When I was little my mom read me The Hungry Thing by Jan Slepian. The book is whimsical and funny, a friendly monster called The Hungry Thing comes to town with a big appetite and a sign that says 'feed me'. He eats almost all the villagers’ food before he’s had his fill and heads out.
of climate issues is long, and convoluted. In 1896, a Swedish Scientist theorized that the burning of fossil fuels could possibly alter the climate in unforeseen ways. In the 1930s, data proved that average temperatures were gradually going up year to year in North America. In 1960, readings showed that the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had in fact increased. In 1979, Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the white house, they were removed by Ronald Reagan. In 2006, Al Gore created the film, "An Inconvenient Truth", which gave a chilling, oft criticized, view of global warming and where the environment was going as a result of our habits. In 2016, the United States joined the Paris Climate Accord, a plan amongst Nations in the UN to integrate sustainability measures in their legislature, only to leave a year later. In 2019, Environmental Regulations were rolled back in the United States, opening ground for drilling and coal mining, exposing wildlife refuges to industrialization, and water and air sources to contamination.
Environmental concerns have been present in media for decades. South park has been talking about it for thirteen years, and The Simpsons since the first day Homer clocked in at the nuclear plant in 1989. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Doors, Earl Sweatshirt and many others have brought up the ideas in their music. Leonardo DiCaprio has championed the issue through documentaries and public speech. This topic has remained on the public platform, though there has not been a strong social movement for fifty or so years, since the last hippies hung up their flower crowns and settled down in suburbia to discontentedly listen to The Dead in their basements. Recently, however, the issue has gained more traction in the media and global conversation. A large part of this influence can be traced to what we see on our phones and computers, the ability for a message or idea to travel from person to person instantaneously is unparalleled in communications technology.
Part of the foundation behind the recent spur in this movement is that it became popular. A topic’s prominence in social media puts the issue in the public eye, but also, it often links the topic to a public figure. This draws attention to the matter and can help inspire and energize, but it might also be part of the problem. By identifying with a movement, through a figure, rather than the ideas, you miss the groundwork for the argument. A figurehead for a movement is excellent if they truly helps to spark change, but not if they only starts a trend. Efforts may remain at surface level, a group to identify with, rather than actions to take. The answer to impacting the preservation of the environment requires us to take a step further, we must change our habits.
The weight of our consumption,
often goes unnoticed, we rarely spend our time with the materials we dispose of. Look around whatever space you’re in and count how many things you’ll throw out because their use has expired. Myself, I have a paper coffee cup and a Walmart shopping bag. I forgot my coffee mug this morning, so I took a cup from the store. And I cannot resist the Walmart $5 movie bin, hence the bag.
Our waste, often measured by trash, makes it easy to forget that pollution occurs before use as well, littering is not the only crime. The accumulation of trash is more apparent because it’s right in front of us, but the effects of manufacturing are just as potent. Think of every Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks cup you’ve ever used piled in one space. Each is made of petroleum, and ultimately requires fossil fuels to make, store, and transport. Each is a one-use item, we consume whatever came in it, throw it away then get another one next time. It seems like a very small thing, but the cumulative amount we consume as a population requires a massive amount of material and fuel. In the United State as much as 40% of food gets thrown away. All of the resources required to grow, manufacture, and transport that food are wasted. I saw an advertisement for a website that you order clothes from, wear, and send back. The tag line was “life is too brilliant to wear the same thing twice.” The amount of material and fuel needed to constantly manufacture, and ship new clothes is monumental. If we cut out the exhausted carbon emissions it took to get every plastic cup into our hands, every uneaten apple into our trash, and every unworn shirt into our closets, we would be in a much better place.
Take a bag of Doritos for instance.
First, the bag. This is made of a combination of plastic number five and aluminum foil. The petroleum for the plastic is drilled somewhere in the world, collected, shipped, refined, shipped, altered into the appropriate type of plastic, shipped again, and then arrives in the bag manufacturing plant. None of these processes are clean, all take oil to fuel, contribute emissions, and likely leak material, directly polluting the ground and water. The aluminum is mined, transported, smelted and refined, shipped, turned into foil, shipped again, and finally, ends up at a bag manufacturing plant. Aluminum mining is horrible, it destroys environments, degrades soil structure, and leaks hazardous byproducts, and just like plastic production, it contributes emissions and run off every step of the process.
The chips themselves are made mostly of corn, flavoring, and cooked in palm oil.
Corn, in the U.S. is a monoculture crop, meaning that it’s typically planted alone over a massive space. The reason it is so largely cultivated is because it is subsidized, it is cheap, you can produce a lot of it, and it is easy to grow. Because of that, it’s in everything. Chips, hamburgers, French fries, chicken nuggets, soda, ketchup, canned foods, peanut butter, grain, etc. It’s an excellent filler material, it has nearly no nutritional value, but it takes up space. Monoculture is harmful because it depletes the soil of its nutrition, while returning almost none. When colonists arrived in America, indigenous people taught them to farm corn along with squash and beans. These three crops complement each other, giving and taking nutrients in accordance with each other’s needs. By removing squash and beans, however, corn takes what it needs from the soil, and returns what it doesn’t in saturation. A corn field can be used for pretty much nothing, but… corn. After a few harvests the field will essentially be dead, and the farmer must switch locations. The infertile soil makes it impossible for anything to live or grow. Imagine if you gave blood every day, but never consumed anything with iron in it, you’d end up sick and malnourished. This is what large-scale monoculture does to the ground it’s planted in.
Palm oil is in most processed snack foods. It is produced from the fruit of the palm tree, farmed in rainforests by clear cutting and burning the existing trees, and planting only palm. Just like corn this steals all the nutrition and vitality out of the soil, leaving it dead and infertile after a harvest. Farmers use the slash and burn method, they intentionally start a forest fire and cut down the stumps of the trees after. Fires in the Rainforest you see in the media are typically a result of people using this technique to make room for farms, and the fire getting out of hand. Palm oil is primarily farmed on the island of Borneo, home to our cousins, the Orangutans. Farmers trap and or shoot these creatures if they’re close, as they eat the fruit off the trees. Clear cutting the forests also destroys their homes and forces them to compete for what remains of the jungle. They have become endangered since this market emerged. The indigenous people of Borneo have a deep relationship with the orangutan, they are seen as guardians of the forest, an indication of the health of the ecosystem, and more importantly, as family. Sadly, these creatures don’t stand a chance contending with this method of agriculture.
The empty Doritos bag, along with most of the industrialized world’s trash will be shipped to a landfill in a developing nation or a low-income area to be dumped and forgotten, out of sight out of mind. This trash leaks hazardous chemicals and materials into the water sources of local people and the residents of these areas are left to deal with the mess, often resulting in sickness, death, and further entrenching the cycle of poverty. All water leads to the oceans, and as a world, we share them. The seas are filled with the runoff of these waste sites, plastic debris, toxins, oil, and trash. Plastic particles have been found in the depths of the Marianna Trench, our atmosphere, and entrapped in Arctic sea ice. The ocean is the source of all life, including our own, and it is being used as a garbage dump.
This is the unfortunate truth of the life cycle of much of our food.
The line from The Doors’, When the Musics Over always stays with me,
“What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister? Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn And tied her with fences and dragged her down,”
It can feel hopeless at times to look at the mess we’ve made. It seems like lawmakers and leaders in the corporate world should have these concerns in mind. The unfortunate fact is that profit often wins out over compassion in government and industry. Scientists at major oil companies knew forty years ago the damage they were causing, yet their CEOs did nothing. They chased fantasies of greater revenue, and some members of our government followed them down the drain. Sixty-nine of the one hundred richest organizations in the world are corporations, not countries or governments, and one will inevitably influence the other.
Down at the crossroads,
we find ourselves now. So, where do we go, when the world seems to be burning, the ground falling out from under our feet? In this time of trial, I believe the best thing we can do is look back to move forward. The people who have taken care of the land for thousands of years as stewards carry generations of wisdom, and there’s a lot we can learn from them.
There is a belief traditional to all mankind, that what we do to the Earth we ultimately do to ourselves. By taking care of the Earth, it takes care of us, through the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Some communities still believe in this law, that we have a responsibility to take care of our mother Earth.
The Sioux people have been fighting furiously to keep the Dakota Access oil pipelines from being erected on their native ground, Standing Rock. This project threatens the safety of their water access, the health of their community, and the ecosystem they protect. They have lived on the continent for thousands of years, and they understand the land far more intimately than those who trace their lineage elsewhere. With this wisdom, they should be prominent spokespeople for its safety, instead they are getting tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets because they are trying to protect their homes. They receive absolutely no benefit from this project, no monetary compensation, no additional land deals, and no jobs, their land is being ripped from under their feet and trashed. The land is sacred to them, it represents far more than a place to stand, it is a garden, which if cared for, returns the favor. This system of beliefs should be uplifted, not hushed and swept under the rug. By understanding the traditions, practices, and wisdom of the stewards of our planet, we can learn once again how to take care of our home.
It can be hard to identify with tribal cultures, their ideologies, and practices seem extreme and uncomfortable. Living off the land looks foreign and unnecessary. A recent experience humbled me and dissolved the gap, thousands of years, between myself and these people. I was hiking in a Wilderness Refuge in Illinois called 'Garden of the Gods'. The trail wove through rock structures and caves. I was exploring the area and squeezed down a ravine, on the other side I found a small cave. Once inside I crawled through an opening in the back into a larger space. I looked around the cave with a flashlight and couldn’t believe what I saw, a small drawing. On one of the walls about 6 feet off the ground, maybe three inches tall was a carved drawing of two people. The image was very old, dyed material etched into the rock, leaving it embossed and well preserved. What impacted me and has stayed with me was the humanity of the image, it was a parent holding a child. Putting a picture of our family on the wall seems second nature, sentiment we can all understand, and this person so long ago had the same thought. The lives of indigenous people can seem abstract and primitive compared to our own. The fact is that they are humans, with the same emotions and compassions, not much different from ourselves. We have the same roots, the same story. There is no need to emulate their way of life entirely, no one needs to hunt and gather to eat every day, but if we can bridge the perceived ideological gap between our worlds, perhaps we can learn to live more graciously, and at peace with the Earth, just like our ancestors.
The Expedition of the Voyager,
is my favorite scientific venture. This mission sent two spacecraft into the abyss of space, to spiral towards the center of our galaxy for millions of years, with a series of messages, and a camera. As this craft was leaving our visible solar system, Carl Sagan had the thought to turn the craft around for one more shot of our home, from the far reaches of our neighborhood. In this photo Earth is merely a pale blue dot, indiscernible from the stars and planets around us. Inspired by the image of a far off, insignificant speck of light, Carl Sagan wrote,
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
is all we have, but it’s all our species has ever had, and there is time left to fight. The hardest part about caring is giving a part of yourself to a cause, because it is painful. It is much easier to ignore it, find a bit of peace and wait. However, this fixes nothing, it hands the problem to the next generation and the problem grows exponentially. If you control what you can control, your own personal footprint on the Earth, then you can make a difference.
The issue we face is mountainous and terrifying. However, the greatest journeys start with a single step, and it is a simple one. Don’t be the Hungry Thing. Consume Less. Simply make it a goal to throw away less material every day. Feed yourself, not a landfill. Carry a reusable bottle, I get free coffee half the time because cashiers don’t know what to charge me. Get your food locally when you can, and try not to take more than you need. Buy thrift clothes, they end up having the coolest stuff anyway. Changing your own habits is the only way to begin changing the habits of a culture. The best thing you can do to counter the actions of a corrupt government is to educate yourself. If you understand what is going on, then you cannot be fooled. Learn everything you can about the natural world and the ways in which we affect it. Do your best to comprehend the natural cycles that we are impacting, and what this means to our species and others. Speak to people about what is going on, if you disagree with someone, talk until you come to an agreement or a stalemate. Conversation is never a bad thing, even disagreement allows people to understand each other’s opinions better. Often, you’ll find you don’t disagree at all, but merely understand the question differently. Spend time in nature, embrace the world we live in and enjoy it. There is no guarantee it will be here at the end of our lives, so waste no time. Give your compassion to all of the beings, we share the Earth with, we are not as different as it often seems. Open your heart and your mind to the plight of the natural world, and fight for all life. At one time we depended entirely on Mother Earth for our survival, and protecting its balance is still a part of our identity.
Above all else,
always cherish the pale blue dot,
the only home,
we’ve ever known.
Sagan, Carl. “Pale Blue Dot.” YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GO5FwsblpT8.