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Harvard Ayers

Harvard Ayers

. . . a leader in the Southern Appalachian Mountain Initiative, an eight state public-private effort to solve the regionís air pollution problems. He directs the Northern Hardwood Damage Survey and founded Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the preservation of the native forest ecosystems. He is co-editor of An Appalachian Tragedy: Air Pollution and Tree Death, a Sierra Club Book. Dr. Ayers is Professor of Anthropology and Sustainable Development at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

Excerpts3:32 secs

Brambles are good for berries and bears but trees are good for people. And trees are dying from Maine to Georgia. Why? Itís complicated, but the short course is that air pollution is weakening the treesí ability to cope with a whole range of threats they once could resist -- from disease and bugs to swings in climate conditions.

But donít tune out. Solutions are as real as the threats to our own well-being and to the well-being of all the other forms of life which are being adversely affected. Individual people, not technology, are where solutions begin, according to environmental activists including Harvard Ayers.

Yes, acid rain and ozone are damaging the trees themselves, poisoning the soil in which trees struggle to grow and the water which then kills streams and turns lakes into deathzones all along the Appalachian chain. But before we can fix the problem, we must believe there IS a problem. We must see whatís there to be seen, look instead of turning a blind eye. Then we must decide to act. And act on that decision. THEN itís time for technology. Individuals, not engineering, are the starting point.

The technology? Filters are an excellent place to start. Filterthe smokestacks of power generating plants -- which Dr. Ayers says are the countries leading air polluters -- and other industries that use fossil fuel. And filter our own cars -- the other big cause of air pollution. We donít have to live in California to buy a car that meets its air quality standards. The costs? Theyíre real but surprisingly modest for the dramatic improvement we would see in air quality from Georgia to Virginia. That would be good, since the ozone in the air along the tops of the Great Smoky Mountain is now about the same as in Los Angeles.

Will we see the tragedy of air pollution for what it is and act on it? Dr. Ayers and his colleagues have collected the pictures if we choose to see, scientific evidence if we choose to listen. Other countries have demonstrated that there are more efficient ways to generate both the energy we use and the energy needed to make the things we want. And we do waste a lot. So the opportunities to create solutions abound. And there is still some time. The forests, Dr. Ayers assure us, are not ďchangingĒ as some in the utility industry argue. And the deer are not killing the forests. We are. Will we act on behalf of our trees or trade them in for Briarworld?

Conversation 1

Harvard Ayers describes the past and present physical characteristics of America’s Appalachian mountain chain to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Dr. Ayers has both good news about the natural and human communities from Maine to Georgia, and distressingly bad news about forest health problems.

Conversation 2

Dr. Ayers describes the air from northern Georgia up into Virginia as the most polluted in North America. He compares the air of the Great Smoky Mountains to Los Angeles. He describes alarmingly large patches of trees -- old and young of all species -- dying at 10 to 20 times normal rates. He uses atmospheric and climate data to narrow possible causes to air pollution. Dr. Ayers gives an example of how complex the problems created by pollution are. He describes dramatic changes observed in the Appalachian chain’s overall pH -- acid rain which acidifies the soil so much it kills earth worms and acid clouds which directly impact trees’ leaves and needles.

Conversation 3

Earthworms are both the basis of the entire soil process and indicators of the soil’s overall condition, Dr. Ayers reminds us. Naming power companies as America’s largest air polluters, Dr. Ayers acknowledges their argument that forests do change. Briars, he reports, have replaced the once-luxuriant forests now dead atop the East’s tallest mountain. Dr. Ayers describes how dependent humans are on trees for our survival, calling tree death at high elevations “the canary in the coal mine” for what lies ahead if today’s levels of acid rain and ozone continue. He makes the same case for streams and lakes, with vivid examples of dead lakes. He cites strong evidence that the sources of the air pollution are power plants, industries that use fossil fuel, and everyone’s cars. He acknowledges our demand for energy and products are drivers and urges more efficient means by which to meet that demand.

Conversation 4

Doing nothing about acid and ozone will have profound affects on both trees and waterways according to Dr. Ayers. He explains ozone’s threat. He describes briars and ferns -- which prevent a forest’s regeneration -- replacing dying evergreens and hardwoods. He disputes suggestions that deer, not air pollution, are killing forests. Dr. Ayers explains the enormous effects of briars replacing forests on existing biological systems and the weather itself, including floods. He describes how people and industry in America’s Eastern states would be affected. He urges individuals and corporations to think ahead 20 years, not 5. Bill Russell shares former Mars Explorer engineer Donna Shirley's concern about our growing dependence on engineered solutions to increasingly complex problems.

Conversation 5

Solutions to acid and ozone problems begin with people becoming aware there IS a problem, Dr. Ayers believes. He describes the political nature of the challenge, followed by readily available technical solutions: filters on smokestacks (industry) and on tailpipes (cars). He notes surprisingly modest associated costs. Given today’s political system, Dr. Ayers puts his faith in ordinary people demanding clean air and water. He urges active citizen involvement and a return to the spirit of America’s founding fathers: a willingness to protect ourselves against corporate interests that do not factor in environmental and social costs.

Conversation 6

Vast changes start with individuals, Dr. Ayers explains, with examples. When you buy a car, pay a little more to meet “California standards,” wherever you live. He concludes with examples of Do Something.


As always, we appreciate the gracious hospitality extended to us at The Commerce Club in Atlanta, GA

Related Links:
The Sierra Club is one of America’s most respected environmental organizations.
Sierra Club Books published An Appalachian Tragedy: Air Pollution and Tree Death in the Eastern Forests of North America.

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