BY JERRY STERNBERG
In social discussions about “climate change,” I often hear people say that the world has had catastrophic weather events for thousands of years. They view weather scientists as pointy-headed, liberal, socialist ideologues.
These people resent what former Vice President Al Gore called “an inconvenient truth”: that our climate is headed for disaster if we don’t make costly, annoying, unpleasant and, yes, very inconvenient changes in our lifestyle.
When we read about wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, droughts and massive crop failures, we mostly think of them as happening someplace else. Those of us who are over 50 often find it hard to justify making sacrifices in our lifestyle just to stave off some nebulous concept.
I grew up in the King Coal era, the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Coal-powered trains delivered endless loads of this highly prized fuel to run the steam engines that produced jobs in local industries such as the Asheville Cotton Mill, Sayles Biltmore Bleachery and Beacon Manufacturing. In addition, a high percentage of local homes heated and cooked with coal.
It wasn’t just coal smoke that American Enka and Champion Paper spewed from their stacks, though: Huge amounts of noxious fumes blanketed the whole valley with a deep layer of ill-smelling, yellowish smoke that filled residents’ nostrils. Pointy-headed scientists pointed out that this venomous witches’ brew was not only unpleasant but toxic, leaving countless people vulnerable to respiratory and other diseases. Politicians and industry leaders, however, convinced the public that this smoke “smelled like money.”
Everything was gray, and soot was everywhere. The paint on both commercial buildings and private homes had a much shorter life. It seems counterintuitive that, in the midst of this, our local sanitariums were promoting Asheville’s clean mountain air: Nothing could have been further from the truth.
We residents were also part of the problem. Especially in rural areas, many people disposed of their garbage by burning it.
When I was in the scrap metal business, we would often burn copper wire in an open field to remove the insulation, so the metal could be recycled. This produced huge amounts of black smoke containing copper oxide. We also melted lead and zinc scrap in an open pot to remove the iron, so we’d have a clean product to recycle. Similarly, junk automobiles were burned to get rid of the rubber and wood.
We treated our water resources no better. Industries indiscriminately dumped their wastes into the French Broad and other local rivers, and residents straight-piped their sewage there as well. Many industries built their plants along the French Broad to take advantage of this low-cost disposal method. It was common practice for scrap recyclers to take the plugs out of junk auto batteries and dump sulfuric acid right on the ground, letting it drain into the groundwater or a nearby stream.
Believe me, there were far worse things to be concerned about than the E. coli contamination we now read about in the river. Our local waterways were sewers, plain and simple, and no one back then would have dared to engage in the many aquatic activities our community enjoys these days.
I’m not singling out the scrap industry here: Many others caused far worse environmental damage, but this is the industry I worked in, so I have firsthand knowledge of it.
Our landfills were mostly operated by city and county governments that, like industry, traveled the path of least resistance. There were no linings and quite often no limits on what was accepted. Industry disposed of toxic waste in these landfills, and much of this dangerous material still remains just a few feet below the surface.
It’s difficult to change our ways. For instance, almost no one worried about gas guzzlers when gas cost 19 cents a gallon. The pointy-headed scientists would have had a tough time citing air pollution from cars and trucks as a reason to build more fuel-efficient vehicles. When gas went to $1 and then $2 a gallon, people started dumping those big, fancy gas guzzlers for the much more fuel-efficient European and Japanese cars.
When we were young, many of us threw our trash out the car window. “Hey, it’s a big world out there: Somebody will pick it up.” Many people dumped old tires anywhere they could, including in our lakes and streams. During oil changes, we let our oil drain right onto the ground.
Remember when those cigarette companies were extolling the benefits of smoking? Those pointy-headed scientists had been warning us that both smoking and secondhand smoke threatened our health, but it took the deaths of many relatives and friends to convince us that ol’ pointy-head had been right all along.
I can hear all the younger generations asking how you older folks could even be a party to this. I can only answer that most people do the most convenient and economical thing unless there’s empirical evidence that the practice will harm them or someone they care about.
Before you get too judgmental about the sins of your fathers and mothers, however, let me remind you that many of you still buy beer and soda with those six-pack rings, and you are only now beginning to switch from plastic to paper in order to protect marine life. Oh, and do you have any idea what happens to that old or wrecked car of yours when it’s recycled? Or your old refrigerator, computer or TV?
I hear some of the pointy-heads saying, “Hey, we’d better take a closer look at marijuana, as we don’t have enough scientific evidence to prove it’s not a health risk.” I only hope that in 40 years, your kids or grandkids aren’t watching you in your hospital bed saying, “How in hell could you smoke that stuff?”
To our older generations, I say step outside in the morning and take a look at Western North Carolina’s clear blue sky and our beautiful mountains. Go down to the river and watch the youngsters frolicking in the clear water, and observe how much cleaner our city is without coal.
Those pointy-headed scientists might have been right to persuade us to do the inconvenient. Now, let’s go the next step and listen to their argument for reducing our energy consumption and reliance on fossil fuels, and transitioning to solar and wind power — to save not only our beloved Western North Carolina but the entire world.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.