Earth Day is coming up. I suddenly realized that I had attended the very first earth day rally (in Pittsburgh) in 1970. There had been a modest attempt to get something going in 1969, but the big official day was first held in April of 1970. A U.S. Senator promoted it, lots of students and environmental types met in lots of cities. Apparently it has been celebrated every year since, although I confess I often don’t notice it at all.
I find that getting older can give me a certain amount of perspective if I take the time to reflect upon what I have seen in my life. So although I refuse to condone some of the fruit cake ideas that have been promoted under the banner of “environmentalism”, I certainly do want to confirm that it has been extremely important for us to clean up our act.
So here are a few facts from my childhood and teen years that would tend to indicate that things had gotten pretty bad before people woke up to the need to do better:
- Whooping cranes and brown pelicans were near extinction when I was a kid.
- I am told that sea otters were no longer seen off the west coast of the continental U.S.
- Lake Erie (near my home in Ohio) was declared biologically dead. It was so polluted that literally nothing could live in it except perhaps a few microorganisms that we would prefer to be free of.
- The Cuyahoga River, which flowed near my Ohio home and on into Lake Erie, actually caught fire as memorialized in the Randy Newman song “Burn On Big River”. It took many days to put the fire out. There was so much flammable toxic sludge on top of the river that pumping water from the river onto the flames could not extinguish it. As I recall, at least one bridge in Cleveland burned up as a result of the river fire.
- Alligators were nearly extinct in the swamps in Louisiana where I spend most of my childhood.
- Giant Condors were nearly extinct (I am not sure if they ever recovered).
- All the buildings on the Carnegie-Mellon U. campus (and elsewhere in Pittsburgh) were literally black with soot. At night I could see light from the blast furnaces in the valley below and the air smelled weird and left a funky metallic taste in my mouth.
These items are not the result of exhaustive research. In fact, they are simple everyday items I remember from my relatively uniformed childhood.
- Lake Erie is now a sport fishery.
- Some of the nearly extinct species rebounded.
- Alligators are now common enough to be a pest in the southern U.S.
- The air in Pittsburgh is relatively clean and most of the older buildings have been sandblasted back to their original stone or cement color.
So thirty years of pollution controls, superfund clean ups, automobile exhaust regulations, and much more have made a very positive difference. As we are willing to spend a bit of money on it, I am sure we can do much more. Yes, I want to make it a priority to feed hungry people and to spread the gospel. I would just like to make it a bit less of a priority to have a lot of the kind of crap that people like me buy and consume. I am positively swimming in a sea of possessions and I keep buying more. Paying for pollution clean up is a weird sort of thing. You don’t get cool catalogues which trick you into parting with your money to pay for nuclear waste disposal or sulfur dioxide scrubbers. You don’t see T.V. ads with scantily clad women draped all over some guy who just bought a lower emissions car. Pollution clean up is mostly done with taxes and regulations which most companies and many individuals find onerous, at least at first. And since we are a democracy, the whole regulations and taxes thing is a very, very messy, inefficient process. However, judging by the environmental status of African dictatorships or former Soviet block countries, democracy and bridled capitalism may be the best government and economic system we have to work with.
Take heart. Even on this sin cursed earth, prior to Jesus’ return, progress can be and has been made. Pray that each one of us will become just a bit wiser about how to spend our time and money.