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William Masters

February 21, 2012

Humans need to look at long-term impact on Earth

Global warming is real, and we are smugly oblivious. I recall the USS Nautilus making a journey to the North Pole decades ago, poking its conning tower dramatically up through the ice right at the pole itself. An arrival theretofore possible only by dogsled and arduous effort.

Now, polar bears are apparently drowning in open North Pole seas for want of ice on which to rest and stalk seals at their breathing holes. Photographs from space, a decade ago and now, highlight the loss to Greenland glaciers, too.

It's an old story: seas over-fished, animals killed to the brink of extinction, forests destroyed, mountain streams buried under tons of mountain tops shoved aside to get coal; or arctic seas and wildlife endangered by risky oil drilling. We need to care more about the environment, and not just here, but worldwide.

For 30 years, until finally stopped by federal regulation, General Electric dumped more than a million pounds of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the Hudson River. GE is still lobbying to undermine the Superfund law in court and in the media while still falling short in remediation.

It got Gov. Hugh Carey to pose as if ready to drink a full glass of PCBs. GE still claims that the expensive cleanup would make the dangers of cancer and developmental disorders even worse.

"Da Nile" won't help the Hudson. And there are still loopholes in the Clean Water Act that allow mining companies to dump their waste into waterways.

But global warming is more amorphous, and perhaps therefore more ominous. Like other threats, it would be irreversible. Human beings are notoriously shortsighted. Without God's instruction, it is not at all clear that Noah would ever have been motivated to build and load the Ark. Who would have guessed?

But of course, we have science. Science, however, is not uniformly helpful. It can demonstrate the delicate interdependence between salmon swimming upstream to spawn and the forests that line Oregon rivers.

But negative consequences are not so immediate as to be obvious to those whose immediate profit is based on catching salmon. No one fissure alone can account for any devastation, so there is little sense of personal accountability.

It is deniable. It is also deniable that airliner contrails can have measurable impact on the amount of solar radiation that reaches the Earth. But they do.

So look at Easter Island. For over a thousand years, the Polynesian immigrants there flourished by fishing out in ocean-going canoes constructed from palm lumber. They also cut trees to make fields for agriculture. When the trees were all gone, they were trapped and perished. Haiti cut its trees down, too. We live greedily on Mother Earth as if she will always and automatically provide for our needs.

So science cannot save us from our own catastrophes, but foresight could if not overridden by selfishness. And the selfish, who manage to accumulate advantage, always seem to find rationalizations to pursue more. Science is then dismissed as flawed, or contested. Remember the defense of nicotine?

Moral objections by the religious are rules advanced to be imposed on everyone, not just within their own precinct, for themselves.

Such efforts are just as selfish as those to preserve special interests. Birth control, abortion and gay marriage are examples, as was the disastrous experiment with Prohibition.

Other rules, such as the notoriously ineffective War on Drugs or for the death penalty, are current examples of shortsightedness.

San Diego residents are due for a major earthquake this century, but no one there dwells on this eventual certainty, or even seems worried about it. We are good at tuning danger out of our minds when we have no choice.

But Americans are highly invested in the status quo, because we are well-supplied in comfort and security, and well-removed from the specter of plagues, starvation or deathly deprivation and oppression.

Our science cannot forever insulate us from the realities of other human beings in the world. Our huge dependence on coal, petroleum reserves and mobile military power is not enshrined as our eternal God-given right.

We have to be clear-minded about the long-term costs of sustaining a lavish lifestyle. And our selfish addiction to comfort and feeling superior should not blind us to the blindness of those who dismiss the risks of shortsightedness.

We need to attend to the big picture, the long-term picture, and the needs of humanity in general. Even those of the humanity across town are worthy of attention.

William Masters can be reached at wmasters@thedailystar.com. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.

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