The Air We Breathe

Twenty years ago, maybe, the ozone layer was a big issue, and most anyone with eyes and a brain was at  least starting to think about “global warming*”.

It was summer, and coincidentally, I was at a picnic with family friends, one of whom was a government-employed environmentalist. The topic came up, we talked about automobile pollution and coal-fired power plants. It was a warm, pleasant afternoon in beautiful, Western Central New Jersey, and for the most part the sky was blue, with long white whisps high above, the man-made clouds that scar the sky, especially along those “skyways” from East to West that originate on the East Coast and point to California and beyond.

Mike, our hero, a bearded and unabashed ex-counterculture person (those of you too young to understand, would likely—and incorrectly—label him a “hippie”), paused from the discussion and gazed upward. “I wonder,” he said, without taking his eyes off the sky, “How long before we realize that is the real culprit…”

“Jets?” I asked.

“Jet exhaust, airline fuel.”

“They’ve done a great job cleaning up jet exhaust.” I said. Adding, “When I was a kid it was brown smoke spewing out like a diesel truck!”

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“Unfortunately,” he said, “It’s a global world now, and everyone, everything, businesses, and governments are hooked on the ability to move people and goods quickly over vast distances-through the air. They’ve only made the pollution invisible. The truth is we’re spewing tons of hot, microscopic exhaust particles and vapor into the upper atmosphere, non-stop, every day, in massive and increasing amounts.”

“Is there science about that?”

“Not enough. And even if there is, nobody wants to know about it. Internal combustion for cars, energy for homes, powerplants. They can all be replaced and supplanted by solar, wind, all kinds of renewable alternatives. But have you ever heard of a solar powered 747? When statistics are published about “contributors to air pollution” jet exhaust is never mentioned. It’s not on the map. It’s like there’s a secret agreement to ignore it. Nobody is going to stop this. The answer is right there, in our faces, so obvious, and we are blind to it. We want to be blind to it.”

Ironically there was even an episode of “Star Trek the Next Generation” that metaphorically addressed this topic: It becomes clear to one species that all that warping around from planet-to-planet at faster-than-light speeds is tearing the fabric of the universe. Gosh darn it. Captain Picard and his whacky crew investigate and find that this is in fact true! Star Fleet is duly informed, and except for the most dire of planet-threatening emergencies, a moratorium is placed on traveling at faster than light speed – or is it faster than warp four or five? Anyway, this restriction is mentioned in one or two later episodes, and then without warning, it’s gone! Back to the ol’ routine. Make it so!! And there you have it. A Gene Roddenberry history of the human race.

That’s all. That’s the story. Not much has changed. That New Jersey summer conversation nested in the back of my brain for all these years like some obscure conspiracy theory. I thought about it after 9/11, when the skies got a short break and were eerily free of planes. And time moves on, and my gosh, humans move on. I’d heard about, and known people who had jobs requiring them to travel the world. You usually just think about the glamour and the glory. Not the impact. Hey, Tokyo, Seoul, Paris. I’ve been there. Once in a very rare while you hear about a business, or person like Al Gore, who supposedly has an awareness of what has come to be called his “carbon footprint”, and actually tries to mitigate it. “I flew to Singapore, so I’m paying to preserve some rain forest.” But more and more I hear about global commuters. Not the silver-haired CEOs in First Class, not people who have occasional “business travel”, but people who actually commute via jet every day to Boston from Philadelphia. Or every week or two to Europe…It’s kind of crazy. What does it mean? For anyone? For the planet? And now I’m one of them. What am I supposed to do? Stop? Just say no? I need to work. I want to see the world too. Maybe it’s really not a problem. Right? Right?

*Global Warming – I’m not a scientist, but I’ll talk about it. It means the planet is getting warmer. And that’s what it feels like to me. There’s enough science (if you read) to understand that man has had a significant causal influence on this. And there’s also enough science to call it “global climate change” if you prefer, (since some people have their pants scared off, by the “w” word). It’s happening, warming, warming causing “change”, whatever.

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