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ArtVoice                                  December 7, 2006

Here's a true story about a Pennsylvania college student who, while
exploring a seldom traveled wooded area of campus, stumbled upon an
old bottle filled with a glistening silver liquid. He brought it back
to his dorm room and cleaned it up, but he still had no clue as to
what this shiny fluid was. So he took a taste. Having never drunk
mercury before, the flavor was alien to him, so he still couldn't
ascertain the identity of his newfound treasure. That is, until his
digits removed themselves from his neurological landscape. With no
feeling in his hands, he sought medical treatment and found out he
had mercury poisoning.

A hazmat crew cleaned up his room and his idiocy became part of the
public record. So we can chalk this sorry tale up to moronics-fodder
for News of the Weird or perhaps a candidacy for a Darwin Award.

Cancer or dandelions?

Here's another story. But it's not about a person. It's about a
society. We play a game called golf. It's quite popular. It involves
whacking a small ball around a large lawn, eventually landing it in a
small hole. Patches of sand and the occasional pond provide obstacles
and break up an otherwise monotonous green expanse. Dandelions,
clovers and native species of grass are not, however, part of the
game. Neither are obstacles caused by turf variations resulting from
grub and beetle activity. So, to avoid having to roll our little
balls through such untamed micro wildernesses, we douse golf courses
with a variety of poisons. As a result, people who regularly play
golf, and people who live near golf courses, suffer from highly
elevated instances of brain and other neurological cancers. Golf
courses are now, for example, the largest source of toxic chemical
contamination in the Great Lakes watershed.

So, for all the Einsteins out there, here's a few questions. What's
worse, cancer or dandelions? Should we adapt to rougher golf courses
or large numbers of cancer deaths? Is it better to poison our
watersheds and drinking water with carcinogens or to adapt to the
occasional golf course clover? And here's the biggie. Why is the
Pennsylvania college student a moron, but not us?
Then there's our toilet paper. Why do we insist on using virgin
timber rather then recycled fiber to make toilet paper? Why do we use
chlorine bleach to whiten it? We wipe our butts with the carcasses of
the very forests we need to provide our oxygen. That's not very
smart. And we bleach our toilet paper with a toxic chemical,
chlorine, that causes cancer and, when released into the environment,
depletes the earth's ozone layer.

Our dainty posteriors

This is a needless folly in a society that has the technology to make
perfectly acceptable toilet tissue from post-consumer waste paper and
non-chlorinated whiteners. And our dainty posteriors won't feel the
difference. The earth, however, will. So why do we allow the
existence of a system that floods our supermarkets with cheap,
virgin, chlorinated butt paper, while charging a premium for a more
environmentally responsible product that should cost about the same
to make?

Ditto on laundry and dishwasher detergents. Almost every brand on the
market today is laced with persistent environmental poisons. Again,
we have the technology to do better. But we don't. We leave the
market dominated by tainted products, with the unadulterated
alternative radically overpriced and hence only available to wealthy
consumers. In actuality, the price difference involved in producing
toxic versus non-toxic detergents is nominal. The tiny and
impoverished nation of Belize, for example, outlawed the sale of
non-biodegradable detergents. The market adapted. Today Belizeans buy
biodegradable detergent for the same price that they used to pay for
toxic detergent. Why can't we?

The answer lies in a corporate notion of freedom. We're Americans and
we cherish our freedoms. So we don't have to listen to some
tree-huggers tell us they value their cancer-free brains more than we
value a dandelion-free game of golf. We own the golf course. It's
ours. According to radical "property rights" organizations such as
the Republican Party, telling us what we can and cannot do with our
property is a government "taking." They are taking away our right to
adulterate our property as we see fit, hence they are taking value
from that property, since a dandelion-laced golf course is less
valuable then a dandelion-free course-so long as we keep golfers in
the dark about brain cancer risks.

But there's a big gaping hole in this perverted logic. Toxics
migrate. And I consider taking away my right to drink pure,
pesticide-free water to be a taking. Likewise, I consider
irresponsibly destroying my little piece of the ozone layer of our
collectively owned atmosphere also to be a taking.

Pissing in the soup

Try this argument on for size. My neighbor is cooking dinner. There's
a big pot of soup on the stove. I go into their kitchen, put a chair
next to the range, climb up on it, undo my fly and piss in their
soup. If this is clearly unacceptable, then why can a pesticide
applicator lay down poison, either on a golf course or a suburban
lawn, knowing it will eventually find its way into my drinking water
and my soup, tainting them with something far more toxic then urine.
Why is this behavior acceptable? Why isn't it a taking when someone
needlessly takes away my right to clean water and air?

The list goes on. Why do we manufacture energy-hogging incandescent
light bulbs when switching over to compact fluorescents would save
enough energy to shut down dozens of power plants while paying for
themselves with savings? The extra tonnage of carbon dioxide
contributes to global warming and takes away my family's right to a
secure future. The same goes for all those gas-guzzling SUVs. What
gives those drivers the right to dump their tailpipe wastes into my

Ultimately that privilege to foul the commons is protected by a
government whose idea of environmental sustainability is dictated by
its belief in a coming rapture coupled with corporate culture's
worship of short-term profitability. Fundamentalism and greed.
Corporations can ravage the earth-it's no biggie since some of us
will be leaving soon anyway. So corporate polluters get whatever
concessions they want-including a 2003 executive order by the Bush
administration allowing power plants to emit higher levels of, yes,

The green alternatives are out there. We're an advanced technological
society, but sociologically, in terms of relating to our environment
in a sustainable way, we're Neanderthals. We shouldn't be burning the
walls of our house to stay warm. Wind and solar energy are now
feasible. Conservation is possible. Toxic chemicals are for the most
part obsolete and avoidable. Organic agriculture has come of age. We
can live sanely. We don't have to foul our own environment-to turn
our dinner table into a litter box. We don't have to be drinking the

- Dr. Michael I. Niman's previous columns are archived at
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