Environmental Ignorance is Bliss

Written by John Frederick. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Ignorance is bliss.

Poet Thomas Gray’s famous quote is often taken out of context.  Gray wondered in his 18th century poem if learning more might actually complicate his life.  Not knowing about something, he speculated, might be better than understanding a problem and worrying about it.   

Today, it usually implies that ignorance leads us to overlook problems that we might otherwise be able to address.  This holds true for all sorts of social, health political and even environmental issues.  With this in mind, let’s look at a few of the environmental problems many have selectively ignored.

Global Warming Denial - Whether caused by man’s activities or not, the impacts of global warming appear to be serious.  But since they do not affect us directly and right now, many Americans conclude we shouldn’t worry.  Most notable among the effects of warming, sea level has risen eight inches since 1870 and is projected to rise more than two feet on the east coast of the United States by 2100. (Many readers’ grandchildren will likely still be alive and have to deal with these and other consequences.)

Toxic Chemical Use – Though recognition of the health and ecological impacts of toxic chemical use has risen, many still downplay or ignore the dangers of exposure to industrial chemicals, pesticides and other toxins.  Though there are no reliable statistics to confirm it, it would seem that many homeowners apply pesticides improperly (most notably spraying near food, dishes and eating utensils) and apply weed killers with no protective clothing, eye or respiratory protection.  (As testimony to this I have seen four people this summer alone spraying weed killers in short sleeves, with no gloves or eye protection.)

Litter and Dumping – When litterers throw something out the window or dumpers pitch a bag into the woods, they think they are throwing it “away.”  But one person’s “away” is someone else’s “here.”  The increase in plastic packaging and decrease in returnable beverage containers has made this problem worse.  This is particularly problematic since the plastic floats and keeps on running downstream, the non-biodegradable flotsam often ending up in the ocean.

Apathy for Recycling – Often complaining that it is too much work, recycling critics forget that landfills are not the sort of thing that most want in their backyard.  Even when well-managed, they stink (literally and figuratively) and gobble up land that is rendered worthless for most future uses over the long term.  It should come as no surprise that recycling programs are much more popular and successful in places where the undesirable characteristics of landfills are better understood or the long term preservation of the land is a concern.

Short-sighted Land Use Decisions – It’s not just a landfill that can be forever.  We forget that many of our land use decisions have very long-term implications.  Besides the aesthetic and scenic considerations of developing green space, there are air and water quality issues to consider.  Trees and wetlands provide natural air and water pollution protection.  Agricultural land preservation is just as important.  Farmers often joke that a housing development is the last crop that will ever be planted on a field. 

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