The National Anachronism

Dan Rodricks

November 23, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

Curbside recycling spreads to communities throughout the country. Kids pull their parents to weekend recycling centers with loads of squashed aluminum cans, glass bottles and plastic containers. The largest fast-food chain in the world decides to stop using plastic foam packaging. The movement against the wearing furs grows. "Save The Earth," once dismissed as little more than bumper-sticker bromide, becomes the motto of a new generation of environmentally sensitive Americans.

And here, at the upper reach of the ecologically fragile Chesapeake Bay, the National Aquarium in Baltimore puts trapped dolphins and beluga whales on display in a new $35 million pavilion.

If you don't see the incongruity there, I'll lay it out for you.

Now that the threat of nuclear annihilation supposedly has dissipated with the end of the Cold War, and now that the Get-Mine Reagan days have purportedly passed, there is a new and more wholesome attitude awake in the kids of this country. They may be pessimistic about the immediate future -- polls say college students are worried they'll only be able to find jobs requiring the wearing of name tags -- but they are determined to do something about the future of the earth. They know they have no choice. It's Recycle Or Die (or, Use Roll-On Or Die).

After 20 years as the domain of earth mothers and bark-nibblers, the Green Movement seems to have spread into, and throughout, the middle class. There are at least three dynamics at play here: The coming of age of the original Save The Earth crowd; the lack of -- and need for -- a rallying point for today's high school- and college-aged Americans; and general anxiety over global warming and damage to the ozone layer.

So what do we have?

We have ordinary people stepping out of their back doors with containers full of squashed aluminum cans. We have recycling centers mobbed on Saturday mornings. We have kids giving their parents a hard time over wasteful, environmentally harmful behavior. To which we all cheer.

The Green Generation -- earth-conscious from nursery school to grave -- finally might have arrived.

In the midst of this wonderful awakening, we have the National Aquarium and its promoters. They are out to lunch. They don't have a clue.

Their facility is better called the National Anachronism.

The new Marine Mammal Pavilion, featuring captured dolphins in a huge tank of water, does not belong to the times in which we are living. It belongs to the times from which we just emerged. It belongs to the age of the Great White Hunter and P.T. Barnum.

The Marine Mammal Pavillion is another aquatic circus. Starting right after Christmas, dolphins with cute names will be performing three to six 30-minute shows daily.

Aquarium officials assure us that the public will see the dolphins performing "naturally." And all of this is being done, they say, for "educational purposes."

All of which is malarkey. There is nothing "natural" about dolphins, as gregarious as we like to think they are, performing tandem leaps in a tank for an audience of 1,500. The Marine Mammal Pavilion was not built for the noble purpose of "education." (How has a century of putting elephants in zoos "educated" the public to the benefit of elephants in the wild?)

It's easy to figure out. The new pavilion was built to punch up the Inner Harbor as a tourist attraction and to lure back to Baltimore those people who saw the National Aquarium once and had no intention of returning within the next five to 10 years (especially at the rates the aquarium charges for admission).

You don't have to be a tofu-addicted animal-rights activist to see how, as a major institution in this community, the National Aquarium fosters regressive thinking about the environment by sticking with this dolphin show. Aquarium officials, of course, think they are doing just the opposite. They think they are making kids more earth-sensitive by bringing the dolphins here.

They're wrong.

Their marketing people goofed. They didn't figure for the coming of the Green Generation.

These kids consider tanked dolphins to be totally uncool. These kids are smart, sincere about saving the earth, and determined to have a part in making it happen. They know it takes more than recycling aluminum cans, too. It takes a major change in attitude, a lifelong commitment to life on earth, and a rejection of the old ways.

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