22 April 2008

Earth Day Ironies

Arbor Day -- now, that's a day that makes good sense. You go out, you plant a tree. And that entails taking care of it, initially more and then gradually less, as it settles in. And so you can figure out a few things about trees. But Earth Day? What is that? Just another excuse to delude ourselves.

Years ago, it used to be common to have big "Earth Day" concerts, which of course produced massive environmental wear-and-tear in the form of a major expenditure of power (because nothing can be celebrated in America without really bad music played really loud), tons of trash (how many tons was always duly reported in the papers the next day), the poisonous mills needed for all the souvenir T-shirts (just as necessary as bad music), plus of course all the cars required to get you to and fro. I think there was a vague sense that it was all about the sun, in some sort of healing way, possibly though not necessarily connected to solar energy. I remember seeing an ad for I think Hallmark that said "Send Earth Day cards printed on recycled paper!" Or don't send cards for the phony holiday at all, I thought, and spare the paper use that way. My favorite memory of this holiday is walking past the Hynes Convention Center in Boston and reading on the big marquee The American Chemical Society Salutes Earth Day!

Everything is a marketing opportunity, which is the daemon of consumer capitalism. Believe me, I have as hard a time with discipline, cutting back, doing without, and all those other necessary virtues, or virtuous necessities, as anyone else. But even in the almost ten years I've lived in this house, I've noticed significant weather changes: there are far more days of truly strong winds, for example. The winters seem colder longer (or is that just a sign that I'm aging? and how odd that that would be preferable to the climatic alternative).

Yes, among the duly noted ironies is that I can type this on a computer and send it around the world. But you might as well live in the world you're in while you can, always remembering the motto of the doctors (or is it art restorers?): first, do no harm. That's not an easy rule. At the gym I belonged to until I quit in favor of paying off my plumbing bills, I used to feel silently indignant at guys who would run the sink at full blast while shaving. Growing up in drought years I learned to turn the tap off until I needed to rinse the razor. Then one day it dawned on me that since I tend to take long showers (I like water, despite what it's done to my house -- see, we have no chance against "Nature"), I was in no position to direct indignation anywhere, since I was probably using gallons more water.

On my way to work I pay my quarter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and as I leave the BART station (I'd love to point out how virtuous I am for not owning a car, but between my poor depth perception and my tendency to get road rage even as a pedestrian, it just wouldn't work out -- and it really has affected where I live and work, in a way that most people wouldn't accept), I'm handed a free copy of the Examiner. One day last week, the Examiner had a big Earth Day insert. You can figure out the amount of paper, ink, power to run the presses, and so forth, behind that. But what caught my attention was that this annual section was stuck in the middle of the weekly Automobile section. What was that line from Fight Club, about arranging the deck chairs (or polishing the brass?) on the Titanic?

Years ago, I walked out of the skyscraper in which I was temping. It was one of those "DARE to keep kids off drugs" weeks. I forget what DARE stood for, since the program was mostly in the schools and would only occasionally make its presence known in the corporate world, usually through sponsorships. There was a woman, obviously a bit unclear on what exactly she was saying, wearing a huge "DRUG-FREE AND PROUD!" pin. And she was huddled in the entrance, poisoning herself and anyone passing by with the nasty stench of the cigarettes to which she obviously was hopelessly addicted. Sure, she was sold on the idea of smoking, but she was willing to buy, I'm sure without the thought that she was becoming hooked on a drug far worse than some of the banned ones she was so proud not to take. First do no harm, if you can even figure out in time where harm lies. . . . The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us. . . .


Unknown said...

I have nothing to add, except that DARE stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. The program is almost as old as me and makes up a large part of what I remember from school. They did tell us not to smoke several times, but there was more focus on illegal drugs, mostly marijuana (gateway drug) and crack cocaine (in the news a lot when the curriculum was written).

I don't know if it worked (works?) or not. It might have worked, but badly, as it seems like the drugs that are in the news now are ones that weren't covered in the program.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I've seen that picture many times before, but -- it's such a cute picture of you! If only it included shoes, which I know you've chosen with care . . . it would be perfect!

Thanks for the acronym info. It's hard to say what effect these drug abuse education programs really have. I don't know if I ever told you about the lectures I had to hear in grammar school -- well, I never actually heard the end of any of them. And I have basically avoided drugs my whole life, but for reasons that don't have much to do with those lectures. They just make kind of funny stories. I did give an oral book report to my 8th grade class on Thomas DeQuincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which actually was just what I was reading at the time. I suspect there would be repercussions of some sort in the unlikely event that anyone tried that today. I'm not sure that's a good thing -- a lot of the appeal of drugs is the aura of rebellious glamor, which is only heightened by a lot of the anti-drug talk. I've always thought drugs should be legal and strictly regulated by the government -- when getting your hit is the equivalent of visiting the DMV, it just seems a lot less appealing.

By the way, I finally had a glass of absinthe! I may write about it here, so I won't go into details now. But I don't think I'll be ruining myself with multiple visits to the Green Fairy.

vicmarcam said...

About DARE...there is evidence that it did no good, and part of the problem is what Marin points out...that we adults are always hopelessly out of date with the new drug coming down the street, and kids, being unable to make obvious connections from one drug to another will say to themselves, "Okay, I'll stay away from crack, but meth must be okay." At the same time, the research into its non-effect was probably way too simple, not accounting for some of the other effects that DARE may have had. For example, there may be long-term good done by kids seeing police officers as human beings who would like to help them and their community.

Earth Day reminds me so much of my favorite minefield holiday, Mother's Day. On the one hand, it doesn't hurt us to make a point about things we can do to make small differences. On the other hand, it becomes more clear every day that every day needs to be a special day for our loved ones and for the Earth. If you make a big deal just on that one day, it is pointless and useless. If you do nothing, it is wrong, too.

My students seem to like Earth Day, especially this year. They listened with more interest than usual when I did my mini-lecture on what they should and shouldn't put in the recycling bin in the classroom. They listen to my lectures about packaging and buying local food. They even ask questions. More than half are Asian, so they are especially interested in the worldwide rice shortage. My sixth graders surprised me when they actually understood my rant about how our inability to conserve gas and oil has led to our using land that would be used for growing food and instead is used for growing "biomass" for fuel, which means less land for food. So, recently, I've been able to knock the rock concert Earth Day from the 1970s out of my head and replace it with this feeling that the next generation may be building habits that could sustain us. I even have some evidence. One hundred fifty kids pass through my room every day, and it has been several months since my small office sized garbage can has needed to be emptied more often than every three days.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

V, I'm sorry, you make so many good points, but all I take away is the Mother's Day stuff -- you dropping hints for anyone? Any two, I should say? I'm going to disagree on Mother's Day, which is the ultimate Hallmark made-up bullshit guilt-trip (showing a little 70s there) holiday. It is not only not wrong, but oh so right, to ignore Mother's Day, and sensible women like my own mother agree. Every day is a day for treating your parents and others with appreciation and courtesy!
As for Earth Day, it just seems too little too late, and the massive changes needed will soon be forced on us by circumstances.

vicmarcam said...

I just reread what I wrote and realize I had not been as clear as I intended. Far from dropping hints, I was actually thinking of my mother's feelings about Mother's Day and not my own. My children know that they are not expected to do anything for me, but that might not be true for other mothers in their lives. I really do believe that if you aren't doing enough for your mother during the rest of the year, what's the point? And if you are doing enough, what's the point? She gets her birthday and Christmas. But I will not go as far as you in declaring it a bullshit guilt-trip because it really does mean something to some women.
Earth Day seems too little too late? I've never expected people to last the 4.5 billion years left until the sun goes out, but I'm not quite ready to declare it all over.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

V, It's exactly because Mother's Day is a bullshit guilt-trip that it appeals to some women, not to name any names, of course ;-)