After the howling wind subsided I ventured out to survey the damage. Like numerous properties throughout Iowa County the storm last June left broken branches and toppled trees. A huge branch straddled the roof; a toppled tree rested on the old hog shed. Other trees blocked the driveway and crushed fences.
Some would have looked at that mess and said, “That old guy will never get this all cleaned up!” But a chainsaw and a compact bucket-tractor are highly efficient modern tools. It’s amazing what a person can accomplish with these. Our grounds are cleared and life is back to normal.
This week, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of another type of highly efficient human endeavor – one that some would have said could never happen. In the 1870s several billion (yes, the “b” is correct) passenger pigeons flew throughout North America’s eastern woodlands. One flock in southern Ontario is described as having been 1 mile wide and 300 miles long. Its 3.5 billion birds took 14 hours to pass. Just 50 years later, on Sept. 1, 1914, Martha, the last known remaining passenger pigeon expired.
How could an entire species of this magnitude be completely wiped out? The combination of highly effective hunting and netting, the use of the telegraph to pinpoint flock movements, and the destruction of forests exhausted this seemingly inexhaustible species. Humankind can be highly efficient.
Today, some would say the earth’s atmosphere is so vast that human activity can’t possibly have any effect. But burning carbon-based fuels currently adds 10 billion (there’s that “b” again!) tons of CO2 to the atmosphere annually, trapping heat. We can’t see or smell CO2 so we don’t notice its presence. But 100s of billions of tons of anything over decades make a difference.
Some would say, “There’s nothing we can do about it anyway.” But humankind has also proved highly efficient in reversing deleterious effects on the atmosphere. In the 1980s scientists learned that the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols was creating a hole in the ozone layer, letting cancer-causing ultraviolet light become more intense. By international agreement these CFCs were slowly phased out; the ozone hole is repairing itself and shrinking.
We can make the same type of progress by phasing out fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gasses. And we must because our only home needs us to be efficient. After all, we are forever…Earthbound.