Sometimes I think I’ve lived too long (this is not a cry for help; do not call the suicide hotline). It’s just, that in the short sixty-something years that I have taken up space on this Earth, I have lived long enough to see the planet warm, species disappear that will never exist again (unless restored Jurrasic Park-like), glaciers and polar icecaps melting…Did I mention the looming worldwide freshwater crisis and the threat to coastal cities from rising seas? Then there’s the specter of invasive species, kind of like a cheesy 1950s Japanese horror flick (Rodan meets Walking Catfish). I’d build a bunker in the woods, but I can’t get internet there, and the forests are dying, too.
If you are a fisherman (or hunter, hiker, paddler, or climber), you are de facto also an environmentalist. We know, of course, that trout (or elk or grouse) exist within the narrow constraints of ecological parameters, as do those things they eat or prey upon. Most of us, of course, want to leave an environmental legacy to our children and their children, to slow and perhaps someday (long view, here) reverse the degredation of our natural resources–the air, the water, and the land.
The threats to habitat, animal, human, plant, are well-known to all–overpopulation and finite resources, pollution of air and water, and, of course, global warming. Unf’ortunately, the topic of the environment has become politicized. “Enviromentalist” has become to some degree synonymous with “liberal.” I’m not sure how that happened, because advocating for the environment should be the concern of all, regardless of political affiliation or religion. Let’s put that aside for a moment and look at the facts as we know them.
The planet is warming. We don’t need science to ascertain that for us. Simple temperature records taken over the last hundred-plus years confirm that. Also, if you’re older than fifty, you probably know this intuitively. While science is imperfect, I don’t believe we can afford to ignore what climate studies tell us. I think it’s incontrovertible that the burning of fossil fuels CONTRIBUTES to global warming. Of course, a natural cycle of climate change may be occuring as well; this is where science fails us. It’s currently impossible to parse the degree to which natural forces are causing climate change from the degree to which it is anthropogenic. As humans, then, as individuals, what can we do to alter this trajectory to a climate (read human, here) apocalypse?
First, some realities: as humans we need energy to sustain our way of life. In the short term at least, we need to extract oil, coal, and gas to maintain our society. We must acknowledge that as Americans we use more energy per capita than probably any other people on the planet. Therefore, the reality is that we are a large part of the problem. To acknowledge this is not somehow unpatriotic or Unamerican. Conversely, we must accept that all wilderness cannot be offlimits to the production of energy, so we, as environmental advocates, must choose our battles wisely. Where extractive industries exist, we must insist on those activities being done in an environmentally sound way. That means perhaps getting engaged politically and joining organizations with an earth-friendly focus. Personally, I belong to Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Trails Association. What I like about these organizations is that they try to accomplish their goals through consensus-building with other stakeholders in a given situation. Also, they are very politically savvy. Non-fossil fuel sources of energy will one day be viable, but they are not without their own unique problems. Certainly wind farms can be visually unappealing and lethal to migratory birds. Nuclear energy is attractive as a “clean” source of energy, but concerns about safety and nuclear waste disposal still persist. Solar is perhaps the greenest energy source but is decades removed from meeting the majority of our energy needs.
So, it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such a gargantuan problem. Individuals can, however, have an impact, especially when multiplied by the efforts of millions of individuals. I believe there are strategies we can all adopt in our daily lives that WILL make a difference.
Probably the most egregious source of hydrocarbon pollution in our atmosphere is the internal combustion engine. For most of us, of course, driving a car is necessary. Public mass transit is mostly nonexistent in this country. I would suggest buying the smallest and most fuel-efficient vehicle that will MEET your needs. Drive an Explorer rather than the Expedition. Naturally some need that large SUV or truck due to large families, need to tow a boat or fifth wheel, etc. The point is, let’s look carefully at our motives in driving a particular vehicle and remember it’s impact on air quality and the additional hydrocarbon fuel that’s required to operate it.
Similar logic applies to our homes. Many of us opt for a house whose space exceeds what we reasonably need for comfort. These require more resources to build and to maintain; not only does this deplete our natural resources but also our personal wealth.
Next topic: recycling. Most of us have access to curbside recycling or a local recycling center. I have to believe that recycling really is good for the environment. We know that plastic, in particular, take eons to breakdown in a landfill, and it takes less energy and oil byproducts to reuse plastic than to manufacture it new. That recycled paper saves trees is a no-brainer. Same with metal; reusing means less mining and scarring the landscape and polluting streams with mining waste. And if you’re a gardener, composting and rain barrels are additional forms of recycling.
Continuing with the topic of recycling, why not apply the same reasoning to ourselves. Consider green burial, if your personal or religious philosophies permit. Five hundred thousand gallons of embalming fluid are used in the U.S. annually, and for what purpose? Like all organisms, our bodies are meant to replenish the soil. Why seal ourselves in airtight caskets, embalmed, placed in concrete vaults? In green burial, you are interred directly in the ground in a biodegradable casket or shroud. This is even more earth-friendly than cremation.
Lawns: Particularly for those of us who live in the arid or semi-arid West, trying to maintain a turf lawn makes little sense. It just requires too much water and fertilizers, pesticides, etc to keep it looking like Better Homes and Gardens. Xeroscaping and the use of native plants are much better options for our yards. This just requires a change in mindset. The amount of water that is diverted from the Colorado Rockies to satisfy the needs of Denver and the Front Range is criminal–and becoming more egregious all the time as the population continues to grow and droughts seem to be becoming more frequent. In other parts of the West, similar water wars are ocurring, especially between ranchers and trout fishers and environmentalists. We need farmers to irrigate if we wish to consume what they produce, but I would hope they employ best practices to ensure that as much water as possible gets to the crops rather than being wasted.
Think outside our borders. Rainforests in Brazil and elsewhere are disappearing at unsustainable rates. Land in Africa is being deforested for farming land that has limited natural fertility. These and other environmental disgaces DO influence our climate, too. Advocate politically or through the purchase of Fair Trade products to stall and reverse these processes.
The locavore movement is growing and is probably a plus for the environment, as products do not have to be shipped as far to market. Of course that means eschewing some things we like to eat yearround, but, when you think about it, these (e.g. tomatos, strawberries, etc.) really don’t taste that good anyway out-of-season. Along similar lines, opt for produce with the minimum packaging at the supermarket or farmer’s market.
Make no mistake. An environmental Armageddon is approaching. Hopefully we have not reached the tipping point where efforts to reverse these trends prove futile. We owe it to our heirs.
And, oh yeah, pee in the shower.
Alternative views and suggestions for environmental strategies are welcome.