We're going to do a regular blog post shortly from lovely Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, but the issues described below are ones about which silence is unacceptable.
The question should never need to be asked: Can an atoll collapse? Answer: If you explode a couple hundred nuclear bombs on it, it can. As you might know, atolls are formed over hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years, when old volcanoes subside and ring-shaped walls of coral grow up around them. From 1966 to 1996, the formerly inhabited Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls in the southern Tuamotus of French Polynesia were used by the French government for setting off 196 nuclear explosions. Other nations, particularly the US, have been equally profligate in their nukings of seized islands elsewhere.
According to a report by the French Ministry of Defense recently mentioned in the local press, the two atolls have been so weakened that collapse may be imminent. You might remember the massively destructive December 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean a few years ago; it was caused by the earthquake-driven collapse of an underwater geological formation. Researchers are now saying that if one of those atolls collapses, a 15 to 20 meter tsunami wave—that's 45 to 60 feet—is possible, along with releases of radioactive materials. The local political leadership, headed by displaced Mururoa resident Roland Oldham, is saying researchers told them to "allow preparations for a worst-case scenario." Oldham also said, "We are the people concerned, we live in this area of the Pacific, and we don't have any information."
If ever a Polynesian Trail of Tears existed, this is it.
Global is local, and vice-versa: This reminds me of an issue simmering at home, in which powerful entities also get to exploit the commons—namely air, water, the soil, ancient homelands, and let's not forget the future itself—without regard for its true owners. In Port Townsend, Washington there is a paper mill, located on the shores of Puget Sound, that is one of the area's largest employers. There is also a local citizen's group that has for several years been trying, unsuccessfully, to learn what exactly is in the mill's smelly plume.
The paper mill now wants to build a landfill near the shoreline. In this landfill will be placed tons of ash with a pH of 12.3; that's ten times more caustic than ammonia. Evidently there's a legal loophole that may allow the mill to avoid the use of liners that might otherwise help keep noxious materials from leaking into Puget Sound, and into groundwater. The legal premise is that paper mill wastes are "inert." I understand that there may be a lawsuit from the mill's foreign owners against the local government if the liner exemption is not granted. If allowed, this exemption would be the only one in the entire state of Washington. This argument as I understand it isn't even over the existence of the proposed landfill, whose contamination potential has State officials worried; it's just over the liner.
Maybe this issue shouldn't be characterized as jobs versus something called "public health," which has neither name nor face. Maybe it should be put more directly, like this: The issue is about more profit right now for the paper mill's owners, versus Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in a few years for Mary, glaucoma for Joe, a brain tumor for Nancy, bronchitis and asthma spikes in kindergartners, and a reinforced belief that a mortgaged future for the many is acceptable payment for such a trivial-by-comparison thing as the savings gained by the few, from not buying a freaking liner for a landfill that's anything but "inert."
The extreme potential for disease and deformity in fish and wildlife in an area renowned for its salmon fishery is not addressed in this post.
At 6,000 miles distant, I'm at a disadvantage to fully understand why common sense seems to be missing here—after all, Puget Sound's small boat owners and small businesses are being made to clean up their acts. The questions are clear: Why is it that local stakeholders so often lack critical information pertinent to their own health and welfare? Why is there apparently a double standard? What leverage do corporations have over local governments, and why are these power struggles so increasingly common? Why don't more "ordinary" citizens speak up to support their local leadership? On leadership's part, where is the courage? Why do you not demand that the commons, namely our air, water and soil, be figured into economic equations? What about the economic value of staying healthy rather than treating preventable illness—should that not also be in the mill's balance sheet? How often is a scene like this being repeated right now, not just in the US, but around the world?
Doing the right thing sounds simple: Tell the people what they need and have a right to know, when they need to know it. No exaggeration, distortion, censoring or blocking of information can afford to exist on any side. Stakeholders are responsible for keeping it honest. Invest in cleaner practices now, for reasons too obvious to explain. Put a monetary value on "ecosystem services" such as the commons provides. This is easier said than done, but it is not impossible. Include these values in economic equations when considering permits to pollute. A permit is a privilege, not a right.
Apathy and intimidation are the blunt weapons of choice for powerful interests, especially non-local business owners for whom profit is the exclusive goal. Hand-wringing won't solve anything when your back's against a wall. The high cost of low trust is far too much to ask a small community to bear, because human health should not be allowed, at any level of government, to become an expendable commodity in a corporate business plan.
A corporation is not a citizen, in spite of what the US Supreme Court said. But the way some corporations are behaving these days, it's curious as to why the Supremes don't find them in contempt.
Doing the right thing may sound simple, but it seems these days more than ever, the devil's in the details.