Earth Day 2014 has come and gone, so I thought I would share a few random thoughts on where we are on some environmental issues.
In March, the U.S. Congress utilized the Wilderness Act of 1964 for the first time in five years to permanently protect the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. This was such a popular idea in Michigan that even Michigan’s Republican delegation in Washington voted for it. What is truly remarkable is that the current House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Fox-Republican-TEA Party, is certainly the most dysfunctional House in U.S. history and one of the most anti-environmental. Nevertheless, by voice vote, the House unanimously supported this new wilderness area! In spite of its incompetence since the elections of 2010, the House can still do something right if the people demand it.
Also, in March we remembered the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez accident that polluted part of the Alaskan coastline and waters. Oil can still be found around the rocks there, and the fisheries and lifestyles haven’t fully recovered. I’ve boycotted Exxon gas pumps for all those 25 years, and you can see what good I’ve done: Exxon-Mobil is probably the biggest corporation in the world. My meager efforts remind me of that Ernest Hemingway character, Henry Morgan, who realized that “a man alone ain’t got no bloody chance.” It would take popular outrage to get Exxon to change its ways, but my conscience is clear.
A year ago, Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline burst in Mayflower, AR, destroying a neighborhood and impacting Lake Conway. Four years ago, BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was the most devastating ever, and the region’s population, economy, and environment are far from recovery. Today, Shell Oil is eager to drill in Arctic waters where cleanup from any spill or blowout would be impossible.
The Keystone XL pipeline is already an environmental disaster at its source in the Canadian tar sands region and will undoubtedly be a constant threat to the fragile water supplies of the Great Plains where the pipeline may be laid. The justification for this risk is that the pipeline is necessary to get the dirty crude to Texas refineries so the oil can be shipped overseas. President Obama has delayed a final decision on it, and his environmental legacy will depend on whether he has the moral and political courage to say no. I can hear the late, great Pete Seeger singing now: “When will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?”
The Buffalo National River is still threatened by pollution from a factory farm. What is laughingly still called the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality gave its approval for the C&H Cargill farm to house 6500 swine and spread their manure over fields near Big Creek, which flows 6 miles down to the Buffalo River. The porous nature of the rock in that area means that there is a 95 % chance that the Buffalo will be adversely affected. The April tests for water quality by the National Park Service have found E. coli bacteria colonies at 30 times the normal level in Big Creek. Currently, the farm has not been shut down, and, incredibly, no heads have rolled at ADEQ.
About the only thing in doubt about climate change seems to be that nobody is sure just how much more time we have before it’s too late to prevent the temperature rising too high. The recently released three-part UN study predicts that we have no more than 15 years to act.
We’ve been procrastinating since the late 1970’s when we first realized the dangers of global warming. In the thirties we were able to see that certain farming practices helped lead to the Dust Bowl. In the sixties and seventies, we could see the hole in the Ozone layer, that lakes could die, that rivers could catch on fire, and that acid rain and DDT have disastrous consequences, and we were willing to do something about them. But climate change is too abstract for most people. Droughts, floods, tornados, hurricanes, snowstorms, wildfires, and earthquakes are all natural phenomena, so their increasing severity is harder for Joe and Sue Citizen to connect to human activity. There has been a steady, drastic increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ever since industrialization increased after 1860. It seems like plain common sense that it is we who put it there and it is we who need to do something about it. But common sense and all the scientific data that confirm the major causes of climate change have had little effect on getting Congress to act.
We will likely procrastinate on reducing greenhouse gases until we actually see the seas rise. That will be when our favorite beaches are permanently under water and people in coastal cities and resorts are abandoning their homes, farms, and businesses to move to higher ground. Only then will we feel remorse for not taking preventative action when we should have from the 1980’s to the present.
As to the importance of procrastination and what it tells about an individual or a people, I refer to the words of Thomas de Quincey, an essayist in the early 19th century. He wrote an interesting treatise in 1827 titled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” His analysis included the following: “Once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he thinks very little of robbing. And from robbing, he next comes to drinking and Sabbath breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.”
(Author’s note: I first learned of the above quote by Thomas de Quincey from an episode of the early 1960’s TV series Naked City. The narrator quoted it at the beginning and end of the episode. The episode was ironically titled “The S.S. American Dream,” which was an old, huge freighter that was being sold for scrap. Is that what is happening to our own American dream?)
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published May 3, 2014, in the El Dorado News-Times as a Guest Column and in the May 8, 2014, edition of the Arkansas Times as a letter to the editor.