January 2006

Sins of the past haunt us today

By Galen Larson

Environmentalists — the enemies of progress! Or at least that’s what we hear from those who rape and pillage our planet.

When Bambi meets John Wayne the sparks fly and reason heads out the door. Yet both sides need the environment as much as the other.

I consider myself an environmentalist. I haven’t been to college and am not what one would call an erudite man. But I have traveled extensively and observed what has happened to our environment in my short lifetime of 76 years, and not in all the centuries before the last one has humankind done so much damage to the earth. I was raised on what would now be called a small farm. We didn’t even know what an environmentalist was, but we were conservationists.

We didn’t have costly chemicals to enhance growth of crops or livestock. We rotated our crops, letting the land rest periodically. We carefully monitored the breeding of livestock, whether horses, cattle or chickens. Many in my home town opted out of producing grain and elected to raise your Thanksgiving turkey, which produced year-around jobs. Yes, we were conservationists, but things changed. “More and bigger” became the guidelines instead of diversity.

We were urged to grow more and more of a single crop on the same land, pouring fertilizer and pesticides into the soil to boost our cash crops. We plowed acres of hazelnuts under, expanded our crop-producing acreage, and found ourselves producing more of a crop but at the same time bringing the price down. More and bigger resulted in less income.

Meanwhile, the government was conned into draining swamps, resulting in the destruction of birds, wildlife and native plants. On our farm we had a place to dump unneeded things: glass jars, paint and paint cans, bedsprings, old tires, fan belts, iron from broken machinery, grease and oil and dead animals. Were we polluters? You betcha. We did this through ignorance and every farmer in the area did the same. So did industries. Now the taxpayers are paying millions to reclaim the wetlands and clean up these private contaminating dumps.

The “more and bigger” philosophy has had consequences everywhere. Take the earth’s oceans. Two-thirds of our planet is water; only 1 percent is potable, and we have managed to pollute about all of it.

I remember my sixth-grade teacher explaining that we might have to one day depend on the oceans for food. Well, that possibility is extinct. The number of species in the oceans today has dropped by 50 percent. Why? Frantic, sustained over-fishing, plus pollution from the dumping of sewage and garbage from industries — all directly related to the expansion of the human population.

To say it ain’t happening is like burying garbage — out of sight, out of mind. As we should know, what happens anywhere on this planet affects our health and welfare. A dust storm in China may bring beautiful sunsets but it should remind us what a sunset is — the time before darkness.

Let’s bring the environment into perspective. Say it’s your home, abode, place of refuge. Common sense tells you that you like to keep it clean and pleasant. You keep the dust down, you’re careful with your water supply, you don’t let your garbage pile up. You scrub, change your beds, vacuum the furniture, plant flowers inside and out. Environmentalism is simply doing the same on a larger scale.

I think back on the mistakes we and others made through ignorance. These problems did not surface for years, in the form of costly and serious damage to the soil and water supply.

We were a railroad and farming community. At that time, the coal-powered steam engine provided the power for the grain and cattle trains. Coming right through town the smoke and steam released by the engines wreaked havoc on Monday’s wash and the windows, to say nothing of the dust it left in the home.

To stifle complaints, the railroad installed an underground pipe from the place where they let off steam to clear the boilers to the river a couple miles away, draining the rust and impurities into the river that provided drinking water for the area and ice to cool our ice boxes. This was done not with malice but with ignorance. Later, when the diesel engines came to be, they then, through ignorance, drained the oil down this pipe. Not too good an idea by anyone’s standards!

This went on for years after I left, and not until people became aware of the damage was something done. One would think that people with enough intelligence to run a railroad would know better, but it took the complaints of average people to bring this to a halt. So let’s not be so quick to ridicule the layperson environmentalist as a kook, tree-hugger, or animal activist.

The environment is a relentless, informative teacher. It is rarely forgiving and extracts a high cost if we do not adhere to the lessons. Extinction is just that — gone, caput, no more. There is a purpose for every living thing, be it plant or animal. It has its place in the circle of life, each depending on the other for survival. If the links are destroyed the circle gets smaller and the struggle for life becomes more precarious.

In times gone by we committed many travesties against the environment through a lack of knowledge of what the consequences would be. If we’d just erred on the side of caution there would not be so many Superfund sites throughout our nation. Maybe we ought to heed the environmentalists and err on the side of caution from now on. It could save us a lot of headaches in the future.

Galen Larson lives in rural Montezuma County.