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“Future Conditional” explores how toxic pollutants affect environmental and human health. Viewers discover that pollutants travel great distances, affecting human and natural communities hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Case studies illustrate how Arctic food chains and the Inuit people are being poisoned by toxins being created in North and Central America, Europe and Asia; how poor factory workers in Mexico are being exposed to dangerous pollutants brought about by the new global economy, and why once-thriving fishing villages around the Aral Sea are now ghost towns, a situation that is a powerful wake-up call about the future of California’s Salton Sea.

The program also introduces a Barrio neighborhood in San Diego that, by successfully confronting political and business interests polluting their neighborhood, demonstrates the power that ordinary citizens have to bring about positive change in their communities.

Previewing Activities
(Note: The teacher will need to introduce and discuss the concepts and vocabulary with the students before proceeding with the rest of the lesson.)

Introduce the following key terms to students:

  • Inuit – A people who live in the Arctic from northeastern Russia across Alaska and Canada to Greenland. Formerly referred to as Eskimos.
  • The grasshopper effect – A description of how air-borne toxins can infect localities distant from their sources of origin. Toxins can evaporate, travel by wind for hundreds and even thousands of miles, and then return to earth in rain and snow.
  • Plankton – Organisms that float in fresh and salt water. The term includes animals as large as jellyfish, but usually refers to microscopic creatures. Phytoplankton refers to photosynthetic organisms, such as floating algae; zooplankton refers to animals and other creatures that eat other organisms for sustenance.
  • North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA – A treaty passed in the United States in 1993 that promotes free trade between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
  • Barrio – A Spanish term meaning neighborhood.
  • Asthma– A condition characterized by difficulty in breathing that often includes wheezing, gasping, and coughing. Causes include allergies and air pollution.
  • Marco Polo (1254-1324 A.D.) – A Venetian merchant who traveled to China and spent 17 years with the emperor, Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan (see below). His written account of his travels and time in the Chinese court achieved widespread readership in Europe.
  • Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) – King of Macedonia when he was 18, Alexander the Great embarked on a campaign of conquest that, at its completion, extended through the Middle East to Central Asia and India and south to Egypt. He died when he was 32 years old.
  • Genghis Khan (Died 1227 A.D.) – Leader of the Mongols, a nomadic people from present day Mongolia. Genghis Khan, through armed conquest, formed the largest contiguous empire the world has ever known, stretching from China through Central Asia to Eastern Europe. His armies were known for their ruthlessness and cruelty as well as their effectiveness.
  • Karakalpak People – A Turkic people living near the Aral Sea.
  • Silk Road – An ancient trade route that caravans would travel transporting goods from China to Europe.

Postviewing Activities

The topics in these activities could be covered in one lesson or extended into several lessons. The following viewing activities offer opportunities for student discussion of how their lives are inescapably tied to the environment.

Toxic Pollution in the Arctic (Canada):

1. In what ways is hunting important to the Inuit? (Answer: Over 65% of their protein comes from wild animals. In addition, it is essential to preserving cultural identity and to developing the character of Inuit young people.)

2. What might happen to the Inuit if hunting were to disappear, either because the animals have disappeared or because they are so laden with toxins that they cannot be eaten? (Possible answers: Inuit would have to depend upon different store-purchased food. Such a shift in diet often leads to health problems, such as diabetes and heart problems, in people who are not accustomed to the new foods. Their cultural identity might weaken, and, since age-old traditions of raising children might be threatened, social problems might afflict Inuit young people.)

3. The skills and knowledge Inuit possess to thrive in their difficult environment and to successfully hunt the animals found there have been passed down generation by generation for millennia. If Inuit were to lose this knowledge, would this be important to those of us who are not Inuit? How important do you think it is to preserve such age-old skills and knowledge in the modern world?

4. The program states that “The discovery of toxic pollutants in the food supply has put 155,000 Inuit on the brink of a public health disaster.” To avoid being poisoned, they must either change their dietary customs, or the United States and other countries must spend huge amounts of money cleaning up the pollution they are creating. What do you think should be done? What do you think will be done?

5. If toxins are showing up in the bodies of people living in the Arctic, do you think they are showing up in yours? (Answer: What is happening in the Arctic may not be happening in your neighborhood, even though it is probably closer to pollution sites than the Arctic is. First, the climate and weather patterns seem to concentrate toxins in the Arctic environment. Secondly, Inuit eat seals that are farther along the food chain than plant-eating animals like cattle and chickens. The farther you move along the food chain, the more concentrated toxins become. Nonetheless, there is no reason to suppose that we are not taking in and accumulating toxins in our air, water, and food.)

Toxic Pollution in Tijuana (Mexico):

1. What is the trade-off that Mexico made regarding jobs and environment (Answer: Mexico encouraged U.S. factories to settle in Mexico because they provide employment for Mexicans. The factories, however, increase toxic pollution.) Looking at this situation, do you think the trade-off was worth it?

2. What is the United States’ responsibility in this situation? Should the U.S. help clean up this site, treat people who are sick because of it, and even compensate families financially for the suffering they have undergone? Or, is this the Mexican government’s problem?

3. As a follow-up to Question #2, if a United States company establishes a factory in a developing country, is it responsible for pollution problems it creates even if the developing country’s environmental regulations are so weak or poorly enforced that the pollution is allowed to continue?

Citizen Action In Barrio Logan (San Diego):

1. Barrio Logan is in a congested, polluted part of San Diego. Why do you think residents fight so hard to stay in the neighborhood and preserve it?

2. Do you know of any instances where people have tried to unite to achieve a common cause in your neighborhood? If so, what happened?

3. What did the people try to do, what strategies did they use, and how much success did they enjoy?

The Plight of the Salton Sea (California):

1. Why might Palm Springs appear to be an unlikely place for public health problems brought about by environmental pollution? (Answer: It is an affluent community, whose residents can afford to live away from areas with polluting industries.)

2. What are two ways in which the lake is being threatened? (Answer: Agricultural runoff carries huge amounts of chemicals into the lake that are killing fish, birds, and other life. Secondly, water is being diverted from agriculture to San Diego and other Southern California municipalities, thus reducing the flow of water into the lake and causing it to shrink. This scenario is similar to what has happened to the Aral Sea.)

3. Considering the Aral Sea predicament, what should people do about the Salton Sea? Should agricultural pollution be reduced? Should water be taken away from cities and returned to the farmers? What might be the consequences if nothing is done?

The Bizarre Case of the Aral Sea (Uzbekistan):

1. What is the connection between wind-borne toxins and the drying up of the Aral Sea? (Answer: The toxins entered the sea from agricultural runoff. When the sea evaporates, it leaves the toxins behind. The wind blows the new-dry land, now containing the toxins, throughout the area.)

2. How has the drying up of the sea increased poverty? (Answer: The sea used to support a vibrant fishing industry, which is now deteriorating along with the environment that supported it. It’s hard to fish when you live 90 miles from the water!)

3. What is threatening cotton farming in the region? (Answer: The quality of the river water being used for irrigation is itself deteriorating, due to increasing concentrations of salt and agricultural chemicals. In addition, salt left behind by the evaporating sea is blowing through the fields, greatly increasing their salinity. Crop yields are decreasing significantly as a result. In addition, because of wind-borne toxins, the farmers and their families are less healthy than before.)

4. Do you think we can use the Aral Sea as a realistic example of what could happen with the Salton Sea and Southern California, or do you think that is too far-fetched? Why or why not?


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