Earlier this month a Chinese photographer admitted faking an award-winning photograph. The picture (below) shows a herd of endangered antelope passing near a train on a new rail line that has penetrated the high plains and mountains of Tibet. The line has been controversial because of its possible environmental effects.
By coincidence I recently met with EPA's Office of International Affairs to discuss our progress in helping reduce pollution in Russia and China. One might ask why EPA should be working to reduce pollution on the other side of the world. Did you know, for instance, that over 80 percent of the mercury that winds up in the United States comes from sources outside of our country? It's important we continue to reduce mercury emissions here at home. But, while it may cost thousands of dollars to reduce the release of a pound of mercury in the U.S., for the same amount of money we can stop the release of over ten pounds elsewhere. So, EPA and our partners are working in places like Russia and China to reduce mercury emissions. Based on available information, in 2007 we helped reduce mercury emissions in Russia by nearly 3,500 pounds. That's half of all the mercury released by U.S. electric utilities in 2006. Not bad.
Our work on mercury is commendable, but it's the phony photograph which hints at a much broader potential. In 1854 Henry David Thoreau released Walden, a classic piece of environmental literature investigating the relationship between nature and industrialization at a crucial moment in American history. Thoreau used the train as a potent symbol of industry. The train was morally ambiguous, but it clearly signaled a relentless unstoppable change:
And hark! Here comes the cattle-train bearing the cattle of a thousand hills, sheepcoats, stables, and cow-yards in the air. . . . A carload of drovers, too, in the midst, on the level with their droves now, their vocation gone, but still clinging to their useless sticks as their badge of office . . . So is your pastoral life whirled past and away. But the bell rings, and I must get off the track and let the cars go by . . . .
A key belief for Americans at this time was the march of the nation across the wilds – the “draining of swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature.” It subsequently took over a hundred years for the American consciousness to understand that we don't progress by subduing nature, we progress by sustaining nature.
There is now relentless change taking place elsewhere in the world. The values that propel this change over the next decade will dramatically affect our environment. EPA is in an unusual position to help other cultures leapfrog the lessons the United States had to learn the hard way.
Lesson 1: you can't fake it.