Is the truth inconvenient?

Health and Happiness

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Don’t get me wrong — I think polar bears are adorable. But seeing them trapped on a tiny piece of Arctic ice doesn’t really faze me. What am I supposed to do about it? Stop driving my car? Join Greenpeace?

These cuddly polar bears and the Arctic ice sheets have become the most prominent symbols of global warming, environmental degradation and all things climate change — but this overused association is outdated and ineffective. Am I expected to change my entire lifestyle and perspective of the world for the sake of a couple of bears thousands of miles away?

It seems like we’ve been trained to associate things like carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption solely with atmospheric and habitat destruction. We hear that carbon dioxide levels have reached almost 400 parts per million. Al Gore constantly bombards us with the phrase “anthropogenic climate change.” And we’re warned that species like the white lemuroid possum might go extinct due to human influences.

I think it’s a good time to clarify that I don’t just “believe” in climate change because it’s not a matter of faith — it’s a matter of fact. The scientific evidence is clear. I do, however, find fault in the way that climate change proponents have sensationalized global warming to try to galvanize the general public into action.

The entire concept of “going green” has, for the most part, largely disregarded the real impact that climate change has on human health. Take plastic water bottles, for example. On the global scale, water bottles — which only hold a measly 20 ounces — require 50 million barrels of oil annually to produce. This leads to an increase in fossil fuel dependence, which means more greenhouse gases. And when they’re inexplicably trashed and shipped off to the nearest dump, these seemingly insignificant little bottles take centuries to decompose, contaminating the soil and surrounding areas in the process.

Study after study warns us of this, but the International Bottled Water Association, an organization that advocates for bottled water, reports that only 32 percent of bottles were recycled in 2010. They flaunt this statistic as a success and at the same time claim that “90 percent of U.S. households” have the means to recycle their bottles. So why don’t the numbers match up? We’re nowhere near our full potential. Would we recycle more or simply buy fewer water bottles if the environmental institutions and the people who detest the nasty containers emphasized the reproductive damage that results from the potentially carcinogenic phthalates in the plastic?

The “what’s in it for me?” mentality that only our grandkids and great-grandkids will see the benefits of helping the environment has become the mantra of a large, apathetic portion of our generation that uses it as an excuse to live unsustainably. But the damage isn’t limited to the planet.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.3 million deaths worldwide are due to urban outdoor air pollution. The mortality rate is 15 to 20 percent higher in cities with high degrees of fossil fuel combustion and particulate matter than in cleaner cities. Death is a real result of the damage inflicted on the environment.

Our monstrously high degree of water usage in the industrial and agricultural processes is reducing our total available freshwater and polluting what’s left of it. Bay Area tap water is widely known to be incredibly clean, yet the Ecology Center reports that our hot water taps contain “elevated levels of lead and copper,” not to mention the arsenic from industrial pollution.

The environmental efforts of Berkeley — the city, the students and the campus as a whole — haven’t gone unnoticed. The I Heart Tap Water campaign, a collaboration between students and the administration, has helped drive campus bottled water sales down by 48 percent since the 2005 school year. The Berkeley ReUSE program has also provided the campus with an opportunity to exchange reusable goods that would otherwise be sent to a landfill.

But everyone in Berkeley is a consumer. And we have purchasing power. Our cosmetics with their synthetic chemicals, our food with its host of pesticides and our electronics with their toxic flame retardants can all be avoided through greener purchasing. Companies and industries are listening, and if we let them know that we care about our health and our planet, they will make the necessary changes to their products for the sake of their own future profit.

To be truly environmentally healthy, there has to be an understanding about the interplay between our own actions and the world around us. Every iPhone that we buy, every Aquafina bottle that we throw away and every trip to the grocery store has a tangible impact on our health and well-being. So let’s use our desire to stay in good health to drive us toward sustainability. Then we might see greater strides toward making this planet more livable.

“Shahin Firouzbakht writes a Thursday column on health issues affecting student life. Contact Shahin Firouzbakht at [email protected].”