Water Based Hazards

I recently had the experience of moderating a Congressional briefing panel discussing water-based hazards.  Since my role was to create a big picture framework for the presentations (as well as keep speakers to their allotted time and control the flow of the question and answer period), I took the opportunity to think about all of the challenges we encounter related to water.

Some of the biggest water stories lately involve too little water.  I find checking the U.S. Drought Monitor to be a heartbreaking exercise since it shows the extent of California’s crippling drought that has emptied reservoirs and made water rationing a reality and a necessity.  During the year when my heart belonged to Colorado, my adopted state was in a similar world of hurts, and pictures from the southeastern part of the state were reminiscent of the dustbowl with blowing dirt and sand that was no longer anchored by the dead and dying plants.  Even when the rains come, they first must saturate the parched ground before there is excess to raise the water level in the lakes and reservoirs.

20140909 us drought monitor

Then there are the problems with an overabundance of water.  After all, storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy are a combination of wind and far too much water for the ground to absorb.  Images of submerged rail lines and coastal communities washed away after Sandy demonstrate that big storms are not exclusive to the South.

Flooding is also not exclusive to the coasts.  In September 2013, a huge rainstorm that settled in over the Rockies demonstrated how fragile our infrastructure can be.  Some communities were temporarily isolated by the floodwaters, whereas others were cut off from the rest of the world when roads built along the Big Thompson riverbed were washed out.  As people brought in groceries on horseback, I was reminded of my year of transporting groceries in DC without a car. At that point, it all comes down to weight and bulk of what you select and carry.

We in the United States, often take our water supply and our water quality for granted.  That illusion of an infallible water supply has run up against reality several times in the past year or so.  Over 300,000 residents of West Virginia learned the weakness of the system when a storage tank leaked out a substance used in the processing of coal.  The contaminated water was undrinkable for days.  People had to cope with either the limited bottled water that was distributed, or they drove for hours to get to clean water.  Toledo learned a similar lesson this past summer when an algae bloom of cyanobacteria dumped toxins into Lake Erie right at the water intake pipe for the city.  With waste water treatment plants equipped only to remove usual toxins rather than exotic toxins, there was more distribution of bottled water and yet more driving to find clean water.

Even disasters that on the surface seem to be unrelated turn out to affect water.  For example, forest fires in Colorado are commonly understood to be double disasters.  The first disaster is the loss of homes and properties in the fire.  The second is the effect on the water system.  In the summer of 2012, the ash from the High Park fire near Fort Collins washed down the steep slopes until the Poudre River ran black.  Does a farmer irrigate with the black water or not irrigate at all?  For the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs in the same year, the challenge was infrastructure.  The runoff of water down the steep slopes is enhanced anywhere between two and ten-fold after an intensely burning forest fire.  A few months after the fire destroyed 350 homes, a relatively routine rainstorm shed so much water off the slopes that the force of the water stacked up concrete culverts like straws at the bottom of the drainage.

Against this backdrop of water-based hazards, it was fascinating to listen to the speakers who focused on ways in which science can be a resource for creating resilient communities where the impacts of such events are prevented or reduced.  NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is working with the local and regional resources around New York City to make future zoning plans that not only consider the current flood zone maps, but also use maps that project the new flood zones taking into account future sea level rise.  In Vermont, geologists are creating landslide susceptibility maps with the goal of identifying undesirable places to build and potentially buy out owners of existing structures.  Toxicologists are searching for new faster ways of measuring health risks of chemicals without using animal testing, so safe levels in water can be established rapidly.  Construction companies are working with FEMA to create programs that will pay not just to replace a damaged concrete bridge with an identical copy, but to pay the extra money required to build the new bridge higher and out of steel so that the new bridge will be less prone to damage, last longer, and be more easily repaired.

I fielded one question that intended to hold the speakers accountable for creating a grand consolidated plan for addressing all of the challenges of water-based hazards.  I pointed out that the panel had highlighted several good starts and that as scientists and engineers, we stand ready to help.  We have to leave the grand plan to the policymakers.


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The Senate and the President

American Presidents To Present

My Beloved Husband and I have a penchant for contests in which we quiz each other on trivia.  We have exhausted the state capitals, made moderate headway on the country capitals, and I got my butt kicked by my BH on the international radio code (alpha, bravo, Charlie, etc.).  We also enjoy space esoterica such as naming the lunar landing sites of the Apollo missions or the naming the wives of the “New Nine” astronauts.  A few months ago, we ate at a diner where the placemats featured pictures of all of the American Presidents, and we immediately seized on a new contest.

My history and political reading of the past year and a half gave me a distinct advantage, but both of us floundered between Andrew Jackson, whose winning slogan was, “John Quincy Adams can write, but I can fight!” and approximately Woodrow Wilson.  It’s a vast wasteland in the middle with only Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt as familiar faces.  Even trying to regroup the Presidents by other characteristics such as the “cartoon” presidents: Millard (Mallard) Fillmore, (James) Garfield, and Grover (Cleveland) didn’t help much in reproducing the sequence.  (As I was writing that passage, I called in my BH to consult, and when he tried for “President Deputy Dog,” I knew that he was not going to be a big help.)  So why is this string of Presidents so unmemorable?  The answer is found in the balance of power between the President and the Senate

When our modern government was formed and George Washington was unanimously named as the first President, the players all rather gingerly explored their roles.  Laws originated largely from Congress, and predominantly from the House.  The first six Presidents used their veto power sparingly and then only in cases in which they felt that the new law violated the young Constitution.  George Washington however, submitting a slate of candidates for approval by the Senate for a variety of government positions, learned the hard way that the Senate did not see their role of “advise and consent” to mean automatic acceptance of Washington’s recommendations. One nomination was blocked by a senator who had a personal quarrel with the nominee, prompting Washington to appear before the Senate to question what the problem was.  Much as they respected this man who had been elected unanimously, the Senate felt no obligation to explain their actions.  Thus Washington learned to consult with the Senate before he submitted nominations, and he proceeded to conduct all of his subsequent business with Congress through written correspondence rather than by addressing the group on their own turf.  Both practices remain in place today.

The 1820’s began what came to be known as the Golden Age of the Senate.  It began following the term of Andrew Jackson, (President #7), who forcefully imposed his strong views about the primacy of the President upon Congress.  Thus after his term Congress pushed back hard to re-establish their own power.  The Senate in particular, flexed its authority by no longer deferring to the House to introduce legislation and began to originate its own bills.

As Alexis de Tocqueville described the Senate in 1835, “Scarcely an individual is to be seen in it who has not had an active and illustrious career: the Senate is composed of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note, whose arguments would do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe.” The great triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun were but three of the senators whose fiery and passionate debates hammered out acts such as the Missouri Compromise of 1850, which for a time preserved the Union and delayed the Civil War for decades.

Because the Senate contained a considerable portion of the best political talent, and because of the tensions between North and South making it impossible for the best known candidates to be nominated, the Golden Age of the Senate from the 1820’s through the 1850’s accompanied great weakness in the Presidency.  Men like Zachary Taylor or James Polk were political compromises who did their best to stay out of the legislature’s way and did not make a significant impression upon history.  At least ten of the 62 senators who served in the 1849-1850 Congress had greater impact upon the country than did the Presidents of that era. They included Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, but also William Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, who later became part of President Lincoln’s team of rivals cabinet as Secretaries of state, treasury, and war respectively.

It was Abraham Lincoln who temporarily shifted more power to the Presidency and away from the Senate.  For example, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued entirely without consulting Congress, who were less than pleased at being left out of the loop.  This power shift was transitory since Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, holds the dubious honor of the first President to be impeached by the House.  On my visit to the National Archives last year, I saw the piece of paper with the hand-written resolution for impeachment; it was carried around for days by a representative who was looking for an opportunity to use it.  Although Johnson narrowly avoided conviction by the Senate, he left the Presidency again greatly weakened.

Thus began a second sequence of Presidents whose names are barely memorable.  Following Ulysses Grant, who was adept at winning a war, but had no idea how to run a country, were men such as Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur.  It was not until Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became President upon the assassination of William McKinley that Congress acquired another worthy opponent in the White House and the inexorable progression toward a strong President would begin.

Having learned this bit of history, I felt that my lack of knowledge of these Presidents was perfectly justified.  Besides, although my English BH knows a greater than average amount about American Presidents, I still knew enough to beat him at the game.

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The Senate and Elections

In Miss Gonser’s eighth grade social studies class, we had to learn the purpose of each amendment to the Constitution.  The 17th amendment provides for the direct election of senators, and I remember at the time thinking that this was a pretty trivial and uninteresting amendment.  I have lately learned more about the history of this amendment, which turns out to be far more interesting than I had thought.

Our founders spent quite a bit of time contemplating the Senate and how it should work.  The story is told that Thomas Jefferson was Ambassador to France at the time and thus was absent for most of the negotiations.  When he returned, he talked to George Washington and asked why on earth the Senate had been created.  In reply, Washington pointed out that Jefferson had just poured some of his tea out of his cup and into the saucer.  Washington asked why, and Jefferson replied, “To cool it off.”  Washington said, “That’s why we created the Senate.”  The upper chamber was designed to cool the fiery passions expected in the House of Representatives.

We are all familiar with the decision that senators would be elected for six year terms, and that one third of the senators would be up for election every two years to prevent rapid swings in the composition of the body, but I hadn’t realized that originally, senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote.  Although the intent was that the senators would stay above the political fray, the country rapidly fell into the partisan politics that has so often characterized the government.  For example, in Virginia, Patrick Henry who controlled the state legislature, not only blocked the election of James Madison to the Senate, and instead substituted his own political allies for the spots, but he also attempted to interfere with Madison’s election to the House.  Since Madison helped to shape the Constitution, he was arguably actually the most qualified man in Virginia to serve in the new federal government.

A senator had considerable political influence in his home state because of the Senate’s role in approving nominations to federal appointments.  Through the spoils system, named for “to the victor go the spoils,” a successful candidate rewarded his supporters with federal posts and the accompanying salaries, thus buying votes in the state legislatures.  The political parties reinforced this system as party bosses arranged for themselves or their designated candidates to be elected to the Senate. In the 1880’s, a British historian commented on the number of very rich men in the U.S. Senate, saying, “Some are senators because they are rich; a few are rich because they are senators.”

As early as 1826, a bill was introduced in the House to allow for “direct” election of senators, meaning that the population of a state would get to vote for their senators, just as they voted for their representatives.  Needless to say, that bill went nowhere in the Senate.  It took another 88 years before a Constitutional amendment was ratified by the required three-quarters of the states and in 1913 became the 17th amendment.   No longer would deadlocked legislatures result in long term vacancies in the Senate, and the influence of the party bosses began to wane

The change in election format was accompanied by complaints from political analysts that the Senate had become much more like the House- swayed by popular opinion and populated by a less exalted character of man, both in stark contrast to the intent of the framers of the Constitution.  Certainly there were a considerable number of retirements resulting from the change, since seats that had formerly been secured by influencing a few score state representatives became far less reliable in general elections.

As I was learning about this history, I was particularly struck by the role of money in the process.  The framers of the Constitution had considered and rejected the idea that senators should own a certain amount of land or have a certain amount of wealth, but the influence of money in the election of senators from the state legislatures still became significant.  Although we have been electing senators by popular vote for the past century, personal wealth still plays a significant role since changes in campaign finance rules make it easier for a wealthy individual to finance his or her own election run.  Thus wealth often trumps individuals with a genuine skill or passion for government.  Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.  (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)


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“Upstairs at the White House”

The South Portico with the Truman Balcony

The South Portico with the Truman Balcony

Amazon has apparently recognized that some of my reading tastes have slanted toward history and politics, so when Upstairs at the White House came up as a recommendation, I decided to give it a try.

Written by J.D. West, who spent 28 years as an usher and then the chief usher of the White House, it is a charming collection of stories and observations of the First Ladies who occupied the President’s House during West’s tenure.  With so many biographies relishing revelations of scandal, I appreciated that West was able to emphasize the strengths and talents of each of the First Ladies and respect the differences among them without ever describing them negatively.

Each First Lady had a distinctive managerial style.  Eleanor Roosevelt traveled extensively, met with people and entertained a large group nightly and needed to manage all of those logistics.  Bess Truman was part of the closely knit trio of Harry, Bess, and their daughter, Margaret, and managed with the thriftiness of a Midwestern housewife.  Maisie Eisenhower, as the wife of a general, was accustomed to handling a large complex household, so she had a regular morning meeting with the staff, which she handled while sitting in her pink bed.  Jackie Kennedy was highly organized but more informal, so instructions from her tended to come on the fly.  She was soft-spoken so you had to listen closely to her, but ultimately the staff learned that, “Do you think it would be possible…” from Mrs. Kennedy carried the same weight as, “I want you to do this now” from Mrs. Eisenhower.  Lady Bird Johnson prioritized herself far behind her family, particularly her Texan husband who strode around the halls and shouted through the rooms as though he was still occupying the wide expanses of his home state.  With each new First Lady, the White House staff adjusted to her and she adjusted to them.  The key to continuity for the staff was loyalty to the White House rather than to a particular family.

Perhaps because I knew little of the Trumans, I was particularly intrigued by some of their stories.  When the Trumans arrived after the death of FDR, the idea that the President and First Lady actually shared the same bedroom created quite a stir among the staff.  That the Trumans enjoyed a close relationship was certainly obvious when a rather embarrassed Mrs. Truman had to ask to have the President’s bed fixed after two slats broke in the middle of the night.

The Trumans and Margaret liked to take meals under the south portico facing the Washington Monument.  The area was shaded by awnings, which regularly needed to be cleaned, so President Truman proposed a new balcony on the second floor that would provide an excellent view while also eliminating the need for the awnings.  In spite of his growing disfavor with Congress, who held the purse strings, Truman managed to push the project through.  After the balcony was completed, however, the Trumans realized that the space was extremely public and visible to the growing number of tourists who passed by for a picture.  Thus other than using the balcony to watch the odd baseball game played on the Ellipse, the Trumans went back to their first floor dining habits.

Sometime after the balcony was completed, Mrs. Truman was entertaining the DAR in the large oval Blue Room, which is in the center of the second floor.  She suddenly heard the tinkle of glass, and she realized that the large chandelier overhead was swaying, clinking the crystals together.  She sent for Mr. West, who investigated, and discovered that the source of the vibration had been the large head butler merely walking across the floor of the room overhead to fetch a book for the President who was taking a bath.  Further investigation revealed that the whole White House interior was structurally unsound, and the President had been fortunate that the ceiling didn’t give way and drop him and his bathtub into the laps of the DAR ladies below.

While the Trumans were away on their successful campaign for re-election, a thorough study of the White House was carried out, and it showed that the interior walls were built on soft clay footings rather than solid rock, that doors built into interior walls had further weakened the structure, and then three sets of plumbing, multiple revisions to the electrical wiring, and even large mounds of sawdust left in the walls during construction had turned the structure into a fire trap.  The bathtub did indeed start to sink through the floor, as did one leg of Margaret’s piano.  The only part of the house that seemed to be structurally sound was the new balcony!

The Trumans thus moved into Blair House across the street for the duration of the necessary renovations, and during that time they had one close call with a pair of assassins who tried to shoot their way into the White House to kill the President.  Had the gunmen arrived a mere half an hour later, President Truman would have been coming down the front stairs in full view of the front door.  It was this incident that marked the beginning of significantly increased security around the President.

In West’s 28 year career, there were only five transitions among Presidents.  He started when FDR was President, and he left a mere six weeks after the Nixons arrived.  Because both Roosevelt and Kennedy died in office, there were only three times that West experienced the tightly choreographed transition between families that occurs on Inauguration Day.  The belongings of the new First Family are not allowed to enter the White House until the incoming President takes the oath of office at noon, and then it is a highly orchestrated maneuver to arrange and unpack all of the possessions in the two hours before the family arrives to take up residence.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in part because having been to the White House, I could envision many of the rooms that they discussed, and I could imagine the changes described, such as the addition of a stage to the East Room for performances under the Eisenhowers.  A good read with delightful stories and (almost) no snark.



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A Little Free Time in DC


A recent meeting took me to DC for a few days, and because I took the train down the night before, I had a little free time to spend.  Thus I found at least one answer to the question of what a former Fellow does when returning to her Capital roots.

Even the trip down to Washington felt like a return to my fellowship year since I took Amtrak. It was a delight to arrive at the station a mere 15 minutes before my scheduled departure, park for free, and not deal with security, taking off shoes, checking a bag, or any of the hassles of flying.  I simply hopped on the train, plugged in my laptop and settled in for a long comfortable uninterrupted time for getting caught up on work.

The best way to travel

The best way to travel

I arrived in Union Station around 10 PM.  As a former DC native, I knew that it was actually much faster to take the Metro to my hotel than to wait in line for a taxi.  Having a pre-charged metro pass made the process even easier.  I chuckled at the nostalgia I experienced on the way as I passed the familiar stations:  “Judiciary Square- where the National Building Museum is.  Gallery Place/Chinatown where the National Portrait Gallery is.  Metro Center for shopping and shows.”  When I left back in August, I had expanded my bucket list multiple times, and there weren’t many if any experiences I felt I had missed.  I realized upon my return, however,  that I’m ready to do them all over again.  As one of my fellow Bennet fellows told some new folks who were complaining that they were bored, “There are 1000 things to do around here, and Laura Pence did them all!”

One of the challenges of my recent visit was that I wasn’t going to be available for any evenings to meet up with people.  I was reluctant to ask anyone to get up too early, but I should have remembered sooner that Fellow Maggie has always been up for anything.  We got together at 6:45 AM and walked the Mall through the morning fog.  We started by coming down behind the White House, and then headed off for the Lincoln Memorial.  We even found something new to do and found another early bird to take our picture with the statue of Albert Einstein.  We asked our photographer what kind of nerd he was, and he said, “I’m a pretty extreme nerd.  I’m a librarian.”  Maggie and I agreed later that we weren’t sure that a librarian really stacks up as an extreme nerd against a chemist and a chemical engineer, but we weren’t about to burst his bubble.

By the time we had walked from the Lincoln Memorial all the way up to the Capitol, we were somewhat caught up with each other’s latest adventures, and Maggie had to go to work.  I went into the Russell Senate Office Building, where I used to work, and managed to navigate security at the entrance for non-Senate staff.  The visitors who don’t go through security daily almost all needed two tries to get through the metal detector.  I remained patient, and I was rewarded by getting a quick hug from the security guard after I got through (without setting off the metal detector, of course!)  After a little shopping in the Senate Gift Shop, I spent some brief time with my former co-workers.  It was a real pleasure to see them, and I do miss all the action of that office.

One of the main things I miss most about no longer being a Fellow is my Senate ID badge.  While I was on staff, I made a point of wandering through the Capitol as often as I could, and I no longer have that privilege.  My fellow Bennet Fellow helped me work around that limitation, and she corralled one of the interns to escort me through the tunnels to the Capitol.  I was pleased that the Senate train was there to pick us up since I still enjoy the nostalgia of catching that ride.


Once in the Capitol, I easily navigated myself over to the Library of Congress where I used my Reader Card to gain access to the Main Reading Room.  When I had told my upperclassmen that I was cancelling class for a meeting in DC, they were very impressed with my importance.  I figured it would be appropriate to add luster to that reputation by grading inorganic problem sets in the Library of Congress.  I did actually grade for a little while, but then I just looked around and soaked up the atmosphere and joy of being in such a beautiful space that not only has lovely architecture, but is also full of books!

I missed the peak of the cherry blossoms by only a few days, and it seemed that all of the flowering trees came into full bloom just over the course of a single day.  I took a few pictures so that my friends and family from the chilly north would be assured that spring really is on the way.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court

My morning walk made sitting in a meeting all day easier to take, so the following morning, I decided to squeeze in another expedition to the Mall.  In contrast with the fog from the day before, it was clear skies, and it was a treat to watch the sun rise over the monuments.  The scaffolding is finally down from the Washington Monument, and since it has been closed since the 2011 earthquake, I’m wondering if it will be possible to go up again soon.  It looks like I’ve restarted my DC bucket list after all.

IMG_0768 IMG_0771

The best way to travel!

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Colin Powell

For some years, now, I have taken advantage of the long trips to American Chemical Society meetings to try to plow through one of the jumbo-sized nonfiction books on my To Be Read shelf.  Having developed a taste for biographies of political personalities, Colin Powell’s autobiography seemed like a good choice for my recent trip to Dallas.


Unlike many nonfiction books that I slogged through last year mostly because 1) I was a captive audience on my Metro commutes and 2) I know better than to take fiction to work since sometimes I can’t stop reading, My American Journey was a real pleasure to read.  It was neither a tell-all nor an opportunity to name drop.  Indeed Colin Powell’s unwritten rule seemed to be, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” which I respected.  I did learn to watch out for the people who were not mentioned in depth since other books I’ve read that mentioned the same person were more candid about the person’s shortcomings.

In addition to a narrative of the formative experiences of his life, the book was organized by life lessons.  For many years, Gen. Powell kept a list of rules on the surface of his desk so to remind him of the lessons he had learned over the course of his career.  His autobiography told many of the stories that accompanied either his learning or his using these lessons.

For example, he was stationed in Korea long after the war there ended as part of a deterrent force to make sure the region did not heat up again.  Since it was anticipated that eventually all of those troops would be coming home, there was not a lot of investment in infrastructure, and those troops had far from the best of everything.  The Commanding Officer, “Gunfighter” Emerson was determined to keep morale up.  Because conventional sports could only occupy a small fraction of the troops, Gunfighter devised new sports such as Combat Football, which involved 50 men on each side and two footballs.  There were almost no rules, much to the unhappiness of the medics who patched up enough injuries for a small battle after each event.

Gunfighter also decided that since wars are not fought on a 9-5 schedule, he regularly overturned the troops’ days so that for a week at a time, the troops would sleep days and train nights.  At the end of one of these flipped training weeks, Powell’s group was returning from an arduous training exercise and arrived at the point where they were supposed to pick up their buses only to find that there weren’t enough buses for everyone, leaving them with a 12+ mile hike home.  As they reluctantly and tiredly started off, one of Powell’s officers came up to him and said that the trek home could be used at the final qualification many of the men needed to get their Expert Infantryman Badge since Powell had been pushing them to get qualified and they only needed a 12 mile hike in under three hours.  Powell was skeptical, but he abided by the rule, “Never step on enthusiasm.”  Word went around the group of the plan, and the pace picked up as everyone was determined to accomplish the goal.  When they arrived back in came at about 4 AM, they broke into parade ground formation.  They marched passed the CO’s house, where the CO was on hand to inspect the troops and salute in his bathrobe.  Powell’s unit ended up with more Expert Infantryman Badges than the other two units combined.

Powell’s perspective on racism was remarkably free of bitterness.  In spite of being stationed in Alabama early in his career, where once he was off base, he could not buy a drink to quench his thirst, something to eat, or use a rest room, he focused on the army’s inclusive culture where he was treated just like any other soldier.  Powell obviously dealt with a fair number of challenges because of his race, but he always tried to find some positive aspect to share.

One practice that did annoy Powell throughout his career was what he called, “breaking starch.”  This term was derived from the soldiers’ practice of heavily starching their trousers to look good for inspections.  Unfortunately, the pants became so stiff that the men would beat them with a broom handle to get them flexible enough to put on.  Thereafter, Powell was constantly on the lookout for examples of habits that had formed because they looked good rather than because they were useful or productive.

One last lesson that I wish I had learned two years ago was, “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”  On one of my fellowship interviews, I was asked to make a recommendation and then was immediately asked what would be my response if I was specifically prohibited from going forward with that recommendation.  Well, the topic was climate change, and I was advocating for adaptation.  I knew how important adaptation was going to be, and I just couldn’t let go of the importance of that suggestion.  That was the one fellowship for which I was not a finalist because indeed, my ego was far too invested in my position.  In my interview for my second fellowship, I got effectively the same question, and because I was less invested in my recommendation, it was far easier for me to say, “Well, this might not be the right time, or it might not be possible to include my recommendation this time.”  I was a finalist for that fellowship.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it.  To close, I’ll share

Colin Powell’s Rules

  1.        It ain’t as bad as you think.  It will look better in the morning
  2.       Get mad, then get over it.
  3.       Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when you position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4.       It can be done!
  5.       Be careful what you choose.  You may get it.
  6.       Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7.       You can’t make someone else’s choices.  You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
  8.       Check small things
  9.       Share credit
  10.   Remain calm.  Be kind.
  11.   Have a vision.  Be demanding
  12.   Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13.   Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier



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“Trashed” the movie

For some years now, the Committee on Environmental Improvement (CEI) of the American Chemical Society (ACS) has sponsored an environmental documentary at many of the national meetings.  Often it has been possible to bring the filmmaker in for the event to do Q&A with the audience afterwards, but recently this wasn’t possible.  I was asked to be part of a panel discussion afterwards, and although I was not able to prepare much, I hoped that I would be able to wing it smoothly.

Trashed (not “Wasted” as it was accidentally identified by the organizer in our committee meeting at one point,) explores the environmental impacts of waste disposal.  Historically, most of human waste was organic matter and was biodegradable, so it could be buried and it would subsequently rot and decompose.  It did not disrupt nature’s cycle of building up (making living things) and breaking down (dispersing dead things.)  Now with so many plastics, the waste no longer breaks down, and it accumulates.

The problems of simply dumping trash are obvious, especially when looking at the shores of Lebanon, where mountains of trash wash into the water and from there onto shores throughout the Mediterranean Sea.  Dumped trash ending up in the water is a global issue, and there are fables telling of “islands” of trash centering in the five enormous gyres of circular ocean currents. (Gyre was a new word for me, so I had to make sure I used it in this post.)  The movie explained that this trash is not composed of bottles and boxes, but it is rather more like plastic confetti as trash is shredded but not decomposed.  These plastic fragments then attract other chemicals, thus providing a new method of concentration and transportation for pesticides, wastes, and by-products.

Trash on the shores of Lebanon

Trash on the shores of Lebanon

Landfills are an improvement over dumping, but even the best managed landfills may leach undesired substances from our chemically more complex waste.  Many landfills are also reaching their allowed capacity, demonstrating that this method of disposal is not an endless resource.  Incinerating trash reduces the need for landfill space, but the movie pointed out that incinerators may produce toxic by-products of combustion, such as dioxin, and the ash from these incinerators generally includes a relatively high concentration of heavy metals.

Finding ways to increase recycling is thus becoming ever more urgent, although the reducing and reusing strategies are actually even more efficient.  I was particularly intrigued by one vignette in which a woman frequented a a grocery store that sells only bulk products without any packaging.  Customers bring not only their own bags but also their own containers for items such as flour, sugar, and cereal.  The woman explained that by using this store and being very careful of what they bought, her family of three generated a single grocery bag of trash for an entire year.  Everything else was recycled, reused or composted.  That sounded amazing.

The discussion after the movie went well.  The audience was mostly undergraduate students, although the first several people who commented were adults who seemed to want to use the event as an opportunity to lecture and to convey their own attitudes.  Acutely aware that the students’ focus was wandering and the energy in the room was falling, I turned the discussion back to the students and asked what one thing they might do to respond to the film after their went home.  The issue of reuse came up, and two students proudly held up Mason jars containing a brown liquid.  I suggested I wasn’t sure if I should ask about the identity of the contents, but they laughed and said it was the iced tea we had for lunch.  I held up my own refillable bottle and invited everyone else who had a refillable bottle to do the same, so it was a bonding experience for some of us.

I couldn’t be sure how much the movie was showcasing typical issues with trash disposal and how much they were taking advantage of particularly bad examples.  Certainly the filmmakers understood that the illustrating the plight of animals was a particularly effective method of communicating the need to change our habits.  I, myself, was not immune to the pictures and lists of all the trash that has been found in the stomach of a single dead bird or a single dead beached whale.

Trash in the stomach of a bird

Trash in the stomach of a bird

My personal take home image was the plastic confetti that is present in virtually any part of the ocean.  My own small change to make has been to bring my breakfast bagel to school in a washable plastic container rather than in a plastic bag.  I hope that all the audience members were equally motivated to make at least one change in their own habits.

Anyone who is interested in learning more or in buying a movie can find information at trashedmovie.com

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