Is the Earth Invisible?
Look out your apartment/house window, a car window, or even the window at the top of the Sears Tower and what do you see? You see components of our planet, i.e., clouds, paved streets, buildings, patches of grass, rows of corn or soy beans, and business districts as well as temperate forests. And while what you do see is material and simultaneously simple and complex, it still represents a very limited picture of our planet. Unfortunately, there is strong reason to believe that what we dont see warrants our immediate and concerted attention.
Paradoxically, the planet that we inhabit is largely invisible to us. In fact, some of the most important parts of the Earththe ones that allow us (and others) to live and breathe on this finite planetare nearly invisible. Over the past several hundred years, scientific research and technological development has done wonders to enable us to "see" the materials, forces, and patterns that occupy and govern the Earth. Yet, despite all of these new tools (including telescopes, microscopes, and endoscopes), most of us still are not able to see the essential elements that constitute our surroundings. And since it is these components that sustain us, if we dont start "seeing" them soon we are unlikely to consider what may be happening to them as a result of current ways of life. And as long as we are not properly considering the ramifications of what we are doing, the odds are extremely small that we will manage to modify or redirect our paths in time to protect ourselves and life as we know it.
What exactly dont we see? The invisible elements are almost too numerous to mention in a paragraph, but here goes a futile attempt to cover many of them. The gases that make our planet warm enough for habitation are largely invisible. Even water vapor, the main constituent driving the greenhouse effect, is invisible, but whose existence can be inferred when it condenses as one exhales on a wintry day. The chemicalssuch as dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, arsenic, DDT, and leadthat we litter our soils, atmosphere, and waterways with are also nearly invisible, especially at the concentrations that we, the users and consumers, are told are "acceptable." Microscopic particles that enter our noses and lungssuch as pollen, mold, paint, benzene, formaldehyde, pesticides, solvents, and asbestosare also rarely seen. The poverty that consumes the developing worldwhere nearly half of the worlds people live on less than $2 a daypresents only fleeting shadows on our everyday lives. Similarly, the gargantuan wealth of an extremely small fraction of our species (concentrated amongst the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and multinational corporations like Exxon and Wal-Mart) may get headlines more often in our consumeristic society but the sheer extremity of their wealth is still not explicitly observed by most of us in terms of its associated opulence and extravagance. (In other words, we can theoretically drive in Beverly Hills, but most of us never see what is behind the gates.) The momentum and consumption of the more than six billion humans that are alive today cannot be understood without the aid of a computer model and graphing software, but a mere graph doesnt let us see the physical abundance of our collective takings or the waste stream that results. Although, many more invisibles exist, these are the few that draw immediate attention because their impacts are so relevant.
A mere fraction of the Earths atmosphere provides us warmth necessary for survival. The trace gassesincluding water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozoneall together make up less than 1% of the atmosphere (exceptional situations aside). However, it is these gases, not the more abundant ones (i.e., oxygen and nitrogen), which produce the greenhouse effect that keeps the bulk of the Earths radiation from escaping to space. The invisible infrared radiation that leaves the surface of the Earth collides with molecules of these gases and the resulting absorption traps the energy in the Earths atmosphere, rather than letting it escape to space. On average, this extra heat makes near-surface temperature nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. Since we cannot see the gases nor the light being absorbed by them (it is infrared and can be "seen" by rattlesnakes but not humans), we were oblivious to this important characteristic of our atmosphere until the end of the 19th Century. And it wasnt until the latter stages of the 20th Century that we decided to take seriously the ramifications of an enhancement to the natural greenhouse effect via the vast quantities of emissions (from vehicles, factories, and other activities requiring the combustion of fossil fuels). Among a broad set of anticipated impacts, the one most advertised is a continued warming of the planet over the course of this century to levels not observed for thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years. Other byproducts of future warmingsuch as, glacial melting, ocean thermal swelling, sea-level rise, and the spread of tropical diseasesmay be more tangible but no more easily measured or observed. The fact that we cannot see these important interactions, except through remote sensors and complex models, makes it difficult for the everyday person to give much consideration to them. One day the "signs" of climate change will likely be so overwhelming that we will not be able to ignore them, but if and when that day comes (and some say this past summer in Europe represents clear and present danger), we might not be able to steer our ship away from the proverbial iceberg fast enough to avert disaster. As for now, we are told by our last several administrations that to do something now would be too damaging to our economy. But, is it really "the economy (stupid)" that is the deciding factor?
Look at a peach or a strawberry, and what do you see? Probably you see a delectable fruit whose sweetness and flavor produce good thoughts and feelings. Yet, for generations starting with my parents, one must look under a microscope to see something also revealing about these fruits. They are among the most heavily pesticide-laden fruits in the world. Why is this so? In the 1940s the chemical industry began to realize that it could synthesize and mass produce chemicals to promote and accelerate agricultural and industrial production on a global scaleperhaps driven by profits as well as a sense of obligation to humanity. Since many of the chemicals first produced during this era were developed within a wartime atmosphere, they were not properly or adequately testeda tradition that continues to this day to a great extent. Once the war ended in the battlefields, according to Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, a new war commenced with the deliberate "seek, strike, and destroy" mindset that called on hordes of synthetic chemicals to attack the "pests" of our world. Currently more than 1,000,000,000 pounds (yep, that is 1 billion, folks) of pesticides are applied to U.S. crops each year (that is over three pounds per citizen) and four times this amount is applied in other countries (Chiras). Things have obviously changed dramatically in the past sixty years. One wonders how people produced food in sufficient quantities in earlier times.
Despite all the pesticides that are found on our fruits and vegetables (consider that even washed peaches and strawberries have been found to contain residues of over thirty pesticides), these chemicals are largely invisible to the naked eye (EWG). Thus, we buy and consume fruits and vegetables from the grocers visibly unaware of such contamination. And even those aware of such things arent going to benefit greatly from washing their produce because many pesticides are made to resist water (such chemicals are described as hydrophobic) because otherwise they would be ineffective every time a storm were to pass over a farm. Even those that choose to pay more for organic foods also must accept on faith that such produce is better and worth the extra expense because they cannot "see" the difference. Further, even if one wanted to be informed about the impacts of consuming the chemicals that are found on ones food, it would be very difficult to do so for many reasons. First, very few of the chemicals being used have been adequately tested for human health effects. Second, of the tests that are done, nearly all consider chemicals in isolation of one another; it is very difficult for scientists to do studies on mixtures and their multiplicative effects. Third, toxicological tests focus on end products (such as cancer) rather than on intermediate results (such as immune suppression) which can also be very disruptive to health and well-being. In the end, we are left to conclude that the peach and the strawberry in the grocery are much more than they seem.
Each one of use breathes a few times a minute. It isnt something we have to think about doing because, fortunately, our bodies are wired to maintain a steady pace of breathing through the course of our lives. Yet in every breathe we inhale we take in all that there is to be found in the gaseous ocean we call the atmosphere. Most people will not drink water from our lakes and streams any more. Why? Well, they know that these waterways are severely polluted because they have been used as dumping grounds and waste repositories for the industrial sector over the past few centuries. However, the same logic doesnt follow when it comes to our atmosphere. We dont need to drink surface water anymore because we have the ability to cleanse our waters prior to consumption. Unfortunately, we dont have the same luxury when it comes to the air that we breathe. Concerning indoor air, people do have the ability to spend funds on advanced particle removing devices and filters, but rarely is this done because of prohibitive costs and limited visibility of the issue of indoor air pollution. Concerning outdoor air, we live in a giant soup that contains emissions from local as well as distant sources. At this point is it very uncommon to guard oneself against noxious materials in the atmosphere, unless you live in one of the highly polluted cities of the world, such as Bangkok, Thailand or Mexico City and you have access to expensive and sophisticated equipment. Thus, we all are resigned to breathe the air that is available to us. The fact that we cannot see most of the hazardous airborne materials, the vast majority of us maintain our daily rituals without hesitation or complaint.
Very few of us have witnessed the abject poverty that consumes much of our species. It is nearly impossible to understand what it must feel like to live day to day, not knowing if or when your next meal will come, or when your malnourished bodies will succumb to opportunistic microbes. Certainly, poverty can be observed in the United States, but it rarely takes the extreme form that is found in many developing countries of the world. Given how difficult it is to fathom the severity of the worlds poverty problem, it is nearly impossible for most of us to use it as a motivating force in our own lives. If we lived next door to a starving or severely malnourished person, we would undoubtedly share our food with them. We would understand their plight and we would try to help them; it is human instinct to reach out and help others. But since the mouths overseas are outside of our bubble, we summarily dismiss their existence and go on our merry way. Unfortunately, even the technological gadgets that have come to our disposal recentlysuch as the cell phone, the pager, the Internetstill do not provide a means to communicate with the desperately poor, at least not yet. As long as we dont talk to or see these impoverished people as part of our species, equal in every way to us, we will continue to look past them.
In a similar vein, the extreme wealth that exists among our top corporate executives, entertainers, and athletes is similarly beyond our sight and comprehension. In order to understand this fact, consider what you could do with 10 million dollars. How big a house could you buy? How expensive a watch could you purchase? How big a diamond could you obtain? How big a college could you own? These questions are difficult for us to answer precisely because most of us have never had handle such sums of money. Further, while $10,000,000 seems like a lot of moola, this large sum has the same relative value to someone who makes $20,000,000,000 a year (such as Bill Gates did a few years ago) as does a $20 bill has to most of us. Hence, unimaginable, a few people in our world (there are about 200 billionaires in the world today) could blow $10 million on a house, car, watch, and college, as we might do on a dinner and a movie next Saturday night. Since we dont see these levels of wealth, we are not prepared to say "enough is enough." (Speaking of enough, five members of the Wal-Mart Walton family are each worth over 20 billion dollars.) Since enough isnt enough, we allow disparities of wealth to increase without hesitation.
In the end, the cliché, "out of sight out of mind," holds important insights as it relates to the critical elements in our environment. Since we cannot perceive the role that greenhouse play, we continue to add them to the atmosphere. Since we cannot see the vast majority of dangerous chemicals that are released daily into our soils, atmospheres, rivers and oceans, we continue to tolerate them and the majority of the polluters that expose them to us. Since we cannot see indoor pollution, we continue to construct buildings with ever increasing synthetic chemicals and reduced air circulation. Since we cannot see extreme poverty or extreme wealth, we ignore both, despite their negative consequences. The funny thing is: we can see all of these things if we made the effort to do so, but do we really want to?
Chiras. (2001) Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future. (6th ed.) Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
EWG. Environmental Working Group. (www.ewg.org) Pesticides in Produce. (www.foodnews.org/reportcard.php).
Peter Schwartzman, a resident of Galesburg, is chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Knox College. He is a research climatologist with peer-reviewed publications in the area of climate change and human population growth and he is currently writing two books focused on bringing environmental understanding to a wider audience.