In Our Nature
March 11, 2019
In August of 2015, marine biologist Christine Figgener posted a video of her team removing a plastic straw from the nostril of a rescued sea turtle. Over time, the video went viral, starting a nationwide movement against plastic straws. Some companies, including Starbucks and American Airlines, are now aiming to eliminate the use of plastic straws.
“I think plastics in general really are getting out of control,” science teacher Rob Zynda said. “We need plastics, especially in the medical arena. Got to have it, not going to get rid of it. But there’s so much plastic that’s getting out into the water. Not even talking just oceans. Even in the Great Lakes they’re finding microplastics, which are essentially the breakdown of those plastics, in the muscle tissue of the fish.”
While there are other environmental issues the public should be aware of, Zynda believes the so-called war on plastic straws is a step in the right direction.
“You would think that it would be a positive that could lead to other avenues,” Zynda said. “I think putting it on the straws, people might say, ‘You know what, there’s more to it than straws. Let’s do water bottles. Let’s do plastic cups.’”
Another infamous viral video is the one posted by National Geographic depicting a starving polar bear in its final moments, likely after struggling to find food due to climate change. After being tweeted by Canadian minister of the Environment Catherine McKenna with the caption “THIS is what climate change looks like,” the video quickly became the face of the fight against global warming.
Some may recall the outrage that ensued after American dentist Walter Palmer shot and killed a lion known as Cecil in July 2015. Palmer traveled to Zimbabwe, where hunting guides lured Cecil off the wildlife reserve he was living on so Palmer could shoot him without facing charges.
“That was wrong,” Zynda said. “[Palmer] was part of the program. I would say you’re being a little bit ignorant to not realize what’s going on. Cecil the lion was drawing in more money in tourist dollars when it comes to the local economy. That just gives people who are legally hunting a black eye.”
Zynda believes that when executed lawfully, regulated trophy hunting can be beneficial. Not only can it help the local economy, but it can do so without harming populations of animals.
“I am a hunter,” Zynda said. “I have no desire to go shoot an elephant or a tiger or lion. I think in some African communities, when it comes to a British person or an Australian person or an American person spending 50 grand to shoot an elephant, and the local village gets to eat the elephant, that’s OK. I think those types of trophy hunts are managed. We look at wildlife in the United States, and it’s managed. It’s designed not to cause extinction of a species, and that’s part of the deal.”
Senior Jahow Yu believes the South African legislation on trophy hunting of elephants is beneficial for both the local economy and the welfare of the wildlife.
“The South African law is one that is extremely well thought-out,” Yu said. “It recognizes a desire from the planet and satisfies it through actions that benefit the environment.”
Zynda warns of a more serious problem: illegal poaching.
“Poaching is huge,” Zynda said. “If you look at the elephant population, poaching is huge. It’s out of control, and it’s all about the ivory trade in China.”
In addition to elephants, highly endangered rhinoceroses are frequently poached for their horns. One subspecies, the northern white rhino, has only two living specimens, and both are females. The last male northern white rhino died on a reserve March 19, 2018. Rhino horn, like elephant ivory, has always been viewed as a collector’s item because of the carvings and other novelties that can be made from it. But unlike elephant ivory, rhino horn has recently become popular for traditional medicine, despite having no medicinal properties whatsoever.
“The rhino horn is interesting because it’s just keratin,” Zynda said. “Just like our fingernails and our hair. But it’s that whole idea that it’s a collector’s item. [People think,] ‘it’s exotic, so I want it.’”
In November of 2018, an organization known as VETPAW (Veterans Empowered To Protect African Wildlife) posted an educational video about rhino poaching to its Instagram page and encouraged viewers to share it with others. Just like the sea turtle and the plastic straw or the starving polar bear, this PSA quickly went viral.
However, this is not the first time elephant and rhino poaching has become an issue.
“It was huge in the eighties,” Zynda said. “We slowed down that whole process, and now it’s fired up again.”
China is infamous for its contributions to environmental issues. However, the Chinese government is trying to turn that around; one positive being banning all ivory trade.
“When you look at China, you can see there’s a lot of hypocrisy,” Zynda said. “They’ll try to do something positive over here, yet they’re still doing the negatives over there. China produces the biggest portion of the world’s greenhouse gases. We’re second. China is a leader in renewable energy, yet they burn fossil fuels like crazy. But when you think about endangered species, look at their pandas. They’re doing alright. They’re a proponent of keeping those guys going.”
However, Zynda does not condemn China’s environmental policies.
“With 1.3 billion people, you’re going to see impact. It’s just the way it’s going to be,” Zynda said. “Do they realize that they’ve got a problem? Definitely. They’re trying to figure it out.”
In August 2018, an environmental organization known as Greenpeace produced a public service announcement regarding the plight of orangutans in Indonesia. Orangutans are currently being threatened by the seemingly endless construction of palm oil plantations in their native habitat. Mainly directed toward children, the minute-and-a-half long cartoon told a story of a little girl with a baby orangutan loose in her room. The ad was set to air on television in the United Kingdom, but was shot down by politicians for being “too political.”
Zynda believes the corporations responsible for Indonesia’s deforestation have no regard for the welfare of the endangered species living there, and are concerned only with expansion.
“It’s about greed,” Zynda said. “It’s about money. It’s not about sustainability. It’s about growth, growth, growth. It’s not about long-term.”
While Yu does not necessarily agree with the ethics of the impact business has on the planet, he does defend the desire to make profit.
“At the end of the day, corporations all have one goal in mind: make profits,” Yu said. “It’s not that some companies don’t care about the environment. Almost all do. Nowadays, countless companies will donate to conservation groups or do community service that helps the environment. But it’s important to remember that in a capitalist economy such as ours, everything a company does is to increase sales.”
However, this does not mean compromise cannot be reached.
“A lot of less-developed countries are using methods that are detrimental to the environment,” Yu said. “There needs to be regulation on how much pollution they produce. Just because they’re developing doesn’t mean they can do so without regard to the planet.”
Yu believes the key to fixing environmental policies is to find a good balance between protecting the economy as well as the planet.
“I believe that in the interest of humanity, we should figure out certain legislature that helps mitigate our carbon footprint but be laissez-faire enough to make sure US companies are successful and competitive at home and abroad,” Yu said.
While orangutans, tigers, elephants, and other animals in Indonesia threatened by deforestation are protected species, corporations responsible for wiping them out are not being held accountable for doing so.
“Indonesia has millions of people living there,” Zynda said. “The standard of living is not great. Your natural resources are where the money is to try to take care of your people. And that’s what they’re doing. They really don’t have any regard for conservation because there are so many people living in poverty.”
Zynda believes the only chance at slowing palm oil production is to decrease the demand for it.
“Look at all the processed foods we consume, and how many of those foods have palm oil in them,” Zynda said. “Shut it down. Stop buying it. Maybe there will be a change.”
Zynda stresses that while some environmental issues may seem to be superficial, they bring an impact that will only increase if no attention is brought to them.
“I think the average person is already being affected by pollution,” Zynda said. “Our water quality. We have air quality issues. Think about your food. People go to Nino’s, to the fresh fruit market for fresh foods. There’s all kinds of chemical compounds that we forget about, or don’t want to know about. A lot of these chemicals, after long-term exposure, are carcinogenic.”
Yu believes that state governments can begin to change their policies more easily than federal legislation.
“The environment is an asset that humanity as a whole is dependent upon,” Yu said. “Local governments have the ability to pass legislation rather quickly compared to multinational organizations, so the quickest reforms should start locally.”
Younger generations have an obligation to improve the environment if things are to change for the better.
“The decisions that we make now are going to impact our living conditions and not anybody else’s. It only makes sense that we should take care of something that’s eventually going to be our home.”
Zhang believes our area’s impact on the environment is especially imperative because of one of our state’s most cherished resources.
“Something that sets us apart is the fact that we live in Michigan, the only state that borders all of the Great Lakes,” Zhang said. “As such, our actions that impact the environment should be held in a much higher importance due to the fact that our actions could compromise the quality of water in the Great Lakes.”
Some impacts of disregard for the environment are already becoming apparent locally.
“The asthma rates downriver in Detroit are very high because of what they’re breathing in,” Zynda said. “People are being affected.”
Zynda believes plastic pollution, along with other types of chemical pollution, is continuously becoming a bigger problem here in the Great Lakes.
“I’m a brewer,” Zynda said. “I grow hops. I brew beer. It’s been in my family for over a century. They’re finding [microplastics] in home-brewed beer. Michigan’s a big state when it comes to that, and they’re finding microplastics in our beer.”
The Great Lakes gets a new invasive species about every six months. One in particular is believed to be very dangerous to the ecosystem.
“The Asian Carp is huge,” Zynda said. “If they make it big in the Great Lakes, they’re really going to change the food web, to a point where the game fish that people pay money to go fishing for are going to be greatly impacted.”
Yu suggests that altering hunting and fishing laws to make exceptions for invasives would not only encourage removal of dangerous species, but would also boost the hunting and fishing industry in local areas and thus improve the local economy.
“If there was legislation passed, probably at a state level, that allowed for certain species considered a threat to the environment to be hunted more liberally, it would effectively kill two birds with one stone,” Yu said.
If more is not done to monitor and protect the health of the Great Lakes, the fishing industry that brings a mass of wealth to the economy of Michigan and other surrounding states will be at risk.
“It’s an economic issue,” Zynda said. “People pay money to go fly fishing, or fishing for trout. For Michigan, fishing is a multi-billion dollar industry.”
Zynda suggests that if people begin to reconsider some aspects of their lives, things may begin to change for the better.
“The public has to start thinking, ‘Do we need these huge homes? Do we need to have every gadget that’s out there?’” Zynda said. “I think if we had a simpler life that was more sustainable, we could have a decent life. Live in comfortable settings, but not have that carbon footprint or that impact on the environment that we have today.”
While the US has the ability to make a significant positive impact, our government’s eagerness to protect the environment has weakened in recent years.
“Americans are very reactive,” Zynda said. “We’re not proactive. Our own government comes out with a big report and says, ‘Look, this is an issue,’ and then our politicians say they don’t believe it. It’s kind of sad.”
While the legitimacy of climate change has long been discussed and debated, disbelievers seem to be more prevalent now than in past years.
“You have all these scientists who work for NASA and NOAA, these big-time agencies, and they’re saying we’ve got a problem and we need to fix it,” Zynda said. “And that they know what we can do to start to fix it. But we ignore it. We put our heads in the sand.”
While China’s ban on elephant ivory was a step forward, the US took a step backward in 2018 by legalizing importation of the material. In addition, the Migratory Birds Act (one of the first acts implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency since its establishment) was also repealed. This act protected nesting grounds of migratory seabirds.
While solving this planet-sized problem is no easy task, the average person can make a difference. In June of 2018, amidst allegations of ethics scandals, EPA director Scott Pruitt was confronted by a woman named Kristin Mink. Mink criticized Pruitt’s decisions within the EPA, and urged him to resign before the scandals push him out. The encounter was recorded and posted on Facebook, and soon went viral. No more than two weeks later, Pruitt resigned.
Yu believes that we’re capable of making improvements, and now is the time to start.
“At this point most of the world understands the consequences of pollution,” Yu said. “Governments need to create more effective laws and the public has to actually become more diligent in their treatment of the environment, starting with recycling, composting and such. I definitely think we can change the way we are impacting the environment.”
Zynda believes that although it may be a tough road ahead, with enough action taken by everyday people, things can improve.
“I think the problem for most people is that the issue is too big,” Zynda said. “People don’t really want to deal with the change. But people lead over the years, and all of a sudden other people follow. You can see it happen in your own school, you can see it happen in your own community. Eventually people are going to come on board. It may take a while. But in the end, it might work.”
Zhang also believes that the people hold the power to inspire change.
“Significant change comes from politicians and industrial leaders,” Zhang said. “But these leaders have to listen to the average people to maintain power. So therefore long term change comes from the attitudes and the needs of the average people. As long as the people continuously advocate for the environment, over time change will happen.”
Part of the key to solving these problems is educating the public on the issues at hand. In 2016, former Chinese basketball player Yao Ming partnered with WildAid to put out a PSA against shark fin soup, which was very trendy at the time, especially in China. This PSA alone made a strong impact, successfully lowering the demand for shark fin soup. By raising awareness, people’s perspectives can be changed.
“You’ve got to read,” Zynda said. “You’ve got to research. Don’t get stuck on just one news outlet, or one source. It really is about educating yourself.”
Zynda encourages those wanting to help to get involved.
“Start locally,” Zynda said. “Volunteer. Do a habitat improvement activity at the local state rec area up in Lake Orion or the Nature Center removing invasives. Work at Habitat for Humanity, building the small, economically efficient homes for the less fortunate. Spend a little extra money and make DTE or Consumers’ Energy ensure that some of your energy is renewable. All those things are going to cause a little bit of benefit.”
Zhang encourages students to start making changes in their daily lives if they want to contribute to a healthier environment.
“One of the first would be to ditch plastic water bottles,” Zhang said. “We collect hundreds of water bottles each week and a lot of this waste could be negated if students just switched to drinking from the fountain or using a reusable water bottle. Students can reduce their water usage. Reuse plastic bags instead of throwing them away, I even have an entire drawer in my house devoted to plastic bags. And of course there’s always recycling your paper, plastics and all that shebang.”
For those who may be hesitant about getting involved, Zhang encourages students to do it with friends.
Right now, it’s not quite clear what the future holds. Zynda is optimistic.
“Maybe we can’t fix it all in a year, or ten years,” Zynda said. “But we can start.”