By John Karoly
Chicago, IL, USA
A few years ago, I took a driving trip with my wife and her family through New England. It was what we called our “Leaf Trip” as it was in autumn and we went to enjoy the famous New England landscape at the height of the turning of the leaves to their most brilliant colors. It was not a disappointment; the leaves, the forests were
beautiful, indeed! We were all
very happy with the scenery the forests had to offer in their brilliant reds.
Our drive and the scenery, however, were suddenly interrupted by a clearing
full of junk, adjacent to the road. Some people who must have lived there
seemed to have moved away leaving most of their junk behind, rusting automobile
frames, motorcycle, kitchen utensils and much garbage. They seemed to have got
up one morning and decided to move on and leave most everything behind.
We drove on, but soon encountered a similar site: lively green forest interrupted by garbage, another pitiful household abandoned in the midst of nature and beauty. Another group of people tired of the life in this spot left all their garbage behind with a flagrant violation of our senses, and our beliefs, and this was repeated again. Who did not mind to cut out a part of a forest, a part of a national treasure, to settle temporarily in garbage without regret and regard to the environment? This must have been a pitifully low level of humanity!
But thinking about it, garbage in the midst of beauty is created and abandoned by other means, as well. You can hike in Switzerland and in the great alpine scene come across an abandoned hotel, probably built in the end of the 19th century in the “Magic Mountain” era when people searched for the pure alpine air which was presumed to cure them from ailments such as TB. And when the era ended, they left, leaving the glorious hotel to rot and disintegrate. We leave our useless garbage behind; rarely do we find money to clean up what is no longer “useful.” Hard to find money to clean up, we just move on and create the next site which will turn into garbage with the passage of time. Has this not been going on for several millennia? The oldest is called antiques and we organize tours for visitation. It is our heritage and we spend some funds to maintain them. We create quaint sites in city and village centers with an attempt to preserve them. The garbage along the Vermont roads or crumbling hotels in the Swiss Alps don’t qualify for this designation.
Looking farther down the road we have some new and modern trash-creating means:
1. We are in a space race to put more and more satellites into orbit. Many of them disintegrate with time; others break down and disintegrate immediately upon launch. Space garbage extends around our planet and we strain to keep track of it. More often than not, we probably miss larger pieces and we don’t even keep track of smaller ones. With time we could be like Saturn surrounded by rings of space junk left over from the information age. This will make space travel hazardous: how do we get through the ring of garbage without being hit by some high velocity object? On a journey to Mars we may not survive at the start of our journey within the vicinity of Earth. Thinking that we will clean this up is as naïve as cleaning up the mess around the roads and mountains. The race for space continues; ever more nations, companies and wealthy individuals will be able to launch satellites with multitudes of objectives, creating more space junk. One upside of this may be a small reduction in global warming as the junk around us could reflect some of the sun’s rays.
2. The oceans are plowed by more and ever larger ships. More people are going on cruises; more merchandise is carried by cargo freighters. For some time we received a lot of manufactured goods from the East and we sent freighters back loaded with recycled paper, to give an idea of ridiculous cargo. These ships are polluting the oceans with human waste, wastewater, oil spills and countless other discharges by virtue of the sheer number of vessels and their capacity to carry humans, who regard the oceans as an infinite garbage dump. Even though the vessels are built with better technology, the oceans are overwhelmed by the number and capacity. The oceans are also reaching their saturation limits for storing carbon dioxide, the waste generated by our automobiles and power plants, etc. Plastics are found everywhere polluting the world oceans. Plastics origins are varied, their dimensions are as well, but whether small, microscopic or large, they carry an immense amount of microbes. Discarded plastic, like water bottles, form the “Pacific trash vortex,” the “great Pacific garbage patch” and other garbage accumulations, some of which are well in excess in size of the State of Texas. Microbes live on plastic pieces, the majority of which are smaller than a grain of rice, and when ingested by fish or other marine animal for their microbes, the plastic survives. It does not decompose during the journey and when eliminated by the animal it provides new sites for microbes to grow. These plastics help to house different variety of microbes which are plastic specific.
3. For decades now China engaged, among other uses, in the construction of useless everything: cities where no one lives, railways transporting no passengers or cargo and useless huge structures which are turning into rubble with the passage of time. Where will the money come from and the desire to deconstruct these immense structures? They are the cemeteries of misplaced and very harmful human ambitions. And if not taken down the Chinese will have to live with more rubble.
4. The recent trend of reconstruction of cities and towns, called ”gentrification,” by rebuilding and modernizing the town center, usually the historical parts of the town, is being challenged. Often these gentrified areas became designated as pedestrian only zones with the idea of visitors parking their cars and enjoying the rebuilt shopping centers in the historic districts. This was both a quaint and a pleasant way to shop and spend some time, take a light meal, a coffee and shop in small shops with good service. What the shoppers bought was not a ton of garbage but merchandise they appreciated for the experience and the good personal service in small stores. I still remember, after many years, the shaver and paraphernalia I got, or the book I bought in a small bookstore where I took some time to read to the accompaniment of a cup of coffee. These town centers supported merchants and their employees and were not overloaded with useless junk, wrapped in huge shoplifter-proof plastic and reinforced wrapping.
But all this is coming to an end. The great internet merchants promise cheap merchandise shipped to your door at no cost to you. And if you don’t like it just return it or throw it away; it is cheap junk anyway and they might rather not deal with it! But if you send it back, it is free of shipping cost! It demonstrates what you bought has little to no value to them, nor does it have much value to you after a relatively short time. It is delivered to you in a box you may or may not wish to keep; you will throw away the box, as well as its contents. So now you and your merchant have created a multi-layered garbage transaction. The merchandise you bought is nearly worthless. Just look at what your children or grandchildren do with them: they play with the cheap plastic for a little while than abandon it. After storing for a few months you, too, get tired of it and put it in to the garbage, creating additional trash after the disposal of the shipping box and wrapping materials. In the meantime the local merchant who could not compete with the big internet merchant went bankrupt and had to close his store in the quaint town center. The store eventually becomes an unsightly rubble, or, under the best of circumstances, a restaurant in the middle of the town along with its bankrupt neighbor. You or the staff of your building struggle with the immense amount of boxes piling up and waiting for disposal. In some cities the boxes block pedestrians from walking on the sidewalks.
Our new and modern way of life creates garbage where little of it existed in the past. Instead of solving problems we appear to be serving consumption. We create an immense amount of cheap merchandise which is made available to ever larger masses of people in ever larger quantities. We are manufacturing and building new junk, while the old is abandoned and ends up with the same fate. The scenery is littered with it as is the sphere around the earth, the air we breathe, the water in the oceans which surround our continents. We have not found another planet we can live on and we may never do so. This is the one we have, where we can hopefully breath the air and walk with our muscle structure.
We hold out hope that this and other articles discussing the problems we face is not the end of the story. We still have time to remedy many if not all our problems. We can refill our old plastic bottle with our towns’ water; we don’t need to buy new plastic bottles filled with municipal water from other towns. As another example, we can clean up and preserve our land and air by manufacturing and using truly environmentally friendly materials rather than just talking about it environmental preservation.
As we are hopeful that we will be able to solve the global warming problem: with time we can eliminate coal by using natural gas, renewable energy, nuclear power plants designed with new and safer technology, fuel cells and hydrogen. Eliminate the use of gasoline exchanging internal combustion engines with electric vehicles and fuel cell technology. We must hope that these other problems, very briefly outlined here, will, with time, also find solutions. A very significant part of the solution is the identification along with the dissemination of the problem. We should be hopeful of solving the global warming problem because huge masses of humanity are aware of it. So it should be with the problems discussed. The majority of the world population is well meaning, understands that we need to take responsibility for our planet or we would not face a very hospitable outcome.