Environmental problems indicate strained relationship with natural world

When last I wrote, I, as a third-grader, had read in the local newspaper that Adlai Stevenson had predicted (in 1952) that we would eventually be drinking bottled water because we were polluting our lakes and rivers.

This news seemed more life threatening to me than even Communism, which until then I had thought was the greatest danger the world faced. What good was it to be free or rich, as America was, if we ran out of clean water?

I was so convinced humanity was doomed I doubted even my smart mother could allay my fears, but I rushed to show her the newspaper article anyway.

Mother read Stevenson's words, frowned, and after a long moment said, "Nature is wonderful. It has its own way of working things out. For instance, lakes clean themselves by turning over."

"Then why," I asked, "doesn't everybody go to the bathroom in Baldwin Lake?"

"Because if everybody did, it would eventually get polluted."

"But if it can clean itself," I started to argue, only to have Mother cut me off with, "It's not like flushing a toilet - a lake can't just turn overnight."

Then, as if in answer to my suddenly rising panic, Mother concluded, "Lakes have been cleaning themselves for hundreds of years, and they're not going to stop now."

Her words were enough to ease my worry at the time, and as the 1950s progressed, it almost seemed as if Stevenson had perhaps been a bit of an alarmist. I wanted to be lulled into a feeling of security. When the city posted signs at Baldwin Lake forbidding swimming, it was easy to go swimming at lovely Burgess Lake a few miles away. And there was always Lake Michigan, too, more like an ocean than a lake, my idea of Shangri-la with its sweet, clear water and long stretches of empty beaches.

Whereas it takes Lake Michigan 50 years to "turn over," that is, to complete one exchange of surface and bottom water, it takes the ocean thousands of years.

Sixty years ago, Lake Michigan and all the Great Lakes were a fisherman's dream. You could catch and eat whitefish or lake trout (described as "most desirable and valuable species" by commercial fisheries of the time) without worry.

Today, after a series of "reclamation" projects in the Great Lakes, these species have nevertheless declined to the level of scarcity or extinction, and if you live in Michigan, you are discouraged from eating them more than once every two weeks. In other words, the Great Lakes may be less polluted today than they were 20 years ago, but how long will it take to regain (only if reclamation continues) the uncontaminated state it once had?

The Great Lakes are small potatoes compared to the ocean, however, and the ocean is in a more perilous state now than we ever thought. It's bad enough that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air today is higher than it has been at any point in the past 650,000 years, but the effects of this one fact are enormous.

When carbon dioxide dissolves, it produces carbonic acid, which in turn has altered the ocean's pH levels enough to have increased the ocean's "acidification" by 30 percent. Because it takes the ocean so long to "turn over," and because carbon dioxide also has "long life" in the atmosphere, it is impossible to reverse the acidification that has already taken place in the ocean.

As Britain's Royal Society noted in a recent report, it will take "tens of thousands of years for ocean chemistry to return to a condition similar to that occurring at pre-industrial times." And Ove Hoegh-Gulberg, an expert on coral reefs at the University of Queensland says, "(The threat to a million different species of marine life) is a matter of the utmost importance. It's a do-or-die situation."

What keeps us from acknowledging the truth of environmental peril? Perhaps it's as basic as my stepdaughter Rachel's observation. She says we do not have a real relationship with nature, that we think of nature as an "It" instead of as something we connect with. This means, for instance, that if Baldwin Lake is full of toxins, we think, "Oh, that's not our problem. The city can take care of it."

If we were in a relationship with nature, however, we would see it as a part of ourselves, the way we see our husbands and children. Nature is "It" when we simply use it, when we say, "So what if there are fewer shrimp in the ocean, I'm going to eat as many as I can." This kind of thinking generates separateness, an alienation of ourselves from the natural world.

It was Pastor Rob Jennings-Teats' sermon on "I and It" and "I and Thou" that sparked Rachel's insight. And now when I think about Pastor Rob suggesting that we say to God "I love you," I find myself thinking why can't we say that to the lakes, rivers and oceans? Why not think of nature as our beloved?

• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.


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