Tuesday, June 8, 2010

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Suddenly everyone’s worried about the environment. The Gulf oil disaster, perhaps the biggest oil spill in history, and still pumping, once again puts the spotlight on how human activity can destroy our earthly home.

Watch the news and everybody is angry. Some scream at BP, a repeat offender who puts profits before safety, their private corporate economic interests before the interests of the rest of us. Sounds just like the West Virginia mine tragedy or the financial meltdown. Free enterprise can be deadly.

Many are angry at the government for allowing the regulatory process, which might have prevented the blowout, to be corrupted. People who constantly urge the government to get off our backs now complain that the feds didn’t do enough.

Like the oil company executives before Congress, everybody is pointing fingers at everyone else. There certainly is plenty of blame to go around, but the biggest culprit is neither BP nor the government. As Pogo said so memorably so long ago about the pollution of the Okefenokee swamp, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We want companies like BP to keep feeding our hunger for vast amounts of oil, and to keep the price of gasoline lower than the rest of the world. We want them to be careful not to ruin the environment, but we complain about excessive regulation. We want the government to prevent us from accidents caused by corporate greed. But what are we doing to protect the environment?

Are we limiting the pollutants and poisons we routinely use to wash our clothes, to kill our weeds, to clean our houses? Are we reducing our consumption of plastic, Styrofoam, gasoline, and paper? Average Americans are creating little environmental disasters in our homes and yards every day. Our individual contributions to worldwide pollution seem insignificant. But when each American family’s careless behavior is multiplied by a hundred million families, the overall effect of our daily habits is devastating.

Taking care of our environment is inconvenient. Just as it costs money and effort for big companies to do their work without despoiling the earth, it requires extra effort on our part to do no earthly harm. Saving water, recycling instead of disposing, reducing energy usage, and purchasing cleaner products means extra effort or money, or both. The other day I recycled a computer keyboard, a compact fluorescent light bulb, and some scrap metal. I had to drive all over town to avoid putting these items in the trash.

If we want to point the finger at BP without being hypocritical, we have to do our part to preserve the environment for our children and grandchildren. We can’t spray Roundup at every weed, put all of our waste into landfills, use electric blowers on our sidewalks, and demand ever more petroleum to fuel profligate lifestyles. We can’t just look to the government to protect the environment, and we certainly can’t expect corporations fixated on the bottom line to voluntarily be good environmental citizens.

We need to demand more of ourselves just as we demand more of others. It turns out that the convenience that has defined our American lifestyles is not good for America. The cheap energy, the overpackaging, the electrical and gas-powered toys in our garages, and the automobile-based transportation system are unsustainable. It’s not just debt that we are saddling future generations with; we are bequeathing polluted air, poisoned soil, and ever-growing garbage dumps. And that doesn’t even count the BP calamity.

We have made tremendous progress in learning to think environmentally since the first Earth Day 40 years ago. But it’s not enough. We have not yet been willing to change our daily lives, to give up convenience, to do the work that preserving the earth requires. When will we start?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 8, 2010

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