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A bit of wisdom

March 4, 2009

A few months ago a book by a local author caught my eye when I was at a book store, so I decided to take note of it and see if the library had it.  They did, so for the past few weeks I’ve been reading it.  The book is called The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis.  The last few pages contain a bit of brilliance that I thought I’d post.

The poet Robert Hass and I once discussed the subject as we drove along the north short of Lake Michigan.  Hass is a former poet laureate of the United States and a professor at the University of California at Berkley.  He’s a brilliant poet and a very smart man, and I value his opinion.  I asked him what he thought about drilling for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes.  He said he thought it made sense.  It made sense to reduce our dependence on foreign sources.  It made sense to tap resources that are just sitting in the ground.  It made sense to utilize available technology and put trained crews to work.

But something can make sense,” he said, “and still be wrong. If history has taught us anything, it’s that there is never a shortage of practical, hard-headed people making one wrong decision after another because it makes sense.”

Left to do what they want, people have always demonstrated an amazing capacity for making poor decisions.  All the oil and natural gas beneath the lakes could probably run our automobiles and heat our  houses for a few weeks or months.  Its withdrawal could ease our dependence on foreign oil for a time and would earn a great deal of money for a few people.  And in all probability, no harm would be done.  If no pipelines rupture, if no wellheads burst or fires erupt or careless workers turn valves the wrong way or oil-filled ships run aground on rocks or trains run off their tracks, then history will judge the effort to be of slight importance and forget it.  But if something goes wrong, future generations will condemn us.  We’ll be no better than those who decimated the herds of bison and leveled the old-growth forests and dumped poisons into the rivers and lakes.  We’ll be another generation of exploiters who cared only for their own gain.

The time is long overdue to start using better judgment.  With issues like petroleum extraction and water diversion, all we have to do is balance possible gains against possible losses.  Tally the ledger sheets—then make the decisions that will make sense a hundred years from now.

[ . . . ]

One of the consequences of the degradation of the environment is a vague but undeniable cultural despair.  Not only are we ourselves temporary, but so is the planet we live on.  But if there was one lesson learned in the environmental awakenings of the 1960s and 1970s, it was that we have a voice in how we alter the planet.  We shaped a better future for the Great Lakes when we became outraged at presumptions of ownership.  The lakes, like the oceans, are owned by no one and by everyone.  They are among the few places left where we can go to be utterly adrift and free.  They are town squares, and nobody has the right to foul them or sell them.  When a few try to profit from what belongs to all, it is morally and legally wrong, and we have every reason to be angry.  This is the water we drink—how dare they dump poisons in it?  This is where we go to refresh ourselves—by what right would they pipe it to the desert golf courses?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2013 5:47 am

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  2. February 18, 2013 8:19 am

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