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---July 13, 1995---
News and resources for environmental justice.
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As we wobble toward the 21st century, there can be little doubt that repairing the environment will require effort and sacrifice from nearly everyone.

The work to be done is substantial. To celebrate earth day this year, William K. Stevens of the NEW YORK TIMES put together a summary overview of our situation. [1] Mr. Stevens tried to be optimistic. He pointed out that industry and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say that the annual release of toxic chemicals has been reduced 43% in the past seven years even as the yearly manufacture of toxic chemicals increased 37% during the same period. [2] (EPA has no staff assigned to checking the accuracy of the "toxics release inventory" [TRI] data that industry reports to EPA each year, so everyone has to accept industry's 43% claim at face value. Furthermore, these figures make us ask, where are the increased quantities of toxic chemicals going if they are no longer being released directly into air and water? Do they perhaps wind up in products that eventually go down the drain or into the local dump?)

In any case, there is definite cause for celebration of some big accomplishments over the past decade or two. Many incinerators have been successfully opposed; many filthy dumps have been closed; within the U.S., nuclear power has not experienced the growth once predicted for it (though overseas is another story); the air in many cities is cleaner than it used to be; the flow of sewage and industrial waste into rivers and streams has been substantially reduced.

But even as Mr. Stevens was trying to maintain an optimistic spin, bits of gloom crept into his text: Two out of every 5 Americans still live in areas where the air is unhealthful (and, though Mr. Stevens did not say so, those affected are disproportionately people of color). Forty percent of the nation's rivers and lakes are not fit for drinking, fishing or swimming. Last year, EPA issued more than 1000 warnings against eating fish in chemically-contaminated waters. (And many states issued their own warnings, in addition.)

Mr. Stevens went on: Despite reductions in sewage and industrial waste reaching waterways, "...scientists say that biological quality [of rivers and streams] has continued to decline anyway because of farm and urban runoff, destruction of streamside vegetation, erosion, introduction of exotic species, straightening of streams, and building of dams." (In other words, the direct and indirect effects of what we traditionally call "development.")

"People commonly equate environmental protection with conquering chemical pollution," Mr. Stevens wrote. 'They say we've put a lot of time and resources into reducing pollution and everything's O.K.,' said Dr. James R. Karr, an aquatic ecologist who heads the University of Washington Institute for Environmental Studies in Seattle. But when the actual state of aquatic biology is added to the assessment equation, he said, it 'doubles the proportion of waters that are in violation of water quality standards.' In other words, he said, 'the situation is not getting better.'"

Mr. Stevens went on: "As a result, freshwater fish and invertebrates face particularly serious perils, and 362 species of freshwater fishes have been extinguished or are endangered as a result of human activity, said a broad group of scientists who met at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City recently to assess the dangers to biological diversity," Mr. Stevens wrote.

"The fate of the American landscape and waters and the creatures who live there is perhaps the biggest domestic environmental problem on which the nation is not yet getting a good grip, a number of experts say," according to Mr. Stevens.

Mr. Stevens then describes a recent report titled ENDANGERED ECOSYSTEMS OF THE UNITED STATES: A PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT OF LOSS AND DEGRADATION, available from the National Biological Service (NBS), a research organization within the federal Department of Interior. We obtained the report over the Internet, [3]and its conclusions are stunning:

** 81 percent of the nation's fish communities have been harmed by human actions, while 98 percent of the streams in the lower 48 states are degraded to the point they can't qualify as wild or scenic rivers.

** 90 percent of its ancient or "old-growth" forests have been lost.

** 95-98 percent of the virgin forests in the lower 48 states had been destroyed by 1990; 99 percent of the virgin Eastern deciduous forests have been eliminated.

** In the Northeast, 97 percent of Connecticut's coastline is developed; 95 percent of Maryland's natural barrier island beaches are gone; and almost all of Ohio's bottomland hardwood forests are gone.

** In the South, 99.99 percent of Kentucky's native prairies have disappeared; 98 percent of the Southeast coastal plain's longleaf pine forests are gone; and 88 percent of southwest Florida's slash pine forests have been eliminated.

** In the Midwest and Great Plains, 90 percent of the tallgrass prairie has disappeared, as has virtually all of the prairie in Michigan and Ohio, 72 percent of Minnesota's northern hardwood forests, and 86 percent of Minnesota's red and white pine forests.

** In the West, 99 percent of California's native grassland is gone, as are up to 90 percent of western Montana's old growth forests and low-elevation grasslands; half of Colorado's wetlands and 90 percent of Hawaii's dry forests and grasslands are gone. [4]

The NBS report was prepared by Reed Noss of the University of Idaho's Department of Fish and Wildlife, the late Edward LaRoe III of NBS, and J. Michael Scott, working with NBS's Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Idaho.

An ecosystem is a community of species in a specific area. An ecosystem can range from a very large territory defined by specialized plants, such as hardwood forests or sagebrush, to a much smaller area defined by varied plant and animal life, such as a fen or wetland.

"Loss of biodiversity is real," the authors said, adding that the general public is aware of damage to tropical forests but less familiar with losses of woodlands, swamps, and grasslands.

Regionally, 58 of the troubled environments were in the Southeast, 37 were in the Northeast, 23 in the Midwest and Great Plains, 11 in the Northern Rockies, 10 in the Southwest, 17 in California, and two in Hawaii. "The extent to which various ecosystems have declined in the United States --despite uncertainties and unevenness in the data --portrays a striking picture of endangerment," the NBS report says.

"Our results indicate that more biodiversity has been lost than is generally recognized in environmental-policy debates. A continually expanding list of endangered species seems inevitable unless trends of habitat destruction are reversed soon through a national commitment to ecosystem protection and restoration," the report says.

Rutgers University biology professor David Ehrenfeld has a different take on it. A national commitment to ecosystem protection will be necessary, he says, but not sufficient. "The ultimate success of our efforts to stop ruining nature will depend on a revision of the way we use the world in our everyday living when we are not thinking about conservation. If we have to conserve the earth in spite of ourselves, we will not be able to do it," he says. [5] The destructive changing of nature ceases, he says, "when people who are not actively trying to save the world play and work in a way that is compatible with the existence of the other native species of the region. When that happens--and it happens more than we may think --the presence of people and the changes they bring may enhance the species richness of the area, rather than exert the negative effect that is more familiar to us," he says.

An alternative, Mr. Ehrenfeld says, "is a transformation of the dream of progress from one of overweening hubris, love of quantity and consumption, waste, and the idiot's goal of perpetual growth to one of honesty, resilience, appreciation of beauty and scale, and stability --based in part on the inventive imitation of nature. We have already had examples of what this alternative can be like: the CHINAMPAS, or swamp gardens, that were the glory of pre-Columbian Mexican farming and which might again sustain the Mexican people; the city of Florence in the Renaissance and the city of Toronto before the building boom of the 1970s and 1980s; the hedgerows of post-Elizabethan England; old Jerusalem and the terraces of the Judean hills; and the ingenious multicrop gardens of tropical west Africa, to name a few. The changes that people inevitably work on the earth do not have to be destructive ones." [5]

"If this alternative way of living grows and prospers, I doubt that it will do so by some master plan or protocol," Mr. Ehrenfeld says. "Instead, it will be advanced by countless people working separately and in small groups, sharing only a common dream of life. They will tend to be flexible, inventive, and pragmatic, and most will have practical skills--carpentry, the building of windmills and small bridges, the design and repair of engines and computers, the recognition and care of soils, the ability to teach.... They will devote their first energies to the places where they live. They will come to authority not by violence but by their evident ability to replace a crumbling system with something better. And they will share an awe for a power nobler and larger than themselves, be it God, nature, or human history." [5]
                                                                         --Peter Montague
[1] William K. Stevens, "Earth Day at 25: How Has Nature Fared?" NEW YORK TIMES April 18, 1995, pgs. C1, C5.

[2] Mr. Stevens gives the 43% figure; we calculated the 37% figure from data on U.S. synthetic organic chemical production, 1967-1988, appearing in Table 77 of Appendix E in the President's Council on Environmental Quality's report, ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY 1970-1990 (Washington, D.C.: President's Council on Environmental Quality, 1991); during 1967-1988, annual U.S. chemical production increased at the rate of 4.5% per year. If that growth rate held during the last 7 years (probably a good assumption), those years saw a 37% increase in annual output. For a primer on such calculations, see RHWN #197 and #199.

[3] To receive an ascii copy of this report via E-mail, send E-mail to: nbsitclib@mail.fws.gov. In the SUBJECT line, put these words: send ecosystem ms. (Omit the final period, and leave the body of your message empty.) You can also get a copy of this report in Wordperfect format, including graphs and other illustrations, by anonymous ftp to: ftp.its.nbs.gov; from the subdirectory /pub/nbs-series, download the file ecosystem.manuscript; make sure your ftp client is set for binary transfer. The Wordperfect version is 2.7 megabytes. Thanks to Sue Maret for alerting us to this report.

[4] This summary of the NBS report appeared on the Gannett News Service wire July 1, 1995, under Ken Miller's byline.

[5] David Ehrenfeld, BEGINNING AGAIN; PEOPLE AND NATURE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pgs. 175-194.

Descriptor terms: toxics release inventory; tri; epa; water quality; water pollution; air pollution; human health; fish advisories; development; species loss; extinction; national biological service; nbs; forests; wildelife; barrrier islands; prairies; grasslands; biodiversity; endangered species; david ehrenfeld; william k stevens; new york times; mexico; italy; africa; england; jerusalem;

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