FLUSH A TOILET, KILL A DOLPHIN

12 08 2006

A few weeks ago, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howard Switzer got what at first seemed like a nice boost: Nashville Scene political columnist Dean Hinton invited him and a campaign-co-worker out for lunch and spent an hour and a half interviewing him, largely on Switzer’s views on healthcare, which is the main focus of his campaign, but also touching the strawbale homes which are his stock in trade as an architect, his years at the Farm community in Summertown, Tennessee, and his current back-to-the-land lifestyle near Linden, Tennessee.

Candidate Switzer left the lunch meeting relaxed, refreshed, and full of good food; he felt he had found a sympathetic ear in his conversation with Hinton, and expected to see an upbeat story about his efforts to reform the health care system spread across the pages of Nashville’s widely-read free weekly.

But that’s not what happened. Under the headline, “Politics in the Crapper,” Nashville’s so-called “alternative” newspaper spent a total of one hundred and thirty-six words dwelling on candidate Switzer’s use of a composting toilet, finishing the snippet with, “(Switzer) says Dems and Repubs often co-opt ideas from Greens after elections. Here’s guessing (his) bathroom routine won’t be one of them.”

I thought this was, shall we say, mean-spirited, and wrote the following letter to the Scene, which they had the grace to print, although Howard and others among my radical friends doubted that they would. Here’s what I said:
I am dismayed by your puerile fascination with gubernatorial candidate Howard Switzer’s composting practices (“Politics in the Crapper,” Off Limits, July 20). You completely ignored his basic campaign message: we can’t expect real health care reform from someone (Phil Bredesen) who has become a millionaire by profiting from the inequities in our so-called health care system. If we are going to provide health care for all, then we are going to have to change the system so that it exists to benefit all people, not just the corporate shareholders.

The Green Party advocates fundamental changes in the nature of our society at all levels, from health care to compost. Human and animal wastes are viewed in our current culture/economy as pollution—yucky waste products to be gotten rid of—when they should be seen as valuable resources for plant nutrition in a localized agricultural economy. Meanwhile, the highly processed fertilizers that our non-organic farmers depend on are skyrocketing in price due to their dependence on natural gas and other petro products, and the expense of transporting salad vegetables from California or beyond is ratcheting up too. Being too neurotic as a culture to get over our shit yucks may be one of the silly little details that doom us.

That was my letter.

Was I throwing the word “doom” around a bit too freely? I wondered a bit, myself—I am prone to hyperbole, goodness knows. Jumping to conclusions is one of my favorite forms of mental exercise, but I soon came across two stories that showed me that I was far, far, more correct about this than I would like to be.

The stories came to me from the L.A. Times via Truthout. The first was titled Sentinels Under Attack, and it told a horrible story: a microorganism that has recently become widespread in the ocean off California secretes a neurotoxin that, when concentrated up the food chain in the bodies of large, carnivorous mammals and birds, causes brain damage that expresses itself as severe disorientation, stillbirths, seizures, hostility, and general failure to thrive. Wildlife veterinarians discovered that, while they could nurse affected animals back to physical health, there was no real brain recovery; once affected, animals lost their ability to navigate and would not care for their young, permanently. Another story told of researchers finding similar, though less drastic effects, in native people who eat a lot of shellfish, and even in children born to women who have eaten a lot of contaminated shellfish while pregnant.

This microorganism, Pseudo-nitzschia, has only become known as a problem in California in the last eight years, but once researchers started looking for it, they found it in the Louisana dead zone, where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The water there is calmer than the Pacific off California, and layers of sediments can be read like tree rings. Evidence from those layers showed that Pseudo-nitzschia had only started proliferating in the late 1940’s. Its numbers rose when farmers in the Mississippi valley started making extensive use of commercial fertilizers—much of the nutrients in those fertilizers is leached out of the dirt where it is initially spread and carried downriver to the ocean. In California, researchers found that the most intense areas of nitzschia bloom occur around populated areas, where runoff from sewage systems, even when competently treated to eliminate bacteria, still flushes large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other plant nutrients into the ocean, sparking growth of the organism. Flush a toilet, kill a dolphin—or a sea lion, or a manatee, or a seal, or a seagull.

And that’s not the only toxic micro-organism that’s making a big comeback at the expense of us more complex critters. The second article introduced Lyngbya majuscula, known in Australia as “fireweed.” When conditions are right, it can spread across the bottom of a shallow lagoon at the rate of nearly an acre an hour. One researcher said, “It’s like ‘the blob’, but it’s real.”

We are talking about a life form here that is so simple, so basic, that it can apparently exist indefinitely in an ecosystem of which it is the only living member. It may have done that for a billion years or so in the far distant past, our far distant past. We evolved out of it or something like it. Phew. But we are not so simple and basic that we can be the only living creature in our ecosystem. We demand a highly complex web of life in order to survive. The oceans are now evolving backwards, into simplicity, and are big enough to drag the rest of the planet along with them. If things get too simple, we may discover that despite all our cleverness, we can no longer survive on this planet. These are the thoughts generated by the resurgence of Lyngbya majuscula. Fireweed, indeed. No more water, the fire next time….

So what does Lyngbya do? It’s poison ivy on steroids. Scientists have found a hundred different toxins in it. It sucks all the oxygen out of the water and kills fish. It kills fish directly. Touching it, even exposure to water that it’s growing in, causes a rash that makes your skin fall off. It gives off gasses that cause nausea and vomiting. It’s been around for three billion years. It’s been eclipsed until recently by higher life forms, but since we’ve destroyed 90% of the fish in the ocean we’ve cut out its competition, and flushing our fields and toilets has given it the food it needs to thrive.

Scientists predict that these and other microorganisms may soon turn our beaches and coastlines from tourist attractions into cesspools.

Nashville flushes its toilets into the Cumberland River. The Cumberland River flows, ultimately, into the Gulf of Mexico, where the oxygen and the fish have gone and slime prevails.

Maybe Phil Bredesen better adopt Howard Switzer’s bathroom routine, eh?

music: Leonard Cohen, “The Road to Hell”

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