Earth Day Blues

Business as usual — an (ultimately) political screed


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Maybe it came from the respect for nature I was taught as a kid, and it was no doubt informed by those early, eye-opening Apollo mission pictures of Earth from space, but I have a wild-eyed kind of Gaian, Lovelockian notion of the Earth as being a self-regulating system or organism — not simply a passive supplier of resources to be exploited.


By John Arbo

“Well, we left it cleaner than we found it!” my Dad would say with some satisfaction. He had just made each of us (all seven kids) pick up ten pieces of litter at whatever roadside picnic area we'd pulled into for lunch on our way up to Maine on vacation. He and Mom pitched in, so that was almost 100 bits of the abundant mid-60s roadside trash. That abundance hasn't changed much.

When the beautiful old mansion next to my childhood home was torn down to make way for an A&P, the three adjoining property owners were each given a 20-foot “buffer strip” to mitigate the impact. Our two neighbors put up fences, behind which they dumped debris and junk. On ours, my Dad made a peat moss “nature trail,” as he called it, planting some evergreens and putting in a lily pond and tiny waterfall, whose frogs were always getting eaten by neighborhood cats.

I remember him arguing with a neighbor over the fate of what had been the last working farm in the next town. Our neighbor thought it should be developed into homes. My father thought it should be preserved as a natural oasis in suburban Bergen County. Glad to say the latter happened.

Maybe it came from the respect for nature I was taught as a kid, and it was no doubt informed by those early, eye-opening Apollo mission pictures of Earth from space, but I have a wild-eyed kind of Gaian, Lovelockian notion of the Earth as being a self-regulating system or organism. Earth is not simply a passive supplier of resources to be exploited with little regard for the cost thereof, and the belief in Earth's nearly infinite ability to absorb those consequences is misguided. So the current political situation with foxes guarding henhouses on so many levels in environmental matters is actively painful to me.

We have a much greater understanding of the Earth and its systems than the reductionist thinking of the 19th century. Indeed, it's become almost a clich to say “Everything is connected to everything else.” Many scientists are viewing Earth through this lens and this, among other things, has led to many improvements and technical innovation. Most people seem to feel that science is fine if it gets us computers and the many amenities we enjoy, but it seems that some who take these things for granted, even if they acknowledge science's role, view it with suspicion if its findings don't fit their agendas.

The scientists warning about warming becoming severe enough to thaw millions of acres of Arctic tundra, and thus releasing many tons of methane in a runaway greenhouse effect, aren't doing this to get more grant money. And Al Gore did not produce “An Inconvenient Truth” to have a way to make money after leaving politics. He had already written a great book 15 years earlier, “Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit,” before he was elected vice president. Cynics might argue that he was cagey, playing a very long game of self-interest. Go right ahead.

I've always strongly felt that the deck is stacked in the game of environmentalists vs. those who profit from business as usual. Some big environmental organizations have been around for a while, and with a certain amount of inertia and bureaucracy likely built-in. But what murky, sinister motives could they really be harboring? Contrast even the most entrenched of these groups with entities that stand to make many billions if business as usual could continue. Follow the lopsided money and decide if the scientists who warn of the dangers we're facing if we continue like this, the Al Gores who spread and popularize these warnings, and environmental groups doing protective work are really doing so for blatant self-enrichment. Puhleese.

Exxon Mobil secretly and now infamously funded organizations whose mission was to sow seeds of doubt about the reality of global warming.

“Hey, pal, it's just business as usual — gotta watch your back!” This, when their own scientists counseled that it was a very real danger. A perfect money trail.

It's truly a David and Goliath situation, like Citizens United, through which corporations and unions ostensibly have the same clout when contributing to political campaigns.

And, of course, this blind, corporate quarterly-balance-sheet culture isn't limited to the environmental situation. Think tobacco companies.

Some energy companies run slick ads touting their investments in renewable technologies. They see the writing on the wall, I guess. Time will tell if this is just a political calculation, a bottom-line move, or a genuine embrace of a better way of doing things.

One thing that isn't disputed by anyone (even those less wild-eyed than I) is that Earth is a closed system. Endless growth is impossible, by definition. Our numbers and needs are great enough that we can seriously negatively impact our planet in innumerable ways. But how can the West tell the people of China and India that they can't all have refrigerators and the 1 car per household that's nearly our average?

As we continue to develop it will have to be in more cautious and balanced ways, rather than less so – the latter seems to be the current thinking in some significant quarters.

Fossil fuels are really a set of training wheels on our way to sustainable, less impactful sources of energy. As long as there are actual trillions to be made, though, extractive industries will try to squeeze every last dollar out of the ground, consequences be damned.

Nothing wrong with making money, but at what cost? (Can you say Alberta tar sands or “Oh, Arctic ice is melting away because of warming, now we can drill there for oil!”…. What?!? I am not making this up.)

Fossil fuels are a finite resource and the harder they become to extract, the more arcane, complex, energy/carbon intensive, polluting and dangerous it becomes to do so. One more shout-out for Alberta tar sands!

I'm not happy, but all is not lost. Some environmental problems have had relatively good endings. The Clean Water Act has notably made previously horribly polluted waters swimmable. (Our mighty Hudson for example – more work to be done there.)

Remember acid rain killing the fauna in many lakes in the Northeast?

That's largely been addressed in our area by reining in sulfur pollution from coal-fired power plants. (It remains an issue in places like China with many of these plants with relatively lax pollution controls.)

These successes came from government-imposed regulations. Yeah, there it is — the “r” word. Many environmental problems, especially water and air -related ones, naturally cross political and geographic boundaries and require national and international oversight, ideally not beholden to the corporate money trail and its pitfalls. Industry has not been so great at self-regulation.

The most libertarian of industrialists couldn't propose building a lead smelter next to an elementary school here because of government regulation informed by science's discovery of the toxicity of lead, especially to the nervous systems of kids. An extreme example, but real nonetheless. Time was when such a thing could and did happen. It still happens in places with lax regulations.

But there is still so much work to be done. For instance, the notion of not being able to eat certain fish because of mercury contamination from coal plants and cement kilns is astounding to me.

When did this become the new normal, business as usual? Talk about soiling our own nest! It's going to take a long time for this to go away – mercury is very persistent and bioaccumulates. (It's the inconvenient kind of science that tells us this, BTW.)

The price of progress, some might say. You can put a frog in water and slowly raise the temperature until it boils to death. I guess you can get used to anything.

Many of these environmental problems only become apparent over time unless it's a Bhopal-type disaster or a coal slurry dam busting open in Appalachia and inundating a town. It's hard to acknowledge these longer-term situations in our nano-attention span 21st century.

A pristine paradise is impossible but it's obviously a matter of degree and balance. And now with the danger of certain “trigger points” like the Arctic tundra/methane example, we must be more precautionary, not less.

Here's the “(ultimately) political” part: the Clean Water Act notwithstanding, (passed under Nixon's watch), Democrats have historically been much more on the side of environmental regulation (oops — the “r” word again) than Republicans and, of course, on the side of organized labor. After all, it wasn't Dems who just obstructed or downright scuttled the Butch Lewis Act, legislation that would have helped beleaguered multi-employer union pensions, ours included.

I know some of us have different concerns that inform our political choices, but voting for Democrats this fall and in 2020 will be in your self-interest both as union members and as members of humanity on this, our fragile and only Mother Earth.

Editor's note: Bassist John Arbo of Warwick, N.Y., is a member of the New York City musicians' union, Local 802. This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Allegro, the union's magazine. It is reprinted with permission. For more background, see Local802afm.org.



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