“The worst thing that can happen – will happen – is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.” (Wilson, 2006)*
The quotation from E.O. Wilson, a renowned ecologist, naturalist, and entomologist, was said over 30 years ago in Harvard Magazine. The quotation is powerful and terrifying all at the same time; it shows how bad the Earth’s situation is and the role humans have played in our planet’s fate as well. So, why does this quotation matter? Why did I start off a blog post with that quotation? The answer is simple – in the 30-year gap between Wilson’s interview and my blog post there has been little change in human behavior. There are still people who don’t believe in climate change and others who don’t believe we, humans, have played a key part in the acceleration of climate change.
Recently, my Global Environmental Issues class visited the local landfill and recycling facility and it was one of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever seen. The landfill was our first stop and I was surprised at what I saw – the aftermath of a few counties worth of trash. When we first entered the facility, I was taken aback by the classroom-like set up – there were some diagrams of the landfill hanging up along with some pictures kids had drawn and posted as well. The host explained to us how the landfill worked, the processes they take to ensure they are putting the “right kind of trash” in the landfill. Some of the items that are not meant to go in the landfill are lithium batteries which can be found in phones, laptops, or any other electronic device you see today. The lithium batteries can cause horrible fires inside the landfills that are difficult to control. As we walked towards the edge of the landfill, we stopped alongside a wall. The wall was about 4.5 feet tall and looked normal, until you looked over the edge. Behind that small wall was a small mountain trash that had piled up to be sorted, apparently, it’s not uncommon for people to throw things away that can be recycled or reused in some way. For instance, there was a section where televisions and laptops had piled up and the host said many of the devices worked properly, but the owners most likely threw them out to get a newer, better version. Towards the end of the trip, all of us got in our cars and made our way towards the perimeter of the actual landfill. As a feeling of sadness washed over me, I took a picture of what I saw.
This picture was taken at the end of January and while all the white in the background of the photo might look like snow, but it’s plastic shopping bags. In that same field there were birds scavenging for food and all I could think about was how many birds probably ate one of those bags in hopes of satisfying their hunger.
The following week we visited the local recycling plant, which I ignorantly thought would be better, spoiler alert: it wasn’t. The recycling plant, like the landfill, was filled with trash. Granted, the items were recyclable, but there is so much waste that could have been avoided. One of the main themes that has been discussed in class is the concept of over-consumption, the idea that human consume more than what our environment can give. I’m not saying that everyone needs to live a zero-waste lifestyle, but many of the items we saw at the recycling plant could have been avoided if more people bought in bulk or bought products that reused the same container. Recycling is a great thing, it’s an idea that has been preached to my generation since we were in elementary school with the saying, “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.”, but people always forget about is the “reduce” and “reuse” parts. For instance, the amount of plastic water bottles people buy can be reduced by buying a reusable bottle. Now, there are areas on the planet where people need those bottles of water since they don’t have access to clean drinking water. But, in places like Cedar Rapids, we do have access to clean drinking water and it comes straight from your tap – you could even drink your own toilet water if you wanted! Going back to the amount of trash, I think when people put out their recycling and garbage bins I feel like they forget about it once it is picked up – they don’t see it and don’t have to think about it anymore. WELL, here is a picture of what happens when that trash leaves your curb and thought.
**To give you an idea of how tall the piles are, the students in the first photo are approximately 6 feet tall.**
Now, I think we have come a long way, at one point we didn’t bother with recycling or sorting through trash. But, I think we have a long way to go. I still have hope that humans will be able to change their consumption habits, mine included, to make ensure the survival of our planet and the creatures that live here. And I hope this post provided some insight as to why people like me can’t stop talking about climate change and the impact of our choices on the environment.
Thanks for reading, please leave some comments and feedback!
*Citations: Wilson, Edward O. Naturalist. Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2006.