Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Waiter, there's a poop on my plate

I'm an environmentalist. Of course according to polls all Americans consider themselves environmental. But I actually got paid for it, so, ha, I win.

But in truth mine is actually not just professional but an actual "ism". That is, I have a belief concerning the environment, and its complex dogma can be summed up thusly: don't poop where you eat. But environmentalists get really worked up about the violation of that apparently head-smackingly simple dictum because, well who would disagree with it? And in principle, of course, nobody would. But life trumps principle, so they forget that when we do violate it (and we all do), either the situation generally warranted it (e.g. if I poop elsewhere right now a bear will eat me), or, more commonly, we didn't see the plate there when we sat down.

But as with all dogmas the poop is just a distillation of real life to make us understand a concept without its complications, to make it, umm, easier to digest, so to speak. I mean, Thou Shalt Not Kill, seems pretty simple, no? So if God can forgive us for continually missing the number one "Things Thou Shalt Not" perhaps we can forgive each other and then start going about discovering why there's so much poop on our plates.

The simplest case in point, from an environmental perspective, is water. Watch out where the greyhounds go, and don't you eat that yellow snow. Got that one; I can see yellow snow, I know what gives it that yellow color, and I probably don't need a rhyme to keep me in line. But why, then, does the most fundamentally important resource to human existence continually get pooped in?

Well, yellow snow, got it. But, pure water from the sky? No problem; open up your mouth to a thunderstorm and drink in the cool, fresh...acid rain. The point is, disconnect the cause from the consequence, and you will find that you either can't tell there's poop on your plate or you believe it's a decent trade for something else (e.g. not being eaten by a bear).

And so goes life here in Cuenca, whose official name, worth noting now, is Santa Ana de los cuatro Rios (the four rivers) de Cuenca. As with most cities, rivers (water) were the reason that anybody planted their flag (and corn) here to begin with. Cajas National Park, just above the city, is not a park because they thought nature should be preserved--it is because it's the source of fresh water for Cuenca and parts downstream.

So why do the rivers look like this?

Honestly what you see is generally more visual blight than environmental blight; textiles don't cause much in the way of ecosystem or resource damage. But what you do see there implies damage that you don't see, but will probably see in a scene like this one.

Now I happen to think brightly dressed ladies washing clothes in the river is a beautiful scene, or at least it was fifty years and more ago when the scene probably looked identical except for the detergent or soap that was used. Nowadays the cheapest, easiest thing for these folks to wash with in the river (or out of it) is phosphate-based detergents (banned in many parts of the U.S. for detrimental effects on watershed ecosystems and therefore on human habitats). So as happens with many environmental problems, the behavior remains precisely the same, but a material part of the process is changed that causes no immediately apparent problems. And thus the consequence is disconnected from the cause, and after a time everyone asks, "Who pooped on my plate?" (the title of my new book, I think).

And the answer is, we all did (individuals, companies, governments, etc.), but we didn't know it. I mean, c'mon, who would knowingly eat where they poop? Still, this is a small little example of how we all end up eating there anyway and why blame isn't going to get the poop off the plate and why we all should suffer the pain of fixing it, even environmentalists who think they didn't do it, and Right Wingers who think God gave them the right to poop and too bad your plate happened to be there when they did.

The sad thing is that it's the people on the side of the river who usually get hit the hardest. In the States, removing phosphates from our detergents meant we got spots on our glasses and companies lost money. Here it means that a subsistence existence is challenged because they would no longer have access to a time-saving or low-cost tool.

Solution? Tell a politician there's poop on your plate. That's worked pretty well for us so far.

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