Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Seeing the BIG Picture

The other night I was on Facebook and one of my distant friends in Hawaii posted a link to a story about climate change. Viewing posts like his on a daily basis is not an uncommon occurrence for me. Most of my on-line friends are pro-environment and fully understand the implications of the climate issues we are facing.  However, one of my friend's "friends" made a few comments on the posting with the usual counterpoints:  "Climate change is not happening, but if it was, man can't control it."  He also wrote, "The earth is actually in a cooling phase." Each time he posted these types of comments, I came back with scientific facts to disprove him.  Then he made a comment that dumbfounded me: "The same people [environmentalists] banned DDT with insufficient science and ended up killing uncountable Africans as a result. Let's use caution this time. I don't want to save a crayfish and kill a human."  Okay, whoa!  My eyes bugged out of my head. Really?  We should not have banned DDT? I literally could not wrap my head around this. After a few "back and forths" with him, he sent me a link to a blog entry by some guy named Mark Levin.  Turns out, this "Mark Levin" is a good friend of Rush Limbaugh's and has been a "counterpoint" guy on climate change and environmentalism for some time now.  I should have known better.

Now I am not a scientist nor do I claim to be one, but I read.  I read a lot and I observe a lot.  I am technically inclined. I like to understand how things work.  One thing I learned from high school and college physics courses:  For every action, there is an opposite and equal REACTION.  I know this theorem usually relates to physical movement, but does it not also apply to the natural world?  Does it not apply to all the animals, insects, plants, trees, germs, etc?  Doesn't it essentially mean that when you mess one thing up or try to take it out of the natural equation that we call "life on earth," a chain reaction begins that may have uncertain ends?

So this takes me back to the title of this entry:  "Seeing the BIG Picture."  I remember when I was a child, I loved puzzles.  I loved all kinds of puzzles... simple ones, large difficult ones, brain teasers and number games.  My favorite was a puzzle I received when I was about 8 years old.  It was called "Pythagoras."

Vintage Pythagoras Puzzle, circa 1973

I loved this puzzle for many reasons but it wasn't until recently that I figured out why.  I loved it because I am a "big picture" person.  I loved that all the colored pieces fit together to form different shapes and that each time I played with it, I could arrange them differently to form spectacular designs.  When I played, I always wanted all the pieces to fit.  I knew they all belonged together -- sometimes in unconventional ways.  And that was the goal of the puzzle:  To get all the pieces to fit.  Such is life. It is a puzzle that does not work and is not complete without all the pieces fitting together.
Back to the banning of DDT.  DDT was used with great success in the second half of WWII to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troopsFrom 1950 to 1980, DDT was extensively used in agriculture (more than 40,000 tons were used each year worldwide) and it has been estimated that a total of 1.8 million tons have been produced globally since the 1940s. DDT is a persistent organic pollutant with a half life from 22 days to 30 years. In aquatic ecosystems it is quickly absorbed by organisms or it evaporates. It breaks down into DDE and DDD which have similar chemical and physical properties.  DDT and its breakdown products are transported throughout the world by the phenomenon of global distillation, where they then accumulate in the region's food web. DDT has a high potential to build up in the body, especially in predatory birds like eagles.  It works its way up the food chain through agriculture. In humans, it can remain in the body between 6 and 10 years. In the United States, these chemicals were detected in almost all human blood samples tested by the CDC in 2005, though their levels have sharply declined since most uses have been banned in the U.S. Estimated dietary intake has also declined, although FDA food tests still commonly detect it. DDT has been linked to birth defects, neurological problems and even cancer. So my rebuttal to my friend's "friend" about his statement that it was "a mistake to ban DDT" went something like this: Initially, everyone thought DDT was a great thing because no one knew any better.  Desperate times called for desperate measures. But as progress was made and with the publication of Rachel Carson's definitive work on the subject, Silent Spring, some people began to see the big picture. We began to see how all things were connected ... that we are all in one big web of interactivity and interconnectedness.  Since DDT was causing the rapid thinning of birds' egg shells that resulted in massive egg losses, Carson predicted that someday we would have a spring without birds and without bird songs -- a so-called "silent" spring.

Man seems hell bent on altering the natural world.  He thinks he can make it better.  He thinks he can improve upon what is already perfectly imperfect. We want to speed things up, change things around and alter the natural course. Dams, irrigation canals, genetically modified food, hair coloring, anti-bacterial soap, pesticides ... we want it our way -- the way we think is "best."  But is it really best?  Dams cause irreparable damage to fragile ecosystems.  Irrigation canals starve some areas of water in order to grow non-native crops in areas where the original system did not support it.  Genetically modified food is chemically altered to improve yields (even though it has been proven to reduce yields) and those chemical alterations can be found today in human fetal blood samples.  Coloring hair is fighting a losing battle and frying peoples' scalps.  Anti-bacterial soap seeps into streams, lakes, rivers and then into the ocean from water treatment plants and kills or alters aquatic life.  Pesticides kill pests, but also kill beneficial insects and animals. Whether the damage is seen today or ultimately detected tomorrow, what are we doing to the natural world?  Why do we think we can take some pieces of the puzzle, throw them out, and still think the puzzle looks great? Why can't we shape ourselves to fit into the natural world, instead of trying to shape the natural world to fit us?  Wouldn't it be easier just to change ourselves? There are natural pest controls.  But I am sure this question was never asked in the 1940s:  "Why are the mosquito populations so out of control?"  What has caused the imbalance? What can we do, besides bombarding an area with dangerous pesticide, to control the undesired situation?  The problem is, most human beings do not think that way.  They do not see the "big picture." They do not see that one missing part of the puzzle ... one alternation ... can cause serious adverse effects in the entire area.

So this brings me to natural gas drilling, specifically hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." What are we doing to the natural world by injecting underground wells with a lethal cocktail of chemicals? Why are we using egregious amounts of the most precious resource known to man -- water -- to perform this extraction? Why aren't we exploring the alternatives to natural gas?  Why can't we shape our needs to fit within the natural world ... within what is freely available to us in the form of wind power, solar energy and geo-thermal conductivity? Are we that ego-maniacal? Or are we just determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, over and over again, until we finally kill off every living thing and implode the planet? Once we get to that point, all the puzzle pieces will be gone and no amount of creative arrangement will bring them back again.


  1. Jamie, what an excellent piece! You have great talent - style and substance go together for sure! Have you considered writing for a newspaper or magazine? Some so called journalists could learn a lot from you! Looking forward to reading more!