“America, Again” | Chapter 2: The Environment
“America, Again” is a year-long project by the photographers of VII, an exploration of some of the most important issues facing American voters as they head to the polls on November 3rd. This is Chapter 2: The Environment, which includes an essay by author Simon Winchester, reflecting on some of the global and political complexities of environmental issues and America’s role in it all.
This chapter includes five photo stories by Zackary Canepari, Ashley Gilbertson, Ed Kashi, Espen Rasmussen, John Stanmeyer, and Sara Terry.
Introduction by Simon Winchester
Four years into the Trump presidency and the environmental needs of the planet are shuddering under a vast raft of American policy changes, both international and domestic. Coal mining is being encouraged again. Oil drilling is restarting in the pristine ranges of Alaska. International agreements on limiting emissions are being repudiated. National parks are losing protections that have been in place for decades. Clean air and clean water standards, once strictly applied, are being relaxed. And poor Greta Thunberg, trying to preach the realities of human-induced climate change to a generation that is either insouciant or ignorant about the crisis, is told by Trump and his allies — who utterly deny that man has anything to do with global warming — to quit grumbling and go back to school.
This is the context in which to view Mr. Trump’s declaration last summer that he wanted to “buy Greenland” — an announcement that prompted much of the world to erupt in a chorus of derision. The Danish prime minister — whose country has long presided over the world’s largest island, though its 58,000 inhabitants have contentedly governed themselves for the past 40 years — called the notion ‘absurd,’ the American president promptly pouted, canceled a visit to Copenhagen, and everyone got mightily steamed up.
However, one can discern a certain logic in this single emanation from the Oval Office — all of it relating to the very same climate change notion that Mr. Trump and his allies so vigorously dispute.
The melting of the Arctic ice — which all agree is happening, and fast — is all of a sudden profoundly altering the status of Greenland. What 50 years ago was a half-forgotten abode of eskimos and explorers, the birthplace of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, is now a crucial way-station on the fast-opening transpolar shipping lanes. Just as important, the island is a source of mineral wealth of untold value. Huge quantities of gold, platinum, molybdenum, and rare earths rarer than ever known, once buried under hundreds of feet of ice, are now being stripped bare by the sun and revealed for all the world to mine.
And so not surprisingly, the industrial behemoth that is modern China wants it, badly. It wants the mineral. And it wants the shipping lanes. America, aware of this and aware too that Greenland is — just look at a map — geographically an integral part of North America, wants to make sure that China doesn’t get it. Hence the Trump demand, hence the row.
But geologists, better informed than most about Greenland’s near-limitless mineral potential, tell a salutary tale.
It relates to a geological phenomenon now found around the world, but which by coincidence was first discovered in an ice-bound fjord in East Greenland in the 1930s. Lawrence Wager, soon to be Professor of Earth Science at Oxford and an Everest mountaineer of great distinction, spotted from his boat what appeared to be a cliff made of layered sediment, like sandstone.
He picked his way through the ice floes and found to his astonishment that the cliff was not sedimentary, but was actually of volcanic origin — yet made of a magma that cooled so slowly that the minerals within settled down or floated up depending on their densities, and by doing so formed in place layers of almost pure metal. He called the new-found phenomenon a Layered Igneous Intrusion, and this one, the Index Case, he called the Skaergaard. Within the geological community the Skaergaard is famed, cherished, and studied by all.
A dozen other such bodies have since been found around the planet. The Stillwater Intrusion in western Montana, tilted on its side and with its layers snaking through the forests, sports a foot-thick layer of chromium so pure that it rings when hit by a hammer. The Bushveld Intrusion in South Africa has gold in unimagined quantities.
And now Skaergaard, too, has been assayed, and found as suspected by Wager to hold platinum, palladium, and iridium in concentrations to tempt miners like catnip. And now the ice has retreated, it is in theory easy to get at.
But here’s the story. An Australian mining firm, winning permission from a cash-strapped Greenland government, recently set up a drilling rig on top of the intrusion and flew a team of miners to start work on what they expected would be one of the richest mines on the planet. Except that after a week’s work everything had to be suddenly abandoned — because the camp was invaded by scores of angry and hungry Greenland polar bears. The miners cleared off and haven’t been seen since.
So if ever Mr. Trump does succeed in his mission to buy the island — at the time of writing this he seems willing to settle for the opening of an American consulate on the island — he will it now seems have rather more to deal with than he first supposed. Angry great Danes are one thing; angry great polar bears quite another.
My Personal Plastics
by Espen Rasmussen
Trump has announced plans to pull the United States out of the 197-nation Paris Agreement. The country is the largest consumer of oil in the world, using 20 million barrels* of oil each day (*IEA). The U.S. is also the world’s largest oil producer, producing more that 15 million barrels per day. The rest of the world depends on the U.S. and that the country will limit the use of oil in the future to reach the international climate goals.
Across the Atlantic lays Norway, another leading oil producer, making 1,647,000 barrels per day* (*US Energy Information Administration). Though Norway often claims to be a more progressive or “climate-conscious” nation, we produce 10 times more oil per person than the U.S. For Norway and the rest of the world, reducing the use of oil will most likely only be possible with a close collaboration with the U.S. I explore the unexpected, and often overlooked, items a family may use made of oil — starting in my own home in Nesoddtangen, Norway.
California is Burning
by Sara Terry and Zackary Canepari
Fourteen of the most destructive fires in state history since 2007, seven of them in the past five years. Seventy-eight more fire days each year than half a century ago. And 2018 — the worst fire year on record, with $400 billion in damage, 22,751 buildings destroyed and 85 lives lost in one fire alone.
California, like the rest of the world, is warming — Australia is literally aflame as I write. With hotter, drier seasons each year, Californians are grappling with more fires than ever before. They are also grappling with their aftermath — the personal toll of grief, rebuilding, increased or canceled insurance policies, and the environmental cost of air pollution, erosion, and endangered watersheds.
The 2018 Camp Fire made headlines around the world, as it destroyed the town of Paradise in northern California and took 85 lives. My colleague Zackary Canepari, who was a member of VII at the time, photographed in Paradise and the surrounding area in the immediate aftermath of that fire. I photographed the aftermath a year later, as rebirth and rebuilding have slowly begun.
Our pictures are paired together here. Zackary’s on the left, mine, on the right. They are a consideration of the relationship between humans and nature, a visual interrogation that deliberately asks questions but provides no answers.
A River Runs Through It
by Ed Kashi
Shortly after America’s founding, New Jersey’s Passaic River became a cradle of the nation’s fledgling manufacturing industry. Alexander Hamilton declared that it should be the center of the newly formed country’s industrial revolution, mainly due to the Great Patterson Falls, which he saw as a source of hydro power to fuel the young nation’s industrial development.
The Passaic, if you were to follow the water, travels some 90 miles. But if you hopped from start to finish in a straight line, you’d be going only 30. Mountains block the Passaic, but it finds a devious path around them eventually, dropping more than 70 feet into a narrow cataract between walls of rock. The falls are surprising, beautiful, and powerful.
It was this power that led directly to the river’s degradation. In 1791, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton supported a plan to harness the falls to run factories, attempting to turn America into an industrial society. Paterson was the Silicon Valley of the 1800s, with locomotive, silk, and cotton industries thriving. The first Colt revolvers were made there. John Holland perfected the first motorized submarines in the Passaic River at Paterson.
The environmental price from this decision over the past two centuries has proven to be catastrophic for the Passaic/Hackensack river complex, which faces one of the toughest environmental cleanup efforts in the country. The increased manufacturing in the state turned into an acceptance of waste dumping into the Passaic. Sewage, debris, and industrial junk has built up over centuries of pollution in Paterson and Newark. It’s taken years to rid the Passaic of dangerous chemicals — and it has cost billions.
Dozens of companies share responsibility for the industrial pollution on New Jersey’s Passaic River, and several Superfund sites dot the lower portion. Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Company, formerly known as Diamond Alkali, manufactured pesticides and herbicides, including those constituting “Agent Orange,” along the Passaic in the mid-20th century. In turn, the highly toxic chemical contaminant dioxin, linked to cancers, diabetes, birth defects, and other disabilities, was released from burning waste, diesel exhaust, and other chemical manufacturing. The Passaic River has seen over two centuries of pollution, but its 20th century industrial history led to the area’s addition to the National Priorities List, becoming a Superfund site in 1984.
To date, two cleanups of the river have been completed. The plan for a third, bank-to-bank for the lower eight-mile stretch of the river, was issued in March 2016. Diverse partners continue to work with parties responsible for the pollution to complete the investigations and river cleanups for the full 17 miles of the river. Residents, local governments, community, and environmental groups are working to bring residents back to the river through park creation, education, and cultural events. One of the few bright spots has been the creation of Riverfront Park, along the Passaic River near downtown Newark and across from the Major League Soccer’s Red Bulls stadium, a small sliver of green in the midst of urban blight.
While there are efforts to clean up these rivers, mainly driven by people like Bill Sheehan, head of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, there is much work left to be done. The fight continues to save our rivers against the strong headwinds of the current administration that is dismantling so many of the protections that had been instituted by the Federal Government to protect and preserve our waters and air.
As Captain Sheehan positively reminds us, “the President can make all the proclamations in the world, but we have a strong set of defenses through the legal system to stop these rollbacks.”
To Serve and Protect
By Ashley Gilbertson
From the VII Archives: Some images from this story were previously published in 2017 by ProPublica in their series “Bombs in our Backyard.”
For the past 80 years, the United States military’s explosive manufacturing process has caused industrial chemicals to leach toxins into groundwater, poisoning the citizens who work and live near the bases that misuse them. In small, often poverty-stricken towns, carcinogenic chemicals are released into the air during the daily burns of bombs past their used-by date. In all, hundreds of millions of gallons of water and millions of acres of land have been contaminated. These fields, paddocks, and feedlots produce food not only for the local communities but the nation’s citizens at large.
In towns like Colfax, Louisiana, and Radford, Virginia, people are diagnosed with thyroid cancer, lymphoma, leukemia, and respiratory problems in tight clusters. Residents blame the so-called burn sites, but hard evidence to correlate their diseases with the munitions sites is difficult to attain: Scientific and medical studies into the health problems are routinely blocked by the Pentagon and elected lawmakers.
When confronted with reports of contamination, the Pentagon has so far ignored or played down the threat to both the environment and public health. Concurrently, elected representatives fight the Environmental Protection Agency to exempt the bases from oversight and downplay the risk of contaminants being haphazardly dumped into the environment.
Although private contractors are sometimes hired to decontaminate sprawling, contaminated sites like Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, California, they are not held to task. Despite having been “cleaned up,” the soil has remained radioactive since the base was used as a testing facility in the 1960s, and the Pentagon just looks the other way.
Even after virtually every other developed nation has allocated funds to adopt clean methods of explosive production and disposal, in the United States, the military industrial complex has firmly put profit margins before public safety, and the nation has resisted change. Today, the U.S. military and its contractors remain one of America’s most prolific polluters.
Unbeknownst to most citizens, the Pentagon continues to poison America’s land and water, damaging public health. Protecting the national coffers, it seems, supersedes protecting the environment and even the American people.
For the Love of Trees
by John Stanmeyer
Way back in the days when the grass was still green and the pond was still wet and the clouds were still clean, and the song of the Swomee-Swans rang out in space… one morning, I came to this glorious place. And I first saw the trees! ~ The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
There is a tree older than us. It’s been alive over 3,000 years before Buddha, or Jesus or Mohammad were born.
Before the pyramids of Egypt were built, the Bristlecone Pine has lived as a testament far more significant than we.
I have never seen this near-mystical tree, but I have witnessed in awe forests of Japan, cried in sorrow in Brazil and have breathed air so rich within forests of New England, I shudder at the reality we are doing to them and ourselves…when standing before these living, breathing pillars of life, we are insignificant.
Worse, I’ve seen them burning, laying as corpses upon the earth that gives everything to us.
As humans, so flamboyantly standing, so temporary, imagining we can control and destroy something more important than us. Such fools are we.
Our brothers and sisters laid waste to much of the Amazon in 2019… for more soybeans. The same tempest beset the rainforests of Borneo… palm oil. And the vast forests of Australia and Peru were equally charred to their roots.
If we are to understand this perception called time, we would appreciate this tree and the significance of our insignificance. Do you know your grandparents?
Most likely, you did.
Do you know the Bristlecone Pine in Inyo County, California, began to grow its first leaves when your great-great-great-great-great… grandparents of 85 generations ago were born?
Today, this pine tree is more than 5,000 years old. Why does any of this matter?
I’ve seen the earth where I live, bursting in hues like candy, where much of the land is protected in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts by land conservation… I am thankful for my children. When I’ve flown over the ancient Amazon forests in the State of Mato Grosso, Brazil, I saw nothing but illegal fires caused by unending greed… I was saddened for my children.
As a tribute to the life and beauty of trees, I traveled the globe, photographing them in motion. We forget how alive trees are in their near motionlessness; trees move in earth time, not human time.
Just as centuries past, the very minutes you’ve read these words, and this word, then the next, the lungs of our earth are giving us life. The only air on the only planet we can live.
If we do not collectively take responsibility for the stewardship of our environment, then the earth will do as it has to other living creatures before, laughing at us toward extinction. It always has, and it always will.
Because the earth doesn’t need us.
UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not. ~ Closing of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
About “America, Again”
Exactly one year before voters go to the polls on November 3, 2020 — and three months before Iowans gather for their caucuses — VII launched the first chapter of our year-long collective election coverage, “America, Again.”
This project emerged among a few of the VII photographers with the intention of focusing attention on the issues that will dominate the U.S. election. The VII Foundation and VII Academy have stepped in to support the project in recognition of the importance of critical and independent storytelling in civic discourse. We will produce stories on material issues that people worldwide are wrangling with, not only Americans. We’ll cover issues that are used to divide us, and that allow populist politicians to undermine the values that are foundational to our societies.
Introduction by SIMON WINCHESTER, the New York Times best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman. His recent titles include Atlantic and The Men Who United the States. Winchester was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to journalism and literature.
Photo editing by SARAH LEEN, former Director of Photography National Geographic Partners and founder of the Visual Thinking Collective for independent women editors, teachers, and curators.
Layout by GIANA CHOROSZEWSKI, VII Operations Director.