Friday, April 26, 2013

Happy Arbor Day!

In the last blog post I indicated how depressing it can be to think about the negative impacts of humans on the planet. For anyone that cares about the environment, a cleaner planet, human survival, etc., it can be hard to see that the proverbial glass is half full rather than half empty. Indeed, there are times when I can be drawn into a nihilistic conversations, leading to the thought that we might as well enjoy our exploitation of the earth all we can since our species is doomed at some point anyhow.  Yuck! Now that is depressing. So I try not to go there. Or at least try not to stay there. Instead I try to remind myself of the many successes we’ve had in the environmental movement and to look for positive trends and indicators.

The polluted Cuyahoga River 1970

One of the primary reasons I have hope is that a LOT has happened since the first Earth Day was held just 43 years ago. At that time, the amount of pollution, toxic waste, trash-lined-roads, smog, and other degradation was incredible. The Cuyahoga River near Cleveland Ohio was so polluted with oily chemicals that it caught on fire. Something obviously had to be done. Many of the common goals of early environmentalism such as reducing pollution, cleaning up rivers, preserving natural areas, saving threatened species, etc. were embraced not just by the “hippies” and “tree huggers” but by many throughout mainstream America. Today, except for a few on the right-wing fringe, they have since become almost universally accepted as important human endeavors. Here are a few other examples that give me hope:

·         The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970 by a Republican President (Nixon)! Perhaps no other governmental action has done more for the environment.
·         Several efforts like the Endangered Species Act of 1973, have helped shine the light on endangered plants and animals. Major successes in preservation have included the American bison, gray wolf, grizzly bear, bald eagle, and brown pelican to name a few.
·         The world came together to address ozone depletion and to ban chlorofluorocarbons.
·         The Clean Water Act (1972) and Clean Air Act (1963) have made our air and waters safer and cleaner.
·         The Superfund program has helped clean up hundreds of toxic waste sites across the country.
·         More than 100,000 areas representing nearly 12% of the earth’s land mass have been protected as parks and preserves across the globe.
·         Many of the worst chemical pesticides, including DDT, have been banned or significantly restricted. The EPA now makes it much harder for new chemical poisons to be approved for use.
·         Recycling is now ubiquitous in most modern societies across the globe. The amount of materials recycled every year continues to grow dramatically, reducing landfill trash.
·         The output of clean and renewable energy is increasing rapidly and has reached nearly 12% of total US production and is growing even more rapidly in Europe and Asia. A foreseeable future without reliance on fossil fuels is almost guaranteed.
·         Societal awareness of the need for healthy eating and other factors have led to the local food movement including community gardens, community supported agriculture and a return to more backyard vegetable growing.
·         The general advancement of science and our improved understanding of how the natural world and ecological processes work.
·         The establishment of many environmental organizations across the globe including Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, Keep America Beautiful, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, The Xerces Society. Perhaps even more importantly are the many thousands that exist on the local level.
·         Others: reduced acid rain, the banning of asbestos, emission limits on mercury, banning of leaded gasoline, fuel economy standards, etc.
As I prepared to write this blog, I quizzed a few of my friends and cohorts about this subject. I’m happy to report that everyone I talked to is also able to retain a hopeful view of the future. Although many of us preach to or a part of the environmental “choir”, we all sense that nearly everyone we interact with wants a better future for the environment and our planet. It starts with awareness, and at least that part seems to be on the right track. So, yes, we’re hopeful. What other choice do we have?
I had intended to offer some simple suggestions that nearly anyone can adopt to help the environment. However, I’ve ran on too long with this diatribe so the big list will have to wait. But on this day that we celebrate Arbor Day in Nebraska I can offer a very simple suggestion that many people can do to help the environment: plant a tree.

Happy Arbor Day!
Waverly Arbor Day 2012


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Earth Day 2013: Is There Hope?

As we celebrate Earth Day 2013, it’s difficult not to be a bit depressed about the impact of our species on the planet:
·         The loss of biodiversity across much of the planet continues to advance and species extinction rates are growing rapidly. Some scientists warn that we are now at the beginning of one of the most severe mass extinction events since the dinosaurs died out.
·         As our cities grow, they gobble up vitally important natural areas and agricultural land.
·         The honeybee is struggling across the globe and monarch butterfly numbers have dropped precipitously in the last year.
·         Many of our most important native pollinators are threatened with lost habitat.
·         Amphibians (especially frogs) are declining rapidly with many heading toward extinction.
·         Non-native invasive species of plants and animals threaten all parts of the globe.
·         The world’s oceans are in great trouble with a collapse of species diversity and abundance. Important and fragile coral reefs are disappearing rapidly.
·         More of our rivers and streams are becoming polluted and degraded.
·         Safe and clean drinking water is becoming scarcer.
·         Our reliance on fossil fuels causes a myriad of problems, including worldwide pollution and regular scarring of the landscape (and oceans).
·         Our transportation infrastructure greatly fragments the land.
·         In our part of the world, the prairie ecosystem has been significantly altered (the tallgrass prairie is mostly gone) and many creatures that evolved along with it are imperiled. And to top it off, high corn prices mean even greater pressure to remove trees and convert grassland and other wild habitat to a few more acres of production.
·         The few wild areas we do have are greatly fragmented making it difficult for many important wildlife species to move and adapt to a changing environment.
Many other problems could be added to the list. Perhaps most importantly now is the impact of a warming planet and a rapidly changing climate. Although no one knows exactly what that will mean for natural ecosystems, few experts believe there will be many positive outcomes. In simplest terms, human activity is now mostly in the way of the natural processes that favor biodiversity and ecological health. With a global population of 7 billion heading toward 10 billion in a few decades, the pressures on Mother Earth will certainly mount.
Regal Fritillary - A prairie butterfly that could use our help.
As discouraging as it all sounds, this article is not meant to be a wallow in gloom and doom but rather to suggest there is hope. Though it’s true that humans do cause environmental harm, we must first accept that humans are part of the environment just like every other creature. In that regard, all living organisms impact the natural world in some form or another as they go about their quests for survival. Above all other species, humans have figured out how to exploit the environment in ways that have allowed us dominate the globe. To the victors go the spoils so to speak.
However, since we are the most sentient of beings, we have evolved the unique ability to understand that our impact on the planet not only imperils ecosystems, it imperils our own long-term survival as well. We now clearly realize (though maybe not some on the far right of the political spectrum) that our survival depends on the broader ecological health of the Earth. We are an incredible animal with an amazing ability for creative problem solving. And I choose to believe that our species can solve many of our biggest environmental problems. Indeed we have to!  In the next blog post I’ll offer some evidence as to why I have hope and I’ll also suggest some simple ways that we all can help the environment right where we live.
Justin Evertson
Green Infrastructure Coordinator