The Environment: The Real Dangers, The Myths, The Facts

Cutting Edge Magazine
May 1991
Tom Terry

Every major newspaper and TV report have them. Environmental reports are gaining popularity with news crews and with the public. Beyond the obvious, natural concern for our drinking water, the air we breathe and our general health, environmental reports dig deeper into the “green earth” issues that seem to need our urgent attention.

Among the urgent eco-issues are global warming, the depletion of the protective ozone layer, disposal of solid wastes, and the nuclear issue. Each is a genuine, but the facts concerned are often mixed with a generous batch of eco-myths. “The earth could be unfit for life in the next century.” “Landfills are dangerous and we’re running out of them.” These and other myths about the environment, not thoroughly investigated lead us to the conclusion that much of the claims of environmentalists are true and there is little hope for the earth.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Global Warming

A few hot summers in a row and the media went wild when a NASA space scientist named James Hansen told a Senate panel four years ago that 1987 was the warmest year on record and that the greenhouse effect was probably responsible for the warming trend that has been taking place since 1900.[1] What has followed since is the continued preponderance of warming detrimental to man’s existence on earth. Most shameful, according to some environmentalists, is that the warming is man’s fault. The greenhouse effect, believed to be the cause of global warning, is the result of an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, nitrogen-oxide, and low-level ozone). As greenhouse gases are increased in the atmosphere, heat from the sun is trapped and the temperature rises. Culprits, said to be adding greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, include exhaust emissions and the burning of wood and fossil fuels. There are other culprits besides man, however. Of the known greenhouse gases, most are produced naturally. Methane is produced by the digestive processes of cows and termites. Wood burning may also be a natural result of the increased number of forest fires in the last five years. Chlorofluorocarbons are the only unnatural greenhouse gas and the US has all but stopped most chlorofluorocarbon use.

There is debate over whether or not the most recent warming of the 80’s is the direct result of man’s use of technology and industry or if the trend is a natural one. Man is usually the culprit in media reports where radical environmentalists are given center stage. However, there is good evidence to suggest the warming is natural.

Geochemist Samuel Epstein of the California Institute of Technology maintains that global warming is natural. “The warming trend may have been in effect for the past 500 years,” he says. Certainly, a lot longer than the industrial revolution. “It will be very important to differentiate the greenhouse warming due to human activity from natural global warming.” Epstein’s findings are based on his study of tree rings.[2]

A rise in global temperature is not to be laughed at. It is said that even gains of a few degrees can cause droughts that will devastate farmlands and prevent the necessary rainfalls. It is true that certain species of plant life have trouble adapting to hotter climates, but a rise in global temperature may not be all that bad. Current computer-generated models of what the earth would be like if global warming goes unchecked include projections of the polar ice caps melting away causing flooding, while other drier areas would be unfit for plant life. But according to Dr. Sherwood Isdo of the Agriculture Department laboratory in Phoenix, Arizona, global warming may actually be of benefit to plant life and man.

In a controlled experiment, Dr. Isdo raised orange trees to triple their volume and branch size by exposing them to double the amount of carbon dioxide than would be found in normal air. The benefits are obvious. Green plants use carbon dioxide in the growth process. A richer air for plants translates into better growth. Plants exposed to the increased carbon dioxide levels have shown more efficient use of water, and they resist stress and disease better.”

Dr. Isdo’s findings may tell us what may happen if global warming is actually happening. There is still debate on the warming theory going on. Dr. Isdo points out that a study of temperature readings from 961 stations in the United States reveal that the earth may have actually cooled since 1920, and not heated up. “On average, the change at 961 official weather stations over the past 70 years was about a one-third degree decrease,” Dr. Isdo said. 

Proponents of the greenhouse theory point to the hot year of 1988 to show that global warming is endangering the earth. But as Stephen Schneider points out, “The total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in 1987 was only marginally more than in 1986, and only marginally less than in 1988. A factor that has been gradually building for decades could hardly assert that much sudden influence. Very little extra pollution had been added. Obviously, the 1988 drought was a natural fluctuation.”[5]

The jury is still out on global warming and the greenhouse effect. Should the greenhouse actually be taking place, it may be of more benefit than harm to the planet, but the jury is out there as well.

Ozone Depletion

Is there too much, or not enough? The depletion of the ozone layer has received international attention that has included treaties to protect the thin atmospheric layer high above the earth. Ozone is the gas layer in the atmosphere that blocks out certain types of light from the sun that is harmful to man. When ozone is depleted, that light makes its way to the surface of the planet and can cause skin cancer, burns and other problems. Ozone is being depleted by chlorofluorocarbons, still in use in some countries. When chlorofluorocarbon breaks down in the atmosphere it produces chlorine. Chlorine destroys ozone in the upper atmosphere by changing it into oxygen. The process whereby the ozone is destroyed is especially dangerous since one chlorine molecule destroys ozone molecules in a manner that leaves the chlorine molecule intact and able to destroy further ozone. It’s similar to using the enemy’s gas in your tank to kill more of your enemy. Again, man is blamed for ozone depletion. “Man’s use of resources destroys the precious layer” activists say. But ozone depletion may be the result of natural forces much more than man made forces. Volcano emissions and climate changes may also cause the ozone to thin. Conversely, ozone has become a problem on ground level. Ozone levels reached almost dangerous highs last year when temperatures rising above 100 degrees hit Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. The high temperature mixed with hydrocarbons from fuel emissions actually created high ozone levels. If ozone levels reach the set level of .121 parts per billion or more, community health is at risk. Ozone can damage food crops, trees, and irritate the lungs. In some animals and the elderly, ozone can reduce the lung’s capacity to take in air. To a large degree the jury is still out on ozone depletion. Some scientists see ozone depletion as more of a natural phenomenon than a man made one.

Solid Wastes

Solid waste disposal has been a topic of considerable controversy in New Mexico. During the 1990 race for the governor’s chair, Republican candidate Harry Kinney suggested that out-of-state waste be brought into New Mexico to add to state revenue and create jobs. The idea didn’t sit well with voters who were sensitive about protecting the state’s desert environment. But was Kinney’s proposal such a bad idea?

Solid waste disposal is not the problem it is often made out to be. Disorganized environmentalists have called landfills “hazardous” at the same time complaining that landfills are running out. The truth is that neither is true in real terms, only in bureaucratic terms. Landfills are the safest way known to dispose of solid wastes. In third world countries such as India and even in Mexico, solid wastes are often permitted to be left on the open street along with running sewage. The result is a high rate of disease and generally unhealthy living. Landfills remove such health threats by regulating different types of wastes to a specific area away from water tables and the general populace. Modern landfill sights are lined with clay to prevent any seepage of potentially toxic wastes. Though the clay provides an adequate barrier against such wastes, toxic materials are usually separated and disposed of elsewhere to minimize dangers. What can’t be denied is that some landfill sites have been hazardous to groundwater. But this happens only when proper precautions are not taken and when landfills are located close to a water source. Neither is all trash taken to landfills. Much of the waste generated in the United States is recycled, while some is incinerated for health reasons. In an effort to curb pollution from incinerators, waste often goes through a “scrubbing” process to reduce air pollutants. The heat generated from the incinerators is also used to generate electricity. Following incineration, the leftover ash is either transported to an appropriate dump site or used during road work. There is at present enough land to accommodate many more landfills than presently exist. It is only because of bureaucratic pressure that landfill sites are shrinking.

Currently, there are slightly over 100 municipal landfills operating in the state. Some of those are near capacity and will soon close. New landfill sites can be located in a wide variety of locations throughout the state’s water protected areas. There are large strips of New Mexico land with deep water tables far enough from the surface to prevent any contamination that might occur. While most landfill sites are protected with a layer of clay, some landfills in the country are lined with plastic to prevent seepage. In this case, the often protested “plastic in a landfill” actually protects the environment and existing water supply from harm.

Recycling has been a great benefit to landfills in that the material recycled doesn’t cause filling to happen too quickly. Recycling has obvious financial and environmental benefits, but recycling cannot be counted on to reduce the majority of trash discarded. The most common recycled commodity is paper. In 1988, 35% of all paper was sent for recycling, but not actually recycled. Of the 4.7 million tons sent out, only 3.3 million underwent the process. There is more paper available for recycling than recycling plants currently have the ability to use. It will be some time before a great portion of America’s solid waste will be recycled instead of dumped or burned since plant construction and funding is a long process.

Clean Conclusions

No one in his right mind will deny that protecting the environment must be a high priority in the public policy arena and for the individual citizen. Dirty water, untreated sewage, excess air pollution and more have been known to cause serious health problems for many people. But good intentions are often carried to an extreme. In the name of “protecting the environment,” activists have caused economic hardship to loggers in Oregon and New Mexico. Instead of just asking for protection for designated forest areas, radical groups like Earth First sought protection for the Spotted Owl, which gave more protection to too much forest area.

In Arizona, activists sought to stop construction of a telescope facility by seeking endangered species status for the Red Squirrel. In a clear example of eco-extremism, activists claimed that the use of the 29 acres the facility needed would destroy the habitat of the small beast. They neglected to mention that the Red Squirrel inhabits thousands of acres in the area and is hunted every year to prevent overpopulation of the species, thus crowding out its rival squirrels in the battle over available food.

Ranchers in northern New Mexico were confronted last year by picketers carrying “Save the wolves, kill the cattle” signs since some of the ranchers had access to public grazing lands. One public official has said, “Do we have to save every little sub-species?” The answer is no. Man is not capable of it. Some species of plants and animals exist normally in low numbers, many go extinct naturally. Some of them live in even the worst of ecological conditions. At the foot of Mount St. Helens where an explosion did enormous environmental damage several years ago, there is new growth of plant life with animals living in the area. All in a region still covered in tons of ash.

The earth is more resilient than we sometimes think, and so are many species. While we should be responsible with our resources, we should not keep them from being used to an exclusionary point. After all, man is an equal part of the eco-system.