Earth Day 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.