This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land

November 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m taking a US Environmental History course this semester to fulfill my upper-level social science credit — it sounded boring [what could there possibly be to talk about? Changes in climate?] but I would do anything to avoid taking a political science or economics class.

Once again proving that my assumptions are almost always incorrect, this class has taught me more crucial information than any other gen-ed I’ve taken. It is, in short, a study of how humans relate to their environment and vice versa.

When you look out at a typical American landscape, you see grass, trees, and a clear expanse of sky. The suburbs in which I’ve grown up, at least, differ drastically from the hazy pollution of urban China, and I’ve always consumed the clean air and water of America with confidence.

Yet I’ve never seen the ecological battle that occurs every day on this continent. We’ve learned that the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, of which I had only barely heard about in elementary school, was not a freak incident of nature but a result of massive erosion due to poor farming tactics that stripped the land of its natural vegetation. During the beginning of America’s colonization, flocks of birds numerous enough to darken the sky were hunted mercilessly for sport; dams and overfishing have cut off many fish from their natural routes between hatching and developing, not to mention the endless invasive species transported to various bodies of water to keep some semblance of life. The earth is struggling around us.

Our first lesson was about Native Americans. Most people, currently as well as in the history of our nation, have had a romanticized vision of the nomadic American Indian who only kills what he needs and uses every part of a bison, demonstrating a spiritual connection to nature and as small of an environmental footprint as possible. But this is inaccurate, a stereotype, not too dissimilar from the “straight-A student” ones that Asian Americans face today.

When colonists first set foot in America, they stepped into a landscape that had already been transformed by the people living there. Native Americans regularly set brush fires to clear the plains of shrubs, and they also had bison jumps, which were basically cliffs from which they drove herds and herds of bison to their deaths. It was certainly a wasteful way to hunt, since there was no way to preserve the piles of carcasses, but it’s an intelligent strategy much safer than chasing a bison with a spear. The point here is historical agency — our idealized notion of Native Americans robs them of the power to change their environment, which they inarguably did because they were reasoning, capable people.

But the breadth of environmental change caused by non-Native Americans has been so much more devastating.

For the past week, we’ve been watching a documentary called Blue Vinyl, created by Judith Helfand. The film documents the consequences of PVC plastic, primarily in the form of vinyl siding used on millions of houses across America.

A clip:

In summary, this is what I learned:

1. PVC, a cheap and efficient form of plastic, is everywhere from the side of your house to your pipes and toys and other plastic things.
2. PVC is made from vinyl chloride, the life cycle of which makes it one of the most hazardous consumer products in existence due to the toxins that are released when PVC is produced and disposed of.
3. Burning PVC, which is the most common and easiest way to dispose of the product, produces toxic fumes.
4. These toxic fumes are dioxin, which causes tumors in those exposed to vinyl chloride. Factory workers as well as those who live near factories develop angiosarcoma of the liver, a rare form of cancer.
5. European vinyl chloride manufacturers actually signed a pact of secrecy with American companies not to publish scientific reports that showed correlations between vinyl chloride exposure and angiosarcoma.
6. When the documentary was being made, PVC executives in Venice were being charged for manslaughter due to deaths of their factory workers. The thing is…they simply don’t care, and were all acquitted by the jury.

It’s hard to fight vinyl. The plastic is cheap, durable and ubiquitous. Realistically, most people can’t afford to build their houses with another material. Blue Vinyl highlighted the fact that vinyl corporations donate millions of dollars in products to Habitat For Humanity in order to provide families with affordable housing.

But cheap consumer prices don’t reflect the cost to the environment. As Americans, we can’t escape the capitalist frame of reference: our minds are always thinking in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Recycling vinyl is immensely expensive, so is it worth the effort? Is it worth it if the trade-off is the release of cancerous chemicals into the environment?

I have a friend who is adamantly against recycling, something about the effort being more expensive than simply throwing the materials away. But when you pit monetary cost against ecological cost, is it really okay for the environment to come out on bottom?

Vinyl is worrisome, but there are precedents of hazardous materials becoming obsolete. Before 1900, asbestos was a popular building material, but after discoveries just a few decades ago that exposure led to diseases such as cancer, governments began passing laws to phase the material out of consumer products. It’s possible for us as consumers to take control of what is sold to us and how it might harm our world; it starts with educating yourself.


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