I guess I never thought of myself as an eco-freak. I grew up in a tony suburb with abundant trees, green lawns, flowering shrubs and gardeners nurturing them with an array of chemicals we knew little about. Leaves were hosed from lawns and driveways with countless gallons of precious water that carried chemicals through gutters and out to sea.
After that, I lived on a ranch whose previous owner and neighboring ranchers had applied a deadly poison to eradicate ground squirrels, loathed as carriers of bubonic plague (endemic to the area) and diggers of holes large enough to break the leg of any horse, steer or cowboy. Trouble was, the poison that controlled the squirrels killed up to seven times. Dogs and cats that played with a dried-up squirrel carcass, then ravens and buzzards, snakes, insects and so on. We switched to plunking the squirrels with a varmint gun.
At first, we had an exterminator treat the house and yard-he sprayed chlordane under the house, which was built on the granddaddy of all anthills-then we lost a string of dogs to malignant tumors. It took awhile, but slowly I came to understand the law of unintended consequences.
I was approaching middle age when Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” touched off the environmental movement. Still, there was tremendous resistance to any government role in limiting what a rancher could do to take care of his land. They sincerely believed they knew all they needed to know to be good stewards of the earth. Science was debunked, tree huggers were reviled. Secretly, I wanted to learn more, but all that was available were some highly emotional polemics that gave little practical information on how one might proceed in protecting the land, raising livestock and growing food in a sustainable way. We still hadn’t outgrown the mindset of killing everything to control just one threat.
Good grief. This is all so today.
What has changed is the proliferation of scientific evidence of the threats we face now, of interconnections among continents, oceans and countries and how emissions from one hemisphere follow air and water currents to pollute the rest of the globe. One of the unintended consequences of globalization.
With my limited mobility the past two months, I’ve read a slew of books, some politically motivated, almost all worth the time. At the top of the list: “Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment,” by Yale professor James Gustave Speth. Second, “Strategic Ignorance,” by Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope and Paul Rauber, subtitled “Why the Bush Administration is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress,” was obviously timed for an election year release, but is surprisingly free of inflammatory rhetoric and solidly grounded in history. It even succeeds in explaining the ideology, agenda and methods used in the administration’s assault on not only our wildlife, parks and forests, but equally, if not more importantly, on our air, water and public health. An exceptionally good read at a critical time.
The copy of “Red Sky,” loaned to me by my sister, has copious underlinings and margin notes by a teacher of earth science, whose students will benefit long after the political campaign has waned. Author Speth, who co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council and advised former presidents Carter and Clinton on environmental issues, concentrates on things we can all do to combat global warming, the most compelling challenge facing the planet in this century. His suggestions do not involve living in threatened trees or chaining one’s body to a bulldozer. We are all teachers, he says, not only in schools but also in families and among friends. And we can support education in environment and science generally. “It is unlikely that someone who rejects the science supporting evolution is going to place much stock in the science of global climate change.”
And when all the political stuff overwhelms, I return to one of my favorite books of all time, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard P. Feynman, who was neither politically motivated nor a tree-hugging eco-freak. In his discussion on the value of science, Feynman said, “Of all its many values, the greatest must be the freedom to doubt.” Wow! On the responsibility of scientists, he said: “In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant; if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, ‘This is it, boys, man is saved!’ and thus doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.” Circa 1965.