Sunday, May 15, 2011

Should Every Day Be Earth Day?

The first Earth Day was observed more than forty years ago now. I question whether it has become a relic up on a shelf or -- as I believe -- it needs to be reviewed, renewed and revamped to now become more relevant. Millions of words have probably been spoken about its importance and probably millions more have been written over these years. The planet has been subjected to more damage from chemicals, wars, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear disasters over this time period than probably over any comparable time period in its history. Scientists have debated, politicians have proclaimed and learned papers have been published on both sides of the so-called ‘global warming’ debate. This discussion about what is or is not happening, became caught in a semantic debate and is now notably called "climate change." Climate change has brought severities of drought and snowfall to various parts of our beleaguered world with records being broken for snow depth and drought lengths. Although there are those who point to the snow and scoff at global warming, these same areas may well see the pendulum swing to intense heat within the year. The current floods along the Mississippi and its tributaries resulted from record snowfalls in the Midwest. Forest fires in Texas are a result of months without rain. Australia has just emerged from years of severe drought, brought about in a large part by human actions.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond discussed the intersections of nature and man's actions which brought about disastrous changes, in some cases entire civilizations disappeared. Somehow, with tropical jungle deforestation persisting in large parts of the world such as Brazil and Indonesia, we are not learning the lessons of history.

As an example, the Washington, DC, Metro area saw both record snowfalls in 2010, as well as a record number of days above 90 degrees. This area may well be entering an era of unstable weather. Those who watched Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" might remember his graphs showing how close we are to the point of no return -- the point where we cannot turn back the march against an unstable climate. Futurists have postulated that we will fight the next world wars, not about territory but instead about the need for arable water. This local article in the Washington Post discusses rising seas and the resultant current and future damage to coastal business, homes, and the leisure and employment industries.

Others will wage battles against diseases which can spread in a world without the waves of the heat/freeze cycle which now kills many bacteria and limits territories for many crop destroying insects. The crop and flower growth cycles are disrupted with damage from late rains and early heat. A recent article by the Center for American Progress discussed much the same information:

So what does it matter if the azaleas bloom earlier or the Cherry blossoms bloom for a shorter time? Do we really care if certain insect larva releases its young a few weeks sooner than before? Yes, we should care, because of related cycles in nature. A bird hatches its young and counts on a particular insect to be available for easy feeding for the nesting family. If that insect has already moved on to its next phase, the hatchlings may go hungry, and the uneaten insects may devastate a crop just planted by farmers. Habitat is being threatened by our global travel and trade. This area has seen the overgrowth of so called "stink-bugs," an Asian import working its way down the East Coast. This bug was thought to have originally arrived in Philadelphia among shipments from its native lands in Asia. It has no natural predators in America, hibernates, and was not killed by our recent mild winter. Last summer farmers reported crop destruction as these invaders ate their way through fruit orchards and other plants. While this is not a result of climate change, it vividly demonstrates what can happen when an unfamiliar predator enters the crop cycle at a critical time. Fire ants, large bees and invasive hornets are reportedly working their way north as the temperate/tropical barriers are blurring. Resistance to pesticides is growing among some pests. Long-term use of these poisons has been seen to be destructive to the soil and to populations. Are we moving ever closer to that Silent Spring predicted by Rachel Carson?

Farmers in India were encouraged to change ancient farming methods and use pesticides widely to increase their yield. However a different result came about - NPR had a story a while back called "the cancer train" which told about increased use of pesticides -- perhaps inappropriately -- which helped spark the green revolution in the countryside of India's rural villages. Concurrently it told of an increased rural incidence of cancers – especially among the young, which had been unknown outside urban centers. Some scientists have linked these occurrences as not due to chance. Others studied brain and nerve damage as these chemicals entered the water supply and seemed to adversely affect children.

We are told today the use of genetically modified seeds is safe and the wave of the future. Other scientists are saving seeds in seed banks should we ever need to rebuild our ability to grow natural crops. The answers to these questions may yet be found in some time and some day far away.

Yes, when I walk in the morning in my suburban world, I hear the woodpeckers tapping and see the robins, cardinals and sparrows all working to catch the unwary worms, so this part of my world has not changed. But I do believe that we all must be concerned about the more subtle and unseen changes that incrementally are making the world our children will face much more challenging than ours has been. I also know that we owe it to future generations to leave the world a better place than the one we found and I worry that we cannot meet this debt. Please let me know your thoughts in this area.

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