Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Ours is a society of stealth. We hide what we don’t like behind veils of deceit. We cloak the ugly byproducts of our economy to avoid guilt and enhance gratification. This clever manipulation, this societal sleight of hand, keeps us in the dark, where we remain obedient consumers, passing our willful ignorance onto the future.
Enormous coal trains pass daily through Glenwood Springs, but the energy we use is practically invisible. Strip mines are in Wyoming. Coal-burning power plants are in Nebraska. If energy production were localized, with a coal-burning plant in every community, we might not so carelessly leave the lights on.
We hide our landfills, making the accumulated detritus of our lives practically invisible. Landfills are covered in sedimentary layers of junk and soil. Compaction by huge machines crunches our waste into the earth for epochs of geologic time, or so we think. Place landfills where we can see and smell them, and we might view differently the excess of our habitual waste.
Drive through the Pacific Northwest. Towering walls of trees give the appearance of healthy forest ecosystems. Beyond the first hundred yards of timber lies a vast wreckage of clear cuts. These forests are patchwork quilts, with mere hedgerows along the highways. When the pressure finally mounts to conserve our forests, we export our appetites to the Third World, where clear cutting is out of sight, out of mind.
Industrial societies strive to hide their costs. Tall smoke stacks spread emissions to the four winds. Toxic effluent dumped in lakes, streams and oceans magically disappears. The living earth absorbs our sins.
Natural limits are denied until Rachael Carson describes the grim silence of spring, until Bill McKibben illuminates climate change, until E.O. Wilson warns about the future of life. It was only 40 years ago that acid rain was linked to power plants thousands of miles away. It was only yesterday that we recognized our dying oceans. Only today does climate change link the global atmosphere to the aggregate emissions of our conveniences. Yet naive millions remain in denial of it all.
George W. Bush tried to hide the costs of war by censoring news coverage of flag-draped caskets, limiting the funereal specter of American casualties to immediate families. Today, we see the caskets, but still fail to acknowledge collateral casualties that we dismiss as someone else’s loss. We hide these and many other costs the way Goldman Sachs hid the subprime scandal and tumbled the world into the Great Recession.
Our nation abolished one form of slavery more than 150 years ago, but our culture condones a more subtle form under the yoke of crushing debt. Wage slavery keeps the machine working, and when labor unions make demands, we export slavery to the Third World, where it is seen only in the cheap goods and commodities we buy.
Eventually, the hide-n-seek game ends. Everything must come into the light. Discovering the stark impacts of the hidden costs is like waking from a pleasant dream into the harsh light. Oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico is a timely example of the costs being borne for oil addiction. Our national character is determined by how we wake to this new day.
When DDT was linked to dying birds, it was banned before a Silent Spring deprived nature of her song. When lakes withered from acid rain, coal scrubbers were mandated to reduce toxic clouds. When rivers caught fire from disgorged industrial waste and when cancers and birth defects resulted from toxins, discharge standards were imposed. Until tragedy forces our hand, we hide what threatens us. Sleight of hand slips the queen of spades to the back of the deck for future players who will one day ask how they were dealt such a wicked hand.
We continue to hide climate change, habitat destruction, species extinctions, overpopulation, war, greed, waste and corruption. We hide failed loan practices, faulty accelerators, the death sentence of fatty foods. It’s all hidden by careful design like a billboard of natural beauty propped up in front of a strip mine. It’s time to tear down the billboards and see the world as it is.