COUNT EARTH AMONG THE 2001 SURVIVORS

Burlington County Times, January 8, 2001

I recently finished reading J. C. Boyle’s book, A Friend of the Earth. The main part of the book takes place in 2025, with flashbacks to the late 60s and early 70s. It chronicles the protagonist’s metamorphosis from middle class conformist to eco-terrorist to a 75-year-old caretaker of a rag-tag menagerie of endangered species owned by a pop star (a thinly disguised Michael Jackson.) As I read the book, I interpreted Boyle’s vision of an apocalyptic ecological collapse of the bio-sphere as a metaphor for the disintegration of human relationships. After all, his book is set only 25 years into the future. There’s no way that such catastrophic changes as climate reverses, virulently mutated viruses and antibiotic resistant diseases, and wholesale extinction of common species could occur in so short a time.

Then I found out that my favorite birding spot, the Forsyth National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, had been closed because of a large die-off of Atlantic brant, a migratory bird that looks like a truncated Canada goose and winters in South Jersey. (For many birds that breed in the Canadian Arctic, we are “south.”) By the time they reopened the wildlife refuge, the number of dead birds was over 600. Even though the fatal virus is species-specific and geographically isolated, hunters have been warned not to eat any brant they kill.

And in the Marlton Lakes section of Evesham Township, Kettle Run Creek is drying up. Coincidentally – or, perhaps, not – a well in nearby Berlin went into operation shortly before the water level in the creek began to drop, further endangering the already endangered flora and fauna of the area.

And the Pinelands Commission, entrusted with overseeing the well-being of the various non-human species that call the misnamed Pine Barrens home, decided to allow the continuation of a housing development — also in Marlton Lakes — that will almost certainly spell doom to the timber rattlesnake.

And children, some from our area, were sickened by the E. coli bacterium, picked up by petting animals at a farm.

And a cranberry farmer in Woodland who illegally expanded his operations into 22 acres of wetlands is given, many feel, a slap on the wrist for his misdeeds.

And residents throughout Burlington County have been complaining about the damage being done by beavers invading residential areas. (Of course, it’s possible that the humans invaded the beavers’ habitats, but beavers don’t have access to newspapers to air their grievances.) In response to the problem, especially in the more densely settled areas of Central Jersey, the state has doubled the number of beaver-hunting licenses this year.

And we haven’t even taken a look yet at the major disruptions in weather patterns that have occurred elsewhere. In the Pacific, fish have ventured further north or south than their usual range, jeopardizing commercial fishing. In England, torrential rain storms have caused the worst flooding in 150 years. The greenhouse effect, by some estimates, is increasing. And for the first time, the hole in the ozone layer appeared over a populated area.

But before we decide that Boyle is more prophetic than imaginative, and that the earth will disintegrate in the next 1/4 century, let’s take a look at what things were like 25 years ago. In 1975, “recycling” meant riding your bike again. Mealy bugs on your house plants? Zap them with malathion. Organic vegetables were stunted, bruised, squishy, and riddled with insects. Wetlands were still called swamps and were slated to be filled in and developed, not preserved. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, and other majestic birds of prey were laying eggs with shells made paper thin by the residual effects of DDT, banned for use in the US only 10 years earlier. The smell of burning leaves was a sign that Fall had arrived. Lawns were regularly doused with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, watered daily, and mowed weekly. The grass clippings were thrown into the trash, not the compost pile. No one had ever heard of a mulching mower. There were no emissions standards for automobiles. Earth Day was only 5 years old. The Federal Environmental and Protection Agency was also only 5 years old; one of its first accomplishments was the passing of the Clean Air Act just a few weeks after the agency was established. Local developers did not have to provide environmental impact studies in order to receive their building permits. In fact, the Pinelands Preservation Act was still 4 years in the future.

Politicians ask, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” As we look around at the ecological disasters of today, we need to ask, “Is the Earth better off than it was 25 years ago?” The answer is an unambiguous “maybe.” But one thing I am sure of: the Earth will survive. It may not be in the same form we know today, but it will survive.

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