Human activities are degrading the quality of the environment in many different ways. Their impacts range all the way from reducing biodiversity to adverse alterations of the climate, and they frequently pose serious threats to human health. Nearly 7% of the Foundation’s grant expenditures have supported projects designed to publicize, reduce or eliminate activities causing pollution. These include improper use of insecticides and herbicides, disposal of toxic chemicals such as PCBs, failure to treat raw sewage, and a whole series of problems involving the extraction and combustion of fossil and nuclear fuels and the disposal of their by-products. Several of the earliest grants funded publication of information on the damaging effects of DDT, a relatively non-biodegradable insecticide that can become concentrated as it passes up the food chain, and on the indiscriminate use of herbicides, later discovered to be a threat to human health. Two projects dealt with water pollution by sewage, one on a tributary to the Potomac River as it enters the Nation’s Capitol, the other on Lake Champlain. Three projects dealt with contamination by toxic wastes including PCB’s, one of these involving disposal of toxic wastes from the United States in Nigeria.
In various parts of the third world forests are being rapidly destroyed for the extraction of firewood for cooking fuel. Mary Lou Krause, a former Peace Corps activist, undertook two projects, funded by the Foundation, to promote the construction and use of solar cookers. One of these was on the steep, erosion-vulnerable slopes of the Himalayas in the Hunza and Baltisatan regions of Pakistan and Nepal; the other was in Malawi, where most of the forests have already been eliminated. There, the price of firewood escalated by 660 percent just in the first half of 1992. Finding inexpensive materials for cooker construction was a problem. In Nepal, Ms. Krause was able to adapt native packbaskets for this purpose. A third solar cooker project, conducted in Ecuador by Gretchen Kaapcke, was also supported. Although these devices have been enthusiastically adopted by those participating in their construction and use, to change a way of life is a slow process.
The production of energy from fossil fuels creates a series of pollution problems, and the Foundation has supported projects addressing some of these: for example, strip mining of coal in West Virginia, which is causing pollution of the streams, and the impact of oil spills on the coral reefs in Florida. The combustion of coal is an important source of the air pollution responsible for acid rain, which is impacting the health of the forests, lakes and streams in the eastern states. The Foundation has supported research demonstrating these effects and pointing up the need for remedial action.
Fossil fuel combustion is also producing the carbon dioxide contributing to global warming. The Foundation has been interested in several approaches to this problem. One is to reduce energy consumption. For example, a small grant enabled Connecticut College to reduce its annual oil consumption by 17,000 gallons of fuel oil and 50,400 kilowatt hours of electricity by re-engineering a single building. Another approach is to convert to renewable sources of energy. As an educational venture, small grants funded the installation of wind generators at Putney School in Vermont and at Connecticut College.
The production of nuclear energy creates another set of problems centering around the dangers posed to health by exposure to radiation. Due to the extremely slow decay of a number of the radioactive isotopes produced by nuclear reactors, no really safe repository has yet been found for the disposal of radioactive wastes. The Foundation has supported four efforts to avoid or eliminate improper repositories, and several relating to the hazards of transporting this dangerous material. The accidental meltdown of a reactor can be a major disaster. The Foundation made a grant to publicize the fact that the radioactive plume from the meltdown of the Chernobyl plant in Russia even had an impact on the biota in the United States as its radioactive plume passed eastwards across the country. Fortunately, the major contaminant in this case was radioactive iodine — a very short-lived isotope — which impacted the reproduction of foliage-gleaning birds and appeared briefly in milk.
The military use of nuclear weapons now poses a threat to the very survival of our species on the planet. One of the most eloquent spokespersons on the hazards of nuclear contamination was Dr. Helen Caldicott. A film was produced in 1981 on her dedicated work entitled Eight Minutes to Midnight. The Foundation helped fund the production of this outstanding film and its distribution. Three years later a conference was held in Washington, D.C. on the “Long-Term Worldwide Biological Consequences of Nuclear War”. At the end of the conference, an extensive exchange took place on closed circuit television between scientists in this country and those in the Soviet Union. There was a consensus between the scientists in both countries that there should be no nuclear war, that this would mean disaster and death for mankind. The proceedings of the conference were published in 1984 under the title The Cold and the Dark. This book describes in detail the nuclear winter that scientific studies predict would envelop the globe in the event of a significant exchange of nuclear weapons. In order to help disseminate the message of nuclear winter, the Foundation funded the free dissemination of this book to people of influence both in this country and abroad.