ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AND THE CARRYING CAPACITY OF LAND
The ability of the Earth to absorb the impact of human occupation. The use, consumption, and soiling of what we live on and leave for others. The cost of production borne by the receiving environment in accepting untreated or partially treated waste products. And that includes those wastes produced by your body and those things discarded.
In its earliest form, it was thought that nature’s “Dilution” was the “Solution” to “Pollution.” In some systems, still current, it still is. Can you think of any? Take a deep breath or a drink of water. And properly regulated, it is probably reasonable.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 were far-sighted, ambitious American efforts to curtail abuses in such thinking. America was an international leader in environmental vision. Still is, even if we now know that the problems are so much larger than we believed back then.
But there is an economic cost of passing pollution protection back to those who produce it, including “We the People” that breed it. That expense leads us to want to argue that our natural resources were put there for us to use, and that use includes its abuse.
Industries can generate the income to address its pollution if they are required to do so. But what about you, living on the side of a steep slope, no city sewers and no room [or money] to install a septic system? There are many such “Straight Pipes” out there, directly discharging untreated wastewater. And when you flip your light switch or engage your electric car battery, what environmental insults to land, air, and water provided you that “Clean Energy” source of power?
How about the waste disposal practice described in the old adage, “Out-of-sight, Out- of-mind?” There are many hidden wastelands, sinkholes, and abandoned mine lands in America that continue to be referred to as the “Back Forty.”
Our nation vigorously addressed that contamination when our national media exposed the extent of land and groundwater pollution. Congress bravely addressed these problems in the Resource, Conservation and Recovery Act [RCRA,1976, 1980 regulations] and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 [CERCLA, poorly referred to as the “Superfund”]. But it has been a struggle.
Population in the world continues growing. It is now 8 billion people and still moving forward. I was born in 1950, joining a more manageable world population of 2.5 billion. How can those of my generation lead the world using tools developed in a more forgiving environment now filling up completely? How can we help those now “Moving to the Nuisance?”
We, as a people, are remarkably effective when we work together. Look at how we did so in international cooperation to address the ozone hole that we created in our protective atmospheric envelope. That was a scary development, resulting from what we thought were beneficial and innocuous manmade chemicals. We are still working together on that project and, in that way, protecting the planet.
But we struggle with the release of another natural waste product, one also naturally generated and expelled from our lungs as we continually breathe through our thinking. Carbon dioxide [CO2] exists naturally all over the planet, so what’s the big deal now in its release to the atmosphere?
That is partially the message of this essay and imbedded in its title. When are we too much for this planet to handle? When we have exceeded the “Carrying Capacity of the Land” necessary to safely support our activities? Here again, with so many people, with so many dreams, we become the problem, unwilling to restrain our commerce or make do with something different to save our planet from “Human Beings.”
That last statement is a bit hyperbolic to older people like this author. But I think the younger generations take it quite seriously and blame us for the world’s condition.
It is not my intent to whip up antagonism against human nature but to draw attention to the fact that we can be doing better. And not even to focus on the changes made to our environment by our disposition of waste products. In some religious belief systems, it is believed that land is to be so used. To build upon God’s glory. And in a nation standing firmly upon the rights in owning private property, if those waste products don’t migrate off-site, it is none of your business. “Aye,” as Shakespeare would say, “therein lies the rub.”
For people are now concentrating like never before. They are moving into peripheral urban areas or parts of old cities where older industries have long been operating. Areas not immune to state and federal regulation, but perhaps in areas of lower income where residents are unable to have environmental concerns effectively addressed. Often in areas of racial disparity. And oftentimes with absent or poorly maintained urban support and infrastructure.
We like to identify these areas as needing “Environmental Justice” because, under the “Rule of Law,” democracy is a justice-seeking operation. But they are really just acute examples of “Environmental Injustice” issues, which are occurring all over the planet. It is just that in the cities, the risks and health impacts are so much more evident in such concentrated populations, and the failings in our system of environmental control are becoming more obvious. So, consider “Environmental Justice” not just an isolated example of a localized environmental conditions, but a bright light examining what we are also doing elsewhere on the planet and just not looking.
The “Carrying Capacity of the Land” can be quite literally observed. And you might be impacted by others appropriating what should be shared.
The Denver Metropolitan area is located on the relatively dry, high, plains plateau. Almost three million people live there. In order to support those people, 41% of the flow of the Upper Colorado River, which is located on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, is, by agreement between the states, piped through tunnels to nourish the population in Denver and in its environs. And the flow of that mighty river continues to be diverted downstream until little remains to cross into Mexico.
The Central Valley of California is an immense, long, and linear desert. Farming communities there once relied mostly upon the melting snows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to irrigate their fields. Think Yosemite and the great Sequoia National Parks. Drought has been so sustained over the past century that farmers have been forced to tap into and pump out what was once a more abundant underground aquifer. “Fossil Water,” if you will, and it is going fast. In some areas over the past 100 years, this surface of the land has fallen 28 feet [“Subsidence”] as the water underneath has been pumped out! And don’t let the recent high snowfalls in the mountains fool you. Freshwater is moving fast and quickly away from there!
And finally, because of the irony, let’s talk about the lovely city of San Francisco and the digital industries in that productive “Silicon Valley.” There are about three million people in the San Francisco Metropolitan area, and another two million down in San Jose. After the “Great Earthquake Fire” in San Francisco in 1906, the city convinced the Federal Government to give them the waters from the Hetch Hetchy Valley [the companion canyon to Yosemite]. That’s what you are drinking now if you live in the city. And it is delicious. It is just not from where you live.
To so exceed the carrying capacity of their land, San Francisco needed help. And although Teddy Roosevelt resisted, San Francisco’s disaster resulted in the construction of the dams necessary to bring in water for a future “Digital Revolution!”
How about a “Clean” and “Healthy” environment? Is that one of our “Unalienable Rights?” And, if it is, who determined so? Can we find such a basis in our “Declaration of Independence,” “Constitution,” or “National Legislation?” Is it somehow hidden but still evident in our religious writings? The Bible? Or is it simply a matter of “Cost and Effect?”
And what “Risks” to our health are we willing to accept to make, or save, more of our precious money? Risks accepted because we don’t want to be inconvenienced, especially when we are not the ones paying the cost to address the smaller risks we diminish in argument. Perhaps the recent Covid pandemic reflects our individual priorities in a similar fashion. Many were willing just to live with it and be done worrying, regardless of that part of the population dying.
What risks are you willing to accept for affordable housing, safe drinking water, air that is breathable but may contain “low levels” of toxins? At what level of risk do you not care very much about what is fair to other members of your community? Should our land, air, and water be returned to its natural condition after we are through using it? Remediated to natural “Background” conditions determined by testing other “Pristine” environments?
And are you okay with having “Green” products made in other countries where their people are willing to accept the higher environmental cost of production? Do you feel safe in hiding?
Think about that when you flip on your light switch, pay your water bill, and buy an online product produced somewhere else.
Isn’t “Environmental Justice” an international quest, and not just a local question?
© 2023 by Van Stockum Jr., All Rights Reserved