This week’s news summary features articles about stuff, and how we, as a society, are dealing with it.
In the first article from the Post and Courier, Bo Petersen reports on the imminent (May 27) opening of the South Carolina Aquarium’s turtle rehabilitation hospital, the Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery Center.
Bo explains that sea turtle rehab has evolved from a modest sideline at the Aquarium to a central focus of the institution. This is good because: 1) more than 220 turtles have been returned to the wild since the Aquarium opened, 2) it is wildly popular with the concerned public, and 3) it is an unparalleled educational opportunity. Good for the Zuckers for generously making this facility possible!
The bad news is that the hospital addresses the growing number of turtles that have been harmed, in one way or another, by humans. On that point, one of the Aquarium’s most important educational lessons is that the oceans are increasingly polluted with plastics of all sorts, and turtles are just one of thousands of species that have fallen victim to this planetary wave of discarded stuff. (At the annual Aquarium gala on Saturday night, CEO Kevin Mills made that point eloquently and emphatically.)
It is hard to conceive how much plastic goes into the world’s oceans every year. (Four to 12 million metric tons, according to Science). One manifestation is remote Henderson Island in the South Pacific. This next article, from the Atlantic, reveals that mounds of plastic have washed up on the beach. Sadly, this is only the tip of the plastic iceberg.
These excerpts are from the article:
Every square meter of Henderson’s beaches has between 20 and 670 pieces of plastic on the surface and between 50 and 4,500 pieces buried in the topmost 10 centimeters…
The surface layer of the oceans now contains more than five trillion pieces of plastic, mostly in the form of tiny millimeter-wide fragments.
Henderson Island is in the general vicinity of the South Pacific gyre, a giant Texas-sized whirlpool in which plastic junk accumulates. Every ocean has these gyres and all of them are now garbage patches.
How have we reached this point of profligacy? This next article, from the New York Review of Books, does not answer that question directly. It is a review of a book called “Empire of Things,” about consumption from the 15th century through the present day.
The book sounds fascinating, especially the central point the reviewer focuses on – that consumption is not simply about individual choice. The author highlights the role of the state in setting the stage for how individuals and nations consume.
Here is an excerpt from the review:
Empire of Things is also a bracing argument for putting the state, politics, and geopolitics at the heart of the history of consuming. Trade policies, imperialism, investments in utilities, welfare programs, regulations on mortgages, mandated Sunday closing of shops, subsidies for recycling: these are some of the ways states have shaped how and what we consume.
So, is the government at fault for binge consumerism? Not exclusively, but the web of laws, policies and programs that express society’s values about consumption (which, in every society except, perhaps, Bhutan, means doing everything possible to encourage more of it…) undoubtedly sets the context for the mass of stuff that humans produce, consume and throw away. It would be foolish to assume that we could successfully reign in consumerism as long as every signal we receive from the state, and the corporate world, is to buy more.
This all leads in an indirect but inevitable way to Henderson Island.
I felt that we should change our taxonomic name from Homo sapiens to Home incendiaris, because burning things (that are made of carbon) is a unique attribute that distinguishes us from every other species. (And because “sapiens” is a ridiculous epithet for an animal that is destroying its environment at breakneck speed.) But now I think we should consider Homo consumere.
Which brings me to recycling. It’s not a bad idea, and we should all do it. This article from the Post and Courier reports that Charleston County is ready to break ground on its new recycling center. Since the county closed the old Romney Street facility, Charleston County has shipped its recyclables to Conway. Thank you, Horry County Solid Waste Authority.
As Council Chairman Vic Rawl said, the county doesn’t make money from recycling. But it probably reduces the cost of disposal, and it is definitely preferable to landfilling. To the council’s credit, the Charleston County program was one of the first, and is still one of the best, in the state.
But recycling does not justify unnecessary consumption or excess packaging. And it may even make things worse if people choose products that are touted as recyclable, but are not – like single-use plastic bags. The gold standard for responsible consumption is not to buy stuff you don’t need, and to reject unnecessary packaging.
The second-best option is to reuse things. This brings to mind an experience Virginia and I had over the weekend. We took some old, but still useful, porch furniture to the dump at Wadmalaw, where, in the past, there was a vigorous economy of product reuse.
In the good old days, you could go to the dump and contribute to, or withdraw from, an assortment of pre-owned lawnmowers, grills, bed frames, fence posts or about anything else you might need around the house or yard. No more. The very nice attendant told us, “They don’t want us to do that now,” as she crushed our love seat and plastic chairs in the hydraulic compactor. We pulled the best one out, last minute, and took it to Restore, the Habitat for Humanity resale shop on John’s Island. It was a bad decision by somebody at the county to terminate this traditional trading post for used stuff.
The New York Review of Books does not reveal whether “The Empire of Things” addresses the most important question: Does more stuff make us happier? I’ve been reading another intriguing book called “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. The book reports on the extensive psychological research on human happiness. Here are some excerpts:
Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health…. This raises the possibility that the immense improvement in material conditions over the last two centuries was offset by the collapse of the family and the community…
The bottom line, based on this research, is that more stuff (a higher level of consumption) is unlikely to raise the collective happiness quotient of a society. And if the acquisition of stuff adversely effects family and community, it may make us emotionally worse off. Which raises the question, what is the economy for, anyway?
Enough stuff already!
This next article, by Sammy Fretwell with the State, reports that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has put a former Duke Energy official in charge of the water program, apparently in response to the public controversy over agricultural water withdrawals from the Edisto River and, more recently, the application by Google to siphon 1.5 million gallons from the Middendorf aquifer.
No one seems to know what this reorganization means, but it sounds like an attempt by DHEC to blunt criticism of the state’s inability or unwillingness to properly protect rivers like the Edisto and the agency’s failure to complete plans designed to protect ground and surface water.
On the local front, we continue to lower our expectations for the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA), and CARTA continues to fail to meet them. The latest mishap is that the lowest bid to build the long delayed tri-county transit center came in more than $2 million above the $10 million in available funding (mostly federal). It is hard to imagine how CARTA could expect to build a decent intermodal center for anywhere near that price. (Compare the proposed I-526 extension to John’s Island at $725 million, the renovation of the Gaillard auditorium at $150 million, the African American museum at $75 million, or the recycling center at $21 million.)
The intermodal center is a strong indication that we just don’t give a rip about public transit – either long or short distance. Think about Union Station in Washington, Grand Central or the Market Street train station in Philadelphia, and compare those to whatever CARTA plans to erect for $10 million or even $12 million. But maybe we can use this shortfall, and the soon-to-be-available $2 billion from the county’s half-cent sales tax, to reassess this central piece of the transportation system for the largest metropolitan region in South Carolina.
Meanwhile, mayors and other officials joined hands with hundreds of citizens on Saturday to oppose offshore drilling. This was the 8th annual Hands Across the Sand event, a heartfelt expression of support for the health of the ocean.
But just up the coast, Senator Stephen Goldfinch, from Murrell’s Inlet (amazingly), introduced legislation at the end of this year’s session to put a referendum on offshore drilling on the 2018 ballot. The referendum wording ranks with the balanced neutrality of the classic question, “When did you stop beating your wife?”
In this article from the Coastal Observer, Senator Goldfinch dismisses the fact that every town and city on the coast has passed a resolution against drilling, asserting, “there is a tremendous portion of the coast that is unincorporated.” For what it’s worth, “a tremendous portion” does not translate to “a majority of residents.” The ballot language asks if the voter favors:
The development of an offshore oil and natural gas industry if conducted in a manner that uses the highest standards of safety and most advanced available technology to vigilantly protect South Carolina’s precious natural resources, vital tourism industry, and unique quality of life while advancing economic growth through the creation of energy industry jobs and the use of increased revenue to the state resulting in a tangible benefit to the taxpayers?
As if that were possible, as South Carolina Environmental Law Project attorney, Amelia Thompson, observes in the article.
On the subject of the possible, coastal geologist Rob Young argues in the Island Packet trying to “stabilize” the beach at Hunting Island is a losing proposition. He argues for “setting the island free,” to erode, accrete and move as it is naturally inclined, instead of fighting Mother Nature by building groins and dumping sand.
Here is an excerpt from Rob’s op-ed:
It is time for a new vision for the management of Hunting Island that is more like the historical approach. Adapting in a more flexible way is not only historically accurate, it is fiscally responsible.
Rather than spending millions to try vainly to hold the shoreline in place, we should be shifting visitor access to the areas of the island that are sustainable over the longer term, or converting facilities to those that are movable and flexible as has been done successfully at Assateague Island National Seashore by the National Park Service. The recent decision to move to more off-site parking is an important step in the right direction.
Trying to hold the shoreline in place with rocks, steel and sand will require an increasing infusion of cash and will, ultimately, fail. Pardon the cliché, but sometimes, in order to save something, you need to set it free.
Finally, as this article from the BBC reports, there is a new movie called “Citizen Jane” on Jane Jacobs, a librarian who became the most prominent urbanist of the 20th century. Jacobs is probably best known for defeating a proposal by Robert Moses – the larger-than-life road builder and subject of Robert Caro’s classic biography, “The Powerbroker”– to build an expressway through Greenwich Village.
Jacobs liked the idea of setting neighborhoods free, and advocated nurturing the “messy,” democratic, grassroots forces that shaped cities, in contrast to the top-down planning that characterized the era of urban renewal. While Jacobs has clearly captured the hearts of scholars and activists, today’s lack of vision of the sort Daniel Burnham provided for Chicago and Pierre L’Enfant for Washington, D.C. begs the question of whether urban areas can indeed beneficially self-organize, and what role leadership must play in the future of cities. The article’s author puts this question well:
A lesson we might draw from their clash of wills is that great cities are a marriage of forward thinking and conservation, of bold plans and the nurturing of old neighborhoods, of the need to get things done balanced by the need to listen, and in the case of urban planning, to look, too.
Enjoy this cool, wet respite and have a great week!