What Would You Do?: An Environmental Essay

The following was the third place winner of Worcester State University’s 2015 Environmental Essay Contest

I ask: what would you do? What do you do if you saw someone hurting themselves? If you saw them, weapon in hand, aiming it at their chest? Would you stop them? Speak to them; fill them with sense, insight, and maybe a state of mind that leaves them able to take care of themselves?

You answer: yes. I would take the weapon from their hands; guard it as if it is my own life I am protecting.

I ask: do you realize what you’re doing to yourself every day? Every day when we say goodbye to our diverse species. Every day when the climate changes and we come closer and closer to something that may be catastrophic. Something that we might not be able to fix.

You are killing your home. You are killing yourself.

The earth is our home. We exist because, by some miracle, life found its way onto our planet where it could not exist anywhere else. As humans we seem to think of ourselves as important—significant. Are we? The earth is over 4 billion years old. It existed, letting life form and die. Modern human have only existed for about 200,000 years, yet in the last 200 years we rapidly changed the earth in ways that may be irreversible. The earth can go on forever, whether or not life exists, whether or not humans exist. We are just a tiny piece of something so large, so beyond any scale we can create.

Now you ask: what happens if humans die out? What if we become extinct?

I tell you: the world continues without us. Earth will regenerate itself over millions of years, fix what we had damaged. Maybe life will start once again, but only after any trace of humans has been erased. Us humans, we are not mighty. We are simple things. Yet we’ve made ourselves think we are something so grand, so important. We’ve become selfish.

Meet our corporations. Those are people we only ever see from far away. Once upon a time a man discovered how to make as much money for himself as possible. But it came at a cost. It was not his cost, but others. The trick you ask? Smoke and Mirrors. Offer jobs to the desperate, to those who need something, even if the pay isn’t fair. Build a factory in an area that doesn’t have well enforced environmental laws. Produce goods without care for the damage being created. Let the smoke stakes of factories leak into the air. Let workers handle dangerous chemicals without protection. Let waste water of factories flood villages, because where else is it supposed to go? But most of all, don’t let anyone find out what damages are being done.

We’ve let all this happen, without a care because we are too ignorant to do anything—we don’t know any better. A clear example is the introduction of the chlorine atom after World War II. It was introduced as a marketing miracle that opened our world to coolants and cleaning solvents. It was something so new, so ingenuous that no one ever bothered to look into the effects it may have on us or the environment. It wasn’t until after chlorine floated the market place that it was found to have serious health effects if it is inhaled: irritated the lungs, respiratory problems. Even worse is the effects chlorine had on our atmosphere.

Sometimes we forget that whatever we do here on earth has its way of going back into the atmosphere that protects us from the harmful radiation of the sun. When chlorine was introduced into many of our aerosol products we forgot to keep in mind the effect it might have as came into contact with other gases. We are shielded by the radiation of the sun by the ozone, but when chlorine is introduced into the equation, it can easily break up the ozone molecules. In fact, one chlorine molecule can destroy up to 100,000 ozone molecules before it finally leaves our atmosphere.

What does that mean for us? Have you ever stood outside in the spring months and gotten a sunburn, even if it’s not that sunny? The reason for that is the ozone being depleted from our atmosphere. The hole in our ozone layer is found largely in the Antarctic, but it is during our Spring months that this hole in the ozone layer slowly begins to seep to other areas across the world. When this happens we are less protected from the UV rays. This is why we may get a sunburn in the spring even if it is not that sunny. This lack of protection from UV rays has also been found to cause chromosome mutations such a skin cancer and blindness through cataracts.

It wasn’t until 1987 that the problem was attacked head on. Nations across the world came together to create the Montreal Protocol which banned the use of chlorine in products. The agreement was signed in 1987 and in 1989 it was put into effect. You may think with a simple list of signatures on a paper the problem was solved, but it was not. Chlorine can still be found out in the black market being sold for unimaginable amounts of money. But that doesn’t matter right? The small amount of chlorine being sold in the black market shouldn’t affect out atmosphere that much, especially since we’ve almost stopped chlorine from being introduced into our atmosphere.

The truth is we still have an ozone depletion. The reason for this is the simple fact that chlorine is still in our atmosphere and breaking up ozone molecules by the thousands. It will take years for all the chlorine to filter out of our atmosphere. However, the Montreal Protocol is a huge moment in our history. For the first time nationals across the world were able to band together to do something for the greater good of our planet.  Over 190 nationals have signed this monumental document, our only hope is that there are similar agreements like the Montreal Protocol in our future.

In truth, when we think of global warming we think of climate change: extreme weather, loss of habitat, longer seasons. The depletion of the ozone layer doesn’t have any effect on climate change. What causes climate change is the extreme amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases are naturally occurring; they are the reason why Earth is able to support life in the first place. It works the same way a greenhouse does for plants; it keeps all the heat in to keep the plants alive. Well, here on Earth, the greenhouse gases keep the heat in the atmosphere to keep us alive. The only problem is that as we dig up fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, we are releasing more and more greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. This means every year the heat from the sun is becoming trapped in our atmosphere and it takes much longer for it to release its energy back into space. This results in heating of the Earth’s surface.

Yet this past winter (Jan. 2015) was one of our worst winters in a long time. It’s hard to think that global warming was the cause of our extreme winter. In the Northern Hemisphere there is a bubble of cold air that that circulates around the North Pole. Normally around winter time that cold air will seep down into different parts of the United States, working its way west to east. Due to global warming the cold bubble of air in the North Pole leaked farther than normal, and instead of working its way across the country, it stayed in just the eastern part. This means even though the earth is warming we had a long, cold, and snowy winter. Global warming doesn’t mean everything gets hot. It means everything is thrown out of balance.

We need to open our eyes and see what is truly in front of us. We’ve been lead to believe that our way of functioning—using fossil fuels—is the only way for us to live, but it’s not. There are alternatives forms of energy: solar, wind, geothermal, water. Countless ways to power this planet we call home without hurting ourselves or the environment. There are ways of creating energy, and it’s all at the tips of our fingers. We just have to do educate ourselves and put the initiative forward to take the correct steps into sustaining our planet.

I ask: what would you do? What would you do if you saw people burning down your home? What would you do if they destroy your forests, your rivers? What if they kill your animals until there are none left? What would you do it they poison your air?

You say: whatever it takes.

And I hope what you say is true.