Earth Day: looking at the horizon
I thought it was Earth Day a few days ago, but maybe it’s today. Thing is, we’re living on Earth every day.
Each day the bluefin tuna population goes down. Each day more atrazine leaches into groundwater. Each day more CO2 builds up in the atmosphere. Not a day goes by that more coal isn’t burned.
Coal. I remember an article years ago extolling the virtues of coal as America’s energy future. We had enough coal for hundreds of years. Isn’t that great? Much better than that nasty old nuclear! Even then, scientists knew that was wrong; coal plants put out far more radiation than nuclear. Coal ash is full of heavy metals, including mercury, and so much uranium that the Chinese have begun to process it for commercially useful quantities at lower cost than digging pitchblende out of the ground.
Think about that for a minute: those metals are in the coal ash because they were in the coal. Which we burned, and sent the smoke up really tall smokestacks because presumably, what goes up never… comes down? I wonder what the reasoning is there.
Energy is all over the place but we want it in dense packages. This is like saying we want to live on low-hanging fruit instead of having to climb ladders or even plant vegetables. Our industry lobbyists whine; why does everything have to be so hard? You’ll destroy our competitiveness if we can’t keep doing things the old way!
It’s difficult to make the case that we even deserve to pull ourselves out of the eco-spiral we’re in. We have an entire (very popular) television network devoted to denying that we should do anything at all to keep our environment livable. We’re a society full of people who don’t want to take the slight extra effort to recycle their aluminum cans, but Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial airline fleet every three weeks. Aluminum that is, for the most part, refined from bauxite in an energy-intensive process that begins with coal-generated electricity.
But the Earth isn’t conscious, so we can’t bargain with it. Our planet doesn’t give a damn about our treaties or our excuses. It isn’t deciding who’s naughty or who’s nice, and it isn’t mad at us. We can destroy all the species we want, acidify the oceans and screw up the global food chain from the ground up, and if by fortune the survivors start acting more responsibly, the planet will just start making new species and going about its business. Or if there aren’t any survivors, same result; it makes no difference to the 588 quintillion tons of iron and rock that we’re riding in an orbit around our star. But either way the transition promises to be a giant humanitarian suckfest that would be well worth avoiding.
So what difference does it make to refill a water bottle, or recycle a single can? I don’t know; there could be a “donut effect”, in which a person who exercises starts to realize; that donut is a half an hour on the Stairmaster. Next thing you know, it starts to affect other dietary choices. The same thing could happen with small acts of environmental responsibility.
There’s also an Overton Window effect; the more people who openly do small things for the environment, the less socially acceptable it is to put politicians in office who are quite so transparently in the pocket of dirty industries. In short, we’ve got to stop being so short-sighted, and the more people looking at the horizon, the more people who will.