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Earth Day 2006

April 22, 2006

There is one thing about Earth Day that I just can’t figure out: how it became a partisan issue.  For some reason people on the “right” seem to take glee in expressing their distain for environmentalism in all its forms, swimming in denial on all ecological problems, appointing oil-company executives to environmentally important government posts, giving away the store to oil companies, and so forth.  At the same time, people on the “left” seem to be trying to match the right’s idiocy – in mirror image – by grabbing onto every conceivable environmental cause, even those that are incompatible with each other or plainly unsupported by science.  Then both sides point with glee at the other side’s idiots and claim that they, and only they, are seeing the issue clearly.

News flash:  It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian – we all live on the same planet.  Nature doesn’t give a damn what your economic/political/religious theory is because nature is not a conscious entity.  Nature also does not care about your concerns – the consequences of our actions won’t wait until we have worked out the chinks in human society.  And Nature is big, but it is not unlimited.  Nature is the physical world, operating at a level of complexity that just won’t fit on a bumper sticker.

If you dig up inconceivably huge amounts of fossil carbon from when the Earth was a LOT warmer, burn it back into the atmosphere, you get acidic seas and high sea levels, along with lots of unpleasant climatic and biological consequences.  Pour mercury into the air from coal-fired power plants, and you’ll have kids with neurological problems, especially if they eat a lot of fish.  Let enough polluting cars choke up the air in L.A., and you’ll have asthmatic kids dropping like flies.

Since we’re all in that equation together, how did it get to be a partisan issue?  Righties, do you think a disaster will pass you by if you don’t believe in it?  Lefties, do you think you can jump on every bandwagon without prioritizing?  Both sides, shouldn’t you take the trouble to see past the partisan blather obscuring the subject?  Read stuff written by scientists, engineers, and technical service people, not crappy novelists or politicians.  Make the distinction between think tanks and research institutions. Get a clue.

Since Nature won’t compromise with us, we are going to have to learn to compromise with each other.  The ‘free market’ isn’t going to integrate global-scale environmental consequences, so regulations will be necessary.  And there are no environmentally benign energy sources.  Nuclear power poses a rather thorny waste storage problem.  But (a lot) more radioactivity gets into the atmosphere from coal than from nuclear.  Windmills are variable-output so they can only supplement, not replace, other sources.  Solar cells take quite a bit of energy to manufacture.  We will have to make choices.

One choice that has almost no downside is conservation.  How this got to be controversial is completely beyond me.  Back when I was a kid people said; “Waste not, want not”.  Is that not true anymore?  I must have missed the memo. But somehow there are people who act as if they are being tortured if they have to even think about how much they waste.

The preservation of our planet is not helped by ill-considered environmental movements.  Every household reycling study I have seen shows that only metals (especially aluminum) and some plastics can be recycled profitably.  Some non-metallic materials are also worth re-using (like adding rubber to asphalt) and toxic things like electronics need to be recycled even if at a loss.  But even a cursory examination of the chemistry of paper recycling will make you want to spend a few minutes in ‘preview’ mode before clicking ‘print’.  Conservation and some alternative fibres are the way to go there.

Recently I saw a photo of an automotive traffic jam – in Beijing, China.  That dog won’t hunt in Beijing any better than it does in Atlanta – it’s still incredibly wasteful, to say nothing of frustrating.  Urban planning worldwide is going to have to get smarter.

And so are we.  In our consumer choices, our votes, and our culture, we’re going to have to recognize the common good, and that will mean more than looking for a green label or reciting a slogan.  We might even try listening to each other.  How much progress can we make otherwise?

Until we find someplace else to live (and acquire the ability to go there), every day is Earth day. 

  1. Ed
    April 22, 2006 at 23:05 | #1

    Energy costs for recycled metals should be lower, I believe, than their ore-produced products.  Combine that with projections of future metal shortages (especially copper and lead) leads one to believe that recycling today is fairly lucrative and will expand in scope.

    Energy prices will slowly push people into conserving fuel, but probably not in any big way until gasoline prices hit $4-$5/gallon.  Possible fuel shortages due to the phase out of prior additives and the lead time to get ready for ethanol mixtures may be the cold shower that forces people to carpool, slow down, and drive smaller cars.

    Or not.  We have become drunk on cheap energy and it will take a while to detox, and maybe longer to cure the big hangover awaiting us.

  2. April 23, 2006 at 08:52 | #2

    Thanks – ‘metal recycling = economical’ is what I meant to say, so I just edited that paragraph a bit to make it clearer.

    I’ve always wondered how people transition to ‘doing the right thing’.  Seat belts, for example: for many people, the prospect of being decapitated by the windshield isn’t enough incentive.  But a $50 fine?!  “Grumble, gripe, growl” – click!  I think this has some application to environmental issues.

  3. April 23, 2006 at 18:47 | #3

    Did you know that here in the UK the Right have come all out “green” in their political campaigning tot he extent that the Left are taking the mickey out of them as being chameleons.

    I can’t help thinking it is just a vote-getting action but if it makes a difference then great.

    And yes, I reckon that saying “Waste not, want not” has long been forgotten and would make all the difference if we all adopted it as a policy on a personal level as well as a corporate level. We all have that responsibility.

    We use freecycle.org which is an internationally growing network and a way to keep stuff out of landfill.

  4. April 25, 2006 at 18:24 | #4

    Leadership is absolutely necessary.  Whether it comes from government or a charismatic force (I don’t see the latter, so the former seems more necessary to me), a largely capitalist society only understands money.  Not only is the west “drunk on cheap energy”, it is drunk on blind consumption.  You don’t change that by fuzzy appeals.  Tough love is required at least 85% of the time.

    Frankly, I’m really, really, totally pissed at the lack of leadership on the environment.  There is only one issue worth our attention right now, and that is Mother Earth.

    Oh, and I might disagree about the nature not being conscious, but then, you knew that.  ;-)

  5. April 25, 2006 at 19:17 | #5

    I have a hunch you’ll like Al Gore’s new movie, An Inconvenient Truth, then.  (Wish he’d shown this much edge during his last campaign)

  6. April 25, 2006 at 22:19 | #6

    Thanks for the link.  Given that it is Al Gore and I respect his intelligent analysis of issues, I will go see the film.  But if my decision were based on a breathless, over-the-top trailer ….

    If even some of the reports of the rate of extinction of marine species are true, we are in deep, deep trouble.

  7. April 26, 2006 at 08:59 | #7

    there is a difference between being concerned about and trying to protect our environment and being a greenie enviro-nut. As a sportsman and lover of the outdoors I do what I can to protect it and the flora and fauna in it. But that doesn’t mean that I would raise hell over drilling in the gulf because I am afraid of an oil spill. In fact I am in favor of it because the platforms have proven to be great for the fish.

    Most of the lumber companies of today are better at protecting the enviroment than the greenies. The majority of “old growth” forests the greenies scream about are less than 500 years old-this is not old growth and these trees will evenually be destroyed by fire and /or natural causes anyway. At least the lumber companies replant when they cut a tree. The enviro-nuts worry more about a three eyed two peckered toad frog than they do the welfare of the race.

  8. April 26, 2006 at 20:08 | #8

    guyk:  With all due respect, you’re out to lunch.  BTW, the “password” I need to type in to post this is “problem”.  You’re it.  DOF… you can delete this if you want, fine by me.

  9. April 26, 2006 at 21:10 | #9

    There’s a bone of environmental contention:  perceptual scale vs. supra-perceptual scale.  Many people take care not to damage the environment when they’re hunting or building, which is great, but prefer not to acknowledge environmental risks that take place in time or distance scales that can’t be perceived in one ‘gulp’.  But those are exactly the ones that you pick up with satellite images, paleoclimatology, genetic migration studies, etc.  They’re ‘invisible’.

    Example: there is far more species diversity in a forest that was ‘old-growth’ until 250 years ago, then cut down once, and left alone ever since, than there is in a ‘managed’ forest that is cut down every 25 years.  And while it is true that fish really like oil rigs, the pipeline channels bring salt water into wetlands and accelerate barrier island erosion.  This is a manageable problem but we need to acknowledge it to manage it. 

    Another bone of contention on the environment is the notion that the interests of humans and – to use a common example – spotted owls, are in conflict.  Fact is, ultimately our own species depends on the health of surrounding ecosystems, and the little owl can be thought of as an indicator species.  (Just reflect that large sections of the middle East were once covered with cedar forests, just like the Pacific Northwest, and are desert today.)

    The ‘free market’ isn’t going to protect ocean diversity without regulation, but paradoxically it can play a positive role by trading allowances (like carbon futures).

    Bottom line, both sides want protecting the environment to be simple, but it isn’t.

    GUYK, if you find a three eyed two peckered toad frog anywhere, that should definitely be a protected species!!!  ;-)

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