Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Hazardous Cruises: Welcome to Toxic Paradise

by Jonas Stuck

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Cruiseship passing Venice. Photo by Wolfgang Moroder, via Wikimedia Commons. Available under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The summer is over, but the holiday season hasn’t stopped. Going on vacation is how many people calm down from a hectic work life and enjoy a good time. Cruise ships offer this experience all year round in the most naturally beautiful holiday destinations in the world: from the Arctic Circle or the Norwegian fjords to Mediterranean beaches. The urge to explore the world by cruise ship and see spectacular natural beauty has risen dramatically. Around 25 million people will board cruise ships this year, meaning the demand for such luxurious vacations has increased more than 68 percent during the last 10 years. Maybe you too would like to go on a cruise, but think twice: while you may be expecting to enjoy the fresh sea breeze, you are more likely to end up breathing in toxic pollutants.

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Worldview: Doce River Disaster

“The Bitterness of the Doce River—One Year Later”

By Lise Sedrez

It was way worse than I thought.

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Sludge floating on the Rio Doce. Photographs: Lise Sedrez.

Over the last three days, with a group of colleagues, I looked at the Rio Doce and asked myself how we could have done this to the river. Rio Doce has nurtured Brazilian history for hundreds of years, offering water, wealth, food, joy, and beauty. We repaid it by poisoning it with mercury in gold mining operations in the past, polluting it to critical levels with PET bottles and raw sewage, destroying its riparian vegetation and, finally, burying 600 km of it under tons of mining waste.

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Snapshot: Beach Litter in a Sustainable Exhibition

By Katrin Kleemann
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Examples of recyled materials used to construct the exhibition displays. Photographs: Katrin Kleemann, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

A few weeks ago, “Snapshot: Zero Waste?” featured an exhibition exploring global waste production. Today’s feature looks at what happens to that waste. As part of its Planet Oceans Initiative, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich hosts one of London’s first sustainable galleries: the “Environment Gallery.” It’s sustainable because all of the displays are made from recycled coffee cups, yoghurt pots, plastic, and crushed CDs. On show is the permanent exhibition: “Your Ocean,” which focuses on marine waste. Huge amounts of waste end up in the ocean; this pollution doesn’t simply disappear but becomes part of the water cycle. Among the top ten items of beach litter in the UK are everyday products such as crisp and sweet wrappers, sanitary items, caps and lids, as well as cigarette butts. The exhibits raise awareness about the many issues threatening the marine environment in the twenty-first century. Knowing about these issues can help and empower people to make informed decisions about their lifestyle and environment.


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Bookshelf: Jens Kersten on Inwastement—Abfall in Umwelt und Gesellschaft

The Inwastement volume arose from the research cluster “Waste and Society” of the RCC together with LMU’s Center for Advanced Studies. Published in German by Transcript, the issue includes contributions from: Soraya Heuss-Aßbichler, Claudia R. Binder, Eveline Dürr, Gisela Grupe, Rüdiger Haum, Michael Jedelhauser, Jens Kersten, Roman Köster, Reinhold Leinfelder, Christof Mauch, Wolfram Mauser, Karen Pittel, Gerhard Rettenberger, Helmuth Trischler, Markus Vogt, and David Wagner. A number of the contributors are also members of the Academic Board of the RCC doctoral program in Environment and Society.

This is a translation of an interview about the book with Jens Kersten.

Can You Explain the Title of the Book? What is Meant by the Term “Inwastement”?

The term inwastement draws our attention to parallels as well as contrasts between waste and money. It emphasizes the social, economic, and ecological agency that waste has in our society. Our inwastement—the waste that we produce individually and as a society—is in many respects the exact opposite of an investment. We invest in businesses and infrastructure as a way of securing our future. Inwastement, by contrast, isn’t something we do deliberately, with the hope for a specific outcome; it is instead an incidental product of our activities. Unlike investments, we don’t want to see what happens to our waste and what effects it has. In fact, we don’t want any return in the case of inwastement—we’d prefer never to see it again, and certainly not with any accrued interest! And yet (unlike an investment) it is almost certain that our inwastement will return again in some form: dumped chemicals, plastic particles, and heavy metals return to the environment and the food chain, eventually building up in our own bodies.

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Interview: Lise Sedrez on the Samarco Tailings Dam Spill, Minas Gerais, Brazil (Part Two)

The mine tailing dam break in Bento Rodrigues, Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 5 November 2015 has been described by the Brazilian government as the country’s worst environmental catastrophe. Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier sat down with Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez at the RCC in Munich on 19 November and recorded the following interview.

RE: This relative lack of exposure to the dam break is definitely something I hope we can talk about. It seems like there are several durations involved and also questions of how the media has covered or not covered the spill. Some of the coverage has focused on the company and the economic impact of closing down operations and has pointed out that the price for iron has been relatively low in the last ten years, because of the decreased demand for export. There has been a shift in the conversation from describing the event in concrete, biological terms to an abstract conversation about the commodity exports, iron pellets as raw material for industrialization. There is the time frame of the cost of the good that was extracted, and there is the other time frame, which is the lifecycle of aquatic life [that] has been impacted for a generation, particularly larger forms of aquatic life, like fish, which won’t recover for a full lifetime.

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Contaminated Rio Doce water flowing into the Atlantic. Image: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Worldview: Antarctica

by Ingo Heidbrink

Antarctica is the only continent with a permanent population of zero, and it has a strong international regulation system governing human activities from research to tourism. One might question whether an environmental history of Antarctica, beyond natural history, could therefore even be possible. While I am no native or citizen of Antarctica—these categories do simply not exist—having traveled more than once to the frozen continent and performed historical research I think I can provide some idea of its environmental history. Continue reading


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Photo of the Week: Anna Rühl

Ger district on the outskirts of Ulaanbataar, the capital of Mongolia. Photography by Anna Rühl.

Ger district on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Photograph: Anna Rühl.

With over 250 days of sunshine a year, Mongolians call their country the Land of the Blue Sky. Except sometimes it’s not. On a winter’s day in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar—home to approximately half of the country’s population of three million—air pollution can be so bad that the weather forecast reads “smoke,” and it feels and smells as if you could cure meat just by leaving it outdoors.

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