14) Lawn Problems
Now, to go from open rangeland to boxed suburban grassland.
Another huge environmental problem in America is your run of the mill, neatly groomed suburban yards.
For one, these often contain massive amounts of toxic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, which are destroying topsoil and leaching into all sorts of water sources, like Menomin Lake.
Menomon Lake is in Menomonie, Wisconsin. On a campaign stop here, we met with Ann Salt who was mounting a drive to make Menomonie as “toxin free” as possible. She told us lawn chemicals were leaching into the lake killing off fish, plants, and even worse, Ms. Salt said she believed these chemicals were ending up in residents’ water.
A couple years before we met Ms. Salt, she had written a play for the town entitled: “H2, Oh, Oh!” about the toxin/water problem, and she was planning to approach city council to lobby for a “Toxin Free Menomonie.”
As president, I would go to Menomonie and hold up Ms. Salt’s efforts as a model that could be replicated in every town across the country. It is these types of local, grassroots initiatives that, ultimately, will be the best vehicle for lasting, societal change.
Case Western Reserve University Professor Ted Steinberg wrote the book: American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.
In the book, he addresses the toxic chemical issue with lawns and points out that, besides groundwater pollution, these toxic lawn pesticides are responsible for some 7 million bird deaths each year.
Steinberg also points out that Americans spend approximately $40 billion on lawn care annually, more than the gross domestic product of Vietnam. Americans spill 17 million gallons of gas refueling their lawn mowers and leaf blowers, or about 50% more oil than what was spilled during the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. What’s more, a car would have to drive 7,700 miles at 30 mph to create as many pollutant hydrocarbons emissions – as using a gas-powered leaf blower for half an hour. (You read that right!) And on top of this, lawn mowers don’t have any emission controls and spew a tremendous amount of global warming gases.
During a talk on “Simple Living” in Bluffton, Ohio, I said as president I would cut the White House lawn with an engineless push mower, the same as I’m cutting my lawn with now. I would also push to provide purchase incentives for Americans wanting to buy similar, low-tech, non-polluting (good exercise) lawn mowers. And I would rake the leaves at the White House (once we got the trees in) with similarly low-tech: rake.
I would also promote a Bill for strict emission controls on lawn mowers and leaf blowers with engines, for both new and existing motorized yard implements. What’s more, we would push to develop solar powered and electric mowers.
And for some regions, I would propose incentives for homeowners to have no lawns.
In Rawlins, Wyoming, I interviewed Dan Mika who is the supervisor for the Parks Department here. He said he is colloquially referred to as the “Grass Nazi.” He told me he is forever trying to educate people here in this rangeland region about the negatives of putting in grass lawns.
He said the area only gets nine inches of precipitation a year, which means the lawns need an exorbitant amount of watering, which in his opinion, wastes water and money. What’s more, he said many people put chemicals on the lawns that significantly pollute groundwater.
Mika added that perhaps the most environmentally sane thing to do in these regions is to leave the natural landscape – the way it is.
And throughout the country, there is a move to return some of the land back to the way it was – starting in one’s backyard.
In Ohio, for instance, there are now more than 20,000 people who participate in this state’s Backyard Habitat Program. With the help of state provided nature consultants, these people are planting indigenous plants and coming up with other strategies to once again provide natural habitat for many species.
In North Olmsted, Ohio, I talked with Ted Zawistoski who is participating in the program and who proudly displays a “Backyard Habitat” plaque in his den. The Zawistoski’s have planted trees indigenous to the area, put in butterfly bushes, have an extensive garden, and even a couple beehives in their one-fourth of an acre backyard.
The Zawistoski’s yard is just shy of a full-blown permaculture – a concept that has been gaining more and more popularity across the country in recent years. We have researched permacultures in Citronelle, Alabama, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and Siler City, North Carolina.
At the Silk Hope Catholic Worker Farm in Siler City, Dan Schwankl pointed out that permaculture stands for: permanent agriculture. Schwankl, who has an Associates Degree in Sustainable Agriculture from Central Carolina Community College, explained that permaculture is about setting up a synergistic environment where all the natural systems enhance and sustain one another.
He said an example of a permaculture (which closely matches the one they have on an acre of land at Silk Hope – and will closely match what we do with the White House grounds) might be one that incorporates ponds, chickens, organic vegetable gardens and orchards all in very close proximity to one another. Toads, who like the moist banks of the ponds during the day, come into the gardens at night and can each eat up to ten pounds of insects a month.
When they go back into the water during the day to keep cool, their excrement helps fertilize the pond bed. Duckweed then grows easily on the pond surface and, thanks to the nutrient rich pond water, can be skimmed off and used as a food source for the chickens. If the orchard is connected to the chicken coop, the chickens can fertilize the orchard yard. As they scratch for bugs to feed themselves, they’ll keep the insect level low.
All the while, Schwankl notes, the people who live in this well-designed system get fresh eggs, vegetables, fruit, fish and meat without the need for fertilizers (natural chicken manure) and pesticides (bugs eaten by chickens and frogs).
That is, if there are any frogs left…
15) Vanishing Species
According to an Aug. 26, 2002, Time Magazine article on the environment: “11,000 species of animals and plants are known to be threatened with extinction.”
Frogs, while not on the list yet, are apparently approaching it.
In Mt. Vernon, Ohio, I attended an Ohio Department of Natural Resources talk. ODNR official Mike Miller said current levels of farm herbicides and pesticides are throwing off “eco-system stability.” And as one result, the frog population in the Kokosing River there has dropped dramatically in recent years, he explained.
It’s not much better for frogs in Slidell, Louisiana.
While we were at a campaign stop in Slidell, a Louisiana U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biology expert, who requested anonymity, told me his department had just got a grant to study deformities in frogs from increased levels of water pollution in the area.
This expert also said a small variety of woodpecker, indigenous to the area, has become endangered. He said the reason why this woodpecker is in trouble is because it is losing its habitat, which is 16-year and older pine trees. (The wood becomes soft enough for them to effectively peck at this age, he said.)
The problem is, he continued, that when the pines get this old – they also make good lumber. And corporate interests are trumping the existence of one of God’s species.
Our administration would fight to help protect this woodpecker legislatively. And as mentioned earlier, if we became better stewards of the forests in general – managing them in a sustainable fashion – these birds wouldn’t be in danger in the first place.
Neither would wolves.
In Ely, Minnesota, (right at the northern Boundary Waters) we stopped at the International Wolf Center. There we learned that several years prior, the wolf population in the area was dramatically down to some 600 wolves. The Center’s Gretchen Diessner told me that with the help of the Wolf Center Association, with members in 50 states and 48 countries, in tandem with this highly innovative and interactive Center in Ely, the wolf population is now up to 3,000.
I told the editor of Ely’s newspaper that our administration would try to inspire similar initiatives around each endangered species, even the more ‘unromantic’ ones, like small Louisiana woodpeckers, snail darters and spotted owls.
Another real threat to wildlife habitat has been the environmental cancer of urban sprawl. It is eating away at wildlife areas, farm areas, everything.
At a stop in Fairborn, Ohio, we met with a man who is trying to do something about urban sprawl on a grassroots level. Bob Jurick has established the B-W Community Land Trust here to buy and protect area wetlands and forests, while creating a “greenbelt” area around the greater Dayton area.
And just southwest of here, a group of farmers have gotten together in Brown County, Ohio (which is right in the jaws of Cincinnati sprawl) to create a land trust to buy as much farmland as possible. They are then leasing the land, with the provision it only be used for farming.
And as sprawl was threatening to engulf these areas, it was doing the same in the Beaufort, South Carolina area. Development had been happening here pretty much unchecked until 1998. That was the year a small band of citizens formed SOS (Save Our Small islands).
On a stop here, SOS spokesperson Reed Armstrong said the group’s lobbying and protests had been successful in blocking development on three, small seven-acre islands sitting in a salt-water marsh.
And it is water in general that has become a big problem, in America and around the world.
16) Water Pollution and Water Scarcity
Water in America increasingly becomes more polluted. And clean water in the Third World increasingly becomes more and more scarce.
In Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, we met with University of Wisconsin Environmental Professor George Kraft. He told me that 70% of the world’s water is used for irrigation, 20% for industrial use, and 10% for drinking and cooking. Professor Kraft said the book Blue Gold points out that the world is running out of fresh water because man is “polluting it, diverting it and depleting it at a startling rate.”
So what we do with water in America has international implications.
Perhaps the most alarming water pollution problem is that United Nations Food and Agriculture figures show up to 1 billion children each year (mostly in the Third World) suffer from diarrhea caused by drinking contaminated water, and 5 million of those children die.
At a Renewable Energy & Sustainable Living Fair in Custer, Wisconsin, I learned that a lot of these contaminated drinking water deaths could be avoided by getting as many simple, low-tech solar ovens to as many people as possible in the Third World.
Solar ovens can be used to pasteurize water. At a temperature of 149 degrees for 10 minutes, all water-born bacteria and parasites are killed.
Our administration would start a drive to get these solar ovens out worldwide – as soon as possible. And one of the sources we would propose tapping for this is: NASA funding.
I told reporter Kate Baldwin of the Moscow (ID)-Pullman Daily News that as president I would work to end the U.S. Space Program. I said, for instance, we are spending billions of dollars to get to Mars to see if there was ever water there (so we can perhaps in the future make it habitable); and meanwhile on “this planet” there are scores of Third World children dying from drinking contaminated water – every day. I added that I believed the money would be much better spent on cleaning up the water on this planet now – for these children’s sakes.
Another big worldwide water problem is scarcity of water in some countries.
In Hibbings, Minnesota, I interviewed Sheila Arimond who went on a mission trip to Tanzania. She said every day she would walk to a dry creek bed with some rural villagers to dig for water. Sometimes they’d find some, sometimes they wouldn’t – and would go thirsty that day.
Returning to America, Sheila (who lives in a modest, ranch style two-bedroom home) told me the Tanzanian experience made her reflect on the “opulence” of her life. “I’d feel guilty turning on the water (when she got back from Tanzania),” she said.
Our administration would point to Sheila Arimond’s story and ask the American people to cut back dramatically on their water use, water no one has to dig for, water that flows freely from taps. And in turn, we would ask the public to put some of the savings into a “Water Fund” for the Third World.
To cut water expenses, we would suggest “low flush toilets” that use only half the water and compost toilets that use no water. As mentioned earlier, we would suggest sharing bath water and installing inexpensive water shut-off valves in shower-heads to make it easier to take “GI showers.” We would also suggest curtailing the use of water wasting electric dishwashers, using washing machines that use half the water…
We would suggest minimal watering of lawns. And if watering is necessary, we would suggest drip irrigation that targets water specifically to a plant, as opposed to general sprinklers where some of the water evaporates before hitting the ground, and some of the water never ends up where it’s intended.
In addition, we would ask some of the American public to consider “rainwater harvesting” from gutter systems set up for this. Bluffton, Ohio’s Lynn Miller told me he was doing research into installing such a system. He said rainwater is some of the cleanest water you’ll find, and is already “soft water,” which doesn’t have to be treated like “hard water” is.
Miller said this water can be used for watering plants, washing dishes, flushing toilets, drinking, cooking, bathing…
And money saved in all this, could go toward funding similar “rain harvesting” projects in, say, Kenya.
At a stop in Marquette, Michigan, we interviewed Robert Gagnon who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. Fresh out of Michigan University Engineering School, Gagnon was assigned to design a system to provide fresh drinking water for a hospital complex in Kenya, an “extremely arid” country, he said.
Gagnon said he set up a gutter system there, and then installed a cluster of holding tanks. He said after several good rains, the tanks would be so full that they could provide fresh water for the entire hospital complex – for two years.
Our administration would work to bolster the U.S. Peace Corps tremendously and mobilize similar water projects in as many places as possible.
(Incidentally, Gagnon added that a “common sense” practice in America to cut down on water use would be to make sure every house is metered for water usage. He said if that were the case, we’d see a big drop in water usage.)
What’s more, maybe some parts of this country that experience abundant amounts of water could consider sharing with other parts of the country, if not the world. In Cambridge, Ohio, newspaper reporter Dan Davis said he believes a national water pipeline(s) from the East to the often much more drought stricken West would be a good idea.
And we’d propose something else as well. What about transcontinental water pipe lines to places like Africa and Indonesia, who have a real shortage of fresh drinking water?
Also, while we were on the West Coast we learned of a Desalinization Project that was being developed there to turn Pacific Ocean saltwater to fresh water. (This is a proven technology that is being used in places like some of the oil rich, water scarce countries of the Middle East.)
Our administration would propose raising funds to get similar plants in operation in Africa – which is surrounded by ocean water.
In addition, it would be our administration’s stance that how we treat the water here, not only affects America, but the world.
As an example, on a stop at Marquette in the Upper Peninsula or Michigan, we learned the National Weather Service Station at the Northern Michigan University campus was showing abnormally high levels of mercury in rain samples. According to the North Wind newspaper, the samples contained up to 5.5 parts per trillion mercury – 3.7 parts higher than suggested safe for humans.
NMU Environmental Science Director Ron Sundell said the high levels of mercury could be coming from local power plants that burn coal, or it could be coming from hundreds of miles away.
Wherever it’s coming from, mercury moves into lakes and streams that, ultimately, travel all around the globe. It is a neurotoxin that pollutes not only water, but fish – and then the rest of the food chain.
The samples had been sent to the National Wildlife Federation at the University of Minnesota at Duluth.
And it was in Duluth, Minnesota that we toured the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District Headquarters, perhaps one of the most creative organizations in the country when it comes to recycling.
We were told they had a multitude of recycling programs.
For instance, their recycling and waste reduction programs for businesses are extremely comprehensive. They show businesses how to reduce and recycle: white paper, legal pads, adding machine tape, unsolicited mail, paper cups and plates, corrugated cardboard…
The sanitation department here also has an Organic Waste Composting Facility that accepts almost all food waste, and they had just started a pilot project to actually collect food compost curbside at several neighborhoods. (We learned composting organic wastes is preferable to land-filling them because it recycles nutrients back into the soil as high quality soil amendment.)
During an interview with CBS News in Duluth, I told the reporter that every Sanitation Department in the country should shoot for being as thorough and creative as the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District Headquarters.
And every consumer should be as well.
Our administration would urge more colleges (elementary and high schools) teach comprehensive classes on recycling to change this “throw away” mindset at as early an age as possible.
18) Future Generations
And it is future generations that we want to start inspiring now, if the planet is to remain sustainable.
In Sharon, Connecticut, Audobon’s Kathy Amiet (mentioned earlier) told me for youth to develop a “love of nature,” you have to take them out into it. She regularly takes youth out for extended nature walks in the area, as does my wife Liz.
As we travel, the kids have hiked through the desert in Arizona, mountain paths in New Hampshire, the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut, along riverbanks all over… What’s more, they keep an ongoing “Nature Notebook” to write and draw about things they observe.
Liz had read a Yes Magazine article that cited studies done with environmentalists. A consistent factor in an environmentalist’s commitment to help the environment came from spending many hours outdoors, often with an adult who taught respect for nature.
During Campaign 2000, I gave a talk to a group of elementary school students in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Afterwards, one of the teachers, Betty Yeadneck, told me her class had taken four trips to the nearby desert that year to clean up trash.
I repeated that story for Daily Rocket-Miner reporter Amelia Holden later in the day. And I said we’re so good at teaching youth work skills, “but how are we at sending them out with environmental and social justice awareness?”
Our administration would believe the latter would be just as important, if not more, as work skills.