Ralph Maughan

About a month ago I wrote how the destruction of nature and the climate does not mean that all of us together – called “humanity” – is the existential threat to life on the planet. The threat is instead certain namable individuals, businesses, and modes of conduct as expressed by some religions, secular organizations, and institutions.

I wrote that an idea out of the 1970s, and expressed in the comic strip Pogo, that “we have met the enemy and it is us,” is despairing, disempowering, and just plain wrong.

The conception that we’re jointly, inherently all to blame for the toxic mess hinders efforts to save the planet. A person thinks “what can I do when humanity itself is to blame?”

Our small family has tried to protect the environment – making our home more energy efficient, recycling, refraining from pesticide use, going for organic at the grocery store, even planting milkweed to save the Monarch butterflies. Doing this kind of thing can make people feel good, even righteous – leading an environmentally ethical life.

Many people will even hail you for your ethical life, and criticize you too if, for example, bottled water should touch your lips. This is all good with me, and I could certainly be more ethical.

Ironically, one of the sources of this kind of praise for individual environmental action have been corporate polluters.

Why would corporate polluters be publicly happy about one’s personal deeds? Consider this. Back on the very first Earth Day in 1971 an outfit named Keep American Beautiful made the “Crying Indian” PSA to run on television. It ran for quite a while, and older Americans remember it well.

The ad shows people speeding down a highway through the woods and tossing their trash out the car window. The thrown trash misses a rarely used roadside trash can. Beside the highway stands a noble Indian with a tear in his eye watching America befouled. Then comes the famous message, “People start pollution; people can stop it.”

The reality was that the Indian, “Iron Eyes Cody” was no Indian. He was an Italian-American actor. The organization, Keep American Beautiful, was founded by Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, plus some nonprofits and government agencies.

What was the effect of this memorable PSA? It probably resulted in a fair number of us pointedly beginning to use trash cans. That’s good! From that time on I saw fewer people who casually threw their trash on the ground.

The campaign also managed to shift the massive problem of litter away from the corporations that made the litter (packaging) onto those ethical Americans who were willing to take their personal waste to some kind of trash disposal. Then this trash was taken somewhere, hopefully for recycling. Note: for a long time it was mostly sent to China. Obviously a huge amount ended up in the ocean anyway.

Today there are many efforts like this old PSA, and you can put a lot of personal into eating things and doing things that are good for the environment. If all or most of us did them, we would as a whole be far better off.

And it’s not all tedious effort to live an environmentally benign life in our polluted world. Take organic farming. There is pretty good research evidence that organic foods are better for you than what I’ll call the “industrial food” fare.

It’s nice to know, for example, that the organic berries at three times the price, were not raised using certain kinds of pesticide, herbicide, or inorganic fertilizer. Organic berries usually taste better too.

I feel good about eating cage free eggs and free range chicken. Seeing chickens debeaked and crammed together in tiny spaces to live out their awful lives gives me the creeps. It’s even better to come up with a substitute, something similar to the “impossible burger.” Maybe it could be called “better chiken.”

The perception that organic foods are also healthier seems to have given them a boost beyond simply being good for the environment or supportive of small scale, sustainable agriculture. There is irony here because some methods of organic agriculture are more harmful to the environment than conventional agriculture or food processing. For example, zero till agriculture. This is not regarded as organic agriculture, but it creates much less soil erosion from rainfall, melt, and wind. It als0 requires less fuel. The trouble is it uses herbicides, often glyphosate (Roundup), or worse. How bad is it?

On the balance, the growth of organic agriculture has probably been good for the environment. Switching to organic foods is not hard unless you are on a limited food budget.

Despite this example of organic foods, much of a voluntary Earth-friendly lifestyle is a personal burden. As I said a couple weeks ago, what we need is not to recycle plastic bags. We need plastic bag prohibition at places like supermarkets, and very important, an easy substitute for them to carry the shopper’s goods.

I will put aside more examples and sum it up. Most of us as individuals are not responsible for killing the Earth whether we try to live environmentally ethical lives or not.

The guilt falls on certain powerful people, specific institutions and some organizations, etc., that mold our social and economic environment so the daily living routine that is easiest for us is unnecessarily harmful to our living planet. Fighting these villains is the very best way to save our civilization and beautiful planet.

A local example . . . I was surprised to learn that some Pocatello housing developments actually prohibit homeowners from xeriscaping – they require grass lawns here in semi-arid Idaho. They also prohibit solar panels. Who is responsible for this?

Turning to individual people who are blocking efforts to ensure we have a livable Earth, there is no greater villain than the current President of the United States, Donald Trump. It is rare that one individual could rank so low; that one person can do so much damage. I remember every President since Eisenhower (1953-60). I have disliked some of them. Trump stands alone, a truly evil person.

Thinking of the future when we are rid of him, we have to decide how to prevent a reoccurrence. Is our system susceptible to this kind of danger, or is he a black swan? A black swan is a one-in-a-million, extraordinary bad occurrence that cannot be anticipated and prepared for.

Assuming he is one of these, I think had he appeared at any point in the last hundred years he might have been elected President. He doesn’t even need today’s vast electronic communications system and the Internet to spin his web of lies and become the world’s most powerful grifter. He could have done it using only the newspapers and radio available way back then.

If we want to have any chance, we need to join to work against Trump and the appointees he has put in place to blow up our government efforts to retard climate change, pollution, conservation of our resources.

Let’s think about what might be another very bad example – an odd one too -- Elon Musk, the inventor/entrepreneur, widely praised in the past, including by myself. I won’t recap his exploits with Tesla and the Boring Company, except that he seems mindless of environmental impacts even though his work in large scale batteries could be of great benefit in solar and wind power storage.

I want to focus on another Musk company, Space X, the one with the reusable rockets.

Space X is putting up Musk’s Starlink project. It would provide satellite Internet for the world. Starlink has just become news because it is under deployment right now. It will put up as many as 12,000 artificial Earth satellites. The first 60 were just orbited. You might have seen the photo of the train of satellites in the sky.

At present perhaps a total of 5000 satellites are in orbit, the product of many launches in the past for many purposes. More than half are dead. Many of them are visible at night, but few are so bright as the International Space Station.

They are a minor problem for astronomy and virtually no problem for stargazers. If a satellite passes through a telescopic photo being exposed, however, it can be ruined, and telescope time is very expensive.

The Starlink network will be mostly in low Earth orbit. In the lowest orbit at only 210 miles altitude, 7500 satellites will be deployed. This is already a very crowded part of space. Collisions are a constant worry and a major smash up could result in a runaway series of them (Kessler syndrome) making space almost inaccessible from Earth due to ever proliferating breakup of debris at speeds as great as 18,000 miles per hour.

Recall the hit (popular) movie, “Gravity,” several years back.

Starlink would almost triple the current number of satellites and for one purpose alone.

Their final number will be as great as the visible stars in the sky, and there is now a big question how bright these artificial satellites will be?

Musk at first said they would be close to invisible once they were at operational orbit altitude, but the first 60 deployed were very bright – as bright as the North Star (magnitude 2). When the sun hits them at certain angles (called a flare) they can brighten much more, and they become as bright as Jupiter or Venus.

They have dimmed a bit as they climb, but the operational altitude of most will not be very high. If they turn out to be magnitude 3 or 4, they will still be a huge distraction. Note that mag. 6 is the dimmest a person with 20/20 vision can see if they are in a dark sky location. Musk at one time said they would probably be mag. 7.

For astronomers, they will be horrible. These giant scopes can see light as dim as mag. 25. A giant telescope will have multiple bright Starlink satellite streaks through most stellar photographs.

Radio telescopes may be harmed even more. Radio frequencies of these satellites conflict with the frequencies of the objects being studied.

Musk says the conflict won’t be all that big, but regardless, his private internet is more important to the world. He also says astronomy must move off the planet anyway because telescopes can see the stars better outside the atmosphere.

In fact, observatories in space are too expensive. Scopes much larger than the famed Hubble space telescope are now built on the ground. Today computers allow the telescope mirrors to move and compensate for atmospheric motions.

Regardless of that, and here is my major point, Musk is privatizing a very scarce common resource – orbital space around the Earth. He will reap monetary rewards without payment and will pass the costs and much of the risk onto astronomic science, other space users, and the public.

On his side, there will be benefits from having the Internet available at all locations. Musk estimated it at 3% of the future Internet connections.

This is the same tragedy of commons exploited in the past by so many robber barons, and it is the exact logic of the unregulated polluter whether it be toxic waste or large amounts of greenhouse gas.

In my book, mark Musk down as another environmental villain. People who care should work to stop his plans. Unfortunately, there is not a clear organized effort to stop this, but there will be. Will people let Musk take the night sky away? I should add that Jeff Bezos has similar plan to do the same thing with his Blue Origin rockets.

The environmental villains are the enemy. You can identify most of them by the logic of their actions. The logic is to take something valuable that has no owner, like the air; or use something owned by all of us, often without permission and frequently too without compensation. The resource is used and then left damaged or consumed. The villain often gets rich.

There are other kinds of villains. Trump falls into one of the other categories, but Musk is more of the archetype.

We have met the enemy, and it is them.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is a professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with his wife Jackie Johnson Maughan. He is currently on the Western Watersheds Project Board of Directors.