I remember when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. We were killing off the creatures we share this land with at an incredible rate with our poisons and things, and she called it to our attention.
One of the things we were killing off was the bald eagle, our national bird, symbol of the United States of America. There’s nothing we Americans like better than a good symbol, so we gathered round and passed a bunch of laws and Nixon signed them and – we’ve still got the bald eagle. And a bunch of other things that otherwise might be extinct by now.
So – I remember the Silent Spring era. Then there was the Ozone Layer – we were making a big hole in the ozone layer. Then on another day we noticed that it was raining acid and forests were dying and downtown buildings were melting. For a while we were worried about whether the various weird chemicals that make up the soup we call water might be harmful to our health.
We worried about the loss of topsoil. We worried about the loss of forests. We worried about – ah, hell, I can’t remember them all. Environmental disasters have been looming on the horizon since I was in grade school, and I’m an old man. Now it’s global climate change, via our worldwide modification of the atmosphere.
You know what? They are all still out there. They are all still out there. You’d never know it to read the news, but to a greater or lesser extent all those threats are still out there, except maybe to the bald eagle. We Americans do love symbols.
Here’s a question for somebody much smarter than me: What is the mathematical formula to take all these individual threats to our long term survival, multiply them by their specific danger to us, then multiply all the different threats’ dangers by the quantity of threats, and then, to make it more realistic, we’d need to multiply in there the possibility that two seemingly individual threats might interact to increase their danger to us, say, particles in the atmosphere and some hormone in the water… I don’t know. Probably have to square some number to make it right. I don’t know how much danger we, the human race, are really in.
Nobody else knows either. We act like we can see the future, but we can’t. Not one second. I’m expecting to live to finish this essay, but I have no way of knowing that. We can’t even see the present, not when we’re talking about threats to the worldwide ecosystem’s ability to continue to support our particular life form. We don’t have a clue.
Have you ever been driving along, thinking about what was on the radio and what you were going to be doing in fifteen minutes, only to find out that in fifteen minutes you were standing on the pavement talking to a cop, maybe also looking at the damage to your car and some stranger’s car? Or waking up in a hospital room? If it hasn’t happened to you it’s happened to somebody you know. We can’t see one second into the future.
We think that, so far, we’ve more-or-less dodged all these bullets. But in reality we haven’t dodged them. We’re walking wounded. In major cities in China people can’t go outside without masks because the particulates in the air are too painful to breathe. If Republicans get their way it will be like that here. We already kill a couple hundred thousand Americans a year with crud in the air.
Skin cancer is up worldwide. Yep. Turned out we did need the entire, functioning ozone layer after all. Oops.
In many countries human life expectancy has peaked and is on the way back down.
So – we appear to be dodging the bullets that are already flying, but we’re not. Imagine if terrorists killed a couple hundred thousand Americans a year. Why is it OK for capitalists to do it? And that number is from only one of the many bullets flying.
I’m not a Luddite. I’m writing this on my computer and will be posting it on my internet blog. I earned my livelihood by installing, servicing and repairing computerized stuff of one sort and another for all my working years. I own a bunch of power tools and use them regularly. That said, we’ve got to get a grip on our technology before it kills us.
We know that we are driving other species into extinction, one after another. We know that the current extinction rate ranks high among mass extinctions of the past. So what do humans do to cause extinction?
There are two main things: one, we kill them all, on purpose. That’s what we did with the passenger pigeon, probably the most famous example. We appear to be in the process of doing the same with elephants, rhinoceroses, and a few other things. The other thing we do is, we make it so that there is no longer any place on Earth that will support their lives. We refer to that as “habitat destruction,” but that oversimplifies what has happened.
Life in general is incredibly tough, tenacious, and adaptable, but specific forms of life mostly have rather specific requirements if they are to survive. We say they must live in one specific niche. Since life started up here on Earth living creatures have modified the planet in uncountable different ways. When some critter invented photosynthesis almost all the others went extinct more or less at once (in geological terms). At the same time geological processes, from continental drift to weather, have modified the planet as well. In the process the world became more and more complex. Every time a new niche turned up in some weathered rock or newly evolved life form, another life form rose up to fill it. In the broadest sense speciation, the variety of creatures that exist, is a measurement of the complexity of this planet. Over the course of a couple-three billion years the world ecosystem became pretty complex.
By about eight thousand years ago, when humans invented agriculture and what we so modestly think of as civilization, the complexity of the earth, and of life upon it, was immeasurable. Then we decided we weren’t part of it. The first time it ever occurred to us to cut down every last tree in one particular forest, the world became a little simpler. Maybe the loss of just that one forest took the only example on the planet of some highly specific niche to live in. Maybe at that moment some unheralded, highly evolved, niche-dependent species vanished. But the earth was rich, rich beyond our wildest current imagining, and the loss was trivial.
The losses are beginning to add up. But that’s not really the point. The point is that we, too, have certain requirements in order to be able to live. We, too, are niche-specific, but it’s a pretty deep, wide niche. Examples of our niche can be found in mountain, desert, prairie and swamp. People can live in reasonable comfort in igloos and grass huts. Compared to bacteria that live in volcanic steam vents our requirements are not that specific – but on the other hand, we can’t live in their houses either.
We have spent some 8,000 years eliminating niche after niche; we simplified the world, we eliminated complexity. We do it faster and faster, and the species that live in the niches we eliminate cease to exist. Meanwhile, we are just now learning to what extent we, too, are ecosystems, filled with other life forms, some helping us, some hurting us, and some perhaps just along for the ride. We clearly don’t know what all we depend on for our survival.
It’s no news to anybody that you don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry, but it’s worth thinking about why our rivers aren’t drinkable. It’s even more worth thinking about the fact that nobody knows what is still in that river water, well water, spring water, plastic bottle water when it reaches every single cell in our bodies and brains, or what effect those contents might have in the aggregate. Because we are not “other.” We are a species. We live here. All our food, all our water, and all our air are components of Earth. There ain’t no place else.
We’ve already got all these bullets to dodge. We’re already not dodging them all, in spite of the fact that, so far, we can reproduce faster than our stupid cleverness can kill us off. You don’t hear it on the news that technology operated by capitalism killed 200,000 Americans, because capitalism is using technology to inform us instead that TERRORISTS KILLED TWELVE PEOPLE IN [fill in the blank].
No, we are not going to destroy life on Earth. Life is tough, rugged, and persistent. I don’t think we could destroy life on Earth with all-out nuclear war. Our own personal lives, however, our survival as a species, depends on a much narrower band of requirements than “life” writ large. Something will survive our stupidity but not necessarily us. And if we do survive it won’t necessarily be in the way we want to live. City dwellers having to put on breathing masks to go outdoors was the stuff of dystopic science fiction not that many years ago.
I am suggesting something really drastic: I am suggesting that keeping the Earth habitable for humans is as important as winning World War II.
In order to win World War II Americans were willing to put up with fuel rationing, food rationing, and a drastic reduction in everybody’s standard of living. It’s time to do it again.
I am suggesting that we make mass transportation mandatory, for most trips, in vans at first, then buses as fast as we can build them, on from there to trains as fast as we can build those. Fuel efficiency per person-mile should be our number one priority. I am suggesting that people who live in 9 bedroom houses like the Obamas just bought board up half the rooms and don’t heat or cool them. I am suggesting that everybody everywhere put their heads together and try to figure out how to live without poisoning the air and water AT ALL. It’s not one bullet that threatens us, it’s all the bullets. Yes, I would consider horses and buggies. Electric solar golf carts. Bicycles. Feet.
We have this idea that bizarre chemicals, like humans, have a right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. This is lunacy. The only way they can be proven guilty is to end or ruin a bunch of human lives, do some irreparable damage to the planet we live on, or otherwise show exactly how stupid that whole idea is. Everything that has never been put into the air or water before, and most things that already have, should be considered guilty until proven innocent.
Everything that comes in containers should come in reusable, returnable containers. Period. Hire people to hand wash them.
We currently measure efficiency mostly in person-hours. The more we can produce per person-hour the more efficient we are. That has to go. Energy efficiency and resource efficiency are vastly more important in the long run. If that means we can’t have as much stuff, then we can’t have as much stuff. Most of it winds up in landfills in a few months anyway.
We can’t get the crap we’ve already made out of wherever we put it, the air or the water or the soil. We can’t throw it away. There is no away. There is only here. We’ve got to stop adding more as quickly as we can.
I realize how crazy this sounds. It sounds crazy to me. I grew up in this country. I wanted to be an astronaut, back during the very first generation of astronauts. I drove big V8 cars, the faster the better, and did all the same stuff everybody else did. Due to my chosen trade I wound up driving well over a million miles just going from one service call to another.
But that’s as it may be. I didn’t know. We didn’t know. Just like we didn’t know we were going to World War II until Pearl Harbor day. But particulates in the air are going to kill many multiples as many Americans this year as died at Pearl Harbor. Global warming bombed us at Katrina, bombed us at Sandy, and has California under siege. When do we figure out that we are at war, and our lifestyle is the enemy?