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Fighting Our Fossil-Nuke Extinction

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Posted on Apr 8, 2014

By Harvey Wasserman

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The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster has brought critical new evidence that petro-pollution is destroying our global ecosystem.

The third anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in Japan confirms that radioactive reactor fallout is doing the same.

How the two mega-poisons interact remains largely unstudied, but the answers can’t be good. And it’s clearer than ever that we won’t survive without ridding our planet of both. 

To oppose atomic power with fossil fuels is to treat cancer by burning down the house.

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To oppose petro-pollution with nukes is to stoke that fire with radiation. 

In September, the first round of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report confirmed yet again that global warming is accelerating and that human activity is the cause.

On March 31, it reported on additional ecological impacts ranging from compromised food systems to harm done a wide range of critical living networks. 

The core problem is “global weirding,” an escalating, unpredictable ecological instability. “A breakdown of food systems,” the loss of low-lying cities, ocean acidification, the death of coral reefs, the decline of critical land-based flora and fauna, and the decimation of critical ecosystems are all part of an increasingly poisonous package. The idea that somehow more CO2 will yield more crops is counteracted by the toll taken by temperature spikes and the loss of certain insects, combined with the increased predations of others—and much more we simply do not understand.

There are always dissenters. But at Prince William Sound in Alaska we see the consensus on warming joined by yet another global terror: petro-poisoning.

A quarter-century after the 1979 Valdez disaster, Exxon and its allies are sticking with their “see no evil, pay no damages” denials. 

But the hard evidence shows a wide range of local sea life has failed to return. Residual oil is still globbed along the shoreline. 

And, in what NPR has called a “Eureka moment,” scientists have confirmed that the “long-lasting components of oil thought to be benign turned out to cause chronic damage to fish hearts when fish were exposed to tiny concentrations of the compounds as embryos.”

The impact is confirmed by parallel heart problems reported by Bloomberg to tuna harmed in the Gulf of Mexico’s far more recent 2010 BP disaster.

If the petro-toxics from these spills can do such damage to larger fish, what are they also doing to all others that occupy this ecosystem? If trace poisons spewed 25 years ago are still ripping through the embryo of Alaskan fish, what must they also be doing to the starfish, the krill, the phytoplankton, the algae and so many other microorganisms?

It’s long been known that the particulate matter from burning coal over the centuries has killed countless humans.

But what, in turn, is all that doing to the global ecosystem and all its even more vulnerable creatures, warmed or otherwise?

Since the Valdez’s 25th anniversary last month, two more major spills have poisoned the waters off Galveston, Texas, and Michigan. As Greg Palast has reported at Truthdig, our single certainty is that in a world dominated by no-fault corporations, the fossil industry will pour ever-more lethal poisons into our air and water, land and crops, and all else on which we depend.

The same is true of atomic energy. A new scientific report about Chernobyl warns that in at least some of the forests saturated with radiation leaked from that nuclear plant, the natural cycle of decay has all but ceased. 

Like cancer cells that refuse to die, the fallen vegetation won’t go away. “Decomposers—organisms such as microbes, fungi and some types of insects that drive the process of decay—have also suffered from the contamination,” Rachel Nuwer writes on Smithsonian.com. “These creatures are responsible for an essential component of any ecosystem: recycling organic matter back into the soil.”

Sooner or later, that massive pile of inert detritus will catch fire. Gargantuan quantities of accumulated fallout will pour into the atmosphere. Those clouds will circle the globe. They’ll merge with all those other isotopes blown into the sky from Chernobyl for the past 28 years, and from all the other reactors and A-bomb tests dating back to New Mexico, 1945. 

Meanwhile, Fukushima continues to pour 300 tons or more of radioactive effluent into the Pacific every day. The first of its cesium isotopes have been found off Alaska and will come to California this summer. 

But the harm precedes the actual arrival. All 15 tuna taken in one recent study off the California coast tested positive for Fukushima contamination.

The eerie disintegration of starfish along the West Coast may have been caused by petro-pollution rather than Fukushima’s radiation. But each is clearly capable of doing the job alone. 

Reports of a “dead zone” in the Pacific and of an epic disappearance of other marine life should be terrifying enough to make us act on both. 

Burning coal and fracking gas release significant quantities of deadly radiation, as well as other pollutants and the matter at the root of climate change. Nuclear power heats our oceans and atmosphere, while spewing out still more eco-lethal doses of atomic emitters.

This is where tragedy and farce merge and mutate. 

Our choice is not between nuclear power and fossil fuels. Either is sufficient to kill us outright or strand us alone on a dead planet.

Those who would work for human survival should long ago have embraced the truth that all living beings are interdependent, and so are the dirty corporate technologies that kill them. 

We can no more survive on a planet burned and poisoned by fossil fuels than we can on one mutated and heated by atomic energy. 

Time is short and the two movements must make their peace. 

We have the means. Now we need the will.


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