This is an essay on the many and diverse ways that we are helping the greenhouse effect to accelerate.
FOR WHOM DOES THE BELL TOLL?
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." John Donne 1572-1631
History lectures into a deaf ear. The world witnessed the annihilation of Hiroshima, yet built an arsenal of even deadlier weapons, enough to decimate the planet; then constructed nuclear power plants with no recourse as to the handling of its waste, which seeps insidiously into ground waters and airways.
No effort was made to counter the effects of acid rain until hundreds of forests along the East Coast and Canada died. Garbage and toxic waste have accumulated well beyond our capacity to accommodate its disposal. Forewarned, we waited until the ozone layer thinned and the greenhouse effect began, before we became concerned.
The scientific community has been warning the public of the possibility of a greenhouse effect for many years. No one believed it would happen in this lifetime, partly because scientists, unsure of their facts, publish conflicting and incongruous reports, but mostly due to apathy on the part of the public. Still, the greenhouse effect has begun and we have activated a chain of events that may be irrevocable. The hot, humid weather that plagueing the East, as well as the entire nation from California to Cape Cod, not only has tempers flaring, but offers proof that the greenhouse effect is more than a science fiction story. The greenhouse effect, warned John S. Hoffman, director of the Global Atmosphere Program of the Office of Air and Radiation, will alter the entire fabric of nature. Some scientists predict a 9 degree Fahrenheit increase, which would exceed increases over the past ten million years. Other scientists forecast a "worse-case scenario of a 10 to 30 degree increase," which would melt glaciers and expand oceans. This would raise the sea level by one to four feet, which could put coastal areas under water. Individual communities cannot singlehandedly halt the greenhouse effect, but can stop contributing to it.
The greenhouse effect is caused, in part, by carbon dioxide and other gases released by the burning of fossil fuels. Solutions range from converting solely to nuclear energy, with its related problems, or turning to solar energy, a feasible, but initially expensive and untried alternative. Acid rain is also caused by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas, and is responsible for the terminal diseases of the plant, animal, and aquatic life of the Great Lakes. It is killing fish, polluting rivers, and destroying forests from Georgia to Maine. Twenty-five percent of the lakes in New York, and many in Canada and New England, are already dead. The Red Spruce tree, which once flourished at the top of Mount Mitchell, in the Black Mountains of Western North Carolina, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi, is gone forever.
The thinning and partial disappearance of the ozone layer, which screens out harmful ultra-violet rays compounds the existing problems because of its threat to human, plant and animal life. Thomas A. Bergstein, a geologist at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, suggested in a letter to the New York Times, that this country co-operate with the Soviet Union in a large-scale effort to produce synthetic ozone and fly it back to the stratosphere. However, the only viable solutions at the moment are decreases in industrial and automotive emissions, methane from agriculture, and chlorofluorocarbons and halons from industrial chemicals. Industry, for one, will not comply unless forced by law or public pressure.
The Eastern part of the United States is suffering from unusually high levels of ozone in the atmosphere, as high, and on some days, higher than Los Angeles, the smog capital of the country. The ozone in the air we breathe, commonly known as smog, is "chemically identical, but unrelated" to the depleting ozone layer which is beneficial to the earth. Hot, stagnant air, industrial pollutants, sunlight and auto emissions have contributed to the extreme levels experienced this past summer.
The Clean Air Act allows 0.1 parts per million(ppm) of ozone for one hour. More than one excedance is in violation of federal air quality standards. Many Eastern cities have reached and maintained levels as high as 0.19 ppm, a serious health threat.
Sludge and sewage dumping in ocean waters was to have been halted in the early 1980's, but a Federal Court has allowed municipal and county sewerage authorities to continue for lack of another solution. About 3.8 million wet tons of sludge are dropped on marine life every year, causing cumulative damage to ocean life that may be irreversible. While the EPA has called for fines of 1.25 million dollars against nine sewerage authorities for "improper" dumping of sludge, "proper" dumping continues on a daily basis. New York City officials stopped sewerage sludge dumping in1998, and beaches did improve, the water became cleaner and wildlife and marine life slowly returned.A practical solution entails transforming the sludge to fertilizer and selling it to areas that need it.
Sewage is still towed 106 nautical miles from New York harbor and released into the ocean; inky black clouds of sludge that "rob the water of oxygen, suffocating many forms of marine life." A Montauk dockmaster states with surety that "New Yorkers are going to get their garbage right back in the fish they are eating." Fishermen are constantly reporting scenes of sea turtles choking to death on plastic bags they have mistaken for jellyfish, and sea gulls and ducks ensnared in plastic nets and plastic soda can rings. Two million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year from human garbage, either by ingestion or entanglement. Concerned citizens may not be able to stop this blight globally, but we should be attempting to clean up our own mess.
Beaches in New York, and New Jersey, hardest hit by medical waste, are often closed for most of the summer, causing hardship to businesses and the public. Thousands of pieces of medical waste have washed up along eastern shores, including hypodermic needles, and vials of blood containing the AIDS and hepatitis virus. Although there is a real danger of tetanus, blood poisoning and infection from stepping on needles, the threat from AIDS and hepatitis is said to be low, because exposure to water eventually kills the viruses. How do the viruses affect the fish that consumers purchase?
It is inconceivable that any medical facility would be so irresponsible as to allow medical contaminants to be dumped into the ocean. Apparently hospitals without incinerators on their premises are not tracking the contractors who dispose of their waste. It's not their job. Whose job is it?
Who is expected to solve these problems? The Government? Governmental agencies have a track record of jumping in after the situation is out of control. Big business? Business and industry do not address problems of public concern unless there is a profit involved, especially since they are most often the cause of the problem. Who then? If government, business, and industry cannot or will not solve these life-threatening dilemmas, then it falls to each citizen to take action. Furture generations will be as appalled by the legacy left them, as this generation should be ashamed.
Each community is a microcosm of the earth, sometimes surrounded on all sides by polluted water, enveloped by polluted air, or sitting beneath once lush mountains denuded of trees by acid rain; and inundated by sewage, garbage and medical and toxic waste. Most cities and towns are endowed with the intelligence, the power and the money to launch a constructive beginning to prevent the end. Many communities have already begun.
It is much easier to write and warn about the problems facing the United States and the world, than it is to solve them. But as immense as the problems seem, and they are, initial solutions can be as simple as refusing to buy aerosol cans which produce the hydrocarbons that help destroy the ozone layer, instituting effective car-pools, and separating garbage, to more complicated attempts to monitor coastlines for illegal dumping, and consistent opposition to over-development of land. Industry can be blamed for much of the problem, but industry only produces what the consumer purchases, and boycotting harmful products is the surest way of stopping its production. This is where collective intelligence and community unification come in.
The cost of prevention is minuscule if the alternative is extinction. The bell tolls for the planet earth and the death knell has too long been ignored. And time is running out.