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Occupy Earth, By Chip Ward

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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If your child has asthma and it's getting worse, then news about the White House's recent retreat on ozone (that is, smog) standards for the air over your city wasn't exactly cause for cheering. Thank our environmental president for that, but mainly of course the Republicans, who have been out to kneecap the Environmental Protection Agency since the 2010 election results came in.  We may be heading for an anything-blows environmental future, even though it couldn't be more logical to assume that whatever is allowed into the air will sooner or later end up in us.

With a helping hand from that invaluable website Environmental Health News, here's a little ladleful of examples from the chemical soup that could be not just your air, soil, or water, but you.  It's only a few days' worth of news reports on what's in our environment and so, for better or mostly worse, in us: In Dallas-Ft. Worth, there's lead in the blood of children, thanks to leaded gasoline, banned decades ago, but still in the soil.  In New York's Hudson River, "one of the largest toxic cleanups in U.S. history" (for PCBs in river sediments) is ongoing.  Researchers now suspect that those chemicals, already linked to low birth weight, thyroid disease, and learning, memory, and immune system disorders," are also associated with to high blood pressure.  Then there's mercury, that "potent neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to the developing brains of fetuses and children." If allowed, it will enter the environment via a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine to be built in Alaska near "one of the world's premier salmon fisheries."

And speaking of fish, there is ancient DDT, plus more modern PCBs and spilled oil in ocean sediments off California's Palos Verdes Peninsula, a toxic superfund site, whose cleanup is now being planned.  And don't forget that uranium mill near Cañon City, Colorado, which "has the state's backing to permanently dispose of radioactive waste in its tailings ponds, despite state and independent reports over a 30-year period showing the ponds' liners leak."  Or consider bisphenol-A, a chemical most of us now carry around in our bodies.  It is used in the making of some plastic containers and "may cause behavior and emotional problems in young girls" according to a new study (as older studies indicated that it might effect "the brain development of fetuses and small children").  Or think about the drinking water tested recently by the University of Tennessee Center for Environmental Biotechnology from six of 11 Tennessee utilities statewide that "contained traces of 17 chemicals found in insect repellent, ibuprofen, detergents, a herbicide, hormones, and chemical compounds found in plastics."  And that's just to dip a toe in polluted waters. 

Increasingly, with the environment a chemical soup of our industrial processes, so are our bodies.  No wonder TomDispatch regular and environmentalist Chip Ward suggests that activists occupying Wall Street should think even bigger. Tom

Someone Got Rich and Someone Got Sick
Nature Is the 99%, Too
By Chip Ward

What if rising sea levels are yet another measure of inequality? What if the degradation of our planet's life-support systems -- its atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere -- goes hand in hand with the accumulation of wealth, power, and control by that corrupt and greedy 1% we are hearing about from Zuccotti Park?  What if the assault on America's middle class and the assault on the environment are one and the same?

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Money Rules: It's not hard for me to understand how environmental quality and economic inequality came to be joined at the hip.  In all my years as a grassroots organizer dealing with the tragic impact of degraded environments on public health, it was always the same: someone got rich and someone got sick.

In the struggles that I was involved in to curb polluters and safeguard public health, those who wanted curbs, accountability, and precautions were always outspent several times over by those who wanted no restrictions on their effluents.  We dug into our own pockets for postage money, they had expense accounts.  We made flyers to slip under the windshield wipers of parked cars, they bought ads on television.  We took time off from jobs to visit legislators, only to discover that they had gone to lunch with fulltime lobbyists.

Naturally, the barons of the chemical and nuclear industries don't live next to the radioactive or toxic-waste dumps that their corporations create; on the other hand, impoverished black and brown people often do live near such ecological sacrifice zones because they can't afford better.  Similarly, the gated communities of the hyper-wealthy are not built next to cesspool rivers or skylines filled with fuming smokestacks, but the slums of the planet are. Don't think, though, that it's just a matter of property values or scenery.  It's about health, about whether your kids have lead or dioxins running through their veins.  It's a simple formula, in fact: wealth disparities become health disparities.

And here's another formula: when there's money to be made, both workers and the environment are expendable.  Just as jobs migrate if labor can be had cheaper overseas, I know workers who were tossed aside when they became ill from the foul air or poisonous chemicals they encountered on the job.

The fact is: we won't free ourselves from a dysfunctional and unfair economic order until we begin to see ourselves as communities, not commodities.  That is one clear message from Zuccotti Park.

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Polluters routinely walk away from the ground they poison and expect taxpayers to clean up after them.  By "externalizing" such costs, profits are increased.  Examples of land abuse and abandonment are too legion to list, but most of us can refer to a familiar "superfund site" in our own backyard.  Clearly, Mother Nature is among the disenfranchised, exploited, and struggling.

Democracy 101: The 99% pay for wealth disparity with lost jobs, foreclosed homes, weakening pensions, and slashed services, but Nature pays, too.  In the world the one-percenters have created, the needs of whole ecosystems are as easy to disregard as, say, the need the young have for debt-free educations and meaningful jobs.  

Extreme disparity and deep inequality generate a double standard with profound consequences.  If you are a CEO who skims millions of dollars off other people's labor, it's called a "bonus."  If you are a flood victim who breaks into a sporting goods store to grab a lifejacket, it's called looting.  If you lose your job and fall behind on your mortgage, you get evicted.  If you are a banker-broker who designed flawed mortgages that caused a million people to lose their homes, you get a second-home vacation-mansion near a golf course. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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