Monday, May 25, 2009

The Economy and the Environment

President Obama has linked the environment to economic recovery. He is concurrently taking action to correct the economy and address environmental concerns.

I am writing this blog while sitting in my home in Mallorca, Spain with the tallest mountain on the east end of the island rising directly behind me and the Mediterranean 50 meters in front of me. The house is surrounded by a "Nature Park" or nature preserve. The setting and the views are spectacular in all directions.

I recall about 20 years ago the Spanish government being worried by pollution in the Mediterranean ruining their tourism industry, you see Spain's coasts are the main seaside resorts for Europeans. I am giving to calling it the "Florida" of Europe. Spain's concern was echoed by other Mediterranean countries and the concern led to joint action to clean up the Mediterranean.

My initial reaction to an attempt to clean up a whole sea was total skepticism, how can you clean up thousands of square miles of sea? Well the effort was not to clean up the whole sea, but to clean up the coastal waters. I am happy to report that the effort worked. Twenty years ago I would find lots of flotsom and jetsom when walking along the water's edge. At times the sea itself was clogged with sea nettles who are a sure sign of sewer tainted water. Now the water's edge is clear of all trash and the sea nettles are a rare sight.

My thoughts about the environment also brought to mind another instance in which I was a direct participant. While running a public relations company in Turkey two of my people, an American expert in public relations provided by the US side of the joint venture and a young Turkish woman recently graduated from Ankara's Middle East Technical Institute, came to me to present a proposal for clients. They explained that a group of Turkish companies was worried by threatned new government plans to impose high taxes on plastic bottles that were causing a "solid waste problem."

My immediate reply was to say that Turkey was too poor to have enough such bottles to be of major concern and that there were plenty of sink holes throughout the country where they could be disposed.

I then looked at the details of the situation. I found that the problem was specific to one town in Turkey, Bodrum, a seaside town known in ancient times as Halicarnassus, the home of Herodotus, the universally acclaimed "Father of History." The town was also the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the tomb of King Mausolus which gave the world the word, Mausoleum. The Mausoleum is long gone but you can see a full scale reproduction in New York City, General Grant's Tomb looking over the Hudson River. It is also the largest tomb in the USA.

But I digress. By 1990 Bodrum had become a popular seaside resort for foreign visitors and Turks with the foreigners staying in the newly built hotels and the Turks spending the summers at their phalanxes of new cookie cutter "villas." In season the town was chock a block with tourists.

Bodrum has a climate like that of Southern California, it never rains but when it does, "it pours, man it pours." These periodic floods served to sweep the town clean of all debris and trash carrying it out to the Mediterranean Sea. This should have been the end of the story but a popular treat for visitors to Bodrum was to take trips in glass bottom boats from which they could see the remains of sunken ancient Greek ships that were the backbone of Greece's commerce based economy.

Imagine looking through a boat bottom to see 2500 year old wrecks resting on the sea floor. And see those ancient amphoras that held wine and olive oil. And see those plastic bottles emblazoned with Hassan's Bleach, Hikmet's Detergent and Coca Cola. What, how did these modern bottles wind up among the amphoras of the sunken wrecked ships? Well the rains washed the bottles out to sea where they filled with water and sunk to the bottom with many falling among the wrecks.

Eureka I said, we are not dealing with trash pollution but "visual pollution." All that had to be done was to keep the bottles from being washed out to sea and spoiling the sight of ancient ships on the sea floor. We devised a PR campaign featuring bottle collection centers where people could bring their plastic bottles to be properly disposed of. The centers also took in glass bottles and other refuse since all was subsequently dumped into the sink holes. It worked.

These personal experiences with enviornmental concern led me to a clear realization, action to save the environment comes when problems threaten your pocketbook. I fear that President Obama will not have much luck with his environmental plans until he can show clear damage being done to our economy. It is no accident that he has linked the two. But he must make the link clear and urgent.

Leo Cecchini
May 2009

No comments: