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Needed: Environmental common sense

Alan Braunholtz

I’m hanging out in an alpine hut perched impossibly on a col somewhere in the mountain grandeur between Chamonix and Zermatt. The only English reading material, a few dog-eared 40-year-old National Geographics, is the perfect setup for contemplating mankind’s past and future and this globe of rock we live on.

National Geographics never change. Always the same amazing photographs and stories of exotic cultures in far-off lands interspersed with articles on the world’s beautiful creatures, their ecosystems and ever increasing threats. Interesting to read about the world of 40 years ago. Now the lands are not so far off or welcoming, and too many of those natural treasures are gone.

The ’60s must have been an optimistic time. Then, the world’s problems seemed surmountable, with little more than the application of science and global common sense. The reason few people really freaked out about all those nuclear missiles idling on standby: No one would ever be stupid enough to actually launch one would they? Recent films on the Cuban missile crisis suggest that faith in non-stupidity over itchy trigger fingers was misplaced.

Read today’s National Geographics and while we’ve gone gung-ho on the science, it looks like we forgot to apply the common sense. Despite all the progress in science and economic growth, global poverty is worse. We’ve made great strides in overcoming disease, but poverty and our continued meddling with ecosystems looks to unravel some of the progress made.

Every time we upset the balance, new diseases once hidden in wild hosts and forests can find humans available as a plentiful alternative. If they make the species jump, global travel creates a worldwide problem.

AIDs is the biggest example of this, and the annual spread of new flu variations largely cooked up in the crowded stew of people and livestock in China illustrates how connected the world is. Combine this with the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics (thanks in large part to short-sighted factory farm use), our newfound capacity for genetic modification and my feeling is that global disease will put up more of a fight this next 40 years.

Environmentally, we’ve slapped a few Band-Aids around but never followed the systemic cure-prevention of common sense. Our attitude always seems to be economic growth, first and only. Later we can choose to use some of the wealth generated to repair the damage caused by our carelessness.

It’s a nonsensical view, similar to trashing your car through overuse and neglect, then junking it and expecting to use the proceeds to buy a new one. You’ll end up with a moped. How much better to use the car responsibly, paying for maintenance and keeping a functional vehicle to enhance your lifestyle? Even if we could afford a new car, there’s no dealership selling functioning new environments.

Safeguarding the environment is not a frivolous luxury that’s expendable whenever the engines of growth sputter. It’s essential to the quality of life of humans as organic and business creatures. Growing only in a way that minimizes damage to the natural world is common sense. Sure, it’ll cost a little in our here-and-now materialism, but save us infinite resources long term.

These resources aren’t only for the spiritual renewal-physical pleasure of every future person on earth but our well being, perhaps survival. Evolution created a bank of genetic knowledge beyond our imagination, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of this resource. Pity to throw it away without looking.

On top of that breathable air, drinkable water, disease and pest control, a climate fit for humans are all dependent on the natural world we now have. You’d think we’d go out of our way not to overly disturb our life support system.

Apparently not. Environmental protections always cost too much if looked at from the short-term views of business and political leaders, though that might be a redundant distinction these days.

The Kyoto treaty on climate change? Bad for business, so we nixed it.

The Clean Water Act an unnecessary burden for industry? Prepare for a rule change exempting wetlands, small streams and ponds that are deemed isolated from protection. Water being fluid is never isolated and pollution in small streams inevitably ends up in larger rivers.

Public input, an integral part of the National Environmental Protection Act, costs time and not surprisingly, since two-thirds of Americans consider themselves environmentalists, often goes against industries’ most profitable desires for public lands. The solution: curtail the public’s right to say what goes on in their lands and remove environmental review requirements so no one even knows the damage done.

“Dolphin Safe” tuna labels obstruct global free trade, so let’s redefine “safe” to benefit Mexican fishing fleets rather than the dolphins.

Our government is going out of its way to compromise environmental protections built up since Teddy Roosevelt’s time and all for a few quick bucks.

I don’t expect business to look out for anyone’s interests but their own – that’s their job. I do expect government to look out for the long-term health of everyone – that’s their job.

While we all benefit by piggybacking on the wealth and progress of capitalism without a conceptual change on the importance of environmental issues, the next 40 years don’t look so optimistic. Consumers can select businesses that do OK by the environment, provided they see through all the company propaganda. The media could help here but looks reluctant to bite the hand that feeds it or more commonly owns it. Consumer action also tends to react to problems rather than prevent them.

We need innovative, visionary leadership to help create a sustainable future for us all. Hopefully, sometime we’ll get it and 40 years from now someone somewhere will be reading a National Geographic, marveling at the photos of the world’s cultures and animals. Not idly flicking through an old back issue, wondering “why didn’t they do something, it’s common sense?”

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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