Thursday, July 13, 2006

Killing the Goose

Twenty-two years ago I moved to the valley. The weekly commute to Concord provides ample time for observation and reflection on the changes that have taken place since I arrived. Nothing lasts forever – and with an expanding population changes are bound to take place. Still, hardly any of those changes are for the better. In 1984, the Shedd Woods really were woods. The site could better be called the Shedd Clearing now. The Scenic Vista was, once upon a time. One of the most profound changes has been in air quality. It is my habit to look out over the open fields in Conway village, just before the railroad tracks next to Kennett High, as I drive into or out of town. In past years one could almost always see Mt. Washington in that view. That’s been a scarce view this summer. One day a few weeks ago the air was so bad that the haze looked more like smoke from a huge forest fire.

As someone who drives a lot, I am aware that I am part of the problem. We all are. We live in communities that have been created around the ownership of automobiles, and we don’t have any kind of public transportation. An informal study last week found that 7 out of every 10 vehicles on Rt. 16 were SUVs, trucks, or motor homes. Even with the high price of gas, gas guzzlers rule our roads. Conservation is an alien concept. Jimmy Carter was (and still is) the subject of ridicule for appearing on national television wearing a sweater, and urging us to turn down our thermostats. Many businesses have nearly as many lights on at night when they’re closed as they do during the day when they are open.

Many people are stuck with gas sucking vehicles, because the US automakers were offering plenty of incentives to buy them. The US car manufacturers are practically giving them away, these days, because the demand for vehicles that get 10 miles per gallon has diminished considerably, and the manufacturers are stuck with the fruit of their ultimate demise. While others in the auto industry were manufacturing hybrids, knowing that oil is a finite resource, the US companies clung to the production of trucks and SUVs. The US automotive industry is in deep trouble – but Big Oil is dancing all the way to the bank. We hear the phrase “reducing our dependence on foreign oil” at least once a day. We seldom hear the correct phrase, which would be “reducing our dependence on oil.”

NH has a love – hate relationship with Big Oil. We love the tourist dollars that drive here in big vehicles. We love the tourist dollars that bring boats, snow machines, and personal watercraft. We’re also suing 22 major oil companies for water pollution caused by the gasoline additive MTBE. The oil industry relentlessly lobbied Congress to require MTBE as an additive, even though they were aware in the 1980’s that MTBE caused undrinkable water. The suit was filed in 2003. As of January 1, 2007, MTBE will no longer be used in NH. The damage is done, however. About 60% of the state relies on groundwater wells. Over 40,000 private wells contain some level of MTBE. At least 15% of the public water supplies in our state have been contaminated.

MTBE leaches into the groundwater through leaky underground tanks. It also enters the water supply through boats and personal watercraft. The old school two-stroke jet skis were terrible polluters, dumping 25-30 percent of their fuel, unburned, into the water. The manufacturers are now producing 4 stroke engines that cut down on the pollution (both noise and water) but create different problems. Many of the lakes that ban the 2 person watercraft have to allow the new, larger 3 and 4 person craft because current NH law considers them boats. The new, larger personal watercraft can reach speeds of over 60 mph, which makes for a lot of conflict between swimmers, jet skis, canoes, and kayaks. Manufacturers claim that the new craft are less noisy. Those fine distinctions are lost on me, they’re all annoyingly loud. These vessels are allowed on Conway, Silver, and Ossippee Lakes. Even when the MTBE ban goes into effect, there is no way of policing MTBE tainted gas coming in from out of state, in recreational vehicles, and dumping into our water.

We find ourselves living in a paradox, here in this part of the state. We are dependent on tourist dollars, and will do anything to court them. We continue to build and pave, and destroy what brought us all here in the first place. We boast of our clean air and water, yet we are unwilling to regulate or ban pollution causing devices. The personal watercraft manufacturers have plenty of lobbyists, and the NH legislature has so far been unwilling to change the laws that apply to them. The mantra of the free trade worshippers is oft invoked “we must give consumers choices.” Yep, even as those choices are made by morons who have no respect for the environment – even as they pollute our water supply, we must accept those choices. Last year I heard Congressman Jeb Bradley, who drives a hybrid truck invoke the consumer choice argument about motor vehicles. It’s as if we are powerless – we must accept pollution and environmental destruction because it is the choice of consumers. We already have significant groundwater pollution as a result of MTBE – will we need to destroy our recreational water supplies, too, before we are willing to change our behavior?

Once we lived on a beautiful planet, with abundant natural resources. We are hell bent on destroying the goose that laid the golden egg.

“The gluttonies devouring nature are remorseless.” Edward Hoagland


Susan Meeker-Lowry said...

Great column, Susan. I, too, have been troubled by the so-called haze that is increasing each year. I fondly remember totally blue skies, even to the horizon. In fact, there are days here that the air seems almost as gray and polluted as downtown Athens. But younger people are so used to this that they think of gray haze as a weather thing, not the air pollution it really is. It's very sad, and extremely disturbing.

susanb said...

Thanks, Susan. It's depressing.

Anonymous said...

The challenge is to have economic prosperity and preserve and protect the environment. I think it's also going to mean changing how we define prosperity. Is property, as you and Susan Meeker Lowery intimated in the past, the unrestrained aquisition of "things" or is it a more spiritual sense of satisfaction? I would hope the latter. And on a related note, if Global Warming is occuring, how do we transform our civilization so it can adapt to increased temperatures? If humans have effected environmental change to the negative it may be possible to effect change to the benefit of the Earth. In essence, no matter what caused Global Warming, humans will have to learn how to adapt. Or perish.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the US autocompanies are in as much trouble as you may beleive. Ford for instance sells a lot of fuel efficient vehichles in Europe since that is what that particular market demands. Hence retooling by the US auto makers should be a relatively quick process..If the market demands it. The trouble with the cheap oil in the 90s is that it drove the demand for big ineffcient SUVs.
We should walk more, plant more trees, install solar panels on our homes and plant gardens. We would all be healthier.