From Toilet to Planet: A Brief Journey of Survival

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ClimateStoryTellers.org

From Toilet to Planet: A Brief Journey of Survival

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Subhankar Banerjee

Today Representative Darrell Issa (R–California), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is starting a series of hearings to deregulate the US. Before I get to his initiative I’d like to say a few words about climate change deniers.

I’m sure it is no surprise to you that a significant majority of the climate deniers and climate skeptics of our planet live in just one country: the US. The two phrases climate denier and climate skeptic are used interchangeably to mean the same thing. In fact there is confusion both in the journalistic and the scientific community about which of these to use: denier is the right word of course, but it brings Holocaust connotation so many prefer to use skeptic, but a reputed scientist is a skeptic too, someone who inquires or doubts (Latin origin scepticus means thoughtful, inquiring).

I’d suggest that those two phrases actually mean different things and we should make the not-so-subtle distinction. Generally speaking corporations and politicians are what I’d call climate deniers, whereas a common citizen who still doubts climate change, I’d call a climate skeptic. Some examples of climate deniers would be Exxon (read: oil) or Peabody (read: coal) whose astronomical profits would become endangered if society came to the decision to move away from burning fossil fuel; or take for example Representative Fred Upton (R–Michigan) or Representative Darrell Issa whose fat campaign contribution from the fossil fuel empires might vanish unless they deliberately kill the very meaning of the Environmental Protection Agency. You see deniers have a reason for denying and it is usually either profit (read: money) or power (read: money). A climate skeptic on the other hand is a citizen who does not have the power of a corporation or a politician, gets information from the fair–and–balanced mainstream media (read: Fox News) and essentially has three doubts: Is climate change a hoax? Is climate change human–made? Will action on climate change destroy our economy?

Soon I’ll get to what the climate deniers are planning right now, but first I hope you’ll join me on a brief journey from someone’s toilet to everyone’s planet. You must forgive me for starting our journey at such a scatological place but as you’ll see in the end and I hope you’ll agree that this journey really should begin inside a toilet bowl. I promise not to use any scientific fact or figure, but only experiences drawn from everyday life to create few fictional scenarios. There is only one theme in this journey: cleaning a place to make it habitable.

The Toilet
Not so long ago there lived a college student in a small apartment somewhere in the US. For whatever reason he didn’t think cleaning his toilet was a priority. After four months he was faced with a hard reality: unless he cleans the toilet he won’t be able to live in that apartment. But he wanted to continue to live there as the rent was cheap and it was close to campus. He also realized that: It is not a hoax that his toilet bowl is dirty; it is not a hoax that it is human-made; it is a hoax that cleaning the toilet will significantly impact his economic well–being. He cleaned up the toilet and made his apartment habitable again. It was a decision he made entirely on his own without any help from a corporation or a politician.

The Community Drain
During the recent past there lived a young couple in a small town somewhere in India. Each morning after they cleaned the front porch the waste water would go to the community drain (open sewer). It was a newly built community and no one thought much about cleaning the drain. After about six months the drain clogged up and became an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. The couple got malaria, as did a few more in the community. Members of the community finally got together and came to the realization: It is not a hoax that the drain is dirty; it is not a hoax that it is human–made; it is a hoax that if they clean the drain that’ll significantly impact their economic well–being. They hired someone to clean up the drain to make the community habitable again. It was a decision members of the community made entirely on their own without any help from a corporation or a politician.

The National River
There is a fisher–farmer family currently living in a small village somewhere along the great Yangtze River in China. During the past decade the family began to notice that the fish weren’t looking healthy, the water smelled funny and many people in the village started to get sick. But they didn’t know what was happening to their life–giving river until someone in the village came across an article titled “Yangtze river ‘cancerous’ with pollution” that was published in China Daily. That day the whole village gathered to read the article out loud. They read each line of the short article multiple times like a shayer (poet) would read a poem in India or Pakistan. It went like this: “China’s longest river is ‘cancerous’ with pollution and rapidly dying, threatening drinking water supplies in 186 cities along its banks, including Shanghai;” “Industrial waste and sewage, agricultural pollution and shipping discharges were to blame for the river’s declining health;” “It absorbed more than 40 percent of the country’s waste water, 80 percent of it untreated;” “China is facing a serious water crisis—300 million people do not have access to drinkable water—and the government has been spending heavily to clean major waterways like the Yellow, Huaihe and Yangtze rivers. However, little progress had been made because of spotty regional enforcement.” After reading the article the villagers realized: It is not a hoax that the Yangtze is very ill; it is not a hoax that it is human–made. But they also realized it is somewhat beyond the capacity of their little village to clean up the big river and that it involves powerful corporations as well as politicians. But they began a campaign talking with members of other villages both upriver and downriver. Last September they came to know “Clean–up bid for Yangtze set to begin.”

The Planet Earth
Wherever you may live, think of your part of the hemisphere as a bowl, but instead of looking inside as the student did in his toilet bowl, look outside, up toward the sky and think about what have we dumped there? You’ll realize that: It is not a hoax that for more than 200 years we have sent a lot of carbon up there by burning coal, oil and natural gas (greenhouse gas emissions); It is not a hoax that such is a human–dump. Then came 2010 and we experienced the warmest year on record (tied with 2005); forest fire in Russia; flood in Pakistan; drought in the American southwest; melting of polar ice; severe winter storm in the US ... the list is becoming endless. Regularly we’re reading that our carbon–dump into the atmosphere is the reason that our planet is now ill, very ill.

The question before us is will we do the same for our planet as the student did for his toilet? If we look at the Beltway for an answer, regrettably it’d be a resounding NO. Today Issa begins a series of hearings to deregulate the US. The Washington Post reported, “Responding to solicitations from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), businesses have asked Congress to roll back or preempt more than 150 rules governing their industries, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. ... The rules under scrutiny include familiar issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, health–care reform and the landmark Wall Street overhaul.” Its worth taking a look at the Post article, but here is one example of what the businesses are asking for: “Murray Energy, a coal–mining company in Alledonia, Ohio, that employs 3,000 people, told Issa that the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas and clean air rules, those existing and those proposed, must be stopped immediately.”

Issa, Upton and their newly–elected tea–drinking GOP colleagues with their corporation–friendly agendas are planning to make the rich richer, poor poorer, and while doing so endanger public health in America and destroy a bit more of our biodiversity. President Obama too is getting friendly with corporations with his recent appointments and rhetoric as he prepares for the 2012 reelection. He is leaning closer to the idea of deregulation, but we don’t know yet to what destructive extent. The Beltway has become an endless cycle of money and power with little regard for the people of this nation or any other nation.

Where does that leave the underprivileged—45 million Americans living below the poverty line and all the animals, birds and plants who have no voice of their own to demand survival? Sadly, as dust on the road1. But there always come the wind and dust blows hard—then one must hide.


[1] Dust on the Road is the title of a book of non–fiction essays by Mahasweta Devi, one of India’s most influential novelist–activists.

Subhankar Banerjee

Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, and activist. Over the past decade he has worked tirelessly for the conservation of ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic, and to raise awareness about indigenous human rights and climate change. He founded ClimateStoryTellers.org, and is editor of the anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point which will be published in paperback on August 20, 2013 (Seven Stories Press). He was recently Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Fordham University in New York, received Distinguished Alumnus Award from the New Mexico State University, and Cultural Freedom Award from Lannan Foundation.

Subhankar Banerjee’s photographs can be seen this spring in solo exhibitions Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Celebrating Fifty Years at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle (February 15–July 10, 2011) and Where I Live I Hope To Know at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth (May 14–August 28, 2011), and in a group exhibition Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (April 8–August 28, 2011). He is currently editing an anthology titled “Arctic Voices” (Seven Stories Press, 2012) and has been appointed Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for fall term 2011.

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