Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Diamonds in the Garbage (where there's muck there's money)

Are humans causing changes detrimental to humans? Most certainly, although some find reason to deny it (almost always reasons to do with money, but occasionally also religion).

Fresh Kills Landfill on the shore of Staten Island, opened in 1947 as a temporary landfill, was for half a century was New York City's principal landfill. It became the largest landfill in the world, also, the largest man-made thing in the world. In 2001 it was 25 meters taller than the Statue of Liberty. Attempts to poison rats and feral dogs roaming the dump and hazardous to employees failed. The area was declared a wild bird sanctuary; hawks, falcons and owls were brought in, reducing rats during daytime, but air pollution consequences remained serious. Now, garbage is disposed of further away, and another garbage dump has become an even bigger problem.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or Pacific Trash Vortex, a diffuse mess of floating plastic, covers from 386,000 to 1,351,000 sq miles, or 700,000 square km to 15,000,000 square km, depending on who’s measuring. It’s essentially the world’s largest rubbish dump. This vast drifting “soup” - held in place by swirling underwater currents - stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost to Japan. It could be twice the size of the continental USA. About 100 million tons of flotsam circulate in it. Often portrayed as “a floating island of plastic trash at least the size of Texas,” it sometimes contains only occasional large bits of trash like fishing gear; it’s mostly microscopic plastic bits too small to see with the naked eye. The plastic breaks up over time, but never fully breaks down. One of its dangers is that fish eat the small pieces of plastic while hunting for plankton.
Many coastal areas are even more heavily contaminated than the ‘garbage patch’ – with as much as 4 million pieces of rubbish per km2 documented. There are actually 6 extensive trash patches, including one in the freezing Barents Sea. Much of the Arctic, one of the most rapidly warming places on earth, having shrunk by more than 30% in recent decades, now looks like a landfill. A photo often used to illustrate the Trash Vortex, of a guy in a kayak in water covered with plastic bottle trash, is actually from costal Philippines. Plastic constitutes about 90% of the rubbish floating in the oceans - in all oceans are at least 46,000 pieces of floating plastic for every square mile; the North Pacific has 6 kilos of plastic for every kilo of plankton. The plastic is consumed by seabirds and other animals; their stomachs fill with bottle tops, lighters and balloons. A turtle found dead in Hawaii had over a thousand pieces of plastic in its stomach and intestines. A million plus sea-birds and 100,000+ marine mammals and sea turtles are killed each year by ingestion of plastics or entanglement in them. The plastics also act as a chemical sponge, concentrating many persistent organic pollutants, and attracting man-made chemicals like hydrocarbons and DDT, which eventually enter our food chain. Radioactivity levels in marine biota near Fukushima nuclear power plant have been found lower than predicted by studies done right after the tsunami that destroyed it, but marine anomalies have increased over the last few years. Scientists note threats to salmon, abalone, orca, star fish, red urchins, seabirds, sea lions, fur seals and other marine life. Mass-starvation events have been recorded, mostly due to the collapse of food chains, but some claim exposures were too low for acute effects to marine organisms, from even microalgae to mollusks and fish. Recent studies have shown variable levels in fish, with no population-level effects observed. The variability in fish depends on the fishes’ position in the food chain, to where they live in the water column, and to migratory patterns, among other things. Fish at the bottom of the ocean get more exposure to contamination than fish living at higher levels, but one theory posits that sediments have delayed the dispersal of the radioactive substances.
Plastic can be detected in the bodies of more than 50% of sea turtles, yet it’s claimed that sea life is thriving, even in the estimated 3.3 millions tons of debris settled onto the seabed of the Sanriku Coast (of the main island impacted by the tsunami and nuclear meltdown), according to The Japan News, the English-language edition of Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun. It’s also claimed that it’s not dangerous to swim off the coast of Fukushima, that it’d be more dangerous to lick the hands of an old glow-in-the-dark fluorescent watch or clock. And that fracking water, and Flint MI municipal water, are safe to drink.

Not to raise hopes, offer absurd justifications or in any way indicate that irresponsibility pays (although sometimes it might), but it is interesting that domestication of plants and animals may have occurred through sloppy waste-dumping habits. Not only did scavengers prowl, and thus become more accustomed to proximity of humans, but the interaction of composting with discarded seed dispersed a bit more widely than might otherwise have been the case (but closely enough with other seed for interaction – especially subsequent sexual interaction – to occur). This led to both greater accessibility and utility. Domestication may never have been planned out at all; that it occurred almost as if by accident makes rather much more sense.
While irritation with declamations of various reinventions of Chicken Little or the Boy Who Cried Wolf have become a norm, we still have pressing problems. Ozone depletion isn’t as dire a threat as it once was, but it’s still a problem, as is global warming, despite vociferous nay-sayers. Genetically-modified organisms may well present greater problems than the current US maintenance of permanent war. Overpopulation, newly rampant diseases, and violent changes to Earth’s crustal zone (how much influenced by humanity through temperature changes, drilling, pumping and mining, we don’t know) aren’t just threats. The extinction of large predators seems, at least to me, to inevitably present us with a variety of new complications, and there’s growing peril from radiations of various sorts, not only due to nuclear power and changes in the atmosphere, but also to wi-fi internet, hand-phones and power-lines. We can and will ignore all that, but I’m afraid the problems we face from waste-disposal may be quite a bit more in-your-face, coming quite soon.
The oceans create roughly 70% of the oxygen in our atmosphere, and their pH - the measure of alkalinity or acidity - is changing. This is primarily due to increased levels of CO2 and carbonic acid, caused by us humans, and threatens most forms of oceanic life. Spent nuclear fuel raising ocean temperatures and disrupting biological processes certainly doesn’t help. Simply put, our self-indulgences could soon result in our death – as a species. We’ve upset nature’s balance, and it’s unlikely that we can put it right again. Within a few decades, our oceans may have living in them only reddish-orange algae, jellyfish, and bacteria that don’t need oxygen to survive. For humans to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air and its life with poisonous substances, to cause species extinction, and to destroy the integrity of our earth by causing changes in its climate, isn’t simply fouling our own nest, but suicide. More scientifically: when plastics decompose in the ocean they release chemicals not found naturally, including bisphenol A and polystyrene-based (PS) oligomers. Bisphenol A disrupts the hormonal system of animals. Styrofoam releases substantial quantities of a toxic styrene monomer, a known carcinogen, and also styrene dimers and trimer, suspected carcinogens. The trimer also breaks down into the toxic monomer form. Samples of seawater collected from the Pacific Ocean were contaminated with up to 150 parts per million of some of these components of plastic decomposition. In Japan alone, 150,000 tons of plastic washes up each year. Hundreds of millions of tons of plastic rubbish now float in the world’s oceans. Virtuous recycling will do no more than will no longer littering, to correct this situation. It’s simple: if humanity can’t begin to work together, humanity won’t survive.
We’re far too uneducated, let alone self-centered, to deal with all this. Of course, maybe God in some deus ex machina guise might deign to interfere, as many hope or even expect, but experience suggests this to be a bit less likely than that our current crop of “leaders” will do anything intelligent, or that folk in the USA will replace materialistic lusts with interest in social welfare.
Reporters make money with articles on either side of the argument as to how bad things have gotten. Organizations solicit donations to address the problem. Inventors come up with devices to reclaim and recycle the plastic. Perhaps tour services could guide groups on an oceanic house of horrors. More studies will be done, meetings and seminars held, videos made.

An Associated Press release from late 2011 reports that Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard announced that his huge city will now turn garbage from millions of people into reusable materials and energy. Concrete giant Cemex SAB has agree to buy 3,000 tons daily to turn into energy, and some garbage will be recycled (60% of it!) or composted, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. The city is embarking on a major project to harness methane gas produced at its old dump, now closed. It has plans for a new plant to recycle construction waste into building material. The city has negotiated with 1,500 pepenadores (scavengers), informal workers who traditionally have been a key part of Mexico’s waste-management system. They live at dumps and scavenge and resell material. Pablo Tellez Falcon, who heads the scavenger’s guild, said 300 of them worked at the Bordo Poniente landfill and that he’s negotiating a written agreement with the city government (so far it has only been oral) so they won’t lose their livelihoods.
Sweden incinerates about 50% of its waste, filtering out almost all dioxins but putting out more CO2 per megawatt generated than burning coal does. Sweden imports 800,000 tons of waste from other countries to burn at 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants which provide a million homes with heating and over a quarter of a million homes with electricity. The Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway and Finland also utilize advanced waste management techniques, with the Germans, Dutch and Belgians not far behind them.
Not only can garbage produce methane, it can teach us wisdom. From it we can get the best fertilizer, good construction material, land-fill and other valuable resources. Recycling may not be as good as re-using, but learning to act responsibly is one of the things we live to learn – no responsibility equals no satisfaction. No respect for that other than the self and its desires translates into no respect FOR the self and its desires. We can try to be more aware, or live awhile longer with our mistakes, but make no mistake about this: the mistakes we are making WILL eventually kill us, if not adequately addressed.

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