Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide Between People and the Environment

Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide Between People and the Environment

by Kenneth Worthy


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A revolutionary new understanding of the precarious modern human-nature relationship and a pathto a healthier, more sustainable world. Amidst all the wondrous luxuries of the modern world-smartphones, fast intercontinental travel, Internet movies, fully stocked refrigerators-lies an unnerving fact that may be even more disturbing than all the environmental and social costs of our lifestyles.The fragmentations of our modern lives, our disconnections from nature and from the consequences of our actions, make it difficult to follow our own values and ethics, sowecan no longer be truly ethical beings. When we buy a computer or a hamburger, our impacts ripple across the globe, and, dissociated from them, we can't quite respond. Our personal and professional choices result in damages ranging from radioactive landscapes to disappearing rainforests, but we can't quite see how. Environmental scholar Kenneth Worthytraces the broken pathways between consumers and clean-room worker illnesses, superfund sites in Silicon Valley, and massively contaminated landscapes in rural Asian villages. Hisgroundbreaking, psychologically based explanation confirms that our disconnections make us more destructive and that we must bear witness to nature and our consequences.Invisible Natureshows the way forward: how we can create more involvement in our own food production, more education about how goods are produced and waste is disposed, more direct and deliberative democracy, and greater contact with the nature that sustains us.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616147631
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 08/06/2013
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kenneth Worthy (Berkeley, CA) is a lecturer and research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a lecturer at St. Mary's College of California. He received his PhD in environmental humanities at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment


Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Kenneth Worthy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-764-8



How much have people living dissociated modern lives degraded the planet in recent centuries? Environmental problems such as global climate change, toxic waste contaminations, biodiversity loss, oil leaks, and water crises are regularly reported in the news media, but from individual reports it's difficult to gain a full picture of the human impacts on Earth's ecosystems. In 2000, United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan called for a thorough assessment of the condition of Earth's ecosystems. From 2001 to 2005, more than two thousand scientists, social scientists, and domain experts from around the globe worked on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), the most comprehensive appraisal ever undertaken of the health of the planet and its implications for human well-being.

The MA tells a story of dramatic global-scale human-generated changes to nature and their major consequences for human societies. It finds that the "structure and functioning of the world's ecosystems changed more rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century than at any time in human history," resulting in a "substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth." A majority—60 percent—of the "ecosystem services" (things nature produces that humans use, such as the wood produced in forests or the clean water provided by evaporation and precipitation) examined in the MA are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, wild game, fisheries, and air and water purification. Such degradations are substantial and in many cases growing. They're also increasing the possibility of spontaneous, nonlinear ecological changes—abrupt changes with unpredictable outcomes—including accelerating or irreversible changes that may be catastrophic and may have major consequences for human well-being: "disease emergence, abrupt alterations in water quality, the creation of 'dead zones' in coastal waters, the collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate." The effects of ecosystem damages are often shifted onto classes of people who have little say, including future generations. They're borne disproportionately by the poor and thereby exacerbate poverty, social inequities, and conflict.

Global climate change, perhaps the most devastating problem, could cause great turmoil in the coming century as cities are flooded, farmlands dry up and blow away, and new epidemic diseases emerge. Burning fossil fuels; cutting down forests; raising cattle, which emit methane, another "greenhouse gas"; and developing lands for human habitation have increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a major driver of climate change, by about 32 percent. Most of the increase has taken place since 1960. The US National Climate Assessment, the federal government's official report on the problem, confirms that human activity is the main driver of global climate change.

Climate change isn't an abstract problem. Its consequences are already upon us and are worsening—and the wealthy United States isn't immune. Among other problems, it results in disappearing glaciers; rising sea levels; acidification of the oceans; and more frequent and intense weather events such as heat waves, floods, and droughts. Effects on American society are considerable already and are expected to get significantly worse. They "will be disruptive to society because our institutions and infrastructure have been designed for the relatively stable climate of the past, not the changing one of the present and future." Incidences of heat stress, respiratory stress, and waterborne diseases, as well as "unfamiliar health threats" are increasing. Civil infrastructure is being damaged. The reliability of sources of drinking and irrigation water is declining. Because of the way that climate change affects ecosystems, their capacity to moderate further climate-change-induced disturbances is diminishing. In the United States, the report finds, the current level of effort to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change is insufficient to prevent these problems from becoming more serious in the future.

Worldwide, the climate change picture is gloomier still. The organization DARA, based in Madrid, works with the United Nations and international donor agencies to assess the impacts of international policy and government aid on developing nations. It estimates that global climate change already kills as many as four hundred thousand people every year. Starvation and communicable diseases such as cholera, both of which hit children in developing nations particularly hard, are the most prevalent causes of death. Droughts reduce agricultural output and diminish water supplies, leading people to drink and cook from polluted water sources. Increased storm activity causes flooding, which can contaminate water supplies with human waste. The use of fossil fuels—coal, oil, gas—more directly causes another 4.5 million deaths per year through air pollution, indoor smoke, and other hazards that cause lung disease and cancer.

The fifty scientists, economists, and policy experts who produced DARA's 2012 "Climate Vulnerability Monitor" report estimate that climate change and the carbon-based economy together reduce total world economic output by about 1.6 percent annually; climate change is responsible for about half of that. The researchers expect losses to increase rapidly, possibly reaching six million deaths and 3.2 percent of total world economic output each year by 2030. Remember, these are only the human costs. Large-scale ecological change is under way, and habitat changes driven by climate change will jeopardize the viability of many species. The polar bear is just one highly visible example. It depends on arctic ice as a platform for hunting seal at certain times of the year. Major economic, ecological, and human health improvements could be made by arresting global climate change, but little progress can be seen.

Climate change of course isn't our only significant environmental problem. Two of Earth's fourteen major terrestrial biomes (ecosystem or habitat types covering a large geographic area such as mangrove or temperate coniferous forests) have had two-thirds of their area converted—to farms and suburbs, mainly. Four other biomes have been more than half converted. The distribution of species on Earth is becoming more homogenous because we regularly move species between ecosystems, intentionally or not. For instance, the zebra mussel has been spreading since at least the nineteenth century, traveling on and in ships from its origins in lakes in Eastern Europe to waterways worldwide, including the Great Lakes and San Francisco Bay in the United States. Zebra mussels grow prolifically, destroying plumbing and displacing communities of native species. While we homogenize ecosystems by spreading species around, we're also killing off others, for example, by developing their habitat. We've increased the global species extinction rate to about a thousand times the "background" rate (the one typical throughout the planet's history and expected in the absence of human activity), so the total number of species on the planet is rapidly declining. Besides those already eradicated, 10 to 30 percent of mammal, bird, and amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction because of human economic activity.

The scale of environmental change due to human action in just the last half of the twentieth century is breathtaking. Cultivated lands grew dramatically and now cover a quarter of Earth's terrestrial surface. Twenty percent of the world's coral reefs have been lost, and another 20 percent have been significantly damaged in just the last few decades. Thirty-five percent of mangrove areas (which can protect coastal areas from natural disasters such as hurricanes) have been lost. Fresh water impounded behind dams has quadrupled: reservoirs now contain three to six times as much fresh water as natural areas. Creating reservoirs wipes out some ecologies by flooding them and others by depriving them of water downstream. The MA authors state that although it's possible to partially reverse these major ecosystem degradations while meeting the needs of people throughout the world, doing so would involve significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices "that are not currently under way."

The report's take-home message is that human activity has significantly degraded Earth's lands, waters, and atmosphere, and that these changes directly and indirectly create many problems for humankind, ranging from aesthetic and recreational losses to major illness outbreaks and considerable economic hardships. Although the problems impact poor people the most, they ultimately touch all of humanity. If you care about the rest of nature (besides humans) in its own right, the MA's depiction of the state of Earth looks even bleaker. The study and its conclusions are wholly anthropocentric: written from a human perspective and concerned almost entirely with human welfare, not the well-being of any of the other parts of the natural world, not even other sentient beings such as chimpanzees and wolves. Millions of years of rich ecological productivity and abundance are being wiped out, and many creatures are suffering. The scale, scope, number, and extent of problems and the difficulty of responding to them—these features taken together constitute the global environmental crisis of the late-modern period in which we live.

Although we may know about these problems, environmental degradations exist for us almost like a dream. They usually happen outside of our direct experience, though we may see hints of them here and there: clear-cut forests, vast agricultural monocultures, or mounds of plastic washed up on beaches. The problems may seem abstract, but the unending accumulation of the consequences of our everyday actions nevertheless makes them quite real. With modern economics and transportation we reach into distant lands and into the lives of anonymous remote people and change them, with little consciousness of the consequences.

This chapter connects the broken paths from our consumption and lifestyle choices to environmental and health harms. From what kinds of important things are we dissociated in our everyday experiences? How do we affect them? How do our disconnections from them influence our behavior? The environmental and health damages from the manufacture and disposal of the high-tech electronic devices infusing our twenty-first-century lives make a good entry point for studying the role of these dissociations.


In 2010, about 40 million laptop and 23 million desktop computers were sold in the United States. About 33 million flat-panel TVs and 236 million mobile devices such as cell phones and smartphones were sold. Twenty-nine million hardcopy devices such as faxes and printers went into homes and offices. Like most people around the world, Americans covet electronics products, which shape how we do our work and interact with each other. They let us order things from nearly anywhere for delivery to our homes and offices; they're the stage on which much of our socializing happens.

Although electronics and computers are often thought of as "clean technologies," the production of high-tech electronics components such as circuit boards, semiconductor chips, LCD monitors, and disk drives involves an astounding quantity of resources including hundreds of toxic substances. Semiconductor microchips, the "brains" of high-tech electronic devices, involve particularly large amounts of resources and hazardous wastes. Microchips are inside most electronics products, including telephones, computers, televisions, cars, and fancy toasters.

The materials and parts that go into making microchips come from all over the globe and are thus extremely difficult to track. Nevertheless, researchers have estimated the weight of fossil fuel and chemical inputs necessary to produce and use a single 2-gram (0.07-ounce) microchip to be about 1,700 grams (about 3.7 pounds). Water and elemental gases such as nitrogen and argon add another 32,000 and 700 grams per chip, respectively, for a total of about 34,400 grams (76 pounds) of materials to produce a 2-gram microchip—over 17,200 times the weight of the end product! Computers and other complex electronics can contain dozens of microchips, among other high-tech parts. About 300 million electronic devices were produced last year for purchase in the United States alone, each with many microchips. In rough terms that's more than 33 million tons (30 billion kilograms) of materials for the manufacture of just their microchips, about 2.2 million tons (2 billion kilograms) of which is toxic. What industry can claim to be clean when it involves millions of tons of toxic chemicals for one year's production for the United States alone?

The great energy and material inputs required to produce microchips is a result of their extremely low-entropy (highly ordered) makeup. A large organizational structure for circuitry is encoded into an extremely small space on them to achieve high computational speeds. Because of the compressed space into which the circuitry is inscribed in the silicon wafer, any impurities introduced into the wafer during manufacturing create fatal (to the product) defects. In fact, a silicon wafer is the purest product manufactured on a commercial scale. Consequently, there are extreme demands on the purity of the materials used in its construction. For instance, semiconductor-grade ammonia is 99.999–99.9995 percent pure, while industrial grades of ammonia are only about 90–99 percent pure. Distillation is an energy-intensive process, so the manufacturing of the chemicals used in microchip production requires a lot of energy. A typical semiconductor manufacturing plant also consumes two to three million gallons of water per day, and just one square centimeter of silicon wafer takes up to eight gallons (thirty liters) of water and 1.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity to produce. These extreme low-entropy requirements mean that "the materials intensity of a microchip is orders of magnitude higher than that of 'traditional' goods." A lot of stuff, some of it highly toxic, goes into making your TV, laptop, or smartphone.

Making High-Tech Electronics

On April 16, 2000, workers wearing the familiar white "bunny suits" of high-tech clean rooms emerged into the daylight from MMC Technology's CD-ROM manufacturing plant in San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. A fifty-five-gallon drum containing chemicals had exploded, splashing nitric acid and producing a toxic cloud. Nitric acid destroys flesh, and inhaling the vaporized acid can instantly fill the lungs with fluid, causing immediate death. Seventeen employees were taken to emergency rooms of local hospitals, where they were treated and released. They were lucky. If significant amounts of the acid had splashed on them, the scene would have been horrific. The bunny suits wouldn't have helped because they're not meant to protect workers—they protect the products from the workers. To be more precise, the bunny suits shield the high-tech components from the particles workers bring into the clean rooms: skin flakes, hair follicles, dust, cosmetics, and bacteria. Chemicals easily pass through their suits onto their skin and into their lungs.

Three years earlier, on April 26, 1997, Jeffrey Saurman was less fortunate. Working at chip maker LG Epitaxy in Santa Clara, California, next door to San Jose, he accidentally mixed alcohol with nitric and hydrofluoric acids. The mixture exploded into a caustic red-yellow cloud, burning his arms, legs, and face. Coworkers found him frantically rinsing his badly burned body in an emergency shower and dragged him outside, away from the vaporized acids. Two weeks later, he died of multiple organ failure. Worker error was largely at fault, though the state also found safety problems at the company that may have contributed. The fine was a thousand dollars.

Excerpted from INVISIBLE NATURE by KENNETH WORTHY. Copyright © 2013 Kenneth Worthy. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


PREFACE....................     15     

INTRODUCTION....................     19     

CHAPTER 1: THE BANALITY OF EVERYDAY DESTRUCTION....................     35     



CHAPTER 4: DISOCIATIONS IN WESTERN PSYCHES....................     131     

CHAPTER 5: ANCIENT TRACES OF DISOCIATION....................     163     

CHAPTER 6: MODERN TRACES OF DISOCIATION....................     193     

CHAPTER 7: MODERN SPACES....................     217     

CHAPTER 8: RECONNECTING AND HEALING A PLANET....................     249     

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS....................     291     

NOTES....................     295     

BIBLIOGRAPHY....................     341     

INDEX....................     359     

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