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Climate change and reality

Seeing pictures and reading the report of some many young people assembled in Saranac Lake to voice their concerns about the destruction of our environment was both heartwarming and nostalgic to me. Back in 1963, the late Geraldine Dodge enlisted me as one of her “child warriors” to help save the Great Swamp in New Jersey from becoming a Port Authority jetport. Within a few years I was spending Saturday mornings at the local Acme supermarket, handing out literature and collecting signatures on a petition to force National Gypsum to help clean up the Passaic River, which flowed out of the Great Swamp. Encouraged by some early successes, I soon found myself attending protests and writing letters along with the rest of the gang.

Many people today have no real idea how polluted America was in the 1950s and ’60s. A yellowish-brown haze would lie over the whole New York City metropolitan area for days at a time. Many rivers were so polluted that even insects couldn’t live in them, and some were even flammable. Chemicals leached into groundwater. DDT use extirpated the bald eagle and the osprey from much of the Northeast. Dioxin seeped and PCBs were dumped into our waterways, as was chromium from tanneries. Farmers loaded their fields with inorganic fertilizers and never even considered the need for riparian protection from run-off. America was a mess, and we were terrible housekeepers. Eventually the EPA came into existence, we got the Clean Air Act, and at least some people awoke to the need be good stewards of the Earth. Environmental disasters such as Love Canal helped that awakening.

The prophets spoke, and the writers wrote. I soaked in as much “environmentalism” is I could absorb. After high school, I migrated to the remnants of a commune in rural Maine and found myself surrounded by like-minded folks who shared books, music and thoughts on how finite our “Spaceship Earth” is, and the need to practice real, sustainable stewardship of our resources. The ecosystem of this ball we call home is a wonderful, interconnected tapestry, finely woven together. The Earth has a marvelous capacity to meet our needs, and to rejuvenate itself, but our careless greed has caused long-lasting results.

Over time, feeding a family took precedent over protesting nuclear reactors, and I began realizing that, in many cases, the youthful energy of young “environmentalists” was simply a tool in the hands of the very rich and very powerful to keep their own backyards clean and safe. Naturally, this produced some disillusionment, but it also helped to bring the whole picture into sharper focus. In addressing any environmental problem, we must do two things. First of all, we must look at the whole picture. That isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. It takes deliberate discipline to carefully consider all sides of any issue. Example: What have we actually accomplished if we get the Irving Tannery in Heartland, Maine, to shut down and cease dumping chromium in the Penobscot River, if they just move their operation over to China to avoid regulations, and that same chromium is now found in the fish we import from the South China Sea? Three or four hundred jobs may have moved from central Maine to central China. We still demand leather goods. Investors still get their dividends.

Secondly, we must act locally in ways that are consistent with our global aspirations. Reducing our own personal demand on limited resources takes thought and research. It’s all well and good to rally for a day, demanding that national leaders do something about climate change. It looks good in the newspaper, and on TV, and everyone goes home with a touch of the warm fuzzy feeling. How about planning your car trips to include others? Not just to a protest, but every day. Studying environmentally friendly home and office design? Pressuring local authorities to encourage eating locally grown produce in schools and prisons? Gardens instead of lawns? Working toward a comprehensive mass transit system for the Adirondacks?

It may come as a surprise to young environmentalists, but some of the very politicians who figured prominently in the local Climate Strike are actively engaged in getting the infrastructure of the “greenest form of land transportation” permanently removed from the northern Adirondacks. The rest of the world is busy laying railroad tracks to provide low-carbon-footprint transportation. Nationwide, passenger rail use has increased 80% of the past 20 years. This trend is seen, not only in urban and suburban areas, but in rural territory. Vermont, a leader in all things “green,” has invested millions of dollars in restoring passenger rail service. We should be demanding the same of leaders here in the Adirondacks. Research the subject.

If the rails between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake are removed, they will be gone forever. Once the right of way is extinguished, it will be financially impossible to secure future easements to ever reconnect the northern Adirondacks with the nation’s rail system. Future generations will marvel at our short-sightedness.

I’m not writing this to discourage young activists from demanding dialogue and change — far from it. Engage. Knowledge is power. We all need to seriously educate ourselves, research, read, experiment and, most of all, listen. Get the big picture, and don’t let the details fall through the cracks. And then act, with a willingness to always be open for how to improve, and a humbleness that can recognize when we’ve gotten it wrong. Do that, and you’ll be light years ahead of the politicians.

Keith Gorgas lives in Saranac Lake.