Rebecca Carcaterra: Guest Opinion
December 3, 2010
In early November I, along with three other high school students from the Aspen area, were given the opportunity to take part in EcoFlight’s Flight Across America program that flies students over environmental controversies to give a new bird’s-eye perspective and a chance for students to form their own opinions. This particular flight was about our quest for energy and its impacts upon our earth. During the flight from Aspen to Santa Fe we saw solar panels, wind farms, and coal plants from a perspective unfettered by our terrestrial perceptions.
It was oddly surreal to be in that tiny six-seat EcoFlight plane zooming among the clouds and traversing distances I typically associated with days of travel in just a few hours. But the lesson I pulled from this experience is crystal clear: We need go out of our way to take care of our earth by using clean, renewable energy.
The scope of our existence is abundantly clear from the air. When flying over the wilderness, the traces of humanity imposed upon the surrounding nature looked so insignificant. Towns would appear suddenly, in the shadow of a mountain or remote corner of a plain, and then just as suddenly disappear. Roads twisted through hill and dale then vanished in the blink of an eye, leaving only the trees and bushes and sprinkled snow. Way up high, unencumbered by distractions and our own limited perspective, things look like they really are. Out here in the West our civilizations, both small and sprawling, are but little flies settled on the broad face of nature; nature that appears beautiful, mysterious, impenetrable, untouchable.
But how untouchable is nature? It seems that our decisions have a bigger impact on the earth than it first appears. The last part of our journey was to Farmington, N.M., near the Four Corners region, where the coal power plants there have the highest nitrogen oxide emissions in the country. This was evident. On the horizon, a new band of color was added to the sunset; a nightmarish green haze brought on by the fumes from the plant. Great piles of “fugitive dust,” the ashy waste product left over from burning coal, which causes disastrous health problems for the local community, lay in heaps. This mistreatment of our resources by polluting the earth and sky is blatant disrespect for the life sustaining planet to which we owe our existence.
And this is only one example of harmful energy extraction that we saw; there were also the oil and gas rigs, which are so prolific in the Farmington area that they are actually within the town limits, smack next to cemeteries and agricultural fields and creating big concerns about water quality and the health of local livestock. Both these types of energy extraction have to be carried out responsibly if we want to keep our planet in the natural pristine condition in which we received it.
The solar panels and wind farms we passed prove that electricity can and is being manufactured without a price that sacrifices our planet. The innovations being made in renewable energy are remarkable; in the San Luis Valley we flew over solar panels that rotate from east to west following the sun. Renewable energy is effective too; a single wind turbine can provide electrical power for 607 homes.
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There is also hope in the admirable actions of the leaders of the clean energy movement in this area. One New Mexico activist is Mike Eisenfield, who works for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “I have worked to raise the profile on air quality issues associated with fossil fuel derived electricity by setting the table for legal action by deconstructing permits, by educating, and by partnering with other people and organizations that are technically proficient in addressing these problems,” Eisenfield said. Bill Brown, an expert in renewable energy from Sage West Consultants is also on the forefront of educating the public about renewable energy and shared his considerable expertise to talk to EcoFlight students. Robb Hirsch, the executive director of the Climate Change Leadership Institute, is also dedicated to the education of New Mexico’s youth about these important issues and his foundation has worked on behalf of education, the environment and sustainable development.
At the end of my EcoFlight adventure, I was quite surprised to find that I felt completely at ease in the tiny plane that once slightly unnerved me. However, the purpose of EcoFlight is not to make students feel at home in a plane, but to show them the importance of their true home, the earth we all depend on. That lesson certainly hit home for me, and I will always remember that as autonomous as our lives may seem to us, they are completely dependent on the vast expanse of nature in which they are situated, and we cannot forget that.