Oh Beautiful for smoggy skies, insecticided grain,
For strip-mined mountain’s majesty above the asphalt plain.
America, America, man sheds his waste on thee,
And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea.
The late comedian, George Carlin’s, ode to our planetary offenses is uncomfortably, oddly, deeply, humorous. He had a way of doing that, making you guffaw at the gaffes of humanity, while pointedly making you take stock. Still and all, it might seem faintly, perhaps outright, sacrilegious to even suggest laughing about the dire polluted straits we’re in. With gas speeding towards $4 a gallon, a looming world hunger crisis and melting polar ice caps, the future just ain’t what it used to be .
But like Kurt Vonnegut said,”Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
And since we’re essentially talking about “cleaning up” and the frustration and exhaustion that occurs when we don’t, we might as well have a good, thought-provoking laugh while there’s still enough oxygen in the air for us to do so without keeling over.
Environmentalists, though, don’t really care lick about the planet, says Carlin in his famous shtick, The Planet is Fine. They’re just interested in one thing.
“A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that some day in the future, they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn’t impress me,” he declares.
Carlin may be right about our narrow self-interests, enlightened or otherwise. We are definitely going to be personally inconvenienced with respect to our own habitat, and it’s definitely in our best interests to do something about it sooner, rather than later.
We often talk about saving panda habitat, and black bear habitat, and whooping crane habitat. But really, when you think about it, what about our habitat? Animal species all need specific things in order to live – like water, shelter, and, of course, air to breathe.
We’re no different.
Although no less an authority than Lee Iacocca once said, “We’ve got to pause and ask ourselves: How much clean air do we need?”
That’s a good question.
In Living Energies: Viktor Schauberger’s Brilliant Work with Natural Energy Explained (Gateway; 3Rev Ed edition (1 Sep 2001)), author Callum Coats puts clean air in fresh perspective with a look at the work of Schauberger, an Austrian forester,scientist and inventor, and Schauberger’s son, Walter.
“The amount of energy a human being requires for survival over one year is (about) 1,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh). According to Walter Schauberger’s calculations a human being operates at the relatively insignificant energy level of an electric light bulb, namely 100 watts.” (which gives new meaning to being “dim” witted) :
“1,000 kWh is also the average amount of energy received from the Sun annually per square metre of ground surface. Theoretically, therefore, all a human being needs to do is to stand on its square metre and obtain its energy from the Sun. Were it able to transmute this energy directly, then its annual energy requirement would be satisfied. This amount of energy,however, is associated with the consumption of 260kg of molecular oxygen (O2) per year, which is equal to (about 30 gr) of oxygen per hour. These are the amounts of energy and oxygen required by a human being for the maintenance of bodily functions, reproduction, creativity and intelligent thought for a whole year.”
“The average petrol consumption of a car with a 1.6 lit. engine, however, amounts to between 10-11 lit per 100km [about 23.5 MPG]. Walter Schauberger has calculated that to travel a distance of 1,000km requires an energy expenditure of 1,000 kWh. Therefore to highlight the ludicrous mechanical efficiency we have so far managed to achieve and of which we are apparently so proud, a car travelling 1,000km destructively consumes the same amount of energy in a few hours that a human being uses far more economically and productively in a whole year. The car, however, does not think, it does not reproduce, nor is it creative. It has none of these abilities. Equating 1,000km travelled with the annual activity of one human being produces a very poor energy relationship.”
A car’s lack of creativity is just part of the problem. The bigger problem is our oxygen trade-off says Coats.
“To drive a car at 50km an hour (about 30 mph) requires 22.25kg of oxygen per hour, which is roughly 750 times the amount needed by a human being. Therefore as we drive happily along in our cars, we unknowingly take 750 oxygen-breathing slaves along with us. These slaves, however, do not breathe out nice, healthy carbon-dioxide and water as we do, but they spew out a noxious concoction of poisonous gases.”
And here’s the clincher:
“In a journey lasting eleven hours, all the oxygen required by one human being for one year has been consumed.”
With an estimated 450 million vehicles in use worldwide (2001 figure)., Coats does a little math and concludes that we’re driving our way to “an oxygen consumption equal to that of 337.5 million people, about (50X) the present world population.
“We are forced to admit, therefore, that the relationship between our technology and its use of energy is diametrically opposed to that of Nature.”
With apologies to Yogi Berra, we’re lost but we’re making good time. If we take shallow breaths we can probably hang on a little longer, but the limited oxygen intake is bound to take it’s toll sooner or later.
Maybe it already has. Carlin says it doesn’t matter because, he insists,“… there is nothing wrong with the planet. …The planet is fine. The PEOPLE are … in trouble. … Compared to the people, the planet is doing great. Been here four and a half billion years. … We’ve been here, what, a hundred thousand? Maybe two hundred thousand? And we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over two hundred years. Two hundred years versus four and a half billion. And we have the CONCEIT to think that somehow we’re a threat? That somehow we’re gonna put in jeopardy this beautiful little blue-green ball that’s just a-floatin’ around the sun?”
He’s right, of course. In Chernobyl in Russia, wildlife has returned in surprising abundance to the 30 km “Exclusion Zone” around the damaged nuclear reactor (Despite Mutations, Chernobyl Wildlife Is Thriving) . There’s debate as to whether “thriving” is the right word for what’s happening there. The place is still, will always be, considered unsafe for human habitation. But they can’t keep animals out, and the animals seem to relish the complete absence of humans.
There are herds of Roe deer and Przewalski’s horses; newly growing plants and trees; lynx, eagle owls and wild boar. Reproductive rates of the animals appear to be lower than normal, and there are genetic abnormalities like albinism. It’ll probably be years before anything will be known for sure, or we may never know.
But the point is, as Michael Crichton so graphically depicted in his novel, Jurassic Park: Nature finds a way.
Carlin concurs, “The planet has been through … all kinds of things worse than us. … earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles… hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages…And we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet… isn’t going anywhere. WE ARE!”
Former vice president Dan Quayle perhaps said it best when he observed, “”It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.”
Those impurities might even be making us fat reported Bruce Blumberg, a research professor at UC Irvine. Blumberg says the epidemic of American obesity might actually be due to low levels of toxic compounds he calls “obesogens.” Really! I couldn’t make that up if I tried.
He doesn’t really know how obesogens work but he says they might act as “ “endocrine disrupters” … blocking or perverting the operation of the hormones that govern …growth, reproduction, sexual development and behavior.”
If that’s not enough to make you recycle I just don’t know what is.
“Pack your [stuff] folks,” says Carlin. “We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little Styrofoam. Maybe. …. The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance.”
Great works of literature and art notwithstanding, despite our relatively recent epiphany that the sun does not, in fact, revolve around us, but we around it, the best we can do, under really good conditions, is to hang on by the skin of our teeth for about 80 years, if we’re lucky. Most of us won’t make it anywhere near that long.
Like George Carlin says, “The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself,’cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed – Remember Chernobyl — and if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic.
“The earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us.
“Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?” Plastic.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Earth has used us. As soon as we hit the water in Viking ships, it started – probably before that, actually, when the first Mesopotamian forded the Tigris or Euphrates. We became the Earth’s first FedEx delivery system – carrying a virus, or a seed, or an insect or a rat from one place to another, setting in motion a part of evolution, and possibly our own demise, that hasn’t stopped yet.(And here we are – the biggest immigrants in the history of life on earth — trying to figure out immigration policy. )
To be fair, though, says Carlin, the planet probably just sees us a mild threat.
We’re just “Something to be dealt with,” he says. “And the planet can defend itself in an organized, collective way, (like) a beehive or an ant colony…. A collective defense mechanism. The planet will think of something. What would you do if you were the planet? How would you defend yourself against this troublesome, pesky species? Let’s see…. Viruses might be good. They seem vulnerable to viruses.”
War of the Worlds comes to mind. Written by HG Wells over 100 years ago, it tells the story of an alien invasion complete with imported invasive exotics – the red weeds that take over the landscape – and how the aliens succumb to Earthly pathogenic bacteria. It’s like déjà vu all over again. Maybe the story is actually a self-portrait.
So what can Green do for You, FedEx people of the Earth? It’s doing it for you right now, right here, with every breath you take – this Green Earth, what’s left of it, is keeping you alive. We are, part and parcel, the stuff of the earth, as much the pathogens we fill it with as the life-sustaining elements with which we’re born.
As Charles Haas said, “Give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day.But teach a man how to fish, and he’ll be dead of mercury poisoning inside of three years.”
So doesn’t it just make sense to put into the Earth what we want out of it?
You’ve heard ad nauseam all the things you can do and you know all the reasons why you should do it. But have you heard it so much, on the TV from the comfort of your 5-star energy efficient air conditioned living room or on the radio of your lightweight, high mileage compact car, or read it in the paper you’re going to recycle, over your fresh brewed cup of fair trade coffee that environmentalism has become just another passive social good, like giving your old clothes to Goodwill?
Replace a few light bulbs with CFLs – carbon fluorescent bulbs — turn the lights off when you leave the room, throw the empty bottle in the recycling bin and you’re good? Well, actually, you are. It’s wonderful that those things are becoming routine and ordinary ways of living.
But there’s more to it than that, and all completely within reach.
To be truly Green –to live in an environmentally conscious fashion – requires … well… living consciously. When we stand on our square meter of Earth, we need take no more than we require to live – our 29.659gr of oxygen, our 100 watts of light energy, some home cooked meals, a good book or two.
I know. That’s not completely practical in “today’s world”. You have to work to pay the bills; you need to drive to church to listen to great truths. But maybe more is practical than you think.
For instance, consume less and you need to earn less to sustain your consumption needs. Travel with friends instead of alone, or combine your errands, and you take a couple of cars off the road, and save a few thousand oxygen slaves. Do you really recycle as much as you can?
We’ve made the Earth’s plastic. Our days are numbered. What else can we give the Earth that makes us useful and necessary? How about more green – trees not lawns – and less pavement? How about more, and more free flowing, water? How about the healthy, manageable carbon dioxide of our exhalations as we walk and talk instead of the toxins we belch out from less natural forms of transportation and communications?
Living more simply, more cleanly and Greenly, also puts more Green in our wallets, the bottom line for a lot of us.
Drive 55 mph on the highway and you can improve your gas mileage by as much as 15%, and commensurately reduce your trips to the gas station. Save up to 3% in energy costs for every degree you set your AC above 72.
Of course, what we do with those extra savings is a consideration for intentional living, as well. Do we hit the mall and buy more stuff we don’t need? Eat out more? Or do we use the money to build a Victory garden? Do we increase our contributions to the church we love, to charities we cherish? Do we invest in renewable energy? Support fair trade organizations in an effort to live sustainably in a global economy?
Living Green is about more than recycling, turning out the lights and reducing our water use. It’s about living intentionally on our planet, on the same planet whose elements run through our life blood. Drive more slowly and you live more meaningfully, increase your chances of not dying on the highway, lower your blood pressure and see more of the world. Ride with friends instead of alone, and you enrich your life.
Turn off the AC and open the windows, now and again, and you let the world in along with the breeze. You can hear the birds, and the cicadas, the sounds of children outside. Turn off the your artificial lights and appreciate the natural light of dusk and dawn, and the subtle colors and shadows that accompany it. Line dry your clothes and enjoy the sweet scent of air dried fabric. Unplug your electronics, and connect with the world around you in deeply meaningful ways.
Whatever happens to Earth, happens to us. Except we’re less resilient, and have less time on our hands. Earth might stumble a bit, wobble on its axis maybe, but we’re just a hiccup on its timeline. If we want to enjoy our time here – spiritually, physically, economically — then we need to stop spitting into our wind, trashing our own global living room, and treating our planet like a doormat. We’ve got the roles reversed. We need to remember who’s in charge, and it’s not us. It’s Nature.
What Can Green Do for You? It can keep you alive, and not just passively alive, but vitally alive. “When we heal the earth,” says environmentalist David Orr “ we heal ourselves.
Carlin concludes, “ See I don’t worry about the little things: bees, trees, whales, snails. I think we’re part of a greater wisdom than we will ever understand. A higher order. Call it what you want. …It doesn’t punish, it doesn’t reward, it doesn’t judge at all. It just is. And so are we. For a little while.”
Like Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Let’s make that little while, worthwhile.