Environmental Disaster Roars Ever Closer
Sitting in the middle of a dark, rural highway years ago in a little car with no lights, I experienced an epiphany about the importance of always looking down the road. Although it is fully anchored to a memory from the past, that same epiphany roared to life again for me recently.
A friend of mine who was just learning to drive had invited me to take a ride in his dad’s 1964 Chevy Corvair, a two-door coupe with a rear-mounted engine and a tendency to stall. The car was old even then and painted black where the rust hadn’t eaten away the shine. Still, the car had wheels and classified as “transportation,” so we were having a good time zooming around on back roads long after the sun had set.
That tendency to stall was an annoyance several times that evening, but not nearly as much as when my friend decided it was time to head for home and attempted a U-turn in the middle of an ill-lit,two-lane highway. We had swung wide so that when the engine died we were smack dab in the middle of both lanes. All attempts to revive the engine proved fruitless.
“There’s a truck coming,” I said from the passenger seat, pointing at a pair of bright lights approaching from the distant horizon. This was back in the day when C. W. McCall’s Convoy was playing on the radio and Smokey and the Bandit was playing at the local drive-in theater. (For younger folks with questions about radios and drive-in theaters, simply Google “ancient forms of entertainment.”)
So with an abundant supply of 18-wheeler-inspired icons in my head, I surmised that it was a loaded tractor-trailer coming our way, judging from the roar of the motor and the brightness of the headlights growing larger every moment.
“There’s a truck coming,” I repeated as my friend seemed more preoccupied with why the engine wouldn’t start.
“There’s a big truck coming,” I said, adding a modifier to emphasize our imminent peril.
My friend still didn’t reply, so I shouted: “There’s a really big truck coming and I’m pretty sure he can’t see us!” At that moment, I told my friend to put the Corvair in neutral as I leapt from my seat. I grabbed the rear bumper and threw my shoulder against the trunk, pushing as hard as I could. The little car wouldn’t budge.
“The brake! The brake!” I bellowed. At last we rolled out of the path of the oncoming truck. Right into a ditch on the far side of the road.
For decades after that event, I have looked at the approaching environmental disaster with much of the same trepidation that I viewed that oncoming tractor-trailer. I wasn’t sure how fast it was going to get here or exactly what form it would take, but I was pretty sure the day would come – likely in my lifetime – when a global environmental nightmare would arrive. I also expected humanity would collectively do something to the planet to endanger our continued existence, even though we saw it coming.
Whether it’s the threat of global warming or the poisoning of our land, water and air with electronic waste, the 18-wheeler hauling disaster is clearly in view today. It’s no longer a distant buzz down the highway, but a dreadful roar growing louder.
I recently read a book titled The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, written by Michael White, that I found in the “new books” section of my local library, although the book was published late last year. The book is a chronicle of the top 100 worst atrocities in human history, ranging from the Persian wars in which Alexander the Great sought to conquer the world, resulting in the death of 750,000 people, to the rule of Peter the Great, whose quest to drag Russia into the modern era reduced the population by 3 million people, to the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, with its death toll of 700,000.
Numerous other atrocities such as the Roman Slave Wars (1 million dead) in 134 BCE, the Goguryea-Sui Wars (600,000 dead) in 598, the Seven Years War (1.5 million dead) in 1756, the American Civil War (695,000 dead) in 1861 and the Biafran War (1 million dead) in 1966, are analyzed in great detail. Most importantly, the book also makes many strong points about how poorly humanity prepares for impending disaster, even when we have plenty of warning.
When researching this blog, I was pleased to see ABC News had recently examined the same book from an environmental viewpoint. According to the article posted last month on the ABC News website, the book “reminds us that humanity has often and recently failed to prevent collective calamity, even when many people can see it coming and try to warn everyone.” It further elaborates: “just because we see an immense and possibly preventable cataclysm approaching, it’s important to realize that it doesn’t mean we’ll prevent it.”
The article cited World War II as the worst atrocity in human existence (so far,) because more than 66 million people died as a result of an all-encompassing global conflict. But now we are facing a rapidly approaching environmental catastrophe that threatens to kill far more people than all of deadliest atrocities listed in White’s book combined, the article explained. “Estimates heard in private conversations with scientists and economists reach even into the billions of people who could perish well within this century if the warming is not somehow controlled,” the article stated.
The e-waste crisis is but one part of a larger catastrophe-in-the-making, and yet it may be one area where we can make a difference today. If more companies strive to properly recycle or refurbish their IT assets and legislators give serious attention to banning improper e-waste disposal, positive change can take place that might buy this planet a little more time.
The trick is to take immediate action. And be mindful of the ditch on the other side of the road.