Sunday, April 22, 2007

Make a Commitment to Environmental Sanity

Now that Earth Day #38 is upon us, it’s time that we, as concerned citizens of good conscience with a penchant for sustainable living, reflect on local, national, and global events of the past year and ask ourselves some really tough questions. Are we, as global stewards, doing enough, both collectively and individually, to spare Earth—and ourselves—the ravages of global climate change? Are we demanding that our civic, corporate, and government leaders advocate for sustainable practices in all segments of our society? Do we hold polluters accountable for the damage they cause to the environment? Have we, as individuals, managed to get our own rapacious consumerism under control? In all cases the answer is no, and that means we have a lot of work to do.

The collective insanity of consumer culture panders to economic greed at the expense of cultural, socioeconomic and environmental sustainability. No society that devours its resources faster than those resources can be renewed can long endure. What we desperately need are visionaries—inventors, planners, designers, engineers, financiers, educators, and entrepreneurs—all working together to create a sane, rational socioeconomic model for sustainable living that the rest of the world not only will want to emulate but can emulate without putting the entire planet in peril.

Capitalism, in its current form, is a fatally flawed economic concept in desperate need of a social conscience. Any economy that systematically consumes all of its resources while simultaneously polluting the environment is headed for certain destruction. Change is still possible, but the time for change is now. Every day of procrastination brings us one day closer to the day of reckoning, and the day of reckoning is not as far away as we think.

Earth Day is a good thing, but Earth Day once a year is not nearly enough. Only when we make every day Earth Day will we begin to show the level of commitment necessary to make, and keep, our world habitable for the next seven generations, and for seven generations beyond that, ad infinitum.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Law of Unintended Consequences

One of physic’s basic tenets states that every action produces a reaction. It’s a natural law that applies to politics, economics, and many other endeavors, as well; it does not adhere exclusively to physics.

When an action is a known quantity, the reaction it produces is predictable. However, when actions are unknown quantities (as in things that have never been tried before), the reactions often manifest as unintended consequences. Sometimes, actions are so intense that they touch off a chain-reaction of events in which each event produces its own set of unintended consequences. Like a handful of stones cast into a pond, major events cause overlapping ripples that radiate outward, seemingly forever.

Take the invention of the steam engine, for instance. When James Watt patented his design for the first practical steam engine in 1769, he ushered in the Industrial Age, which led to the Machine Age, which in turn gave rise to the Automobile Age. I’m not sure if there’s enough room on the entire Internet to list all of the adverse reactions (unintended consequences) attributable to the automobile’s invention; they are legion.

From the way we build our communities and structure our lifestyles to global warming and war in the Middle East, cars play a pivotal role in shaping and defining our society. Cars brought us more freedom, greater independence, unprecedented prestige, and never-before-known convenience in quantities that guaranteed their ubiquity. Cars brought us closer to everything, even as they made everything unsustainable.

Because of the automobile, people left family farms in droves to begin new lives in cities and suburbs. The popular abandonment of the nation’s farms fueled the proliferation of factory farms and the ongoing expansion of suburban sprawl.

Suburban sprawl gobbles up prime farmland, and the monocrop agriculture practiced by factory farms destroys the environment in numerous ways, not the least of which is widespread pollution caused by farm chemicals—insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, growth hormones, and antibiotics.

Are these end results? Not hardly! They’re only early results that paved the way for more serious consequences that have already befallen us and for others that lie in wait for us in the not-too-distant future.

Our attachment to cars made us lazy and fat and dependent on foreign oil. Cars gave us easier access to medical care, even as they increased our need for medical care. They gave us strip malls and parking lots, rush hours and traffic jams, fast food and drive-in everything.

Despite the rising costs of owning, driving and maintaining automobiles, despite worsening pollution and global warming, despite rising gasoline prices and exorbitant insurance rates, and despite the frustrations of traffic congestion, people are reluctant to give up their cars. Their obsession with cars blinds them to reality while allowing them to maintain an illusion of well being.

Car-addicted people aren’t about to change their ways. At a time when car addicts should be thinking about curbing their addiction and looking at sustainable options, they are, in fact, demanding bigger, heavier, more powerful and less fuel efficient cars in greater numbers than ever before.

Of course, more cars need bigger, better streets and highways, which always seem to invite more cars. Maybe we should just pave America, paint some lines, and call it a day.