Care for the sick. Feed the hungry. These are two responsibilities all of us have, discussed in this column the past two weeks. In my adult life we have come a long way in another task: to be better stewards of what The Book of Common Prayer calls “this fragile earth, our island home.”
I remember the end of my first Midshipman Cruise decades ago, meeting my parents at Navy Base Charleston, on the Cooper River. Navy ships back then were mostly fueled by “black oil,” a thick fuel only slightly refined from crude oil directly from the well. Burning it in a Navy boiler or in commercial electrical plant produced volumes of smoke and ash. The Navy’s standing order was to steam clean the inside of every operating smoke stack every other day, but only at night in port; otherwise our civilian neighbors might be alarmed by the amount of junk we were putting into their air. Nobody needs that publicity. Navy “heads” discharged directly over the side, into the Cooper River. The water by the Charleston Navy Piers was not pretty, and everything went downstream to Charleston Harbor. I became aware of what we were doing to our waterways and our air back then and immediately realized it wasn’t just the Navy: it was everybody. Every factory, every electrical generating plant, every municipality, every automobile did about the same thing; only the scale differed.
We have indeed come a long way. The Navy now has strict anti-pollution measures both on their smokestacks and their overboard discharges. The Charleston Navy Base is no longer, but if you visit Norfolk or San Diego or Pearl Harbor, you will be very pleased indeed at the clarity and freshness of the water and the air around all of our Navy ships. The engineering behind it all is truly amazing.
We instituted similar changes for industry, including power plants. We now require “scrubbers” in smoke stacks to reduce ash to its constituent gasses. We have nearly eliminated acid rain. Our automobiles now have greatly increased gas mileage and greatly reduced pollution. Manufacturing plants now have their discharges strictly monitored, and they are almost as clean as Navy ships. Each of these effects was the direct result of people like you and me, lobbying our government to increase the environmental regulation of American industry. And each new environmental regulation was fought hard by those same industries. Usually their argument hinged on how our economy would be stricken, how unemployment and the price of cars, or electricity, or manufactured goods would skyrocket and how many industries would perhaps even shut down. And in each case, “we” won. Correcting that pollution in every case – in every case – made our industry stronger and our island home a little better off. We are more prosperous now, in good measure as a result of the fuel efficiency and anti-pollution changes we pioneered in America. Industries overseas copied us; they, too, pollute much less now.
The latest case in point is the complicated, ongoing argument about CO2 emissions. As a teacher at the GRU College of Science and Mathematics, I know the science of climate change is spot on. As a voter and a taxpayer, I know we must call on our government to continue progress in cleaning up our planet. And as an experienced citizen, I know that the cries of economic doom and gloom are overblown. As Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.
We can do this. We must do this. Care for this fragile earth, our island home.