Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Column 30: Earth Day

Last Friday, April 22, marked the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. Though the population of the United States has increased by almost 50% since the first Earth Day, Only about a million Americans were expected to actively participate this year, compared to some 20 million then.
Why is this? As my friend Bob Perkowitz pointed out in his Earth Day column in the Charlotte, NC, Observer, today’s environmental problems are much harder to come to grips with than the problems of the ‘70’s. Global warming? I am an environmentalist and a trained scientist and I can’t even determine whether it’s real or not. Depletion of fish stocks? Too complex – species come and go to begin with, and even if the US restricts fishing, won’t other countries just take the fish anyhow?
Also today’s problems seem to involve too many unpleasant tradeoffs – gas is pushing three dollars a gallon, but we shouldn’t drill in the Arctic. Hybrid cars seem like a good idea, but will they work on our mountain roads? Alternative energy? That’s a problem to be solved by the energy companies – what can I do?
The most widespread mood I encounter, even among many environmentalists is resignation. So much is out of our hands, and what is in our hands seems to amount to gestures –I recycle my bottles and cans and major corporations produce tons of waste. I can go “off the grid” but they’ll still drill for oil in ANWR.
In his column, Bob (Full disclosure: Bob is married to Lisa Renstrom, a member of the Sierra Club Board; I have consulted, and continue to consult to the Sierra Club Board and Lisa) makes a compelling case that much of what impacts environmental quality in the 21st Century is actually under our control, for example energy independence, economic prosperity, healthy communities, and our natural heritage.
Dependence on foreign oil, is our single greatest national security and environmental problem, one that, in Einstein’s famous words, cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created it. The US can never produce enough oil to be independent and secure, and our government leaders need to stop buying the oil companies’ story that we can. Viable alternatives to oil exist now – geothermal, active solar, and wind power are all proven and usable – all it takes is the will to change. Hydrogen power is on the way to feasibility, and electric/hybrid vehicles are a reality. Every American, regardless of their politics, should be for energy independence.
Our dependence on foreign oil also has a powerful negative effect on our prosperity. 27% of the US trade deficit in 2004 was due to importing $179 billion in oil. This is a major force behind the weakness of the dollar and high gas prices. An energy policy that focuses on an independent future for America will create jobs, correct the trade deficit and make American businesses more competitive.
Health care does not seem like an environmental issue, but in many cases such as the Fallon cancer clusters it is. Mercury-laden fish that we cannot eat, chemicals in waste water that cannot be removed, air that is unhealthy to breathe all affect our lives and the costs of caring for those affected affect our economies, both public and private. Healthy communities should be an environmental priority.
Finally, there is the natural beauty in which we live. Every gas well in Wyoming, and oil well in the Arctic, every logging road through forests makes the next environmental abomination easier and lulls us into resignation. I have had my differences with TRPA’s methods and actions, but I am grateful that, for the Tahoe basin at least, someone is looking out for our natural heritage.
Let’s have Earth Day be a wake-up call for those of us who have, explicitly or implicitly, given up. Now is the time to be talking about energy independence, economic prosperity, healthy communities, and our natural heritage. I join with Bob Perkowitz, the Sierra Club, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, and yes, even TRPA in inviting you to realize that each of us is, at heart, an environmentalist.

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