The Path Forward
I’m not going to pretend I know the best solutions for curbing pollution. This environmental space is full of brilliant minds who have been making incredible headway on this problem for decades. Instead, I want to present some ideas for how we can help communities most at risk of pollution-related deaths.
🚧 Increase fines for violating the TRI — Companies do not pay enough for destroying our pale blue dot and creating health risks in our communities. Across the state of New York where I grew up, 1,362 companies received environmental fines over the last 5 years, paying on average $12,000 for each fine. The New York manufacturing industry makes billions of dollars each year and often tries to litigate away these fines. The US should take notes from the European Union, which has increased the fines levied against companies for violating environmental standards, but most importantly, the EU also ties these fines to how many lives could have been saved by decreasing pollution. In a 2017 European Environmental Bureau report, EU commissioners show that “78,000 additional lives could be saved by the new environmental rules if correctly implemented.”
🔪 Stop cutting corners for fighting fires — America’s firefighting strategy is currently broken in three different ways. First, firefighters are underfunded and under-resourced. The United States Forest Service (USFS) spends $2.4 billion each year on “wildland fire management” and hires an additional 12,000 seasonal firefighters to help with fires at the hottest points in the year. This seasonal hiring has meant that many of the new recruits are often under-trained, and full-time USFS firefighters make only $30,000 per year, even after working thousands of hours of overtime. States at high-risk of fire should receive more federal funding to pay firefighters more and invest more in training the staff they have.
🧑🏻🚒 Reduce the reliance on inmate labor for fighting fires—For the last 80 years, California has relied on its massive prison population to fight fires. These inmates are paid $1 per hour conducting one of the most dangerous jobs in America. In 2017, 1 out of 9 firefighters that put out a burn in California was an inmate. Although Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed Assembly Bill 2147 which would help inmates get their records expunged in return for fighting fires, we should not create a system where the safety of our communities rests on inmate labor and the freedom of those inmates should not rest on whether they decide to risk their lives to put out fires.
🔥 Fight fires before they erupt—States can spend more on clearing dry brush during the offseason that acts as explosive kindling when wildfires do emerge. If forest staff clear brush 100 feet away from a house, it can improve the house’s chance of survival by 8-fold. California passed a bill in January 2019 to clear 90,000 acres of brush and thin trees, but this is too small of a fraction compared to the 4.7 million acres that burned in fires that year. Prior to 1800, Native Americans would intentionally burn 2.2 million acres annually in controlled fires, away from where people lived.