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Our Enduring Resource MAG
It is a cold, clear Saturday in the middle of January. The midday sun sparkles off the packed snow and grimy windshields of cars lining Main Street in Concord, New Hampshire and glances off the golden dome of the State House. Five teenagers shuffle back and forth on the curb in a feeble attempt to stay warm. There were more of them last time, but today the temperature scared off their less committed friends.
Brightly painted handmade signs are two to a person, and extras lean against the trash cans, benches and street lamps. “The Earth Is A Non-Renewable Resource,” one reads; “Insatiable Is Not Sustainable: Don’t Find More, Use Less!” “Conservation is Bipartisan. What’s Your MPG?” “We Are Slaves To Oil,” others read. Drivers slow to read them, offer a honk and muffled shout, and speed away as the light turns green. There is great consternation among the sign-holders over whether the last gesture was positive or negative.
I’ve been called “dedicated,” “insane” and even “a communist hippie” for being one of these chilled protesters. But I’m here nonetheless because I believe the world and its wilderness must be preserved - and if the people in power won’t do it, we will.
Last October, after a fantastic road trip across the United States during which I visited several beautiful national parks, I returned home to read an article about the millions of acres of Utah’s Red Rock Wilderness being opened for oil exploration. I was shocked and furious. After experiencing a sunset in Bryce Canyon National Park that turned the sandstone into a soft rainbow of colors, or standing between the smooth narrow walls of Zion National Park’s slot canyons and realizing how life still flourishes in the desert, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could look at the Western wilderness and only see the profit to be gained by tearing it to pieces with oil rigs.
Utah is not the only state in danger of losing its wilderness to oil endeavors. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska (which spans five ecological regions and the traditional homelands and subsistence areas of the Inupiaq Eskimos and the Athabascan Indians) is home to over 36 species of fish, 45 species of land and marine mammals, and 160 migratory and resident bird species. It is also home to between 3.2 billion and 7.8 billion barrels of oil (approximately a six-month supply for the U.S.).
In 1964, Congress passed the “Wilderness Act” which was meant “to assure that an increasing population ... does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States.” In it, wilderness is defined as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” a place “which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions ... affected primarily by the forces of nature.” It is not defined as a place for us to do whatever we want with, like squander for short-term profit from oil.
You may have heard this before, but it’s true that the United States has a very serious energy problem. Although we have only five percent of the world’s population, we consume nearly a quarter of the fossil fuels. Taking more than our fair share also means we’re the biggest polluters. Burning oil, coal and natural gas for energy produces carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, which leads to the depletion of the ozone layer, without which our earth would be a barren wasteland. Also produced are acid rain (which destroys ancient forests and plant life) and smog. Do we want clean air to breathe or what?
Yet we just keep consuming. We turn to our wilderness to find coal, oil and natural gas but no one seems to grasp that this isn’t a solution. Even if we didn’t care about the effects that our insatiability might have on the earth in the long run, we wouldn’t be able to find enough. If we drill for oil in ANWR, its production would peak at 1.5 million barrels per day. That may sound like a lot, but the U. S. consumed nearly 20 million barrels a day (as of 2003). Our consumption rates are increasing exponentially, so by the time ANWR oil could reach the market (in 10 years), we would be using a lot more. Obviously, finding more oil would only be postponing the inevitable by destroying our wilderness sooner. We have to develop alternative energy sources, though no one seems to agree which would be best, and it’s all expensive. But most important, we have to just use less.
But what can we do? The people in power don’t seem to be listening, and we’re only kids. Right? Wrong! I say we can do something, and if the adults aren’t going to take responsibility, it’s up to us. If they’re not listening, maybe we need to talk louder. We don’t need to tackle the whole world at once either, just instigate change in our own house before we change a nation.
Here are a few things you can do: The next time someone you know is in the market for a car, convince them to buy one that’s energy-efficient. Wouldn’t they love to have a lower gas bill? The average American household drives 31,300 miles a year. If you have a 20 m.p.g. SUV, you’re using 1,565 gallons of gas and spending $3,200 a year. A 40 m.p.g. hybrid would save you $1,600 annually. And, if all cars got 40 m.p.g. by 2012, we’d save 15 times the amount of oil predicted to be in ANWR.
Or, you can just drive less. Can you carpool with friends to that movie? Combine trips to the grocery store and library? Even better, if you live in an urban area, try not to drive at all! Take the time to walk or bike that half mile to the store. You’ll save the planet and be in great shape.
Be a conscientious consumer! Know what you’re buying, and whether you need to buy it. Try to cut down on your use of plastic (petroleum-based) products. Invest in reusable food containers instead of disposable plastic wrap. Support locally grown and manufactured goods that will cut down on the oil necessary to transport them.
And, of course: recycle and buy recycled products!
Finally, conserve electricity. Some power plants run on coal, which, aside from pollution, kills 4,000 miners every year with black lung disease. Others are powered by nuclear energy, which creates a radioactive waste we don’t yet know how to dispose of, and still others use oil. Conserving electricity not only saves money by reducing monthly bills, but will benefit you and the planet in the long run. Turn off lights when you leave a room. Turn the heat down, put on a sweater, and shut the doors to direct the heat flow into rooms people are in. Dry clothes on a line.
Don’t stop with your own home. Tell everyone to join in! Every little bit helps, and that is why I stand outside on Saturday afternoons waving signs - because I believe I can make a difference. Afterwards, I will go home and write letters to my representatives in Congress, which you can do, too. If you are a citizen of the United States, old or young, you have a voice and the right to make your opinions known. The Wilderness Act begins, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” I hereby declare it our policy to remind them of it.