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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2004 : Commentary

Commentary

Going From Here to There
What will America look like in 2054? If the past is any indication, we can hardly imagine it.


By Penny Bonda, FASID

Combing through some old files recently, I came across a news clipping comparing the top problems in U.S. public schools as identified by teachers in 1940 and 1990.

1940
Talking Out of Turn
Chewing Gum
Making Noise
Running in Halls
Cutting in Line
Dress Code Infractions
Littering

And in 1990

Drug Abuse
Alcohol Abuse
Pregnancy
Suicide
Rape
Robbery
Assault

Do you find these lists as shocking and frightening as I do? Though not alive in 1940, I do remember my childhood years in the 1950s as quite different from what my grandchildren are experiencing today. Restricted only by how far my bicycle or transit fare could take me, my memories include unescorted wanderings with my friends to places unimaginable for a 10-year-old today. Sure, bad things happened back then, but I’m quite certain my mother never arranged a “play date” for me and I certainly didn’t carry around a cell phone for emergencies.

How did we get from there to here? While some particularly horrific events stand out, such as the shootings at Columbine, moving from a society where substance abuse, suicide and assaults have replaced childhood pranks and misbehaviors as our schools’ toughest problems seems to have insidiously crept up on us. Day by day, year by year, things changed, and while it may be possible for sociologists to track the defining events, most of us have been blithely unaware of the methodical progress of our deteriorating culture.

I can’t help but fast forward 50 years into the future and wonder if singular environmental events taking place under our noses are also under our radar screens. Will the occasional code red air quality alerts of today become so commonplace that we will routinely wear gas masks? At what point will the parental experience of watching asthmatic children struggle to breathe on bad-air days transition from painful to resigned acceptance? In Washington, DC, the relaxation and outright repeal of environmental safeguards that have been on the books for decades is happening deceptively and in secrecy. The Bush administration’s assaults on the Clean Air Act is stunning in its audacity and coupled with its absurdly-named Clear Skies initiative has the capacity to slowly and insidiously degrade the quality of our air to Orwellian proportions.

Lest you think this an overly-dramatic rant of a lifelong liberal, consider this: since Bush’s inauguration three years ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has halted work on 62 environmental standards, or as Robert Kennedy, Jr. said in a recent article in Rolling Stone, has simply stopped enforcing them. “White House strategy,” Kennedy says, “is to promote its unpopular policies by lying about its agenda, cheating on the science and stealing the language and rhetoric of the environmental movement. ‘Climate change’ for example is less threatening than ‘global warming.’ While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

Call it what you will, greenhouse gas emissions are already having a harmful effect. In a recently released report, researchers predicted that global warming, if allowed to continue at its current rate, will drive 15 to 37 percent of living species toward extinction by 2050. “A quarter of all species of plants and land animals, or more than a million in all, could be driven to extinction,” said Chris Thomas, professor of Conservation Biology at England’s University of Leeds and the lead author of the study. These extinctions would be devastating for billions of people, especially those in poorer countries who most rely on biodiversity for their survival.

Widespread agreement exists that global warming is caused by the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, yet we are doing little to lower the levels of those emissions, hoping what—that they will magically diminish? Are we counting on the same sort of mystic wonders to clean our waters? Pregnant women and children are being advised to severely limit the amount of tuna and other fish they eat. Tuna fish sandwiches, that staple of school lunchboxes, are being contaminated by mercury-tainted pollution falling into water from coal-fired power and industrial plants. The Bush administration has rolled back regulations that would force these plants to clean up their act.

Another growing problem garnering little attention from the populace, but with the potential of causing calamitous conditions is access to clean water. A Bill McKibben article in The New York Review states that water, or ‘wet gold,’ is becoming the planet’s most precious substance. He quotes Lester Brown’s view that water shortages will soon manifest themselves as food shortages because 70 percent of the water used by human beings is used for irrigation. “Water demand has tripled in the last half-century, a demand that has been met by pumping it from aquifers . . . and we now face the near-simultaneous depletion of aquifers.” As a result of lower water tables, rivers, lakes and wetlands have dried up in places like the Santa Cruz in Tucson and Tampa Bay, causing fish, birds, wildlife, trees and shrubs to die.

Americans, for the most part, are unaware of many of these issues and they are not going to resonate with the majority of people until something catastrophic happens or until we wake up one day in mid-century only to discover that our world has morphed into a place we hardly recognize and haven’t any desire to inhabit. I know I sound like an alarmist, but do so unapologetically. Each day’s news brings disturbing headlines and my fear is that the comparable 2004/2054 list of environmental ills will look something like this:

2004

Global Warming Accelerating
Tainted Fish
Deforestation
Reduced EPA Enforcement
Depleted Aquifers
Fossil Fuel Dependency

And in 2054

Outdoor Activities Limited to
Nighttime
Smithsonian Exhibits Last
Living Sequoia
Nuclear Waste Leaks Quarantine Utah
Florida Submerged
Los Angeles Uninhabitable
Drinking Water Rationed

Or not? It’s up to us.


Penny Bonda, FASID, is director of environmental communications for EnvironDesign Works, publisher of green@work magazine and producer of the annual EnvironDesign® conferences. She was recently awarded the distinguished Leadership Award from the U.S. Green Building Council for her unrelenting advocacy for green design and development. Bonda can be contacted at: pbonda@bell atlantic.net.

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