::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Essay: Altered States

Have We Reached the Point of No Return on the Environment?

In the sci-fi classic “The Matrix,” a software program that tracks and eliminates rogue humans called Agent Smith shares his low opinion of the human race, which, he admits, disgust him:

“I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.”

It’s a disturbing image – and one that might be difficult to refute these days. Conventional wisdom suggests that we’ve entered a tipping point on the environment. Our culture of modern conveniences, technologies, and machines has knocked the natural order of the planet, well, into orbit.

Our sins are many from increases in industrial farming (requiring chemical fertilizers, ever-increasingly potent pesticides, and overuse of antibiotics on cattle and chickens) to an overabundance of smog-clogging automobiles causing air pollution and ozone depletion.

But a careful review of the mounting evidence seems to show that we aren’t heading for a major crisis – but that we’re already knee-deep in one. Just take a glimpse at the recent news headlines:

  • Honeybees are dying by the millions – up to 90 percent of hives in some regions. Biologists call the unknown killer “colony collapse disorder” – a colorless government term for labeling this fierce and mysterious plague. Honeybees are crucial to pollinating flowers and fruits (apples and oranges, for example, can’t grow without them). In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says honeybees pollinate about $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. alone. One theory is that a virus has struck the bees because their immune systems have been weakened and destabilized by overexposure to toxins and pesticides.
  • Thousands of bats in the Northeast are dying from a mysterious disease and biologists are worried that tens of thousands of bats could die this year. Many bat caves have seen 100 percent mortality rates. Scientists are speculating that that toxins and pesticides have weakened the bats and destroyed a lot of their food supplies in the last few years – making them susceptible to disease. There has also been speculation that the electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones is responsible. Bats are crucial to controlling insect populations – especially mosquitoes.
  • Climate change, caused by carbon dioxide emissions, continue unabated. The number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes has doubled in the last 30 years, Malaria has spread to higher altitudes, ice flow from glaciers in Greenland has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and 279 species of plants and animals are moving closer to the poles, according Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.”
  • The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River has become as large as the state of New Jersey – and continues to expand. Few creatures can live in this oxygen-deprived desert of ocean, which is caused by nitrogen-rich fertilizer that runs off from industrial farms in the Corn Belt into the Mississippi River.

If these four examples don’t convince you that human activity is changing the environment then perhaps reports from the World Health Organization that global cancer rates may increase by as much as 50 percent by 2020 will.

Yet, the conversation on how to turn back – to save what we haven’t yet destroyed – continues to be a backburner issue, especially in the United States.

Perhaps one reason is our arrogance and unfounded confidence that the technologies that brought us to this precipice will ultimately save us. This is ironic since these technologies (automobiles, air conditioning, plastics, radiation, etc.) are what have led us here in the first place.

We have a tendency to embrace new technologies before we fully understand how they will affect us in the long term. Isn’t that why we painted our homes with lead paint and used asbestos to insulate our pipes? Recently, we’re learning that plastic water bottles – already owned by most American families – may increase the risk of cancer.

As Agent Smith might have observed, human beings think they can improve Mother Nature. We believe that we can do it better – despite a history of shoddy results.

That’s why we end in situations like this one: We force feed our cattle corn – when they evolved to eat grass. By forcing them to eat corn, the majority become sick, so we treat the corn with antibiotics to keep the cattle alive and healthy long enough to slaughter them. As a result, we dine on sick, drug-infused beef while overusing antibiotics to a point that they’re becoming less effective.

Or why we end up pouring tons of chemicals on our lawns – forcing grass to grow lush and green in environments unnatural to the species. Believe it or not, but Arizona isn’t supposed to have grass. It’s a desert.

It’s time for the environment to become a top and urgent priority in the United States. The economy, gas taxes, and the war in Iraq all pale in comparison with the sorry state of our sick planet. We’ve broken it and now we need to fix it. Without Earth – what else is there?

Read some of our other essays:

How Leaf Blowers Are Causing Too Much Air Pollution

The Threat of Bottled Water

The Trouble with the Mormon Religion

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