The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “pollution”

Powerless – Empowered – Powerful – POWER

The rain was belting down.  The traffic on the roads was inching slowly forwards.

It’s rare for rain to be this heavy in Santiago city.  It happens only a couple of times a year.  When it happens the city is not prepared for it.  A bit like snow in England!  Huge numbers take to their cars in defence against the rain.  And then sit in long traffic queues.

The day we drove in to Santiago city to buy a new windscreen for our car happened to be one of those rare days when it rained.  It was the kind of cold relentless rain we are used to in England.  We did not know at the time that the people of Santiago are not used to this type of rain.  We thought the city traffic must always be like this.  Along with everyone else we sat in the traffic queue.  In three hours we covered three kilometres.

Out on the pavements many people were carrying umbrellas, or had covered themselves with plastic bags, or simply allowed their clothes to become saturated by the rain.  Some people were walking, while others stood at bus stops, attempting to get some respite from the rain from the small bus shelter.

As we inched our way forward in the traffic we noticed the aggressive actions of many of the drivers, forcing their way forward in front of another car and then another, being pushed back by someone else, all vying for that bit of tarmac in front of them.  No doubt they were feeling the frustration of knowing a dinner would be ruined, an evening class missed, a child’s bedtime missed, or even a child still waiting at the school entrance waiting to be taken home.  Every so often there arose a chorus of tooting horns, as if that would make any difference.

Each person in their own way was feeling the powerlessness of being stuck in the traffic, trying to exert a little power, even if that power could only be exerted in the tooting of a horn.

Despite the rain, despite getting wet, many of the pedestrians seemed happy as they smiled and chatted with others as they walked.  Perhaps they had chosen not to travel by car, or wait for the buses that were already late and getting later by the minute, stuck as they were in the same traffic as every other vehicle on the road.  Some pedestrians had made choices to walk and get wet, others had made efforts to protect themselves from the worst of the rain while they walked.  Others seemed to be sharing the camaraderie of their plight as they stood under bus shelters (oh, how very British!).  Whatever their reason for not being stuck in a traffic queue of stationary cars and buses, they were exercising choices and power over their situation.

If I were a medic conducting an experiment I’d expect to find that the pedestrians had lower levels of stress hormones in their bodies, than of those trying to force their way through the rubber, plastic and metal forest of throbbing engines.  And it all comes down to POWER.  As pedestrians they had power of choice over their situation – shelter, stand still, walk, run, cover up or get wet.  The drivers could only sit still and let their stress hormones build up, unable to get respite except in aggressive driving, angry words and the occasional tooting of horns.

Feelings of powerlessness can cause aggressive behaviours as the powerless try to claw back a little sense of control in their lives, whether a parent who is being told their child is being taken away, an elderly person who is being told they have to go and live in a residential home, or a child in foster care who is told they cannot see their parents.  Others have less obvious causes: bullies in the school or workplace, perpetrators of domestic violence, or the outburst of a stranger in a public place.

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Light pollution kills

I happened to see a film the other night, all about light pollution.

Light Pollution over Las Vegas – seen from 100 miles away, with our car in the foreground

We were staying at a campsite in San Pedro de Atacama and the film was being shown in the open air in the town square as part of a local campaign to reduce light pollution.  Hardly surprising as the Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of those parts of the world where it is still possible to see the stars at night.As the film began by demonstrating how in much of the world it is no longer possible to see the stars or even the plants of our solar system in the night sky, I was reminded us having left Las Vegas a year previously, driving maybe 100 miles, and looking back to see the lights of Vegas glowing in an orange dome in the distance.  That scene was such a contrast to the nights we have been enthralled to see the stars in the night sky in places far from the city lights.

As I watched the film I reflected on my childhood in England in the 1960’s, when the street lights in our home town would go out at 11.00 pm. Then in the 1980’s that became 2.00 am. Now they stay on all night, often in the guise of ‘security’. As children and young adults we could see the stars in the night sky. Today’s city and town dwelling children hardly know that the stars are there.  They have no experience of the wonder of seeing the night sky.

But it’s not just aesthetics, the price of progress: the film went on to describe some more of the effects of a growing obsession with light.

It is believed that migrating birds use the stars to navigate and light pollution in the worst affected areas is affecting their ability to migrate. In some cities, particularly in the US, it is known that birds often crash into the tall buildings, falling injured to the ground, with broken wings and broken beaks. There is a whole army of bird rescuers who go out and pick up and look after as many fallen birds as they can find.

Young turtles have evolved to hatch at night and head towards the brightest horizon as soon as they hatch. As the sea reflects the moon and starlight this means they can head straight to the safety of the sea. However in some places, where electric light pollution is creeping in, the young turtles are often found heading in the wrong direction, towards the wrong light.

On a human level, recent research has indicated a link in the progression of some cancers in humans, particularly breast and prostrate cancers. Melatonin in the body apparently suppresses the growth of cancerous tumours but melatonin levels only rise during periods of darkness. Sleeping in a lit room, whether lit internally or by bright street lights, reduces the body’s production of melatonin. Shift workers, who work by electric light at night and sleep during sunlight hours much of the time are particularly at risk.

In many places street lighting is chosen for its appearance rather than its practicality. Light globes appear attractive to the modern eye but 60% of the light goes upward into the sky rather than down to where it’s of more use. The cost of that is twofold: increased light pollution and waste of resources by using more energy than is necessary.

As the industrial revolution developed through the 1800s and 1900s, a sign of the wealth of a town was seen in the number of chimney stacks belching smoke into the atmosphere. Today we no longer aspire to have those chimney stacks, seeing them instead as polluters of the world’s environment. Today how brightly we light our cities is seen as a sign of progress and wealth.

In how many years, the film asked, will light pollution be seen as another type of polluter, one that is affecting the health of humans, plants and wildlife alike?

We ask, should we be worried by this; should we try and have some influence on this problem, not just for the aesthetics but for the health of the planet and the people and wildlife that live on it?

Check out this website for links to further information about light pollution.

Sea Sick

In her book ‘Seasick’ Alana Mitchel opens with a statement that if all life on land were to vanish oceanic life would continue, but if the oceans cannot sustain life then life on land will also end.  In a manner accessible to the layperson, Mitchel goes on to present some pretty compelling scientific evidence that our seas are pretty sick at present:

Since the end of world war two there have appeared ‘dead zones’ in our oceans, areas of water where there is no oxygen and, consequently, no fish.  The number of these zones have doubled every decade since 1960 and are currently running at over 400.

The alkaline levels of the sea have been reducing back towards neutral PH – the figures don’t sound huge but many creatures could not survive in neutral PH or acidic waters and no-one quite knows yet the point at which the sea will become uninhabitable.

Much of the carbon dioxide mankind has emitted into the air has been absorbed by marine life and is now trapped at the bottom of the oceans.  Unlike the ozone hole (now patched) this is a less visible effect of carbon emissions.  Scientists believe the seas cannot absorb much more carbon dioxide.

Many species of fish have been over fished for human consumption and are now nearing extinction.  Coral reefs, the lifeblood and nurseries of the oceans, are dying.

Changes are happening much more quickly than scientists previously believed.  Predictions are coming true sooner than expected.  The pace of change is speeding up.  Ocean scientists have a very real concern that there could be a ‘tipping point’.  A point at which, rather than seeing continued deterioration, change becomes abrupt, a point of no turning back, a point at which, to all intents and purposes, the seas cease to be able to support marine life.

Mitchel ends with a note of hope – if we can only listen to the evidence and take action.  Whether mankind can do that in time, only time will tell.

As I read this, the following comes to mind.

“Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find money cannot be eaten.” attributed Cree Indian prophecy.

Compare this to the development of Green Social Work (book review to follow).

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