Culture

This Earth Day, Let’s Not Forget the Decades’ Worth of Environmental Panic Americans Have Been Perpetually Fed

A week before Earth Day, the joyous news arrived: Our neighborhood has been selected to participate in a composting program. Instead of pushing vegetables down the sink and mincing them into atoms with the omnivorous InSinkErator, they will be placed in a bin lined with compostable bags, collected weekly by carbon-gusting trucks, and carted off to a location where they can productively rot. At least I assume trucks will empty the bins. Perhaps there will be young fellows on bikes towing small carts. That would sustainable. That would be progress — at least according to those whose wills forbade a funeral motorcade because of the carbon impact, and have requested their body be dragged to the plot with a rope attached to a plow horse.

The list of items I am expected to set aside ranges from the sensible to the amusing: Why yes, I am happy to give this useless core of iceberg lettuce a second life. It’s certainly easier than pushing it down the disposal, which is like trying to force-feed a basketball to an angry shark. The compost list includes pizza boxes with encrusted cheese, which brings great relief to those who are forced by the cruelty of circumstances to throw away a box because it has a few ridges of ossified mozzarella. No more razoring off the cheesy bits so they can put it in the recycling bin and hope no one notices. You can compost dog hair. Drier lint. Nail clippings. Now, I can easily imagine a situation in which a society would be wise to repurpose nail clippings, and that is this: You are living on a multigenerational spaceship headed for a distant planet on a voyage that will take 400 years, and every jot must be reused somehow.

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Since that is not the case, I won’t husband the chitinous crescents, but will throw them away. I mention this in case there’s a show trial later and I confess to a lot of stupid things. That one’s a fair cop. When the magistrate puts it to me that I did with malice aforethought discard valuable toenails without regard to the common weal, expect a defiant gleam and a hearty assent. No pallid excuse like, “It just flew off when I cut it,” your honor! I expect no mercy from the court and expect none shall be given.

I recycle cans and glass and paper because it’s no bother, and provides you a certain amount of ideological cover, like being a Soviet citizen and wearing your Lenin pin in public. I do not regard my carbon impact as a measure of my piety and virtue; I do not worry if this place is getting warmer and the other place is getting wetter, because of course conservatives have access to another planet on the other side of the sun. When this planet becomes uninhabitable in 2042 A.D. at 10:47 a.m. – it’s a Tuesday — we will step into the Koch-built rockets and fly to our new home, where we will throw fast-food bags out the window as we drive in cars spewing blue fumes. Can’t wait. Oh, it’ll be grand, the fun we’ll have.  Say, Bob, don’t you think you should recycle that glass jar? Scientists say we might hit Peak Sand in a few decades. And then we’ll all have a good laugh.

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If I fail to demonstrate the expected urgency and panic, it is because I have been fed urgency and panic on these matters all my life. I remember the imminent-ice-age phase, and while some say that was never really a thing, trust me. Why, here’s a little clip or two from a Spock-narrated documentary.

We expected to grow up in a barren tundra and be gored to death by wooly mastodons. Provided the ecosystem didn’t collapse from overpopulation, our visions of the future had sweaty, grimy people in filthy smocks clawing out each other’s eyes for a wedge of Soylent. You couldn’t go to Howard Johnson’s without getting a lecture on ecology in the kid’s menu:

You may die choking on smog when you grow up. Enjoy your ice cream!

#related#If one thing sticks out from those days, it was the “Environmental Handbook,” a brick-thick tome handed out for the “First National Environmental Teach-In” of 1970. If you were there, you recall the horrors contained in that phrase, “Teach-In” — everyone sitting cross-legged on the grass outside the school drawing peace signs on their jeans with a Bic while some John Denver type expostulated about phosphates. And then you went home and lectured Mom about how her detergent killed fish. Now, I’m all in favor of clean water and lots of fish, but there’s something about spending your adolescence marinating in a rhetorical stew of doom and poison that makes you inured to ecological panic decades down the road. Things have gotten better, in no small part because people were spurred to action, but the stories of the day still make it sound as if storm drains six feet wide pump dioxin into virgin streams. Nothing is ever really better; nothing is ever enough. Doom looms eternal.

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At least we can console ourselves with this: of the millions of copies of the Handbook printed, I doubt 1 percent were recycled.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.

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