Avoid environmental panic
It’s turning into a scary summer. The Arizona cooks even more than usual. Canadian forests burned and gave some North American cities orange skies. The rural northeast is inundated with rapid rainfall and many small towns have suffered massive flooding. The ocean off Miami is 90 degrees, and no one seems to be singing about those “lazy, foggy, crazy summer days” anymore. School may be closed for the summer, but for some misery has replaced relaxation. Nations and corporations acting in their own self-interest continue to promote and burn fossil fuels. Climate models at the turn of the 21st century predicting the impact of a warming planet have proven too close to be comfortable, and it is easy to succumb to feelings of despair and panic. Every day we witness a new meteorological catastrophe.
Despite the bad news, good news lurks beneath the surface. More and more people understand the crisis of environmental sustainability, and because of this growing awareness, we are seeing the application of human ingenuity to our environmental crisis. Culture, economics, politics and technology never change instantaneously, and when they change rapidly it is often in response to war or natural disaster. But the winds of change are blowing. The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that there is a problem. This recognition is growing and unstoppable. There is a new urgency in the work of engineers and scientists developing the technologies needed to shift to renewable energy and an economy based on renewable resources. Technologies are becoming cheaper and less toxic, and we are witnessing the beginning of an economic transition. Right now, it’s cheaper to mine the planet for natural resources than it is to mine our waste stream for those resources, but that’s starting to change. Fertilizers made from human waste and food waste are priced competitively with fertilizers made from raw materials, in part because recycled products are subsidized by reduced waste disposal costs. Renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuels, and as battery technology advances, problems with intermittency will disappear.
The cultural force behind this onslaught of technological ingenuity is the growing understanding that the only way to sustain our ways of life is to develop a high-speed economy that doesn’t destroy the planet. All of us hoping to enjoy the outdoors this summer understand the danger of orange air, floods and fires. Overflowing rivers and boiling oceans make it clear that we cannot carry on business as usual. These facts experienced are like the smog that hid the mountains of downtown Los Angeles in the 1960s, the toxic waste that seeped into the basements of working-class owners of the Love Canal in the late 1970s, or the toxic chemicals released during the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio in 2023. These environmental insults were real and frightening to the people living where they occurred. Even in our politically polarized nation of blue and red states and ever-narrowing social media worlds: fire, poison, smog and floodwaters cannot be ruled out.
Polling data reflects changing opinions about threats to the planet. The foundations for the transition to environmental sustainability are being built everywhere. Companies are seeing their most talented customers and employees ask questions about the company’s environmental impact. The business concern is not “pure environmentalism”. It does not prioritize sustainability over all other values, but places these factors in the mix of facts and values that influence decision-making. Companies are investing in cleaning technologies and trying to reduce their environmental footprint. Ignoring environmental impacts was once the norm. This is no longer the case.
We must remember that environmental well-being is not the only value or the only goal we pursue. We have other serious problems: Russia is bombing homes and hospitals in Ukraine. New York City is now home to more than 100,000 homeless people, half of whom are recent immigrants struggling for a better life. Mass shootings seem to have become the norm in this country. All over the world, people are facing survival crises, desperate for food, clothing, healthcare, shelter and hope for the future. Sometimes these other crises dominate and environmental issues have to wait. But unlike in the past, environmental issues remain and remain in the decision-making mix.
Even in the horrible war in Ukraine, no one forgets the destruction of the environment. Basil Seggos, New York State’s commissioner of its environmental quality department, took time off and volunteered as an ambulance driver in Ukraine. Last April, he wrote a pointed account of this nation’s damaged environment in The hill. According Seggos:
“Russian forces have destroyed or damaged more than 300,000 homes and 400,000 cars, generating millions of tons of debris whose toxic residues slowly seep into soil and water. Likewise, with the bombardment of dozens of large industrial sitesincluding the Azovstal refinery, where intense fighting released extraordinary levels of toxins. abandoned coal mines to the east are filling with polluted groundwater, impacting drinking water supplies and pushing methane to the surface. All this contamination threatens the health of Ukraine’s 43 million citizens – 6 million of whom now have limited or no access to safe drinking water. The fight killed more than 50,000 dolphins in the Black Sea and destroy 3 million acres of protected land.
What is important about Seggos’ view of this damage is that Ukrainian leaders are also aware of and deeply concerned about these issues. I am convinced that concerns about environmental damage were present in past wars, but usually not expressed so quickly. In my view, the priority given to environmental damage is an indicator of the cultural change that is taking place. Yet it is far from the dominant issue in this battle for national survival. Again, like Seggos observed:
“Environmental concerns seem a distant luxury when civilians are bombed in their beds. But the extraordinary sacrifices of the Ukrainian military have allowed leaders to reflect on the implications of the devastation as they scrutinize the reconstruction ahead.
What does this have to do with environmental panic? I plead for perspective and a sense of balance. Yes, my six year old granddaughter’s day camp had to stay indoors on the worst orange sky day in New York. Yes, I remain afraid for the planet she inherits. And she’s not the only camper whose summer days have been disrupted. New York Times Journalist Steven Kurutz recently submitted an article about the impact of extreme weather conditions on summer camp this year. According Kurutz:
“Campers are still swimming, playing tether ball and singing around the fire as they work towards independence this summer, but they have also had to contend with a precarious natural environment. Parents who have sent their children for a rewarding outdoor experience – perhaps in hopes of having some child-free time – have received disturbing messages from camp directors, with updates on the latest flood, unhealthy air influx or heat blast. The wild time came at a time when demand for summer camps is on the rise, three years after the start of the pandemic.”
Despite the impact of extreme weather conditions, Kurutz found that “the summer of 2023 has taught campers to be resilient and adaptable.” And I remain hopeful that we can adapt to a warming planet and eventually mitigate global warming. For my granddaughter, the skies over New York cleared and soon she was playing outside again. We manage, but we are in an environmental sustainability crisis. People are experiencing this crisis firsthand, and it’s changing their understanding of how the world works. Like other crises that humanity has faced, I think we will gradually approach this one as well.
It is important to take stock of the progress we have made in applying new technologies to solve environmental problems. The pace of innovation is impressive, as is the application of human ingenuity to problem solving. The way forward to deal with this crisis has not been and will not be easy and simple. Wicked men like Putin pursue their goals without caring about the people or the planet they are harming. Some companies seek profit without caring about the damage they cause to the environment or to life on Earth. But that evil outnumbers the vast number of people who understand these crises and, like Commissioner Seggos, are determined to act.
One of the problems with environmental panic is that it makes people who are concerned about other issues less willing to engage in dialogue about environmental issues. Another problem is that it can lead to paralysis or unrealistic policy proposals. Although summer is scary and we have reason to be afraid, there is no reason to panic. The alternative to environmental panic is to pursue pragmatic and deliberate change. There are signs of this change in businesses and governments in the United States and around the world. Environmental sustainability has moved from the margins to the center of our political agenda. The environmental sustainability crisis is real, but so is our resolve to address it.