• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Run-off and Redbreast

Today it really is Earth Day 40, even though we at Greenback celebrated last weekend.

April 22, 2010

Today it really is Earth Day 40, even though we at Greenback celebrated last weekend.

The celebration was somewhat muted, given current financial constraints (both at the university and in the economy as a whole), current US public opinion (which puts economic recovery ahead of sustainability concerns), and the pending introduction of the Kerry/Lieberman/Graham climate legislation, which by all reports will remove the EPA's authority to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act and bet the planet's future on a cap-and-trade scheme which includes unverifiable international offsets. (I hope I'm wrong on that last part, but I fear I'm right.)

What celebration there was had a definite theme of "technology will save us all" which, I guess, would be unsurprising on a university campus except for the fact that several of the celebrators seemed less concerned with the difference between "works in the lab" and "works" than I try to remind myself to be. Maybe I spend too much time outside and too little in the lab. But I think it's more likely that the lesson I relearned every springtime as a child is still valid, even if widely ignored.

Living in the Northeast, I experienced an annual spring thaw. (Many years, there was an additional one in January, but there was always at least one around mid-March.) And living on a hillside (most Northeastern farms are on hillsides, for the lack of a lot of good bottom land), the thaw always generated a good stream of run-off.

So like every other kid around, I spent at least one day each Spring forming dams, and ponds, and channels for the running water. Initially, my childhood engineering was implemented with snow and was expected (even by me) to be very temporary. The snow was, itself, barely solid and as soon as the water hit it, it joined the run-off. As my experience grew, I learned to work with other materials: sticks, stones, gravel, mud, all the readily-available outdoor stuff a kid could get his hands on. Or in. Actually, what worked best was manure. Not so dry that it couldn't be shaped, but not too fresh, either. If you grew up in a city, don't worry about that part. It's not key.

What is key is that nothing I could do worked for long. It didn't bother me, as nothing anyone else I knew did restrained the water for long, either. But it did impress on me, at a fairly early age, that in the long run the water always wins. Indeed, the reason our farm was on a fairly gentle hillside and not a mountain peak was that the water had been winning for millennia. And it was continuing to win -- the dam which formed our farm pond required regular attention, and the older dams which had created mill-ponds for now-abandoned factories in the nearby cities were all either crumbling or leaking badly. It's not a question of whether the water will go where it wants, it's only a matter of when.

This all came to mind as I listened to presentations about the promise of technologies not yet quite real. It particularly struck me as one professor was expounding on the promise of geo-engineering. Geo-engineering to regulate the climate scares me to death, in part because I remember the consequences of the Aswan High Dam, the Three Gorges Dam, and numerous other projects designed by engineers with a level of expertise far beyond my wildest aspirations but apparently with little concern for the environment or respect for nature. Like its component water, nature always wins in the long term.

A correspondent pointed me to an opinion piece in The Irish Times which puts it more clearly than I can. There used to be (maybe there still is) a bar in Washington DC called "The Irish Times". And, like the childhood memory of playing in the springtime run-off, I think I know what brought that image to mind.


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