After only ten years, the plastic blue bag has become a powerful symbol. It represents our dedication to recycling, taking some personal responsibility for the obscene volume of bottles, cans, and other detritus exuded by our profligate society.
It also floats up to lodge in the branches of trees, where it continues to remind us that our man-made surplus is suffocating nature with its overwhelming excess.
It stands not only for recycling, but symbolizes our concern about pollution everywhere, about the use of fossil fuels and toxic emissions, about global warming and pesticides and endangered species and burning rain forests and the future of life on earth.
Stuffing a few bottles and cans in a blue bag may do little enough to save the environment, but at least its something we can all do, and not just hand-wringing or jawboning and looking on while governments renege on the Kyoto Protocol and Big Oil and Gas and Coal pressure their paid-for president to let them go on venting their fumes and dooming the planet to a pressure cooker demise a hundred or so years from now.
In terms of global survival, we know now that we have met the enemy and they are indeed us. The root of our problem, the creeping consumption of the environment we depend on for survival, is the growth in human population and our increasing dependence on hydrocarbons to power our cars and heat our buildings and mow our lawns and light up Las Vegas like there will be no tomorrow.
The Industrial Revolution may have been a great leap forward for technological man, but the world our species lived in before about 1800 had been sustainable since man first walked on two legs and became a hunter-gatherer for millions of unmarked years.
The Ancient Egyptians and Greeks and Romans and Aztecs and Mayas supported their civilizations with wood fires and renewable resources which had little impact on their natural environment.
The great religious and philosophical leaders of the past told us about God and how to live, but left no word in the Bible or the Koran or the Upanishads about how to protect our environment and avoid fouling our nest for the future.
But the Great Breakthrough that brought us steam power and the internal combustion engine and electricity on tap and factories and power stations and trains and cars and ships and planes changed all the rules of the game of life on earth for mankind and every other living creature. For two hundred years they have all been pouring poisons into the air and the rivers and lakes and seas and soil in increasing quantities, and the Third World is now striving to catch up with the industrialized nations who claim their economies are dependent on more and cheaper energy and show no signs of getting their problems under control.
So, faced with the inevitability of population and industrial growth and the reluctance of nations to take conservation seriously, we as citizens feel powerless to do anything except insulate our homes and use energy-efficient light bulbs and buy gas-saving little cars rather than gas-guzzling SUVs—and stuff our blue bags with bottles and cans and do our little bit to save the environment.
Abandoning that once-a-week symbolic act is like capitulating to capitalism in all its noxious extravagance. Leaderless, people just give up. Let the future handle its problems. Après nous le déluge.
John Brain, a college instructor and public relations professional, resides in Belvedere Square.
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This story was published on May 2, 2001.