Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Georgia (as well as much of the southeastern U.S.) is in the middle of a really horrific drought. The region is seriously strapped for water, and despite the drizzly rain of the last three days the situation continues to become more and more dire with each passing day. Due to outdoor watering restrictions as well as concious decisions to conserve on the part of many folks in the Atlanta area, consumption has fallen anywhere from 16-34 percent in metro counties. This situation, however, is not one they can conserve our way out of. What they need is rain, and an incredible amount of it, very soon.

A friend, ever the skeptic of global warming and climate change, notes "Droughts, floods, earthquakes and natural disasters NEVER happened before the 20th century and therefore it must be our fault."

He is quite right that famines, droughts, floods and other natural disasters occurred before the onset of the Industrial Era, and if those who fear global warming were basing their concerns solely on incidents like Hurricane Katrina, the drought hitting the Southeast, and some above-average temperatures in October this year, they would deserve to be roundly driven from the table.

Unfortunately, the data go back quite a bit more than the last few years, and it's not just a few Chicken Littles screaming anymore. It is the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community that global climate change is happening, and that it almost certainly is due to or being accelerated by human activity. I'm aware that consensus doesn't make it absolute certainty, and that there are some quite intelligent scientists who disagree ... but as a matter of public policy, it makes sense to listen to the consensus when it's as strong as this consensus is. (There's always the argument that 30 years ago some scientists were ringing alarm bells about global cooling and a new ice age; if that invalidates conclusions that have been reached with more data and more sophisticated computer modeling, perhaps we should get back to the Flat Earth theory. There are some rather intelligent people who still hold to that too, after all.)

But for the sake of argument, let's set aside the question of global warming. For the discussion, I'll concede that there's nothing to it, that the very notion is absurd that human activities are causing the Earth to heat up, the Arctic to melt faster than normal in the summertime, the permafrost to thaw, and hurricanes to worsen. Let's say it's all poppycock. You know what that changes, in the final analysis? Nothing. Our lifestyle in America is still unsustainable, and it is disastrous for ourselves and the rest of the environment.

It used to be that most streams and waterways in the United States were good to fish from. Pioneers, settlers, and those who came after them would catch fish in the river and feed them to their families. Nowadays most of the waterways we used to fish from are polluted; the river downhill from my house actually has a sign warning people not to eat more than three fish from that river in a month. Nice, huh?

And while our ancestors lived the ultimate in sustainability -- they ate meat from animals they shot, turned worn-out clothes into quilts and rugs, grew their grains and vegetables themselves, and basically recycled or composted everything they used -- we as a nation throw out 22 million tons of garbage every year. If current trends continue, that's going to rise to 33 million to 35 million tons per year in just four years. And ironically, about 60 percent of that waste is organic and compostable. (I'm sure recyclable aluminum and plastics make up another sizeable chunk.)

The average meal in an American household also travels about 4,000 miles to reach the dinner table, if I recall the figure correctly.

Does anyone think it's a good idea to continue in a lifestyle that involves this much prolifigate waste? I don't. How infinite are our resources, anyway? From what I understand, hydrogeologists believe we already have consumed fifty percent of the world's oil supply. The rest is going to be increasingly more difficult to get, making it al the more expensive.

The situation in Georgia and the Southeast may not be due to global warming specifically, but I'm sure the American lifestyle hasn't helped much there either. We consume water recklessly, watering lawns that wouldn't naturally occur in the area during times when grass should be brown and dormant anyway, and we make little effort to recycle water after we use it, nor even to return it to the water table. Generally the goal is to get it to the streams and waterways as fast as we can, and never mind recharging the water tables.

So lately, environmentalists have been calling for things like improving fuel efficiency in our vehicles; developing alternate fuels and energy sources that don't involve producing pollution; finding natural heating and cooling systems; reducing our electricity consumption; transporting our goods across shorter distances instead of getting them from halfway across the planet; and so on. We have a family of four, and yet we produce only one garbage can full of trash every month or so.

It seems reasonable to me.

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