My first encounters with black bears took place at the dump in Inlet, New York, not exactly what you would call a wild place. It was the early 1960s, and at dusk my brothers and I, along with carloads of summer visitors to this central Adirondack town, would head to the dump. Nightly, the bears would come and paw through the garbage. Nightly, dozens of cars would line up and shine their headlights on the feasting bears. As a tourist activity, it rivaled waterskiing on Fourth Lake or climbing the Bald Mountain fire tower.
Our older sister, Pat, would never join us for this entertainment, pointing out to us what should have been obvious: the dump stank to high heaven, it made pets out of the bears, and its putrid smoke drifted for miles.
It took well into the 1970s for the state to recognize the problem with the polluted air and to stop the fires at all the town dumps. It took even longer for them to acknowledge that unlined landfills could contaminate well water. A dump like Inlet’s, built as it was in a sand pit, was worse than most because the contaminants found ready passage into ground water through the perfectly permeable sand. In the 1990s, the state closed this dump and all others of its kind.
Degradation of air and water quality weren’t the only consequences. Dumps like this one trained generations of bears that humans are not a threat: in fact, we’re a reliable source of food. Decades later, the state campground on Limekiln Lake, a mile or so down the road, continues to have a horrendous problem with nuisance bears that break into cars to get at coolers. Campground officials have gone so far as to require campers to store food in steel lockers.
How could we not have known that collecting car batteries, uneaten hamburgers, disposable diapers, decrepit lawn furniture, and week-old cole slaw, and keeping the whole rotten stew on a slow, smoldering burn was a truly bad idea?
If it took decades to deal with a problem this obvious, how are we ever going to get anywhere on combating today’s infinitely more dangerous environmental issue, human-induced global warming? To many, the signs of the problem are clear: disappearing glaciers, warming oceans, an increase in extreme weather events, each year a new standard for the warmest year on record. These signs, however, aren’t nearly as palpable as those at the dump, and they are so incremental that they are easy to ignore unless you force yourself to pay attention. But what these signs are telling us is so monumental – and the possible solutions so daunting – that we as a society are choosing to pretend it’s not happening.
Somehow, we all need to start recognizing that it is our problem. If inundated shorelines aren’t enough to get your attention, think of the changes destined for our forests. One analysis suggests that if you want a preview of the kind of forest we will have in 50 years, take a look 500 miles to the south. Sure, magnolias are nice, but do we really want them here, in place of maples?
People like Bill McKibben have been warning us about global warming for nearly two decades, but their alarms were long dismissed as the ravings of lunatics. Then, within the last decade, the discussion changed, and climate change was presented as a reasonable subject for scientists to debate: maybe we’re exacerbating a cyclic problem – maybe we’re not. Today, the debate is over, and there is no longer any legitimate science disputing the fact that we humans are speeding up the warming of the globe. The pet bear is in the room, and we ignore its presence at our peril.
There are no simple solutions to our warming of the globe. But there is a simple and straightforward goal: develop ways to safely provide large quantities of energy without flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. A tremendous investment in research and development needs to be accompanied by energy conservation across every level of society. The U.S. is a large part of the problem. Let’s have the courage to lead the way in finding the solution.