Sunday, April 04, 2010

Is Our Local Environment Collapsing?

One of the great environmental concepts of our time is the realization that environmental collapse can occur so slowly that you would hardly notice it. Unless, of course, you are looking for it. We should appreciate that in this fast-paced world, where mankind has mostly developed it to his liking, because we are more likely to forget (or not even notice) important milestones along the way to environmental degradation. If we allow only our picture of today’s environment to define our definition of a healthy environment, we could be missing important clues about the true direction our environmental is sliding.

Saturday, I attended a talk by Dr. Jared Diamond at Monroe Community College about environmental collapse. Mostly, Diamond talked about the collapse of the Easter Island society after it endured for 800 years. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Long ago Easter Island had a thriving human culture and a vast forest. Then, the last tree was chopped down in 1880. Then, the culture collapsed to a population of one hundred people. Now, the Easter Island plight is a metaphor for the delicate fragility of Earth itself and how we might be destroying it piecemeal like the Easter Islanders.

Again, this long-ago collapse occurred so slowly, through generations, that no one single generation was able to see the complete picture. At any one point along the 800 years of human culture on that remote island, things would have looked fine as the inhabitants chopped trees down for rope and rolling logs for their huge statues for which the island is now known.

Take this notion of the Easter Island collapse home. Maybe it has something to teach us here. We know that Rochester’s environment was a sustainable environment five hundred years ago. Things were humming along fine, the forest filled with birds, other wondrous creature, and the streams full of fish. (It was probably not an Eden, for the mosquitoes must have been murder.) But, since that time human population and development has profoundly altered all that. My question: Are we somewhere along the Easter Island-like collapse continuum where we cannot ‘see’ where we are headed?

Granted we still have many trees, though they are fewer of them and many are plagued by invasive diseases. We’ve got fish in our steams and lakes, but they’re infested with disease, mercury, and pollution—not to mention many fish populations are artificially maintained by yearly stocking. Our air is breathable, but filled with ozone, sooty particulates, toxins, heavy metals like lead, and warming up by Climate Change. And, we have a productive soil, though it is filled with material from old Brownfields, heavy metals, pesticides, and trash. As for our water, make sure it’s been officially treated before you drink it.

Even with all our environmental laws and restrictions and a media ready to pounce on any big toxic spill, do we really have a clear picture or our environment’s health? Or, are we merely running around plugging all the most obvious environmental holes thinking the last several years the only model we need concern ourselves with?

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