A college in New York State that I know pretty well launched a multi-faceted campaign to “green” the campus. One part of that effort eliminated trays from the college’s cafeteria-style dining room. Besides the environmental advantage of not having to wash the trays, managers anticipated saving several tons of wasted food each year because students will have to carry their plates and cups by hand. This – according to theory – will cause diners to take smaller portions than they might otherwise do, were trays still available.
Greenies like this writer immediately saw a rich opportunity in the “trays” initiative. Why not eliminate plates to achieve further savings of both food and dishwashing-expense? We reasoned that food wastage would be reduced even more without plates. To our surprise, the suggestion was not well received. (In fact, it was rudely rejected.) One humorless fellow wondered why we were mocking a perfectly sound idea (i.e., ditching the trays). Others sniffed that we were being “as ridiculous as college boys.” (This was an unanswerable charge – probably accurate, but surely only a few degrees off from the tray-offensive.)
I couldn’t help wondering if anyone had considered food spillage. You’re bound to get some without trays. Or the amount of time potentially wasted by repeated trips through the cafeteria line to get food-items you couldn’t carry in the initial trip, because of lacking a tray. It’s possible that any savings in food and washing costs might be degraded by these disadvantages. A “cost-benefit” analysis seems unlikely, though, as this is politics, not business or science.
Ah, those “bright college days” of which Tom Lehrer sang in my wasted youth. Students are always coming up with ideas like this, and they need somewhere to try them out. I believe this is one of the reasons that college was invented. We can all be glad that students haven’t been allowed to get near serious enterprises like automobile companies or government. (Or have they?) But I digress…
Following the no-trays campaign, the same college started a more conventional green initiative. It’s a tree-planting project designed to “…balance sustainable environmental management with economic development,” as one spokesperson put it. (I respectfully decline to try to interpret that statement.) But, of course, the effort is entirely praiseworthy. Who could possibly object?
Not I, certainly – except to note that there is absolutely no reason to plant trees in the part of New York where this college is located. The college sits in one of the most wooded areas of the state – indeed of the entire country. The campus and its surrounding environs are crowded with trees. Of course, one might argue that you can never have too many trees. So where’s the harm?
The “harm,” may I suggest, is in mistaking symbolism for real action that accomplishes something worthwhile. If every student at that college planted a tree – or even 10 trees – in that part of New York, there would be no noticeable result, because there are so many trees already. Unused farmland there is already overgrown with new forest, with more springing up all the time.
The issue of trees has captured the popular imagination of both college students and politicians who want to win college students’ votes. They obsess about “saving the trees,” with no clear idea of whether trees actually need saving – at least, in this country.
I read somewhere that the USA has more forest cover than it had in 1900, and 90% as much as when Europeans landed here in the 16th century. I have no idea if that is precisely true, but you don’t have to drive very far across the country to realize that we do have a lot of forests and an awful lot of trees. Even tracts of the Great Plains – treeless when the Indians hunted buffalo there – now have trees. Pioneers planted them.
I have looked for data on how much forest cover North America had in 1600, 1700, 1800, etc. But such data are difficult to find. Perhaps it’s because the data might show how extensive our forestation still is – thus serving no “useful” purpose for obtaining government funds.
Trees are a “renewable” resource. If you cut them down, new trees grow up in their place. This doesn’t mean we should do destructive clear-cutting, as in the 19th century. But it does mean we don’t have to make schoolchildren worry about the trees. There are plenty left, and new ones are growing all the time. Scientists estimate the number of trees on earth at 3.1 trillion, and the number in the USA at 228 billion. This means nearly 10% of the world’s total are growing inside our borders.
So-called “old-growth” forests are scarce, of course, because pioneers chopped down most of them, clearing land for farming in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I’m glad we still have the redwoods and giant sequoias, for they are unique living things. There are plenty of other forests to supply that kind of wood without cutting the old growth.
This is not to say that trees are plentiful everywhere in the world. One place where uncontrolled clear-cutting has actually damaged the ecology is Haiti – the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most impoverished places in the world. Because Haiti lacks industry that could provide a decent standard of living, people are reduced to cutting down trees to make charcoal – both for their own heating and cooking, and as a commodity to sell.
Haiti needs both trees and knowledge. “Missionary trips” to Haiti to plant trees could be helpful, but such efforts would not be productive in the long run because the people lack knowledge. Poverty and self-interest would cause poor people to cut down any trees altruistic Americans might plant. Haitians need to learn why trees must be left in vital areas as protection against flooding, like that which ravaged the country when hurricanes Hanna and Ike swept through.
Haiti’s ecology has been ruined by poverty and ignorance. That ruin produces disastrous flooding, resulting in more poverty. The cycle must be broken. If students want to accomplish something real about trees, they could come to Haiti to plant trees, teach Haitians how to manage and protect their forests, and help industry to get started.
Many other places in the world – primarily in Africa – are poor beyond Americans’ imagination. They have plenty of trees, but they lack the development that could help them climb out of poverty. Development means industry, which they lack because they don’t have reliable sources of energy and electric power. Even hydroelectric dams have become unreliable because lakes like Chad and Victoria are shrinking. Electricity generated by solar and wind is simply too unreliable to power major industries.
This should be no problem, because Africa has vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Experts estimate African oil reserves at nearly a trillion barrels – enough to fuel the whole world for 100 years – and gas reserves at nearly ½ quadrillion cubic feet. With western technological assistance, Africa should be forging new industrial might and booming economically. Yet this is not happening. Why not?
The reason promises to be the greatest, most shameful scandal of the 21st century. Africa is not developing its fossil-fuel resources because western nations are blocking it – ostensibly over concerns about global warming and climate change. Radical environmentalists, flying to climate conferences in private jets and cruising in gas-guzzling SUVs, want Africa to stay primitive to “save the planet.” But many political analysts (including Yours Truly) recognize that leaders of those nations – particularly in Europe – fear the potential economic competition of a billion African people who are eager to work, produce and earn, if their continent can develop its vast resources.
Each year millions of Africans will fall sick and possibly die because they live in huts with dirt floors, huddle around smoky fires burning dried dung, and scratch subsistence from the earth with sticks. No trendy climate-activists would tolerate those conditions for five minutes, yet we expect it of Africans. I’m embarrassed that my country is part of a racist effort that puts environmental “purity” ahead of people. No matter what name the climate-crowd gives to this pile of political dung, it still stinks to high heaven.
This is one of the reasons that I get impatient about silly initiatives like cafeteria trays and planting trees in New York, while places of real need – like Haiti and Africa – get sermons about keeping the earth “natural.” If we really want to do something, let’s cut back to one car, turn off the A/C, skip the vanilla lattes, and send the savings to address real needs. Development is the answer, not the problem.