The first time I visited Los Angeles, I was 12 years old and still just young enough to be captured by Disneyland’s magic. I was also just young enough not to spend too much time thinking about why my eyes were stinging and why any building more than three blocks away faded into the yellowish haze.
One of the great environmental success stories of our time is how the air in L.A. has gotten dramatically better over the years, thanks to auto emissions standards. On that first trip to the city, I had no idea there were mountains just to the north. Now, on most days, the San Gabriels provide a dramatic backdrop to the skyscrapers of downtown.
There are other good stories -- the return of the bald eagle, the reduction of acid rain, a diminution of the hole in the ozone layer, the end of pollution fires on the Cuyahoga River and the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program
It should be noted that every one of these positive outcomes resulted from government action. Humans seem unable to act positively unless they work collectively with the force of law behind them to check the greed and shortsightedness of individuals.
But every success story can be matched with many alarming ones about the effects of human activity on the environment, from the devastation of the rain forests and the rapid melt of the polar ice caps to the dying coral reefs and the acidification of the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps most symbolic of the little things we do unthinkingly that add up to a big planetary mess is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is an expanse in the North Pacific Gyre where innumerable bits of plastic that humans have discarded have been pulled together into one big floating mass that exceeds the area of the continental United States. All that plastic does not sit there benignly. It either kills fish and birds or makes its toxic way up the food chain to land in our stomachs.
When we finally take note of a growing environmental problem, humans can sometimes summon the political will to take action and stop bad practices. The air in L.A. is better because of that. But while we take steps to fix one harmful thing we’ve done, people in other parts of the world who aspire to our lifestyle make the same bad choices. Though we breathe freely in L.A., air pollution and CO2 pumped into the atmosphere from industries and cars in China and India are fouling the skies anew.
As a fast-proliferating species with a big brain and a predilection not to live in trees or remain mere hunters and gatherers, Homo sapiens are altering the planet with nearly everything we do, largely in negative ways. Do the success stories tell us we are smart enough to eventually clean up after ourselves? Or do the looming disasters suggest that we will never be wise enough to be good stewards of creation?