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Poverty Times #2

Stamping our environmental disasters

When I was a kid, decades ago, I used to travel the world over. But I had to do it vicariously, by reading the travel sections of the local Sunday newspaper and by collecting stamps. The desire, if not the need, for travel probably started innocently enough, with that stamp collection. I remember that some of the most beautiful stamps were from countries with names like Nyasaland, the Cayman Islands, and Rwanda-Burundi of Tana Tuva. Some of these were colonies but are now independent countries. By Michael Glantz

American stamps were also quite fascinating. In my imagination they took me to such faraway places as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite, and Bryce Canyon of Arcadia. I also got lots of history lessons about wars, treaties, presidents, and so on through the stamps that I collected, either by accident or by purchase at a local stamp shop.

The business of stamps
Stamps often carry lasting messages to the people who buy them as well as to the people who receive them. People collect stamps in a neatly organised album, or piled up in the top drawer of a desk.

Stamps have become big business for postal services around the globe. You can find, for example, us presidents on stamps of countries that seem to have only one thing to export – stamps of us presidents, movie stars or Walt Disney characters

Stamps that deal with the natural environment present only the prettiest side of nature: national parks, butterflies, birds, fish, and even different types of coral reefs. However, many countries that produce beautiful stamps of nature that pay homage to flora and fauna have laws in place that allow the wanton exploitation of the very environments that they so beautifully and proudly display on their postage stamps.

There are very few examples of exceptions, but a few do exist. During a trip to Moscow, I came across two stamps that focused on environmental problems. One was a Chernobyl stamp printed in the late 1980s. Another was an ecology stamp that portrayed the drying up of the Aral Sea in (at that time) Soviet Central Asia. I was surprised to find that a government had actually immortalised some of its major environmental disasters on its postage stamps. What a novel idea.

Stamps as a message
Perhaps the un could consider this design as a possible postage stamp in order to focus attention on El Niño. Isn’t it time for all governments to “stamp their environmental problems?” So, here’s my suggestion for the “Idea Bank.”

For example, the us Postal Service produces stamps of the environmental problems that our society faces: Love Canal, the 42 environmental “hot spots” in the Great Lakes, the clear cutting of forests in the Pacific Northwest, oil spills, the effects of the destruction of wetlands, Three Mile Island, nuclear waste disposal, landfills, global warming, the ozone hole, the horrific consequences of landmine proliferation and so forth. Other countries could stamp their disasters. To put these issues in front of the public on a daily basis, in a medium that many of us collect (especially young people), could help to educate the American public and policy-makers on the fragility of Earth.

Dr Michael Glantz is a Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (ncar). He is ncar’s only senior social scientist since it began 43 years ago. Before studying the interactions between climate and society (droughts, famines, freezes) and their impacts on political systems and on economies, he was a Metallurgical Engineer. With a PhD in Political Science, he studied (and visited) violent political revolutions in Africa. He created the www.fragilecologies.com website as a public service to those interested in climate-society-environment interactions.