Baton Rouge, Louisiana – Standing in the heart of the bucolic, green LSU campus, where Paul Templet taught environmental science for more than twenty years, it’s hard to imagine that the worst ecologic disaster perhaps ever is ongoing just a couple hours away. It’s from this landmark that he took a leave of absence in the 1980s to run, for four years, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, during the reign of “the last good governor we had” (Buddy Roemer), he remembers.
He is pointed in his accusations that those years may have been the last time that real rules and regulations were forced on the oil industry. “Today they write most of them,” he says.
Retired from the university but still living in the town he was born and consulting on environmental and coastal concerns, Templet is nearly used up any optimism he might have once had regarding his state and environmental controls. He organized the first Earth Day event near where we are talking, forty years ago.
“Certainly I’ve lost hope that the Louisiana state government will ever change. The oil companies run this state, without question. They control most of the agencies, own most of the legislators and run the governor’s office.” His only hope is that the Deepwater spill will affect change inside the federal government agencies that have a hand in overseeing oil production and environmental protection in the Gulf.
“When you’ve got such loose oversight by the Mineral Management Service and the Department of Interior, combined with endemic corruption in the state, I guess none of us are surprised by the spill.”
See the rest of my conversation with Paul and video at takepart.com.
It’s been a monstrous week of news and travel, natural disaster and man-made catastrophe, with Earth Day thrown into the midst, and all the increasing hoopla, hypocrisy and hype that comes with it. One result is that the stories out there, the content, that I am most interested in and fervent about, got lots of attention. I couldn’t pick up a paper yesterday or flick through the two hundred channels on the television in my hotel room without seeing good reporting on the environment (though the “smart shopper” on ABC wins a prize for promoting double bagging with plastic to prevent your groceries from leaking in the backseat … probably not the best Earth Day synergy, encouraging people to use more plastic bags …). CNN replayed a bunch of its “Planet in Peril” series; every website in the universe went Green-For-A-Day; the U.S. Congress convened to discuss the threat of ocean acidification (led-off by a great piece of reporting on the subject on “Good Morning America”) and on and on. I’m curious to throw open the blinds on the media world today to see if the same heightened fervor will continue!
Given that it was Earth Day and that I’d been making small pleas that one year it should be dubbed Ocean Day, our writings got a fair amount of attention too, amongst the pile-on. My new favorite website TakePart.com, part of Participant Media’s social-action-driven multi-media kit, has been running daily blogs by me for the past few weeks; yesterday’s was a quick look at the human impact of exploding oil rigs. The Huffington Post helped promote my new OCEANS book, by excerpting an interview with NOAA director Jane Lubchenco, as did Gadling, which continues its “Bowermaster’s Adventures” series, though they focused on “Her Deepness,” Syliva Earle’s contribution. Plus very fun interviews with two of my favorite local radio pals, Joe Donahue at WAMC and Jimmy Buff at WDST.
I wrote for Etsy, a great site — kind of the handmade jewelry, much-hipper equivalent to the Home Shopping Channel — about my affection for all things blue and even the doyenne of good manners, Martha Stewart – on her Earth Day show, which was the best, most original television I saw all day – gave OCEANS a great plug (my only disappointment was that her crew didn’t dig into the vault for some of the video they ran for years of Martha and I sea kayaking off the coast of Newfoundland!).
I spent the bulk of Earth/Ocean Day on airplanes, hardly the most environmentally healthy thing to do. I would have much preferred a long walk on a beach somewhere … anywhere … but ultimately escaping my week-long lockdown in London and avoiding that long bus-ride to Madrid to get off the continent was worth it. I arrived at Heathrow armed with several different airline reservations and flew back to New York on a plane oddly only half-full and laden with more smiles than I’ve ever seen in any airport scenario in a well-traveled life.
Being at 36,000 feet and looking out the window for several hours did give me an opportunity to ponder just how the orb below is faring. I would have liked to divert and fly over the Icelandic volcano that had so handcuffed much of the world’s air travel for the past week, though the pilots probably would not have been inclined to test their engines by flying into the ashen sky; I wish I could have talked them into detouring south and flying over the Gulf of Mexico, for a bird’s eye view of that horrific/spectacular fire burning on the Deep water Horizon oil rig, a reminder of one of the real impacts of our dependence on fossil fuels; if they’d been willing to drop even lower, I imagine we could have skimmed over the surface and seen those growing gyres filled with plastic in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
But from high altitude it is hard to see the pollutants threatening the ocean. Truth is, it’s even hard in most cases to see them at sea level. Which is a big part of the problem when it comes to environmental protection. Out of sight, out of mind. (As spectacular as the images are of that oil rig ablaze, for example, it’s 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Very few people will see it up close, thus its damage will always seem very far remote.) The fact that the ocean has been altered by man over the past century – polluted, its acidity levels altered by carbon dioxide, over fished, its reef damaged – is indisputable. That in so many cases the ocean still manages to look pristine and unharmed almost works against it. I’ve fallen victim to that myself, both at sea level staring out at that place on the horizon where blue meets blue, and from up high looking down on a watery landscape that often – mistakenly — seems the very definition of pacific.
If you want to see some of the ocean’s greatest beauty, slip out in the next few days and see the new Jacques Perrin/Jacques Cluzaud film OCEANS (their last together was WINGED MIGRATION). I’m biased, since I’ve done the companion book to the film (Oceans, The Threats to the Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide), but the $75 million movie – distributed in the U.S. by DisneyNature – strings together some of the most incredible ocean footage ever. And for the first week it’s out, Disney is donating a dollar per ticket to a Nature Conservancy program to set aside a marine protected area in the Bahamas.
A feature film of course can only go so far in regard to making a difference. Sitting in theater “observing” the ocean is only half the battle. If you really want to affect change in regard to the ocean, the first thing we have to encourage is changing rules and regulations to protect it. On a more personal level I think you have to go out and get in the ocean every once in awhile to remind you of its beauty, its power and its fragility. To save the ocean, I’m afraid, you’ll have to get wet.
Day Five. That’s how long I’ve been stuck in London, waiting out the drift of volcanic ash, incredible governmental indecision and dilly-dallying, increasing anger from the airline representatives and observing an incredible amount of human patience. As I write – 18:39 on Tuesday – it appears this tragic-comedy travel adventure will definitely last into Day Six, Seven, Eight and beyond.
It began with my arrival in the U.K. at Heathrow, early last Wednesday morning. I took a bus directly to Oxford, intending to be across the pond for just 48 hours, come to moderate a panel on the future and perils of our ocean at the Skoll World Forum and intended it to be a short trip because I had a big week ahead: My new book – OCEANS, The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide – was published last week, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and I wanted to get back home quickly in order to help promote it.
It was on my way into the panel on the early afternoon of last Thursday that I first learned from my friend and colleague Jake Eberts – executive producer of the new OCEANS movie, out on Earth Day and which my book companions – that we might not be getting out of town as planned. We were planning to travel together over the next couple days to San Francisco and Los Angeles, to screen the film, promote the book and more.
Obviously that plan went slightly awry. On a beautiful spring morning, last Friday, we traveled by hansom cab from Oxford to London, where Jake would wait for many hours to get on a jam-packed Eurostar train back to his home in Paris. By the end of the morning the volcano had completely halted all air travel in and out of Europe and stymied it in much of the rest of the world. I’ve been stuck, albeit comfortably in a hotel along the River Thames, ever since.
With four confirmed air reservations out of London’s Heathrow over the next few days, normally the busiest airport in Europe, I went to bed last night confident I’d be home soon … only to wake up this morning to the BBC telling me a sizable new ash cloud was headed towards UK airspace. During the course of today not a single plane left Heathrow, though they did with some regularity from Paris and Frankfurt. The projection – gamble — is that no flights will leave from London during the next few days.
Which for me means a complete reorganization. I have to get out of this hotel, if just to save my sanity. The best option, it appears, is Spain. So it looks like I’ll get to spend twenty-plus hours viewing the lovely Spanish coast from a bus window.
Which will give me plenty of time to ponder the whole event. The last time this particular Icelandic volcano erupted it blew for a full two years. Who knows, maybe a similar two-year cycle began a week ago. We, mankind, have gotten so spoiled, thinking we can go and do whatever, whenever we choose, that a natural act like this is a great reminder. In 1815 a volcano named Tambara erupted in Indonesia, wrapping the entire planet in a veil of sulfur, blocking the sun’s rays for an entire year and creating what was known then as “the year without summer.” Bitter cold and frosts devastated North America and Europe and famine led to the last great subsistence crisis in the western world. Who knows, we might be on the precipice of that again.
A mere 74,000 years ago another volcanic eruption — by Toba, also in Indonesia — was so powerful it nearly obliterated the entire human race.
So … our Icelandic blow could have been far worse. Maybe it will simply serve as one of a variety of reminders that man is not in control. I would think that recent tremblors, in Haiti, Chile and China, would have already reminded us of that very well.
On the bus to Madrid I’ll be traveling with a handful of international environmental luminaries, also escapees from last week’s Skoll World Forum, who’ve been stuck ever since. While we are all desperately scurrying to get home, traveling by car, bus, train and plane on the days surrounding the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m sure the subject of the individual carbon footprints we are stamping out will arise. Once home, I’ll bet we all vow to stay put … for awhile.
On this day in 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, a book I co-wrote with my friend Will Steger – “Saving the Earth, A Citizen’s Guide to Environmental Action” – was published to good review. Its focus was on the causes and effects of eleven environmental problems then facing the world, with an emphasis on solutions. Every once in a while I revisit the book, to see how we’re doing globally on all of those issues.
On global warming, predictions are dire today. We did not predict how much ice would have already been lost at the Poles. In the book I quoted Dr. Stephen Schneider (who I just re-met in San Francisco at the Institute for the Golden Gate a couple weeks ago) suggesting, “We are looking into a very murky crystal ball.” Today it is less murky; we have many more clues about how quickly things are heating up.
Ozone depletion is one environmental problem that has actually been slightly mitigated since the book was published, thanks to constant monitoring of the ozone hole above the Southern Ocean and an international ban on ozone-destroying fluorocarbons; smog, or air pollution, has improved in some urban areas but grown far worse in others, especially as industrial Asia has boomed. Acid rain continues, but with major industries called on to build cleaner stacks and allowances made for emission bartering, there have been improvements.
The subject of what we were dong to the planet’s rain forest was a hot topic 20 years ago; today the threat is the same and we continue to lose vast amounts of forest each year. The contribution of forests as carbon-dioxide vacuums is as important today as it was then. In regard to garbage, the emphasis twenty years ago was largely on the fact that landfills were overflowing; hazardous waste – whether from home products or manufacturing leftovers – continues to be a health hazard around the world.
When it came to water pollution, we were right on: I wrote then about one of the themes of my work today – protecting our one ocean – specifically the weight of plastic already floating near its surface and the harm being done to its marine life. As for freshwater, in the U.S. and elsewhere there have actually been a variety of environmental success stories, particularly in regard to manufacturers dumping waste and chemicals directly into rivers and lakes. Energy consumption was a major worry then and we called for the obvious need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The world obviously didn’t listen; demand and usage has only gone up, up, up since 1990. Though there is a renewed emphasis on alternatives these days, there is still little real money being spent on development; even the Obama administration is having a hard time admitting there is no such thing as “clean coal.” Overpopulation was the final chapter in the book and spoke to the discrepancy between the impacts on the planet of a baby born in the U.S. versus Bangladesh – the American would during his/her lifetime use one hundred times more resources and energy as his/her Bangladeshian counterpart. That has not changed.
An emphasis of the book was on what the individual could do to reduce what we have in the past two decades come to know as his/her footprint. On only a couple environmental fronts have we made significant steps forward (ozone depletion, freshwater pollution). One good thing to grow in the past twenty years is a boom in green consciousness. I wish I could say books like ours have contributed to that greening; perhaps they have, it’s a hard thing to measure. Personally it’s a good exercise for me to revisit “Saving the Earth” every year to see just how we’re doing and to ponder an updated version on some future anniversary. Though one most likely available only for the Kindle, to save on trees.