The Perils Of Plastic

We’re staying at a terrific little beachside resort on Ambergris Caye in Belize.  It offers snug, thatch-roofed cottages, excellent food, a beautiful beach, and an infinity pool, among many other amenities.  Every day, resort workers rake the sand, cart away excess sea grass that has washed ashore, and leave the beach in the pristine, white sand state that resort-goers demand.

Just down the Caye, however, is an unattended section of beach, and here we get a glimpse of the impact of our plastic, disposable, consumer culture.  Belize lies at the western end on the Caribbean, where the prevailing winds blow.  On this section of beach every imaginable bit of disposable debris — a huge range of differently sized bottles, jugs, tubs, bits of strofoam, storage containers, and even soccer balls — have collected on the sand, mingled with the sea grass.  It’s disgusting, and unsightly, but mostly it’s sad.  Whether through thoughtlessness or inadvertence, the human plastic culture has left its ugly mark on an otherwise pretty beach on a fine, sunny morning.  If one small section of beach is bears this gross collection of crap, we can’t really begin to imagine the impact of the junk on the sea as a whole.

Red River

Recently I ran across this article about a spill from a nickel mining facility in Russia that turned the Daldykan River an ugly, blood red color.  The spill was admitted by Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel and other industrial metals, although the company said that, despite the discoloration in the water, the incident posed no risk to people or fauna in the river.  The article reports that the region where the spill occurred is one of the most polluted areas in the world.

160907215643-russia-river-red-exlarge-169The story got me to thinking about an incident that occurred when I was a kid.  One time UJ and I were exploring around a nearby stream on a warm summer’s day in the suburban Akron area near our house.  We noticed that the water had a weird smell to it, and that there were clumps of dirty brown foam drifting by on the top of the water.  It’s the first time I can remember encountering pollution, and thereafter I really paid attention to it.  I noticed the litter on highways, and the news stories about air pollution, but the pollution problem always seemed to be most obvious with rivers, streams, and lakes — like the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie.

Shortly after UJ and I saw the dirty, foaming river, the United States started to pass major environmental regulations, and states did, too.  And while there is no doubt that the federal and state environmental regulators have had their moments of overreaching and bureaucratic inertia, there is equally no doubt that the environmental protection laws, and clean-up requirements, have had a tremendous, positive impact on air and water quality.  Anyone who compares the Lake Erie of 1970 to the Lake Erie of today will acknowledge that fact.

I’d like to think that an incident like the red river of Russia couldn’t happen in the United States — but if it did, I also have confidence that we would get it cleaned up.  I tend to be suspicious of government promises to fix problems, because they often turn out to be empty words, but environmental regulation is one area where the government has had a major impact.  The red river is a good reminder of that.

Dire Forecasts Of 2015

This 1975 UPI article has been making the rounds lately.  It predicts, based on then-current usage rates and the reserves of petroleum known to exist at that time, that the “last barrel of oil” will have been pumped from the “last well on earth” in 2015.

Back in the ’70s, these kinds of dire forecasts and disaster scenarios were pretty commonplace — and all of them, incidentally, made predictions of what life would be like about 40 years into the future.  Whether it was oil crises, the “population bomb,” world-wide food shortages, air and water pollution poisoning the environment beyond redemption, or the ever-present possibility of global nuclear war leaving the Earth a dead, irradiated husk, there were catastrophes galore just waiting to happen a few decades into the future.  As a result, some of the popular fiction and movie scenarios of the day were pretty grim, with bestsellers like The Late Great Planet Earth and movies featuring Charlton Heston shouting to the world that “Soylent Green is people . . . people!”

So, here we are in 2015, at about the time when some of the worst stuff — overcrowded people penned up like goats in soulless camps being fed algae as the only reliable food supply, mass starvation, “nuclear winter,” a return to the Dark Ages due to lack of energy sources — was supposed to he happening.  Instead of pumping the last barrel of oil, however, we’ve discovered so much new oil and natural gas that the price of oil is plunging.  Instead of dirty-faced people overrunning the planet, we’ve seen a steady overall decline in global growth rates and, in some countries, concern that birth rates are so low that new citizens aren’t fully replacing those that are dying.  And while there is still hunger in the world, the Earth is producing an abundance of food.

You know, when you compare the calamitous predictions to the modern-day reality, 2015 really is pretty sweet.  Now, if only there were flying cars and cheap space travel . . . .

Banking On The Doomsday Seed Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a pretty apocalyptic concept in a pretty apocalyptic place:  a lonely repository of almost a million stored seeds of different plant life from around the world, preserved in a building embedded into the Arctic frost on a remote island at the northern tip of the globe.

The Vault itself looks apocalyptic.  It’s a sharp-edged, vertical rectangle jammed 500 feet into the mountainside on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, like the end of a knife handle plunged into a frozen side of beef.  It looks exactly like a set from a big-budget Hollywood end-of-the-world disaster movie, in which a rugged and diverse band of far-sighted, parka-wearing scientists must go to the ends of the Earth in a race against time to save the world while evildoers or religious fanatics try to thwart them.

Located just 800 miles from the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to preserve global botanical diversity against the threat of absolute catastrophe — be it nuclear holocaust, meteor strikes, crippling volcanic eruptions, or mass disease that wipes out the world’s plant life.  The Vault commenced operations in 2008, and it contains more than 850,000 seed samples, from nations all over the world, that could be used to restart plant life after the post-disaster dust has settled.

And now the first withdrawal from the Seed Vault is going to be made — thanks to the Syrian civil war.  The Seed Vault contains samples of hardy strains of wheat, barley and grasses that can grow in desert areas, and those seeds have been requested to replace seeds in another seed bank, in Syria, that has been damaged by the fighting.  There are a number of seed banks located around the world, but the Svalbard facility — thanks to its remote location and frozen climate — is considered the ultimate backstop.

It’s sad to think that, only a few years after the doomsday vault was opened to store seeds for eternity, a mini-apocalypse has required it to be used.  And you also wonder: at what point do the Seed Vault’s operators stop allowing seeds to be removed?  Crippling and destructive civil wars in places like Syria are terrible and devastating, but they are also — unfortunately — commonplace in our war-torn world.  If your purpose is to safeguard the global ecology and preserve a glimmer of hope for the world in the event of the unthinkable, a miserly withdrawal policy would seem to be in order.

Refilling The Empties

Refilling empties is a long-recognized recycling method.  That same concept applies to our downtown areas, too — except instead of refilling bottles and cans you’re reusing parcels of property where buildings once stood, but that have long since become parking lots.

IMG_6365Of course, downtown areas need some parking, but block after block of parking lots is unsightly and depressing.  They’re like the scarred urban equivalent of strip-mined land.  It’s a big issue in Columbus, where in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s the core downtown area became a checkerboard of parking lots.  One big lot is found at the corner of Gay and High, only one block from the Statehouse at the center of the city.  Once it was a bustling five-and-dime store, now it’s just a sad asphalt surface.

The redevelopment boom in downtown Columbus started with refurbishing empty buildings and turning them into apartments and condos, but now it’s turning to refilling those empty parking lots.  And, finally, the lot at the corner of Gay and High looks like it will get its turn, as a local developer has submitted a plan that would turn a parking lot into a mixed use structure that would include more than 150 apartments, retail spaces — and parking.  At the same time, companies are working on renovating some of the other buildings in the neighborhood that have been either vacant or underused for years, and city planners are attributing at least part of the impetus for the work to the success of the Gay Street corridor of restaurants, which have helped to make downtown more hip and attractive.

I’ll look forward to the day when there aren’t many parking lots in downtown Columbus anymore; buildings tend to be a lot more interesting and attractive than parked cars.  I also think, though, that it’s time to stop the ever-outward-radiating development of suburban sprawl that has turned what used to be rolling farmland surrounding Columbus into countless look-alike suburban communities, and focus instead on the central city.  The infrastructure is here and now the people are returning, too.  Let’s let our remaining farmland be and start to refill some of these empty spaces.

EnviroFail

Kish and I try to be environmentally sensitive people.  We recycle religiously, we walk rather than drive if possible, and we generally try to do whatever we can to reduce our carbon footprint.  That includes buying products that purport to be protective of the environment.

Sometimes, though, the environmentally sensitive products have . . . issues.

IMG_6422Recently Kish picked up compressed hardwood firewood for our outdoor fire pit.  The product looks like a kind of blond, fibrous brick, so it’s not exactly as attractive as old-fashioned logs.  It’s considered “environmentally responsible” because it’s made from leftover wood, so it is a recycled product of a sort, there are no additives, and it purports to burn hotter and produce less smoke, ash, and creosote.   We’ve found that it’s perfectly serviceable in the burning department, although it lacks that natural wood snap and crackle.

So, what’s the problem?  The packaging for these wooden blocks says they should be stored in a dry place — which is perhaps the greatest commercial understatement since the Coca-Cola Company admitted that New Coke was off to a rocky start.  What the package should say, in huge letters, is:  UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU STORE THIS PRODUCT OUTSIDE OR EVER LET IT GET WET!!!  Because, as we discovered to our chagrin, if you do expose the product to moisture, the “compression” element of the product goes poof, and you end up with split shrink-wrap packages from which mounds of sawdust, wood chips, and tiny splinters have erupted and spilled everywhere.  And good luck cleaning up the dust and miniature toothpicks that somehow immediately find their way into every nook and cranny!

I guess it’s a small price to pay for less creosote.

The Leaping Range Of The Wolf Spider

Hen Island in Lake Erie is a spidery place.  You regularly see little spiders scurrying about in the corners of the old buildings, and if you walk around the island you need to be prepared to scrape some stray cobwebs from your arms or your face.

Coming face to face with a huge, hairy-legged monstrosity on a screened-in porch is quite another matter, however.

IMG_6282This beauty showed up on the porch on Saturday morning.  It was not quite as big as a tarantula — but close . . . appallingly, disgustingly close.  It was down by a baseboard, near a table leg, looking bigger than it actually was because it was a female spider toting an egg sac.  As our group of six or seven sat on our rockers, reading and chatting on a pretty morning, one member of the group noticed the spider.  Then, the conversation went something like this:

“Hey, look at the size of that spider.  Holy shit!”

“That’s a wolf spider.  It’s harmless.”

“You may be right, but my conscious mind refuses to believe that anything that looks like that is harmless.”

“Well, they can bite.”

“Yeah, but the bite is not poisonous.”

“It will still leave a pretty good welt.”

“I’ve heard that wolf spiders can leap ten feet.”

Wait . . . ten feet?  At that point everybody on the porch did a mental calculation of their range from the spider, which now looked suspiciously like it was crouching and ready to spring, and whether they were beyond the ten-foot zone of death.  I’m guessing that many of the rockers had the same thought I did — a mental image of a shaggy horror suddenly flying through the air, landing on their face, close enough so you can get a good look at the inhuman eyes and the slavering mandibles, and delivering a sharp, painful bite.  And if that bulging egg sac happened to burst at just that moment, releasing a horde of ravenous, biting baby spiders with Olympic-caliber leaping abilities into an enclosed area . . . .

At that point, getting a cup of coffee from the kitchen in the next building seemed like a really good idea.

One of the staffers eventually came and put the spider, which had remained blessedly huddled near the table, in a jar.  We all took a good look, then released it outside, feeling good and environmentally sensitive about letting the spider back into its habitat but nevertheless unsettled by our brush with the wild world.