I was in fourth grade science class at Hamilton elementary school in Lancaster. It was spring, 1979 and the adults were still talking about what had recently happened at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.
Class was interesting that spring because we were learning about natural resources and the environment. We learned that we would eventually run out of oil and gas. We learned that mining coal, making plastics, and burning fossil fuels causes environmental damage and pollution. We learned that solar energy is clean and limitless if we could learn to harness it properly. We learned that we don’t always know the environmental effects of the chemicals we use. We learned that humans would need to make a concentrated effort to avoid things like overfishing, loss of animal habitat and species extinction. We learned that the time to address these issues was now, before they grew out of control.
Now it’s the spring of 2019. I’m lying in a hammock in the backyard of my house on Spruce Street, reading the news. These are a few of the science topics being discussed: climate change, air pollution, improving renewable energy, plastics polluting the ocean, overfishing, animal habitat loss, species extinctio
Forty years later and we’re still dealing with the same issues. Why? During that time our environmental record has been erratic. We’ve solved some problems, ignored others, and made still others even worse. Overall, our culture’s efforts to address environmental issues have just not been anywhere close to good enough. So here we are, dealing with what used to be small cancers in our way of life that have since metastasized throughout our whole ecological body.
Do we care? It doesn’t seem like it. At least not enough to inconvenience ourselves.
We don’t want sustainability to cost us money or cause us to change our way of life. We act like spoiled toddlers, having a tantrum because we don’t want to clean up after an afternoon of reckless, messy play. We need to be more mature than that.
We dig our heels in politically, calling each other tree-huggers, climate deniers, hippies, ostriches, socialists, unbridled capitalists, or whatever other names our government circus clowns are throwing at each other. We should be wiser than they are. Environmental care and sustainability should not be contentious political issues.
We debate whether or not we can afford to solve our sustainability issues as if financial wealth now is as valuable as physical health for our generation and for those to come. We need to be less greedy and self-absorbed than that.
In his classic tale, “The Lorax”, Dr. Seuss introduces us to the Onceler, who abuses the environment without regard for anything other than his own, short term financial gain. He doesn’t listen to the Lorax, who is keenly aware of the interconnectedness of the ecosystem and the value of things beyond money. It isn’t until after all is destroyed, that the Onceler sees the error of his ways, but by then it’s too late. We are on the Onceler’s path right now, as we have been since I was in fourth grade 40 years ago. Are we going to do anything about it? To paraphrase the regretful Onceler, “Unless people like us care a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Are we smart, wise and mature enough to effectively address our environmental issues with all of their complexities? Maybe. History shows that we are capable of extraordinary things when we focus our collective minds and energies. Will we choose to do that? I don’t know, but I hate to imagine our situation another forty years from now if we don’t.