Environmental science is a real buzz-kill. I never expected it to be all bird calls and daisies, or pictures of ponies, but in my high school class, we regularly sat through hour-long lectures that kicked off with informed statistics about getting fried alive by UV rays in the year 2028, we rang in the half hour with accounts of the disappearing tropical rain forest, and we’d come to a dramatic close with slide shots of Alaskan seal pups submerged in a bath of oil from a recent spill, their eyes weighed shut by the syrupy petroleum. It was a little much, before breakfast.
The problem wasn’t that it was melodramatic; if it waxed sensational, it did so deservedly. It wasn’t even that it was overly apocalyptic; it was based on sound scientific data. The problem was that the material was presented in such a way that left most listeners with only one realistic reaction: a sort of numbness to the sheer abstraction and so-called inevitability of it all.
Rather than becoming angry or scared at what we heard – both valid and appropriate responses – we were steered in a different direction by the tag-on which accompanies such material with perverse frequency: “And there’s nothing you can do about it.” Bemoan it, they told us, but accept it, because this is the bed we’ve made.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, conservation has become voguish. Air conditioning units in the White House are being shut down. Computers are being turned off at the end of the day. There’s talk of bike racks and carpools. President Bush stood outside the Department of Energy a few weeks ago and told Americans that if they could avoid going on “a trip that’s not essential, that would be helpful.” It appears that the most Earth-unfriendly of administrations is turning a green leaf.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time in recent days, (I will leave out the exact numerical figure), on a new website, www.energyhog.org. This website is home to Energy Hog, the half-hog, half-human face of Bush’s new conservation plan. The website features profiles of the various hogs (Mork Pork is “one nasteeeee oinker”; Hal Hogg eats broken-down appliances), training games (complete all 5 and you can become an Official Hog Buster), and a scavenger hunt.
Part of the lure is probably the games; like most Americans, I enjoy a good, free computer game. But this is mixed with is a sort of disbelief: are they serious? Is this the public face of the Bush Administration’s “conservation” efforts?
Lest we delude ourselves yet again (WMD’s, anyone?), we must understand that nothing’s changed: Bush’s policies are still entirely dominated by the price of oil. This new push for conservation is just Bush’s fixation in a hemp outfit, one more attempt to bring down the price per gallon. As Bush cuts down on unnecessary travel with his 52nd helicopter trip to the Gulf to survey the damage, EPA regulations are being waived, protected areas are being proposed for drilling, and environmental standards are being loosened in the name of “post-Katrina recovery,” the idea that this is just a “temporary disruption” in American oil flow.
Conservation and America could be such a beautiful couple. If the government was willing to stand up boldly in the face of industry and give the American people direction, tell them that protecting the environment is important, that it is our responsibility, that things will not just keep being okay because they’ve always been okay, then we could really get somewhere. Unfortunately, being told to ride your bike to work if it’s not too much of a hassle – at least until gas prices drop again – does not send this message. It sends an altogether different one: let’s all work together to get exactly where we were before.
I’m not willing to relinquish the idea that environmental science doesn’t have to be a buzz-kill – it can be a motivating force that changes society. But like so many other things, the pressure from the top to initiate this change will probably have to wait three more long years.