Drinking the Mercury

We Just Can't Help Ourselves

By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.)12/7/06


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 atmosphere?

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, mercury.

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 mercury.

Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous columns are archived at www.mediastudy.com.

ęCopyright 2006

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