It Has All Been Said Before

By Will Baker

Twenty years ago this summer I hiked Camel’s Hump Mountain for the first time. Aside from being the only mountain in Vermont to boast an "arctic zone," this peak shares a dubious distinction with a few other mountain peaks in this region of the country: It is an accessible showcase for the damaging effects of acid rain on the environment. I remembered noting the strangely "blasted" looking flora near the tree line. At the time, I was a young college student, who prided himself on his environmental awareness. Yet I had no idea that I was witnessing, first-hand, the effects of wind-born pollution which, originated somewhere in the Ohio-Valley and then fell to earth as a component of highly acidic precipitation.

However, later that year, in the autumn of 1979, the very mountain peak that I found myself standing upon a few months earlier was featured in a major publication. The article represented a scathing indictment of pollution causing industries, and the associated far-flung negative environmental impacts of their business enterprises. This was my wake-up call. Of course, ten years earlier, in the spring of 1969 the world observed its first Earth Day, so I suppose that it would be unfair to say that there was no awareness of environmental issues up to that point. However, as we stand on the eve of the thirtieth Earth Day celebration, I wonder how much real progress has been made.

After college, my wife and I spent some time in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. However, due primarily to the environmental state of affairs there, we simply had to move. Actually, I credit the Pfizer Chemical Company for our decision. As a result of the activities of one of this company’s factories, located in Easton Pennsylvania, the countryside, for miles around, was polluted beyond compare. But I have to hand it to Pfizer. This was not some Silkwoodesque scenario where you could not tell that the environment was being harmed. No, this factory turned everything within a certain radius of the plant a lovely shade of red. The roads, the streams, the signs, employee vehicles, everything was red. As a curious aside, among other things, Pfizer manufacturers the brand of eye-drops known as "Visine," whose slogan is, you guessed it: "it gets the red out."

So we moved to Vermont. However in doing so we realized full well that, as relates to attempting to avoid living near pollution, this was probably merely a holding action. It seems to me that pollution does not respect territorial boundaries, ethnicity, religious persuasions or income levels--perhaps pollution is the great equalizer. Yes, we fled Pfizer’s red valley of death. And since then we have been residents of Vermont, arguably the cleanest, safest state in the Union.

But as Earth Day 2000 approaches, I wonder how much better off we (meaning my little family as well as all of Earth’s residents) really are. Sure, it is now politically acceptable to talk about environmental issues without being branded a "tree-hugger." And for a while there during the Eighties, claiming to be an environmentalist was actually in vogue. And this time around, at least one of the U.S. presidential candidates running for election actually has environmentalist credentials. However the phenomenon known as Global Warming has yet to be disproved. Species are still being added to the Endangered Species List at a dizzying rate. Slash and burn agricultural techniques are causing the ruin of the rain forests, which might very well disappear during the lifetimes of most people reading this essay. Acid rain has caused thousands, if not tens of thousands of fresh water lakes around the world to go "sterile." Deformed frogs and other animal species exhibiting troubling abnormalities are being studied on three continents. The oceans continue to exhibit signs of stress linked to pollution and over fishing. And the industrialized nations, having made an unmitigated disaster of the environment, now find themselves preaching to the developing world regarding the negative environmental consequences associated with industrialization. And the developing world wonders at the seeming injustice inherent in the situation. "Cancer clusters" are popping up all around the globe, linked anecdotally to pollution, and in some cases e.g., the Love Canal fandango, to hard data.

Earth Day reminds me somewhat of the "holiday season" when folks attempt to get into the "spirit" and treat each other with a bit more civility--of course they sometimes treat folks deplorably during the rest of the year. But what really causes me concern is the conversation that I anticipate someday having with my daughter on this subject; when she asks me why so much harm was allowed to be done to the environment, by so many parents of children forced to inherit this terrible situation. And how in the name of God can I answer that? "Darling, I guess people really care more about making money and achieving immediate gratification than taking better care of their children," or maybe: "People are sometimes very foolish, selfish and short-sighted, and unfortunately that is just the way it is... Can I buy you a new car and give you a charge card for your graduation?"

 

 

 (Essay Collection)