Wasted away in Sacramento

Heather Wokusch is a Sacramento freelance writer working on a book for progressives

Maybe it was the waitress in Folsom who refused to serve me juice in a paper cup because “it tastes better in plastic.” Or maybe it was the line of single-passenger SUVs revving their motors outside a fast-food window near Sunrise. Returning home to Sacramento after years of working abroad, I’ve come to the conclusion that our disposable lifestyle could make us disposable.

We’ve gotten used to living like there’s no tomorrow, and at the rate we’re going, there may not be. Almost 70 billion beverage containers have been trashed in the United States so far this year alone, yet recycling rates are dropping. Gas-guzzling SUVs enjoy generous tax breaks, but clean-burning hybrids don’t. U.S. power and chlorine plants belch out a full 150 tons of mercury per year, and it’s all perfectly legal.

Recklessness comes at a high price. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, 159 million Americans live in areas where the air is dangerous to breathe. Pollution-related illnesses are soaring across the country, and a full 8 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age have so much mercury in their blood that their future kids could have lowered mental functioning and motor skills.

California hasn’t escaped the crisis. The state already houses nine of the 25 U.S. cities most affected by short-term particle air pollution; in Sacramento’s Arden Arcade area, pollution puts at risk almost 180,000 people for asthma, more than 62,000 for chronic bronchitis and more than 500,000 for cardiovascular disease.

California also is reeling under federal budget cuts for environmental programs, yet the administration’s fiscal year 2006 budget unbelievably slashes an additional 46 percent of the state’s EPA funding for water-quality programs. The potential repercussions for Sacramento are staggering.

Those living near any of California’s more than 100 Superfund National Priorities List hazardous sites, such as McClellan Air Force Base or the Sacramento Army Depot, can kiss support goodbye. The Superfund’s financial resources have dried up since the administration stopped making polluters pay, and cleanups have all but ground to a halt.

But protecting our national security involves more than color-coded warning signals, just as patriotism requires more than weenie roasts and fireworks on the Fourth. Honoring our nation means having the courage to look at our consumption and waste, and then taking the responsibility to set a new and sustainable course.

Our kids deserve no less.