Kat. J. McAlpine in Scientific American writes that, "Rising ocean acidity is now considered to be just as much of a formidable threat to the health of Earth’s environment as the atmospheric climate changes brought on by pumping out greenhouse gases."  Oceans absorb CO2, decreasing the water's pH levels. More acidic pH puts stress on marine organisms, including sensitive-to-change coral reefs.

Eutrophication occurs after there have been assorted nutrients from chemical pollution added to the oceanic system.  Algae use up these nutrients and bloom so much that they use up most or all of the ocean's oxygen, killing fish and other organisms.

Plastic debris is broken down into small pieces that fish confuse for small plants and animals and are later consumed by humans when we eat fish.  The Pacific Ocean is home to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a gyre of plastic located in the ocean.

Toxins and radiation biomagnify as they move up the food chain--meaning bigger fish are most toxic.  Those highest on the food chain are less healthy to consume (this includes mammals).

Tuna contains very high levels of mercury.  Large fish, in general, contain high amounts of toxins.   In general, eat lower on the food chain whenever possible.

Humans are at the top of the food chain. 

What can you do?
Reduce CO2 emissions by:
· Walking, biking, carpooling, or using public transportation
· Turning off lights, computers, and other electronic products
· Stop using fertilizer – garden organically!
· Check out mercury levels by texting FISH followed by the type of fish you want to eat to 30644
Reduce the amount of plastic you use:
· Carry a reusable water bottle
· Carry and use your own reusable bamboo utensils
· Buy in bulk/avoid individually packaged products
· Use a reusable shopping bag
-Avoid buying plastic products whenever possible.

Find out more here:

Read: Carl Safina's Song for the Blue Ocean and see his website,  The Blue Ocean Institute.


Oceans seem abundant, but we overfish the more “desirable” fish species.  Blue Fin Tuna and other large species are fished more quickly than they are able to reproduce. This results in “fishing down the food web,” where we have to fish smaller and smaller fish species because that is all that is left.  Efforts to stop overfishing have been to set up marine protection zones where fishing is illegal. Fish farms have been established to reduce pressure on wild species, but this leads to environmental waste and food safety and health problems. Carnivorous fish species are fed wild fish, for example; this pressures on the marine environment and the fishing industry.

What can you do?
· Be conscious of what you are eating and where it comes from
· Text FISH followed by the type of fish you want to eat to 30644 to find out more information on the type of fish you want to eat
· Buy farmed fish that are not carnivorous
-Eat smaller fish
-Don't eat fish

Find out more information:

Read Carl Safina's Song for the Blue Ocean and see his website, The Blue Ocean Institute.

Waste Management and Recycling

We throw out things every day, but most people don’t think about where our "stuff" comes from or goes. All garbage must be landfilled, incinerated, or shipped to out to distant locations. Landfills leach toxic material if they are not properly lined and maintained. This is all too common. Incineration pollutes our air, and is either converted to energy in a waste to energy facility or buried in a landfill (where it sometimes leaches and leaks).  Interesting facts: 1) Long Islanders (in the NY area) produce 1.75 times more garbage than the rest of the United States. 2) New York City has to ship out all of its waste as it has no way to treat it.

Solution: reduce the amount of garbage that you produce-- buy less and busy wisely (buy stuff with less packaging).

Also, recycle as much as possible.

To learn more about waste and it's impact watch the incredible: Story of Stuff.  Also, check out Annie Leonard's site, The Story of Stuff Project.

Watch the film: No Impact Man and follow the filmmaker, Colin Beaven's blog.

Put yourself to the challenge: can you be a NO IMPACT Person?
Or, better yet: put your community to the challenge make it a NO impact one!

Start your own "impact journal."  Note how much you consume and throw away.  Pay attention and find out how you can reduce your use. Talk to your friends, politicians, employers.  Change happens one person at a time.

What can you do?
· Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
· Use a reusable water bottle, coffee mug, and shopping bag
· Recycle all glass, aluminum, and plastic bottles (#1, #2)
· Bring #5 plastics to Whole Foods to be recycled
· Buy products that are sustainable (ie. FSC certified paper that is forested sustainably)
· Buy products that can be used over and over again
-Consume less!

Find out more information:
Check out local recycling centers and see what they accept!

Written by William Petrowitz, Jacqueline Flareau and Heidi Hutner.  Updates and Additional Writing by Heidi Hutner.  William and Jackie are recent graduates (undergraduates) from Stony Brook University.  

Note: some of this material came from undergraduate student research and presentations for my Fall, 2011, Environmental Literature and Film course at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY.  So, a great debt of thanks goes to this class of wonderful students.  In all of my classes, students research "environmental problems" and give extensive presentations.  They also read literature and watch films on these topics.

I believe that the change we seek through "sustainability" comes through interdisciplinarity--sharing the information of various academic disciplines, and thereby exposing the deep interconnectedness of these fields and environmentalism at large.  Environmental issues cross boundaries in multiple ways.  More on that in the next blog and in my future writing!


Unknown said...

Climate is changing due to over consumption of fossils fuel

Unknown said...

Nice Post

Unknown said...

Nice Post

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