Duck Soup: All I Need Is the Air That I Breathe

Recently Professor Harvard Ayers of Appalachian State University headed a study of northern hardwood forests in the Southern Appalachians. He reports that thousands of acres of beech, maple and yellow birch are dying and not growing back. Nor is the phenomenon limited to that region.I have lately travelled most of the length of the eastern mountain chain, and the failure is pandemic. From New Hampshire and Vermont, through the Berkshires and Adirondacks, down along the Shenandoah valley and into the Virginias and Carolinas, the failure is evident. Reports from around the world concur: Arizona's saguaros, western Douglas fir, Florida's palms and Canadian spruce are dying, as are European and Asian trees.But don't trust me. Look for yourself.Deciduous trees impacted by air pollution die first at the tips. Look for bare branches there. In the winter, note that upper branches don't have as many twigs. In the spring, tops don't leaf out. Leaves become smaller each season, and affected trees tend to shed green ones before autumn.Evergreens that are failing look yellowed or brown instead of deep green. They produce an overabundance of cones in a last effort at genetic survival.All of these effects are most noticeable at higher elevations and on slopes with western or southern exposures that receive prevailing winds. But they are moving downslope quickly. The effects Ayers found at the four thousand foot level on Mt. Rogers are visible (though less severe) where I live at the three thousand foot level in the Swannanoas.We can talk about fifty things to do to save the earth until we are blue in the face, literally. We need five hundred things. Whatever you are doing now to help, assume it is not enough. Drive fewer, slower miles. Work at home or lobby your employer to adopt four ten hour days instead of five eights. That alone can cut commuting miles by twenty percent. Better still, ride your bicycle or walk. Turn down the thermostat. Use 25 percent less electricity. Turn off the TV. Turn off the water heater every other day. Become a vegetarian. Use everything until it is worn out.A thoughtful society confronted with an airborne environmental catastrophe would impose a carbon tax, ration electricity, drop speed limits to 45, ban beef production and car racing, discourage reproduction, fund solar power and stop subsidizing oil and coal. But, absent real campaign finance reform, big money controls Congress, and the fossil fuel industries are the big boys on the block. However, last year B.P. and Shell decided to quit supporting the disinformation campaign, saying that their futures lay in conservation and renewable energy, and we may get help from other unforseen quarters. Insurance companies report that severe weather-related damage claims have climbed five-fold in the past two decades. This is a direct result of the climatalogical change we are creating. They cannot afford the bigger, more powerful hurricanes, torrential rains interspersed with extended drought, and other anomalies that lie ahead, and may be allies in the drive toward a sustainable economy.This underscores one of the big lies that is repeated by conservative economists and ideologues. The claim is made that radical change will wreck our economy and that it will be cheaper to fix problems in the future than to change course now. Radical rapid change will definitely hurt some businesses, but it will be an era of limitless possibilities for others. Failure to change now, and quickly, will bring unfathomable catastrophe. In a warming world, rising sea levels will displace millions of people, long droughts will bring famine, tropical diseases will move into temperate zones, and violent storms will gain in frequency and strength. These symptoms are already upon us. The Antarctic ice cap is cracking, Alaskan tundra is melting, encephalitis has erupted in Florida, and Hugo and Andrew are harbingers of more to come.Though political pressure is imperative, we cannot afford to wait for government action. Environmental law is one of the biggest political success stories in this era but legal change alone is not enough and not fast enough. President Clinton's recent proposal to return to 1990 pollution levels by 2012 is a case in point. It will be too little and too late. A U.N. panel of 2500 scientists believes we need to drop 60 percent below 1990 levels within a decade to beat the heat. It is up to us.


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