A convenient falsehood

If we have learned anything about our planet’s so-called environmental crisis during my lifetime, it’s that Nature is complicated.  Take carbon dioxide, for example.  Everyone in my high school knew that carbon dioxide is a by-product of respiration–do they teach this anymore?–and yet for plants, it is an essential building-block of photosynthesis, which in turn releases oxygen, necessary for us Boomers (and other life forms) to keep on keepin’ on.  In this light [ha!], the existence of leafy green things–e.g., tropical rainforest–takes on an importance that few who enjoy breathing would deny.  But now it turns out that carbon dioxide is an insulating molecule, helping to retain heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and contributing (though a lot less than methane does, in the short run) to what was formerly called “global warming” and now, less tendentiously, “climate change.”  Even for the sake of future generations, however, this Boomer doesn’t plan on giving up respiration any sooner than necessary.

At the same time, plants on land and in the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it away, thereby balancing the warming effect.  The combustible fossil fuels that we extract from the Earth’s crust are themselves the product of ages-old “carbon sinks,”and burning them, especially since the advent of modern industry, has boosted the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  Of course, these ancient rocks are no longer accessible as storage space, and present-day forests are losing ground, sometimes literally in the case of the Amazon and tropical Africa.  The decay, not to mention burning, of dead trees releases carbon back into the environment; it goes into the soil but also the air.  It looks as if naturally active carbon sinks have kept the level of carbon to about half what it would have been since 1750 without them.  So, it makes sense that some have discussed “sequestering” carbon artificially, although most such schemes have gone nowhere in practice.



The raging political question is, how concerned should we be?  If we see evidence of rising temperatures, erratic weather, desertification, and new waterfront property in Florida, should we take action on an emergency basis–always assuming that global action on anything besides panic over a novel virus is even possible?  (See Messing Up Medicine, hand washing, above.)  At one extreme stand those who say “climateering” is just another conspiracy between the liberal media and academics to generate a self-perpetuating sense of crisis for their own benefit.  At the other pole are the “catastrophizers” who point to sweeping and irreversible changes and set one doomsday deadline for humanity after another.  In between are reasonably well-educated mortals who are starting to appreciate how complex any ‘solution’ to any environmental ‘problem’ might be.  It’s not that neither of the extreme views could be right; it’s that they both clearly involve layers of science (or worse, math!) and spin that ordinary folks cannot disentangle.  For people in the middle, the understandable temptation is to file it all under “Beyond My Control.”

Some Boomers, as we learned to do in the face of arguably existential threats like nuclear war, seek comfort in human ingenuity.  Creative thinking has enabled us to confront challenges in the past, avert disaster, and even make steady progress.  Let’s adopt this perspective for a moment and consider the power of invention, by looking at a humble example of mid-20th-century technology: the Disposall(r).  It seems that a certain John W. Hammes of Wisconsin can claim to have come up with the idea for a kitchen food disposer–he got the patent in 1935 after nearly two decades of tinkering–and the result was that by 2009, at least half of U.S. households had one.  The company he founded, InSinkErator, popularized the machine in spite of opposition from some municipal authorities, including in New York City, who feared it would damage public sewer systems.  But the actual danger lay elsewhere–in the insidious message that the “electric pig”  conveyed: “Just flip the switch, and the mess is all gone.”  (With a few annoying exceptions, as owners like myself persistently forget.  It’s amazing how much hassle a disposall breakdown entails.)  This device was such standard equipment in the suburban milieu in which large numbers of Boomers grew up that we can be forgiven for having to rediscover (with the help of a whole new advertising campaign) the art of composting.

Much else about our comfortable upbringing reinforced the same idea–modern living is just a matter of having the right gadget, and in due time the market will bring it to you.  It would just be silly to do things “the hard way”–whether that’s walking to the bus stop instead of to the garage or buying steel wool instead of Teflon pans–and convenience has no cost beyond dollars and cents.  On the flip side, stuff that you no longer want can simply be disposed of; out of sight, out of mind.  In fact, one imagines, freedom from routine chores promises liberation for all humankind.  (But a glance at the history of consumer culture and appliances, for instance, shows that women in the home did not necessarily benefit.)  Even shopping is no chore when it can be done from the couch, except that the stuff you’re buying wasn’t actually produced in the Amazon warehouse.  

Does this seem like mere hyperbole, or even anti-capitalist preaching?  Far from it, the advantages of creating new industries are undeniable: more jobs, more income, better lives.  Yet the transition to an “information economy” has disguised the grittier aspects of the process.  There is always a dirty side, even to producing computer chips in a “clean room.”  The environmental impact of mining for lithium and coltan to build electronics, never mind the health threat posed to child workers in search of valuable ‘e-waste’–these are reminders of an earlier industrial age and of the inevitable “trade-offs” within a globalized market.  But an even more daunting thought is that the developing world now aspires to the same standard of comfort that Americans sought a century ago, with all the demands that will bring, not least for energy.  It’s past time when the First World can just to pull up the ladder.

For all the rhetoric about “saving the planet,” in daily life convenience trumps conscience.  Witness the fiasco of recycling.  The dedicated bin in my own complex, which is clearly labeled as to approved contents, is regularly overflowing with unflattened cardboard boxes, chunks of styrofoam, and paper products stuffed in plastic bags of the kind that are now being taxed at checkout.  Is it any wonder that China and other Asian countries decline to become the repository for our ill-sorted garbage?  No amount of progressive legislation on the subject will do a thing unless there is a desire to comply.  Perhaps the old folks won the obvious battles against visible litter and toxic waste, not to suggest that the victories themselves were easy. But does that mean that any further efforts to foster awareness are arrant mind-control?

So, I’m not arguing that contemporary capitalism is the problem, but ignorance of how it operates is.  Boomers probably have their minds made up about the economy–sometimes they even know what they’re talking about–thus hope for real change lies with the attitudes of younger generations of students and their parents.  Sadly, this terrain has become a political minefield; there is scarcely any proposal regarding public education that does not encounter the media buzz-saw.  Still, I’m hoping that courageous elementary school teachers are planning not only robotics competitions but also field-trips to a sewage treatment facility, nuclear power station, window factory, or even steel plant (if they can find one).  The lesson to be learned in places where people work is not primarily about “conservation”–protecting resources–rather, it’s about Conservation of Matter.  There is no Disposall.  The stuff didn’t come from nowhere, it’s not going away by magic–in our closed system of Earth, it’s always that cycle-thing.

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