Before my time there were a lot of wars. A couple were pretty big – so we called them World Wars. The name of what was originally called, “The War To End All Wars” didn’t live up to its billing. So we had another World War and rather than using the titles Sr. and Jr. we chose to use the Roman numerals I and II. I guess that was just so that if any more wars arose later of the same scale it would make it easier to name them.
During the Second World War, Americans were called on to make sacrifices. We shipped our young men overseas, many of whom never came home to their moms or their wives. And in their absence, we asked the women of America not only to sacrifice their husbands and sons and brothers but to contribute to the war effort by accepting food rationing and gas rationing and by helping out in our plants and factories. And so, the iconic American woman was born. She was called Rosie the Riveter.
This was an America where the people were unified in a “Can Do Spirit” rather than a “Make Excuse Mind Set.” It was an America of seven decades ago.
Now although, as I said, this time preceded my somewhat unheralded arrival on Earth, this was the spirit in which my parents spent most of their young adult lives. And naturally, this shaped their behavior and it molded the way in which they raised me. So by a form of osmosis, I came to believe that any individual, if she or he applied himself, could do great and wondrous things. And if all of us did those wondrous things as individuals, we as a country could become great and wondrous. And we did and we were.
We created new and exciting inventions. We flew to the moon. We built highways and fast cars to travel on them. We replaced failing human hearts with artificial ones. We did truly amazing things. We looked on ourselves as masters of the universe. But along the way we lost sight of something – and it was an important something, indeed.
Whether we believed in the story of God and His creating the world or whether we accepted a more humanistic view that Mother Nature was a powerful mistress, we forgot to honor our obligation to be good guests in our own home. Our lust for bigger and faster and better allowed us to set aside our concern for our environment in our need for immediate gratification – irrespective of the consequences. After all, those were going to happen “down the road” and, no doubt, we would, trusting in our genius, think up a way to fix those problems when it was necessary to do so.
And so that brings us to the question of Global Warming.
As you probably know, there are just as many people on the one side of the argument as on the other. Lay people and scientists; politicians and professionals – all with differing opinions which, naturally result in differing solutions in addressing what might or might not actually be a problem.
That this is a hotly debated topic is clear. In fact, it is of such import that last week at Knox College, President Obama identified it as the central challenge facing us as Americans and the people of the world in general. Several of my friends and readers might have a slightly different take on the real problems which America is facing, but that’s a matter for another post – or, more likely, quite a few more.
Whether global warming is a man made phenomenon or whether it even exists is at this point moot. The honest person would have to say that there is a lot of purported evidence brought forth on both sides of the argument. But we do know, for a fact that air and water pollution are, in and of themselves, problems. Therefore, we should certainly be looking at ways to rein those in if at all possible.
Part of our problem in dealing with these sorts of topics is that we have solely focused on what we perceive to be the initial and systemic reason for spewing pollutants into our environment. In other words, burning coal releases more toxins into our atmosphere than, for example, natural gas.
But what is always omitted in these analyses is the fact that we don’t burn coal simply because it’s there and we can. We burn it because it provides something that we perceive we need – namely energy. Clearly, if our climate were such that we didn’t need to cool our houses in summer or heat them in winter, our demand for burning coal or any other fuel would decrease significantly. But we have no control over our weather and so we continue to air condition and heat our homes.
But there are other aspects of our lifestyles over which we do have control. For example, we can choose to purchase our beverages of choice at the supermarket that come packaged in aluminum or plastic – or we can insist that all of these containers be replaced with glass – which is fully reusable and ultimately fully recyclable.
Of course, paying a deposit on a glass container as we did in the old days and returning it to get our refund is less convenient than taking an empty aluminum can and tossing it in the recycle bin (or more likely the garbage). It does require some effort and just the most minor amount of sacrifice on our parts. But my folks would have had no problem making that sacrifice for the good of the environment – and just because creating trash was something on which they frowned.
In the absence of that old American spirit of “Doing” and “Co-operation”, a simple solution to address part of the problem to which the president referred in his speech would simply be to impose a tax on each aluminum or plastic beverage container that is sold. It seems to me that the fastest way to educate a person is by first getting her attention. And nothing gets my attention faster than when somebody tells me that doing something is going to cost me out of pocket.
I suspect if this suggestion were implemented it would enjoy about the same amount of popularity as scheduling an appointment to go the the dentist to have your teeth cleaned. But despite the fact that we don’t like the procedure (and have to pay for it – adding further insult to injury) we do it anyway because it is a necessary part of maintaining a healthy regimen.
Will reducing the number of aluminum and glass containers eliminate our pollution problems? Of course not. No one thing that we can do will accomplish that. So let’s move forward to another way in which we might positively impact our environment.
Styrofoam is another petroleum based product which takes an extraordinary amount of time to break down in our landfills. We don’t produce it because we’re purposely trying to see how many pollutants we can add to our dumps or rivers. We came up with the material because it is resilient and very light weight. Both of those are good things. In fact, my neighborhood supermarket has a bench outside the store that bears on it a little sign that reads, “This bench is made from recycled Styrofoam.” I’ve sat on that bench and I can vouch for the fact that it seemed just sturdy as one made from wood or some laminate.
So we go to the supermarket and pick up some meat for dinner and as it sits in the case we look at the nicely shrink-wrapped package and there are our pork chops, neatly arranged in the Styrofoam tray. Having made our selection, just to make sure, we turn over the package and see the familiar recycle symbol. We are making not only a tasty choice but one that is environmentally friendly. Or so we think.
The truth of the matter is that ninety-eight percent of those trays and all the rest of the stuff that is made from Styrofoam will actually end up in land fills or in our rivers and oceans, having been discarded by our recycling centers as unusable.
But wait – why aren’t we making more benches out of it like the one in front of my grocery store to put in the front of other grocery stores or anywhere else people feel the need to place a bench – like our parks?
The simple answer is that one of Styrofoam’s qualities that we admire, its lightness, is the reason that less than five percent of all recycling facilities nationwide actually accept it. You see, the recycling business is primarily driven by weight. And it takes an awful lot of Styrofoam and some very specialized equipment to make recycling it cost effective.
Once again, here’s a simple solution which I would offer the Administration in light of the president’s speech. Require that all recycling centers of some to-be-determined size based on annual volume, purchase and use the equipment that would enable them to recycle this material.
Naturally, they would find a way to pass this along to the consumers who use their services to collect trash and recycling. I already pay for this service and would be willing to pay a little more to clear my conscience, knowing that the Styrofoam containers with which I am confronted at every turn would have a better resting place than the neighborhood dump.
Well, that addresses two ways in which we might either reduce end consumption of a pollutive product or reuse another one more effectively. But neither of those will by themselves eliminate our demand for energy to the point where we are not polluting our environment. As I said earlier, there is no one thing that we can do that will accomplish that goal. But there are many small things that we can do that will help us achieve it.
Nearly forty years ago, in October, 1973, Arab oil producing nations announced an oil embargo on shipments to the United States because of our support of Israel. Given the posture of the administration today, we need feel no fear of a repetition of that event – at least for that reason.
This embargo not surprisingly resulted in shortages of gasoline. The government’s response was twofold. First was the introduction of a form of rationing which took the shape of only allowing motorists to fuel their cars on certain days based on whether their license plate ended in an even or odd number or letter. The second was the introduction of the mandatory maximum speed on our highways at 55 mph.
In forty years, several things regarding fuel consumption and emissions have remained constant. The fact is that we know that vehicles that are operated at higher rates of speed burn fuel less efficiently and therefore consume more of it; and we know that the less efficient utilization of fuel results in greater amounts of pollutants being released into the atmosphere. It seems pretty obvious that if we want to reduce the amount of fossil fuel we use, we need simply to re-implement those 1973 standards of a 55 mph maximum speed on our highways.
Again, by itself this will not solve our pollution problems. But it might be yet another tool in our tool box to try to rein in our unbridled exploitation of the energy for which we have an unquenched thirst.
If there is one common thread (other than common sense) which binds these three suggestions together it is this. Adopting any or all of these will require a bit of sacrifice on everyone’s part.
In the America of the 1950’s and even early ‘60’s I believe that if this were explained in a straightforward way to the American people, we might have grumbled a bit but would have decided that for our own good (and ultimately for the good of the nation) we would pitch in and do our part. We were less interested in those days in flowery speeches than we were in recognizable accomplishments.
Today, well – I’m not so sure.