Guest blog by Dr. John Richard Saylor – Author of “Lakes: Their Birth, Life, and Death,” (https://johnrichardsaylor.com/index.html).
The environmental segment of a typical popular science magazine or news show can be pretty
gloomy. Stories on global warming, as just one example, point toward a future of rising sea
levels, torrential floods, and searing droughts. While these stories may do a good job of
presenting climate change predictions, they do little to motivate individuals to change their
behavior. These stories often focus on the need for all nations to act in a coordinated fashion to
cap and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The effort must be global and without the agreement
and full participation of all nations, or at least the largest nations, all is hopeless. At least that is
what the underlying message seems like to me.
When I read stories like this, I just feel tired. I am not president of any country or CEO of any
corporation. Clearly there is nothing I can do about the situation, or at least that is the message I
receive when reading these articles. There is an irony here, because motivating the reader to
action seems to be the goal of this kind of journalism and science writing. It seems to be the
belief of most who report on the environment that unless information is presented in the format
of a Hollywood style disaster film, we will not respond—that without the threat of imminent
global disaster, none of us will get off of our couches to actually do something about the
I wonder if the exact opposite is true.
I have long noted the fact that most of the actions that are proposed to reduce carbon dioxide
emissions are the same actions one would pursue if acting out of a desire to beautify one’s life.
Plans to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions suggest the reduction in our use of gasoline
and diesel powered cars and trucks, a switch to electric vehicles where the increased electrical
consumption comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar, and an increase in the planting of trees that will, if not reduce carbon dioxide levels, at least absorb sunlight and help cool the planet. I’ll leave it to others to argue over the feasibility of doing this quickly and on a global scale and focus instead on the question of whether such exhortations really need to be presented in such a cod liver oil fashion. Really, the implicit assumption in journalism of this type is that the public tends to view trees and the reduction of diesel truck emissions as a negative thing, something that we will have to be prodded to give up. I do not think this is true.
To be sure, we Americans love our pickup trucks. But still, no rational person would pump the exhaust of their car or truck into their children’s bedrooms. Yet, to a certain degree, simply by driving a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle, we are doing precisely that. Even if we are too selfish to care about the health of our children, let’s just think of our own health. Breathing diesel exhaust increases the risk of all kinds of cancer for us, putting our own lives under threat.
Diesel vehicle emissions smell pretty awful, and the vehicles themselves are pretty noisy. And, when it comes to planting trees, who doesn’t like that? It seems to me that there is a real opportunity to get people to do the ecologically good thing by encouraging them to be selfish—to choose to have a life where the air smells nice, where their streets are quiet, and where their properties are well-populated by oaks and maples that green up nicely in the spring and provide a visual treat in the fall.
And so it was with great pleasure that I read Jeff Forester’s July 20, 2022 post, “Tired of algae in
the lake? Then lower the phosphorus levels with Lake Steward,” where he describes the
importance of the Lake Steward program wherein individual property owners seek to reduce
runoff of phosphorous, the nutrient which is most able to cause unsightly algae blooms. What
Mr. Forester does from the outset is focus on the aesthetic problems with algae blooms. Here is
an excellent example of writing that focuses on what we want to have in our local environment
which also happens to be good for lake ecology: the elimination of algae blooms. Forester notes
that these blooms essentially eliminate our ability to swim, water ski, or enjoy the view of our
lake. He then points to the Lake Steward program which encourages homeowners with lakefront
property to take actions which will reduce runoff, but which are aesthetically pleasing. For
example, removing pet waste from your lawn. Who wants pet waste on their lawn? Who wants
to swim in a lake that your pet’s waste has recently washed into? The point here is that an
aesthetically positive thing, inevitably also leads to an ecologically positive thing.
The recommendations include avoiding the use of riprap on the shoreline. True, riprap can look
good when first put in place, but pretty soon it becomes a stained, dirty, leaf filled mess. Why
not allow native plants to grow by the shore, or plant them, particularly flowering species, as
Forester suggests? This is a very effective way to capture phosphorous-containing runoff, and, it
looks great. A well-mowed lawn bounded by wildflowers and other native plants right at the
lawn’s edge can be stunning. Again a beautiful addition to a lawn that, not coincidentally,
improves the quality of a lake. Another recommendation is the maintenance of septic systems.
If you think a lawn filled with pet waste is bad, wait until your septic system overflows. This
again is a way to keep your property aesthetically pleasing and keeping your lake healthy.
Why can’t more of our conversation about our relationship with the environment fall along these
positive lines? Legions of us will travel hundreds of miles to vacation in a place where the
wilderness exists, untrammeled and in a close to pristine state. How is it that we know people
are willing to spend money to see an environment unspoiled, and yet we presume they will resist
improving the environment around their own home? Improving the environment doesn’t have to
be about the things you give up; it should be about the things that you get.
Nobody wants to swim in a lake filled with algae blooms. Everybody loves wildflowers. Who doesn’t love the
sound of birds chirping? Who doesn’t like walking down a tree-lined street? We all want that. And, we all can have it.
To be sure, some of the things we need to do to protect our lakes, and to protect the environment
in general, do fall into the cod liver oil category. The herbicides, and particularly the fertilizers
that help create the verdant green lawn that many love can really harm lakes. Fertilizers increase
phosphorous in lake water, contributing significantly to algae blooms. So, for those who love
that kind of lawn where every blade is of one species and there are no weeds, a lawn consisting
of a uniform green expanse, some sacrifice must be made. But even here, isn’t there a better
sell? How did we get to the point where a lawn that blooms with beautiful yellow dandelions is
undesirable? I do not use herbicides or fertilizers on my lawn. And, in the spring, it is a visually
stunning carpet of yellow. And, once mown, it looks pretty uniform in color and texture. Is
there really a tradeoff here between what is beautiful and what is healthy? I don’t see it.
Perhaps the path to environmental health and sustainability should focus on aesthetics, on our
own innate desire to please our own senses; on our own innate desire to see, hear, and smell that
which is beautiful. Let’s plant some wildflowers, some trees, some native water plants. Let’s be
selfish, let’s save our lakes.