Dialogue with a Friendly Planet

April 22, 1991|By BARBARA TUFTY

WASHINGTON. — How now, planet Earth! Time to celebrate your Earth Day. Spring is flooding over the land. Warblers, veeries and thrushes are returning from South and Central America, passing through to points farther north or staking out local nesting territories. People bicycle along rivers bordered with bluebells, trout lilies and spring beauties. It's a wonderful season. Tell us, how are you feeling?

I too feel refreshed when spring never fails to arrive. Some things don't change, and I'm as punctual as ever in my astronomic orbit, tipping my north pole again toward the hot energizing sun.

But I'm not doing too well these days. I itch all over. You humans have spawned and scrambled all over me; my skin is scraped with bulldozers, gouged and flattened with housing developments, shopping centers, parking lots, highways. My public lands are overgrazed by livestock, my forests devastated by overlogging. You fill in my wetlands, clog my rivers. You pour tons of pesticides over agriculture crops each year. Thirty thousand Superfund sites and thousands more landfills drip toxic fluids into my pores and poison my groundwater. Oil tankers drop black death into the oceans . . .

No, I don't feel so good.

We're trying to help you, old rocky planet. Not long ago only a few visionaries recognized the harm we were causing you. Now millions of people are responding to the distress signals of your rivers and land.

Realizing a problem is half the solution, my two-legged mental species, but I need stronger medicine than awareness. I need physical as well as moral and spiritual help. Look at my once-pure rivers that sparkled under the sun, renewing themselves for eons in the great hydrological cycle that circulates water raining from the clouds, running by gravity from mountains to the sea, and rising again as evaporation into the clouds. Could your geniuses or high-tech computers devise such a vital, life-sustaining system? Now the waterways are murky and somber as industrial wastes and municipal landfills, sewage from cities and runoff from farms, streets and parking lots leak into the streams and rivers that flow to the sea.

And my atmosphere! My air, once fragrant as the spring morning, smells awful. City children and old people cough and die. Coal-burning electric companies pump some 50 million tons of sulfur and nitrogen oxides into North American skies. Trash incinerators, dry-cleaning shops, hair sprays and your countless cars -- all spew fumes to the air that eat away the ozone layer protecting your own species from harmful ultraviolet rays. Your scientists have been talking about acid rain for decades, yet your administration protects Midwestern smoke stacks that cause it.

We're working on these problems. Just last year we passed the Clean Air Act, toughening the fuels on toxic gas emissions and providing for development of alternative fuels. We did some other good things for you. Congress placed a million acres of Alaska's Tongass National Forest off limits to logging, and barred U.S. companies from exploiting Antarctic minerals. The Environmental Protection Agency got a 19 percent budget increase; the Coastal Barrier Resource System now protects twice as many fragile coastal islands as last year. To prevent oil spills, we passed a new law that requires double hulls on oil tankers.

Band-Aids! You're patching me up without getting to the source of my problems. Your car industries need to produce vehicles that run 50 to 70 miles on a gallon of gas; EPA is still grossly ## understaffed; you are continually dependent on non-renewable fossil fuel for energy. What about solar energy? Wind energy?

It's been hard convincing our administration, politicians and industrialists to put a priority on the environment.

I know. I try not to complain -- actually, how can I? Do my dwindling numbers of warblers jar your ears with distressing cries? They continue to sing as if they don't know they may be becoming extinct. And what about my forests, my woodlands, my urban trees? Who hears their crash over the sound of screeching chain saws and burning brush? Do dolphins weep? You can't tell, for they still wear a smile on their faces. My reptiles just melt away without a sound.

No, my growing distress makes no noise, my creatures voice no despair, my mountains and valleys remain silent. I have to count on you, my two-legged creatures who are causing my malaise, to assess my dwindling vitality -- and help me!

Citizens and environmental organizations are networking more than ever, pooling resources to define causes of pollution and pushing on federal and state laws to halt industrial, city, private polluters . . .

All that helps. But my temperature is still rising, my summers slowly getting warmer, my winters milder. The oceans have yet to feel an increase, they are so vast.

The National Academy of Sciences recently issued a report defining the crisis of your global warming and saying its time to do something . . .

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