Monday, November 8, 2010

Life Lines 25


Imagine dipping a basketball in your backyard pool and pulling it out until it stops dripping. That thin film of water around it represents the oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds on our earth. A slightly bigger film of air surrounds the earth but if you ascended five miles up the thin air would leave you gasping for breath or near death. The oxygen in the air and the waters in our seas and inland waterways sustain life. Most of that life we cannot see. It is microbial and penetrates not much farther than 20 miles beneath our feet. The soil we walk on is a carpet of life, living and dead. Bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa vastly outnumber the creatures that we see. As a city born and bred boy, I had a limited view of diversity. Occasional horses still pulled a wagon in the 1930s. Rats, mice, cats, and dogs, pigeons and sparrows were larger animals, outside of visiting zoos, that I encountered. At home roaches, flies, bedbugs, and an occasional spider were the insects I saw. Biodiversity was not an experience I had, but something in the pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica in which I browsed. The world of my youth was innocent of ecoconsciousness because we took the earth for granted. It was immense, self-purging of human wastes, ancient, and from the evolution that I absorbed at the American Museum of Natural History, constantly changing.

Humans disturb the natural world in ways that most living things cannot even approximate. We create machines. We transform environments. We dam rivers. We cut down forests. We spew out carbon dioxide and other gases from our cars, trains, planes, and factories. With a multiplier in the billions (we are approaching 7 billion people) that’s a lot of environmental change. We isolate biodiversity into smaller enclaves as we build and devour natural resources and we allow some species to go extinct. We tolerate sloppy habits. My wife, Nedra, calls the area around my easy chair, strewn with magazines, books, notebooks, and correspondence, my “rat’s nest.” When I feel guilty about wallowing in my mess, I sort things out and throw out a sack of trash as well as bundles of papers to be recycled. Too often, on a larger scale, those messes around the industrial world are discharged into rivers and lakes, buried or soaked into the ground, or belched into the air. It took Rachel Carson and her superb book Silent Spring, a half-century ago, to make us aware that we cannot take earth for granted. We are too many. We have the capacity to damage our environments to threaten not just animals and plants we have never encountered, but ourselves as well. Because there are millions of ways we individually spoil the environment, it requires both government regulation of polluters and individual ecoconsciousness to allow the earth to renew itself. In the past twenty years we have become aware of climate change and how humans contribute to it. Despite the lazy self-serving response to it by those who see all regulation of manufacture and industrial use only in economic perspective, ecoconsciousness is beginning to work around the world and a balance is emerging between the freedom of doing one’s thing and the responsibility to human health, biodiversity, and quality of life. Let us hope a new generation of children will learn ecoconsciousness in their schools. Let us hope that our governments will establish international treaties to limit polluting gases that turn our thin film of air into an ever-warming blanket that melts our glaciers and ice caps, raising sea levels and swallowing up our seacoasts.

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