Global warming. Air pollution. The ozone hole. Nuclear winter. Acid rain. Deforestation. Pesticides. Extinction. Industrial waste.
Poisons are everywhere, undetectable, and have unknown risks.
Everything you hear about the environment leaves you feeling threatened and helpless. Not only that, but usually you are personally culpable unless you spend a huge amount of money buying your share of the problem away with (insert environmentally chic and expensive food/clothing/transportation/lifestyle item here).
A pretty insurmountable trio of adjectives, threatened, helpless, and culpable.
Believe it or not, there are actually a lot of environmental success stories. Successes that are the direct result of the political action engendered by making us feel threatened, helpless and culpable.
When I was a kid, everybody talked about acid rain, how it was killing the fish in the lakes, burning the trees. And it did. And it does still, but to a much lesser extent. Did anyone tell you that acid rain has gotten much better? That your outrage led to actions that severely curtailed the emission of the pollutants responsible for acid rain? That progress has been made even faster than what Congress anticipated?
Clap yourself on the back. We did it. Or, more correctly, we're doing it. Keep up the good work!
You never hear about it, but the air is easier to breathe. Not everywhere, but in most cities, particularly in California and the Northeast, air quality has been getting better and better, thanks to some of the same measures that were taken for acid rain, but mostly because cars and trucks have become less polluting.
Deforestation is a huge problem worldwide. But not everywhere!
New England used to be about 80% de-forested. Now it is about 80% re-forested. Those new trees are a lot smaller than the old trees that got cut down. And the demand for wood in New England is largely met by exporting the problem to other parts of the world.
And yet, New England is rapidly re-growing a valuable renewable resource.
And nobody talks about what a huge success that is. How can we learn from what happened in New England and export that success as well?
The Ozone Hole
The ozone hole was first recognized in the 1970's, and by 1978, the main agents responsible were banned in most countries. We changed the propellants used in spray cans, and the refrigerants used in refrigerators. And although the ozone hole hasn't been shrinking, it has stopped growing quickly, and is expected to recover over the next few decades.
Problem caused. Alarm raised. Problem addressed. Let the healing begin.
A huge success story is lead poisoning in children. You've probably heard about kids getting poisoned from lead paint. Too much lead causes brain changes that are not good. It's still a big issue in areas with older housing stock (but rapid progress is being made).
Not too long ago, virtually every child had potentially toxic levels of lead in their body, due to the lead additives used in gasoline that we all breathed in. That's gone now. And there's a huge generational shift in blood lead levels.
And there's more. The Nashua River used to stink to high heaven, it's banks were scorched clean. Now you can eat the fish you catch there. Bays have gotten cleaner. Alternatives to pesticides are gaining ground. Eagles are laying eggs that hatch. Wild areas are being protected. And so on and so on.
I remind myself of these stories now and again because I think feeling threatened, helpless and culpable is a pretty big waste of time.
I'd like to think that there's a way to motivate the public to address the serious environmental threats facing us that doesn't resort to backing us into that uncomfortable corner. And can we celebrate the successes, for once?
When faced with the newer threats - like global warming - and the old threats - like nuclear waste - I take heart in the fact that we've been able to make real progress on a lot of fronts in the past. I don't necessarily think that there's a technological fix to every problem, that there's a progressive inevitability to cleaning up after ourselves. But I also don't think we're living in a world that is on the verge of total collapse, either. And I vehemently disagree with the stance that the only real solution is to reduce the human population. We may cause the problems, but we're also the ones to fix them.
I think we can make a difference. We already have. Let's keep doing it.