Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Puzzling Over Saving the Earth

Help me puzzle out where we are heading on this annual celebration of Earth Day.

It hasn’t helped to have read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction earlier this month. From a scientific point of view, it looks pretty clear that continuing as we are on our highway of carbon emissions, we are driving to an end much of life as we know it.

I try not to despair since much of my job is to inform people about saving the land, waters and critters. I’d like to get up and believe every day is Earth Day or at least to believe, as reporter Gary Chittim at KING5 tweeted this morning, “On Earth Day; the movement toward a healthier earth keeps rolling along through the mud of skepticism by finding traction in common sense.”

That’s good, if it were true and helps you get up in the morning. But for many people common sense would say the earth is still the center of the universe and, if asked to choose between the accounts of the beginning of the universe given by Carl Sagan and Neal DeGrasse Tyson and Genesis, would say they didn’t know or opt for the Good Book’s version. [Poll: Big Bang a big question for most American]

Common sense, based on keen observation and experience, is smart. Common sense, based on custom and prejudice, is ignorant.

If global warming and ocean acidification aren’t real to you this Earth Day, how can you take seriously the 101 ways to save our planet?

Two-and-a-half years ago I lost my job and our household’s monthly gasoline bills dropped since I was not driving up and down the freeways. The car we drive now is almost twice as fuel efficient as the one before and, I am fascinated by the dashboard feature that measures my fuel efficiency in real time while driving. That’s the same fascination I have when I encounter those radar-activated traffic displays on city streets telling you how fast you are going. Drive steady; whoa, slow down...

I’m also hooked on taking my daily blood pressure, imagining the the fragrances on the tropical breeze, the rustling of the coconut fronds while the cuff constricts and slowly releases. What have I been eating, I wonder, when the reading is higher; what are you upset about? Whoa, slow down, take some deep breaths; try the reading again...

My ongoing skepticism on Earth Day and every day is that we are told to do things to reverse the bad things with no appreciable result we can see. Picking up litter or dog doo isn’t going to save the planet. The only results we learn about are the negative effects of increased carbon in the atmosphere and in our waters.

Gasoline prices in Puget Sound are now hitting the oil companies’ springtime bargain of $4 a gallon. [Whatcom County gas prices closing in on $4 a gallon] However, for many there is no connection between the miles driven and the boom in Salish Sea oil and fuel transport by tanker, train and pipeline— and the steady increase of carbon in our air and waters. [Surging oil traffic puts region at risk]

What’s the feedback mechanism in real time that will allow us to see how modifying our everyday actions will affect the health of the planet? What will shows us in real time how our everyday actions relate to larger issues and actions, the same way driving for fuel efficiency and speed limits can tell us about oil exports, climate change and public safety, the way taking one’s blood pressure and weight can tell us about medication, diet and exercise?

Unless we get to that point on Earth Day and every day, science will always lose to custom and prejudice. Unless we can show that we and our world are irrevocably connected, we and the world lose.

But sometimes the feedback mechanism is as simple as hearing once what you will always recall: Bill Frank, Jr. is said to have pointed to the overhead lights in a meeting room and said, “You know what I see in those lights? Dead salmon.” Since I heard that, I always think about salmon when turning off lights not in use.

And, as a palliative to The Sixth Extinction, I read the last chapter of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table where he describes several incarnations of a carbon atom through the webs of space, time and life. The elements, thank goodness, are eternal.

--Mike Sato


  1. From Tom H via email:

    The evidence (and Elizabeth Kolbert) says that extinction is inevitable without drastic change that we are in no way ready to make (regardless of the cost 20 or 40 years from now). Dr. Guy McPherson (Going Dark) says that we have already passed the tipping point and extinction is now assured regardless of behavior changes. Maybe.

    How unready we are for change can be witnessed any night on the news. Yesterday Gwen Ifil was describing how housing starts cast a glow on the economic recovery. But the truth is that housing starts is an indicator that our path to extinction is unwavering. We talk of water shortages but not people surfeits. We are not ready for the necessary change. The first step is to change our language and our perception.

    The root problem is growth. We add 270,000 (or something) new earthlings every day. If we were serious about survival we should be subtracting a million or more earthlings each day (until we reach a sustainable population). What are the chances that we will cause that to happen voluntarily?

    Without a crisis equivalent to a Pearl Harbor attack we will not change. Whether human extinction is pessimism or optimism is in the eye of the observer. J

    Hang on for the ride.

  2. Oh dear ... I guess you won't be wanting to be reading The Social Conquest of Earth by E. O. Wilson ... "We have conquered the biosphere and laid waste to it like no other species in the history of life. We are unique in what we have wrought. But we are not unique in our emotions. They are to be found, as in our anatomy and facial expressions, what Darwin called the indelible stamp of our animal ancestry. We are an evolutionary chimera, living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct. That is the reason we are mindlessly dismantling the biosphere and, with it, our own prospects for permanent existence."

    Let's just go drink some more beer and eat big ice cream cones!!!