The Global Citizen: Noise-Making Goop

It was a gorgeous April day, and I was hurrying home, heading for my garden. I stopped for gas, paid inside, walked out, opened the car door, stopped dead, wondered if I had really seen what I had just seen, turned around and walked back in.There it was on the counter. "FLARP! Noise-Making Goop!" said the blazing yellow, purple and red sign. "Punch it and it makes funny sounds! Six different odors -- watermelon, lemon, lime, raspberry, grape, orange!"Gas station counters are always littered with strange products. I wouldn't have given this one a second thought, if I hadn't just been talking about the carrying capacity of the earth."Can you give a lecture to my students on the carrying capacity of the earth?" my colleague had asked. "You know that topic so well, you won't even have to think about it."Right. Everything the human economy extracts from the planet, and the planet's ability to keep supplying it. In 65 minutes, leaving time for questions. That's why I wasn't out in the garden on that gorgeous April day.I started with sheep. People have known for thousands of years that a given piece of land can support just so many sheep. Put on too many and they eat down the grass and starve. The carrying capacity is the number of sheep the pasture can feed without degrading.Simple in theory, but not in practice, I admitted to the students. My own sheep had cute lambs, and I wanted to keep them. The weather varies, so when the grass went downhill, I could blame it on drought instead of my bad management. After a few years, I had a weedy, stony mess growing little that a sheep would eat.Finally I had to plow the land up, spread manure, replant it, and cut back the flock to the actual carrying capacity.Carrying capacities aren't written in the sky or along the fence line, I said. You either play it safe or you find them by trial and error. If you catch an error in time, maybe you can cut back and restore the resource. If you don't, you lose it, you kill the goose that lays the golden egg. We talked about actual losses of grazing, fishing, forestry resources. And examples of sustained use, staying under the carrying capacity.So is there a carrying capacity for us clever human beings? Unlike sheep, we invent new technologies. We can substitute one resource for another. Some people think we are exempt from worrying about limits. That's a long-standing argument, I told the students, and I'm emphatically on one side of it. I showed them graphs and charts to demonstrate why. We're putting out greenhouse gases faster than the atmosphere can recycle them. Most of our fisheries are collapsing. Forests worldwide are shrinking. Grazing lands are desertifying. Water tables are dropping. We're using resources and producing wastes far beyond the earth's carrying capacity."What can we do?" the students asked. "Use less," I said. "Everything we touch, buy, use comes from the earth and goes back to the earth. So use it efficiently, thoughtfully, respectfully. Use just what you really need."That's why the FLARP! stopped me. It was in little plastic containers, $2.30 apiece. I bought a pink one. It doesn't smell like any recognizable fruit. "Made in Taiwan," it says on the label, and "DO NOT EAT."I opened it gingerly, wondering what it was made out of. Has to be petroleum, I guessed as I poked it. Sort of moist, but it didn't make my finger wet. Spongy. Goopy.It came out in one amorphous piece. I punched it. No noise. I stretched it out fast and it broke. I stuck it back together and stretched slowly, hey, this can turn into a loooooooooong piece of goop! My inner child was having a ball.I kneaded and folded it, twisted it, slapped it, juggled it. No sound. How can they call this "noise-making goop?" Finally I gave up and shoved it back into its plastic container.FLARP! That's a delicate translation of a noise we all know how to make in another way, a noise guaranteed to reduce 8-year-olds to giggles. I find it impossible to put the goop back into the container without making that noise.Imagine. Someone in Taiwan has a factory to make this stuff. Ask some people what work they do, and they'll say "I make FLARP!" Fossil fuels emitting greenhouse gases bring it to us from the other side of the world. A petrochemical plant makes its basic substance, probably its color and odor chemicals too, while emitting exotic pollutants. Then it goes into the plastic container with the yellow- and purple- and red-inked paper label. The stuff is fun to play with for half an hour maybe. Finally it ends up in a dump, where I'd guess it lasts forever, or an incinerator, where it releases who-knows-what while it burns.Hey, I'm no purist. I know I hit the carrying capacity harder driving my car to that class than I did buying the goop. I can get into the kindergarten fun of playing with messy stuff; it doesn't even have to make disgusting noises to make me happy. I can have just as much fun playing with bread dough or mud in my garden, though -- so can the kindergartners I know. When those kids grow up, I don't want them to ask why we overran and destroyed the earth's carrying capacity. And I certainly don't want to have to answer, "We did it to make pink-colored, chemical-smelling, noise-making goop."Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.

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