I’ve been thinking a lot lately about depleted uranium, in part because of some pictures I’ve seen. First the depleted uranium, then the pictures.
So-called depleted uranium is what’s left of natural uranium after the “enriched uranium”—the fissionable isotope uranium 235—has been separated to produce fuel for nuclear reactors. The term depleted uranium is something of a misnomer in that it implies that the remaining uranium has become significantly less dangerous, more, well, depleted. But depleted uranium—99.8 percent uranium 238—is just as toxic and about 60 percent as radioactive as natural uranium. And with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, it will truly be one of this culture’s trademark gifts that keeps on giving: it will kill essentially forever.
The United States has made a lot of it, well over a billion pounds. Beginning in the 1950s, the feds started trying to figure out what they were going to do with all of this stuff. Providentially, uranium is extremely dense—about 1.7 times heavier than lead—and so can be used to make an artillery shell that easily penetrates steel. Even better, it’s pyrophoric, meaning heat from the impact causes it to vaporize, releasing huge amounts of energy. If you don’t mind toxifying and irradiating the surrounding countryside and its human and nonhuman inhabitants, depleted uranium makes a tank-busting shell extraordinaire.
What this means in practice is that leaders of government and industry solved the problem of disposing of U-238 in typical win-win (for them) fashion by giving it away free to both national and foreign arms manufacturers (perhaps it never occurred to anyone in power that the planet had already come up with the best solution for storing uranium: keep it in its natural state underground). I suppose we should be thankful that the researchers didn’t deem DU’s most effective use to be in forks or the heating elements of toasters, or else we’d be up to our glowing eyeballs in it at home. But this gratitude is in truth unfounded, because that plan has long been floated by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences and many others as a way to get rid of various radioactive wastes. They want (note the use of present tense) to redefine certain forms of radioactive waste as “Below Regulatory Concern,” recycle them (it’s great to be green!), and thus give citizens “authorized doses” of radiation. We should also be grateful, I guess, that they didn’t just decide to put the DU in our water supplies and tell us it’s good for our teeth. Oops, they’ve already done something like that, too. As is true for DU, fluoride is a toxic byproduct of this way of living (in this case the production of aluminum, fertilizer, cement, and weapons-grade plutonium and uranium). Also as is true for DU, fluoride is extremely costly—if not impossible—to dispose of safely. The feds didn’t know what to do with it. Perhaps because fluoride didn’t work very well either in artillery shells or toaster ovens, those in power decided to get rid of it by adding it to our municipal water supplies and toothpaste, which means that the old John Birchers were right when they averred that fluoridation was a dangerous plot (“to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids,” as General Jack D. Ripper might have put it): they just had the wrong conspirators. Another similarity between fluoride and DU is that both are dangerous: not only does fluoride derived from toxic waste contain impurities such as lead and arsenic, but even at relatively small doses fluoride itself can cause cancer, osteoporosis, skeletal fluorosis, arthritis, and brain damage, among many other conditions. Here’s another thought: just for grins, if you’re ever in your grandparents’ basement, see if you can find an old container of rat poison. Check out the toxic ingredient—the killer. Yep, you guessed it, sodium fluoride. Happy brushing.
The list of countries using or purchasing weapons or shells made with depleted uranium is long, and includes, among others, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, the monarchies in the Persian Gulf, Taiwan, South Korea, Pakistan, and Japan. Spreading these toxic, radioactive materials around the world is bad enough, but the real danger comes when the weapons are used. And they are used often. In 110,000 air raids against Iraq during the so-called First Gulf War (“so-called” because my understanding is that for something to be called a war the other side has to actually be able to fight back: casualties in the First Gulf Massacre corresponded closely to premise four of this book), U.S. A-10 Warthog aircraft fired about 940,000 DU projectiles. When a depleted uranium projectile hits a target, about 70 percent of the round vaporizes into (hot) dust as fine as talcum powder, as does part of the target, which may also have been constructed of depleted uranium. Three hundred tons of DU are estimated to be blowing in the wind from this particular desert storm. An American soldier in charge of a crew assigned to clean up DU around tanks destroyed by these shells said, “When we climbed into vehicles after they’d been hit, no matter what time of day or night it was, you couldn’t see three feet in front of you. You breathed in that dust.” Once the dust has been respirated, it can lodge in the lungs or make its way to other organs, such as kidneys. In any case, you’re in trouble. Uranium 238 and the products from its decay—including other isotopes of uranium, thorium 234, and protactinium—release alpha and beta radiation that cause cancer and genetic mutations in exposed individuals and their descendants more or less into perpetuity. Two of that soldier’s fifteen crew members are now dead, and even the Department of Energy admits that this soldier’s internal uranium contamination is five thousand times that permissible. Ninety to one hundred thousand American Gulf War veterans have reported medical problems associated with the “Gulf War Syndrome,” and rates for malformations in their children approach 67 percent in some communities.
As well as affecting U.S. soldiers, DU has probably already harmed 250,000 Iraqis. The same can be said for residents of Bosnia, and soon we’ll be saying the same for the people of Afghanistan. Leukemias and cancers have gone up by 66 percent in recent years in southern Iraq, with some locales experiencing a 700 percent increase. And there have been birth defects. Oh, how there have been birth defects. One doctor began her report, “In August we had three babies born with no heads. Four had abnormally large heads. In September we had six with no heads, none with large heads, and two with short limbs. In October, one with no head, four with big heads and four with deformed limbs or other types of deformities.”
Which finally brings us to the pictures. There are two groups: pictures I have not seen, and pictures I have. Here is what one person wrote about those I have not (and of course I don’t expect to soon see similar text in America’s much-vaunted and certainly uncensored capitalist “free press”™): “I thought I had a strong stomach—toughened by the minefields and foul frontline hospitals of Angola, by the handiwork of the death squads in Haiti and by the wholesale butchery of Rwanda. But I nearly lost my breakfast last week at the Basrah Maternity and Children’s Hospital in southern Iraq. Dr. Amer, the hospital’s director, had invited me into a room in which were displayed colour photographs of what, in cold medical language, are called “congenital anomalies,” but what you and I would better understand as horrific birth deformities. The images of these babies were head-spinningly grotesque—and thank God they didn’t bring out the real thing, pickled in formaldehyde. At one point I had to grab hold of the back of a chair to support my legs. I won’t spare you the details. You should know because—according to the Iraqis and in all likelihood the World Health Organization, which is soon to publish its findings on the spiraling birth defects in southern Iraq—we are responsible for these obscenities. During the Gulf war, Britain and the United States pounded the city and its surroundings with 96,000 depleted-uranium shells. The wretched creatures in the photographs—for they were scarcely human—are the result, Dr. Amer said. He guided me past pictures of children born without eyes, without brains. Another had arrived in the world with only half a head, nothing above the eyes. Then there was a head with legs, babies without genitalia, a little girl born with her brain outside her skull, and the whatever-it-was whose eyes were below the level of its nose. Then the chair-grabbing moment—a photograph of what I can only describe (inadequately) as a pair of buttocks with a face and two amphibian arms. Mercifully, none of these babies survived for long. Depleted uranium has an incubation period in humans of five years. In the four years from 1991 (the end of the Gulf War) until 1994, the Basrah Maternity Hospital saw 11 congenital anomalies. Last year there were 221.”
There are photographs, too, that I have seen, some of the worst of my life. There are infants with one large eye in the middle of the face; infants—still alive, huge eyes staring—with the exploded heads of the hydrocephalic; infants with translucent skin or skin covered with some unknown white substance or covered with welts or deep split-open fissures or with charred-looking skin or skin like dark glazed pottery; infants with ambiguous genitals (these are called, for some reason, “non-viable children”); infants—unfortunately alive—with no eyes, their bones fused and stunted; an infant—also unfortunately alive—with no anus, and with her bowel and gastro-urinary tract on the outside of her body.
These pictures all lead me to ask, not rhetorically, but with all expectation of answers: What, precisely, is this culture’s calculus of casualties? The lives of how many of these children are worth the life of one efficient executive, one prank-playing stockbroker? How many of these children’s lives are worth one Porsche, or the gasoline it burns to take off in the wind? The lives of how many children add up to the value, to take a unit of modern currency, of a barrel of oil?
* * *
The San Francisco Chronicle carried an article on page 3 entitled “Scientist’s Urgent Warning of World’s Failing Environment: Ailing Planet in Need of Mass Conservation.” The article disturbed me for several reasons. First, of course, is that the planet doesn’t so much need mass conservation as it needs to be relieved of that which is killing it: civilization. Next was the article’s placement, on the same spread—implying equivalent importance—with an article, on page two, entitled “Suit Catches Psychic Line Off Guard: Miss Cleo Accused of Rampant Fraud.” On page 1 of this day’s paper, just below the masthead, implying far greater importance, was an article with the headline: “Silver Turns to Gold for Canadian Pair: Skating Union Makes Amends for Judge’s Misconduct.” Above the masthead was a teaser for the most important article of the day, even more important than the one about figure skaters getting ripped off in the Olympics, which was, “Britney Crosses Over: Spears Trods Well-worn Path from Pop Star to Movie Actress in ‘Crossroads.’” And let’s not even compare the importance of the article about the killing of the planet to, say, the entire sections of the newspaper devoted daily to business, travel, and sports (Go Giants!). It bothered me also, maybe even more than the placement, that three full paragraphs of even this meager coverage were devoted to a Danish statistician who has gained great fame by arguing that the global environment is in fact improving, revealing once again the truth behind the thesis of another of my books, that in order for us to maintain our way of living, we must tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves.
It’s important to note that the Chron followed up this article by giving the Danish statistician an article all to himself that was three times as large as the original (seventy column-inches versus twenty-four—yeah, I know, I’ve got to get a social life), covering an entire page (with the exception of two ads, one stating that larger Post-It notes give you “More yada yada per note,” and one that reads “SEX FOR LIFE! Erection Problems? Premature Ejaculation? Immediate results after one consultation!”), complete with smiling photograph and statistical sidebar stating “it is not cost efficient to spend money on certain environmental problems” because “the cost per year of [human] life saved” is too high. Perhaps because this person’s obscene calculations—his damn lies, or even worse, his statistics, as the saying goes—fit so well with the goals of civil society, he has been named to head a government-funded environmental monitoring agency in his native Denmark.
I think, however, that what bothered me most about the original article was the pull-quote the editors chose to bold, which was, “We clearly will have an increasingly difficult time in maintaining our current levels of affluence.” The world is being killed before our eyes, and these editors are concerned primarily for the maintenance of their affluence?
That’s a silly question. Of course the answer is yes.
But it makes me ask again: What is the calculus of casualties? There’s no reason to confine this calculus to humans. How many baubles is life on the planet worth? How many salmon, how many generations of salmon, swimming upstream, spawning, dying, feeding humans, bears, eagles, their own offspring, entire forests, are worth the life of one politician, one executive, one lying statistician? The lives of how many species of salmon are worth the fortune of one politician, one executive? How many salmon are we willing to sacrifice so that an efficient executive can have a vintage car? How many rivers of fish—and how many rivers themselves, with their once-clean, free-flowing water—are worth sustaining a lifestyle based on exploitation, a lifestyle that will not last, and that will, we can only hope (the we in this case evidently not including the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle), end very soon.
* * *
The fifth premise of this book is that the property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control—in everyday language, to make money—by destroying or taking the lives of those below. This is called production. If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or otherwise destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.
This is all certainly true of our intraspecies relations. Police can and routinely do bust up homeless camps, but homeless people are not allowed to dismantle police stations (or the homes of the police). Petrochemical companies are allowed to make people’s homes uninhabitable by toxifying the surrounding landscape, but the residents of those homes are not allowed to destroy the refineries (or the homes of the owners). Whites could, should, and would systematically destroy the possessions of the Indians, but Indians were not allowed to return the favor. And it’s true of our interspecies relations, as industrial production systematically devours the living planet, any nonhumans who threaten productivity must be destroyed. A functionary for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans expressed this perfectly—to present just one example among an entire planet full of them—in regards to the now-extinct Great Auk: “No matter how many there may have been, the Great Auk had to go. They must have consumed thousands of tons of marine life that commercial fish stocks depend on. There wasn’t room for them in any properly managed fishery. Personally, I think we ought to be grateful to the old timers for handling the problem for us.” If we could change the culture such that this premise were no longer true, the calculations of the Danish statistician would be recognized for the insanity they represent, prisons would not be stocked with small-scale criminals, and civilization would collapse in a heartbeat.