17. Energy, Water, Carbon and Conserving

by H. W. Moss

The image of Earth as mother is more apt today as we attempt to understand how she breathes. Inhale, exhale, you can see the cycle in clouds and fog, along riverbanks and deltas when cooling land masses suck in the moisture at night and our communities become colder. The heat of the morning sun causes the land to exhale and coastlines clear.

Land and sea are constantly exchanging carbon with each other in living and dying, in photosynthesis, organic birth and decay. But we have only known this for two centuries.

Until that recently, we saw ourselves, all humans, as somewhat benign in relation to these gigantic processes: viewers who have no effect on the dynamics of cloud formation, sunlight upon the ground or how drinking water tastes.

But our thinking has changed. We have become aware of our long term effect on the planet and are concerned we may have damaged our mother beyond the healing arts.

However, there are good things to report. The once polluted River Thames has edible fish swimming in it again and there is no further danger the Cuyahoga River will catch fire.

A 1969 Time Magazine article reported Clevelanders wisecracked that, “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown. He decays,” while Randy Newman sang, “Burn on, big river, burn on.”

When I was a kid we collected soda pop bottles and took them to the grocery for a refund. We got two cents a bottle. At the time, watermelon sold for four cents a pound.

Even my rudimentary math skills were able to determine that 20 bottles bought a ten pound melon which was more than enough for three. We usually ended up in a watermelon rind fight.

We no longer have deposits or refunds on glass containers, but we do have recycling of plastic and aluminum which is not that much different.

But it is different.

What changed were market conditions and “Bottlers got out of the bottle collecting, rinsing and refilling” business, explained Mark Oldfield, recycling specialist with the California Department of Conservation.

The California Refund Value, that CRV which appears on grocery receipts right after the purchase price of something that comes in plastic or aluminum “is not a deposit,” Oldfield explained. “It’s a regulatory fee designed to encourage recycling. This program came into being in 1987. Before that it was based on the commodities prices: what was the glass worth, what was the aluminum worth? Twenty years ago it was really just aluminum and glass, very little plastic.”

Plastic, the famous word spoken to Dustin Hoffman in the opening scenes of “The Graduate,” replaced glass. Aluminum cans started gobbling up market share, according to Oldfield.

“The aluminum is not a reusable container, but it is a very recyclable container. Back in the day, those glass bottles had an actual deposit on them. A deposit is something that is placed on a returnable/refillable container, like a beer keg. That wasn’t the case with aluminum and, as aluminum got more market share, the dynamic changed.”

Our streets are not littered with cans and plastic bottles because of the CRV.

Although there is still room for concern, the hole in the ozone layer 15 to 30 kilometers above the Antarctic is shrinking, and in record short time.

Ozone (03) is the layer of upper atmosphere that absorbs solar or ultra violet energy. Trouble with it was first observed in a paper published in 1985, although that paper was based on data collection that began in the International Geophysical year, 1957. Thanks to the coordinated effort of many governments to ban chlorofluorocarbons, man made products which propelled shaving foam and whipped cream, the hole is 30 percent smaller today than last year.

“It’s a good model for the global warming issue, that the international community can put together a set of regulations everybody can get along with,” observed David Hofmann, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Global Monitoring Division.

Will ozone holes disappear completely? That is not known, but it is predicted they will.

The list of good news goes on. Styrofoam cups dispensed by fast food and beverage chains have been replaced by degradable holders. The once ubiquitous white coffee containers which were said to keep a beverage hot for five minutes, but lived in land fill for five hundred years, have disappeared.

Pull tabs, the sportsman’s equivalent of leaving permanent toilet paper behind, have been removed from the tops of aluminum cans.

San Francisco banned plastic bags in grocery stores a year ago which reduced use by five million per month. Last month, the City by the Bay halted the practice at drug stores which were given a one-year exemption. Similar ordinances have been passed in Malibu, Melbourne and are on the agenda of almost every country in Africa. Bangladesh banned plastic bags four years ago when officials realized they blocked drains and led to flooding, according to a report on CNN.

Where once city colleges were high schools with ash trays, cigarettes are shunned world wide and butts looked upon as unsightly.

It is no longer cool to drive buzzed which is another word for drunk.

Since 1970 we have celebrated a festival called Earth Day which was founded by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson.

“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” Nelson wrote. “We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”

The “United Nations Expert Meeting on World Population” projected three potential human population scenarios. The medium scenario suggested world population will level off at 9 billion by 2300.

One other interesting observation came out of that the meeting: “Life expectancy is projected to increase steadily in all countries after 2050. No limit is set on the increase of life expectancy. As a result some countries reach very high levels of survivorship by 2300.”

There are six point six billion people on the planet today and they are probably going to have an effect on the air they breathe, the water they drink, the land they inhabit. But that does not mean they will spoil it all. In fact, they may make it more beautiful because, as shown here, trends are reversible.