May 2, 2012

The Paul Revere of Ecology

The Austin Chronicle titled it's 2012 Earth Day cover story, "Earth: Fun While It Lasted.Great article, check it out, written by Rice University history professor David Brinkley. But Brinkley never actually addresses the headline.* Instead he spends two pages talking about America's most revered newscaster. 

Walter Cronkite became America's first mainstream champion of environmental sanity way back in  January 1970 (under the Nixon Admin) when he began a broadcasting his series, "Can The Earth Be Saved?" During April of that year, he devoted a significant amount of CBS air time to covering -- and legitimizing, America's first Earth Day. 

Cronkite, who'd grown up sailing Texas's Galveston Bay and spent his working life sailing the waters of the North East, saw coastal areas being transformed and damaged by 20th century oil production. An avid bird watcher and nature lover, Cronkite was further "changed" by seminal 60's & 70's eco books Silent Spring and The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and TechnologyCronkite's sense that our planet, and those who depend on her, is fragile was heightened by the Apollo mission's historic 1968 photo "Earth Rise." Effectively the first photo of our global domicile, Earthrise caused eco epiphanies around the world

"Earthrise" (1968)

During the 70's Cronkite dove deep into his eco concerns -- pushing CBS to keep environmental issues in the news, villainizing Chevron and other large polluters in publications, and "devoting extensive time and energy to the task of educating the nation." It was during this period he was dubbed the Paul Revere of Ecology. Amazingly -- and from the beginning, Cronkite warned, "Every year American power plants pour more than 800 million tons of carbon dioxide into the skies. Some scientists suspect that carbon dioxide can turn the planet into a kind of greenhouse, sealing in heat so that temperatures gradually rise until the polar icecaps melt and a new deluge covers the lands of the earth."

So where are we now? 

We're in crisis. We're past Cronkite's point of no return. Read my most recent post about what life under global warming is expected be like, i.e. extreme weather and extreme losses. Cronkite's worst environmental fears and the future he thought broadcasting could help prevent, is indeed upon us. 

Not only is climate change changing the way we live, but toxicity has increased immeasurably since the first Earth Day. Some say today's human beings have over 200 industrial chemicals in their body tissues, as compared to 100 years ago when it's estimated people had about seven. Additionally, there's all-too-familiar evidence that humans continue toxifying the earth's incredibly limited amounts of freshwater via fracking, pollution, prescription drug use...

Possibly even worse -- global food and natural habitat are in decline. Thanks to both warming oceans and thoughtless commercial practices our fisheries and coral reefs are disappearing.  (Disappearing!) Grain yields are shrinking as temperatures rise and droughts increase in frequency. Forests, grasslands, waters, and healthy soils are being "repurposed" for commercial tourism, manufacturing, residential living, and etc., everywhere. In just the last 150 years the Earth's total forests have shrunk by nearly 50 percent.

Adding yet another big picture concern -- humans are using up natural resources faster than they can be regenerated. And let's not forget the eco issue of "waste." Huge expanses of floating plastic now cover thousand-mile areas in our oceans, landfills have million year half lives, radioactive leaks continue to threaten, and yet the plastics keep on a' comin'. It's crazy time for environmental issues, yet it's business as usual in our daily lives: business, media, religion, politics, education, tech, banking... 

So what do we do? (If we care enough to do anything)

I can't just lay out a bunch of doomy gloomy stuff and not offer a few solutions. See Part Two: "Paul Revere's Solutions" here.  


*Professor Brinkley's new book, Cronkite, comes out this month. 

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