Real Sustainability Not Advanced by One Earth Day By Robert S. Becker

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By Robert S. Becker
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
April 26, 2010

With all the Earth Day brouhaha, you’d think the old planet would be out of the endangered, environmental woods – at least those few healthy, sustainable ones not under siege.  Media venues small and large declared all the “great progress,” implying light at the end of the eco-tunnel.  But Earth Day didn’t come close to the macro bedrock, focusing instead on positive but micro dimensions, like recycling, select endangered species, or buying greener products.

All good, all not close to enough.  When do we in earnest confront what once was called the “Population Bomb,” now linked to an equally dire problem, the Climate Control Bomb, itself spawned by the ever-growing Industrial Pollution-Eternal Growth Bombs?

Prove me wrong, but I see ecological tunnel vision embedded in this nation’s power centers, where every serious issue is trivialized and the mediocrity of the proposed solutions, even if passed, promise limited respite.  W. B. Yeats’ celebrated lines capture willful ignorance responding to a multiple calamity, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Breathtaking 150 Years, Literally

The biggest problem: humankind has been highly motivated, indeed obsessively sanctioned by its holy books, to “control nature” – which it has, in spades.  From far enough away, what man hath wrought is an amazing performance in only 150 years: one over-achieving species testing major planetary thresholds once considered off-limits.  Yet, despite a predominance of scientific wizards supplying reams of disaster testimony, leaders shrug their shoulders, talk risk-reward trade-offs, and the swamp thickens, weighed down by fragmentation, tribalism, corporate and political self-interests.  Wishful thinking and denial against emergency warning lights are no virtues, and trusting to free-markets, magical fixes or divine intervention is  playing a long shot.

Before most 40 year olds will die, we will add more human mouths – a whopping three-plus billion – than existed on the earth in 1960, a rise from today’s seven to ten billion souls by 2050.  Despite our every effort – wars, invasions, plagues, pernicious life styles, flesh-ripping accidents, wide-scale starvation, birth control, homicides, even bare-knuckle terrorism and governmental assassination – the panoply of species demolition beyond natural disasters – humanity adds one billion members every dozen years, give or take tens of millions.   In three years, our booming kind reproduces the equivalence of America’s population across the planet.  Scary, hot and crowded.

Drop in the Bucket

I support buying and thinking green but overall this is a drop in the bucket.  Where’s today’s Gandhi with a clarion call to challenge our universal, religiously-entrenched mission: that progress and growth are inevitable, blessings from God and the earth, and we fail if our children don’t live better.  I myself don’t forego optimistic aspirations, just now acknowledge this overriding dogma covers more land masses and will die harder than fables linking faith or good works to eternal life someplace called Heaven.

Fact: we earthlings are decimating rain forests and, all metaphors aside, poisoning our species’ lungs, just like a heavy smoker.  If plants don’t convert carbon oxygen, our lungs will gasp for the oxygen of life.    Under the Obama administration, we still approve intrusive logging roads and clear cutting of national forests without an overall plan or public debate.  Ditto, vast offshore regions approved for new, still messy oil drilling.  Ditto, money dispatched for “clean” coal burning, “safe” nuclear reactors, and “cost-effective” ethanol production, none of which is achievable by any technology today or anticipated.  We’re not even widely debating why food subsidies, per Michael Pollen, impede sustainable food production to promote unwholesome, low-nutrition diets that endanger our health and the earth.

Where’s the (Clean) Tea Party for sustainable food, clothing, housing, heating or transportation?

Conservation: the Hidden Salvation

I remain wholly mystified there’s no all-hands-on-deck, call-to-arms focus on conservation (a watt not used may be two watts saved), the easiest, cheapest, least complicated way to start our energy diet.  Nor do we insist on 25-50 year mitigation of “externalities” for big or small development projects, assessing all the impacts from change, not just blatant pollution that muddies rivers.  Hundreds of toxic Superfund sites testify to the fantastic sums taxpayers must pony up to force developers (or do it ourselves) to offset unintended, unstipulated consequences threatening soil, water, marine mammals (like 200 million year old sea turtles), fish, reptiles, plants and people.

Do you assume, like most westerners, science and technology will save us?  Not according to Bill Gates unless we begin to spend more than pennies on basic research and implementation.  Guess what top U.S. companies since 1995 spend for research and development?  Less than 1% of their revenue, a penny for every dollar of sales.  Despite hordes of Chicken Littles on inevitable energy crunches, the U.S. government spends less than $3 billion annually on clean energy research – vs. $10 billion PER MONTH on wars we’re not winning and 80 billion per year on research for better, slicker, faster weapons of mass violence, that is, “defense spending” (plus $600 billion more on weaponry).

Better Not Good Enough

Somehow these frameworks don’t make the nightly news, not on Earth Day nor the week after.  Even green producers don’t tally all the costs, for organic food still needs massive fossil fuel input and making wood pulp feel as soft as cotton has its own complex, heavy pollutants.  Likewise, few figure the critical resources, as basic as water, “borrowed” from third-world countries: it takes 1,250 gallons of water to grow one pound of beef, 70 gallons to grow coffee for one cup, 1800 gallons to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans.  Our food and clothing remains fairly cheap because producers everywhere are pumping cheap and plentiful water at unsustainable rates, and not treating workers well, either.

There is admirable progress, but it’s fragmented and unco-ordinated.  What happened 40 years ago – Clean Air, Clear Water, and Endangered Species Acts – protect irreplaceable national resources.  Bravo!  But one-third of domestic waterways are still badly polluted, kids’ breathing diseases are up, and our food production is no more sustainable than 1970 – still fossil fuel-, pesticide-, herbicide-, and chemical-fertilizer-driven, held captive by beef-, corn-, sugar- and carbohydrate-friendly manufacturing.

If we are what we eat, we are getting more, not less processed, preserved, and artificial than ever.  We need more than Slow Food but a revolution in diet and farming.  Obesity is an environmental marker as well as a health warning.

Fixing as Quickly as Wounding?

As filmmaker Robert Stone puts it, “global IS the new local,” but are we funding the research to describe the problem, let alone solutions?  Oddly, Joe Biden’s measured Earth Day comments fit, “We’ve been celebrating Earth Day for 40 years now,” but “today may be the first one where we  . . . have started down the road to a real clean energy economy — and a better world for our kids . . . the fact is we’ve been trying for 40 years, and we’ve made some progress.”

The first day, some progress after 40 years.  My fear is enough media “progress” to make us falsely confident we’re out of the dark woods.  In 40 years, as well, totally unexpected, unfixable fiascos are newly visible.  The oceans are littered not only with huge islands of plastic refuge miles long by miles wide by yards deep, but packed with infinitesimal plastic smithereens in every corner of every ocean.  Plastic is not good for any living creature – and these smithereens show, as with global warming, man-made stuff can insinuate the oceanic globe in a amazingly short span.

Bottom line, invisible in open debate: can humanity put Humpty Dumpty back together in roughly the same time it took to push him off the wall – 100-150 years?  That’s a generous estimate for many top experts before tipping points take us over the edge.  We can’t complain Mother Earth isn’t blaring forth countless warnings, as glaciers dissolve and temperature rises.  We’re getting, but not hearing the earth’s blatant 9-1-1 calls.  If only we respond to these flashing lights as this scared nation did to that other, remarkably similar numerical wake-up call, 9/11. Then, we have a chance to reverse trends and smell the coffee – even appreciate how much water it took to produce the grinds before we compost them all.


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