Before we usher in the bright new millennium, there's some old junk we should toss on
the compost heap of history.
Every party needs a pooper, so let me refer millennial revelers to baseball great
Satchel Paige, who said, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."
"Something," in this case, is the 20th century, which is nipping at our heels
as we cross the bridge to the 21st. And with due respect to PCs, penicillin, and
polypro-major advances for civilization all--it doesn't take a Luddite to see that the
past hundred years were a breeding ground for some colossally bad ideas.
A few of these lemons, thankfully, are biting the dust as the new age dawns. Here in
the United States, at least, we've effectively pulled the plug on nuclear power and begun
removing dams from once-free-flowing rivers. We've outlawed DDT, which nearly wiped out
the bald eagle, and drastically reduced our use of CFCs, a major threat to the ozone
layer. And let's not forget Astroturf, which, while not a huge environmental danger, was
turning America's fields of dreams into fuzzy concrete. It, too, is headed for the scrap
But there's a lot more of the old century that we need to get rid of. The items
highlighted here aren't necessarily the most destructive inventions of the past hundred
years, nor will their elimination ensure a healthy, sustainable future. They're here,
mainly, by virtue of the beautiful splash they'll make when we finally push 'em off the
bridge. After all, this is a party, isn't it?
Monsanto insists it's safe. Britain's largest supermarket chain, on the other hand, has
banned genetically altered food, and one member of Parliament has labeled Monsanto
"Public Enemy Number One." Here in the United States, genetically altered food
is barely on consumers' radar because it's typically not labeled. Yet bioengineered
ingredients go into such all-American staples as Coke, Pepsi, and assorted breakfast
cereals; even the hallowed soybean has had its DNA adjusted. Last spring, the journal
Nature reported that pollen from corn engineered by Monsanto to produce its own
"natural" pesticide was having an unfortunate (and unforeseen) result in the
lab: In addition to the pesky corn borer, it was also killing monarch butterfly larvae.
Polystyrene is the generic name for the petroleum-based stuff the industry proudly calls
"America's choice for packaging." While manufacturers like to point out that
polystyrene packaging accounts for less than one percent of the solid-waste stream by
weight, those ubiquitous white-foam clamshells and coffee cups are 95 percent air. So they
add a big bulge to America's already bulging landfills, where, because they're not
biodegradable, they languish for centuries. (Styrofoam that never makes it to the landfill
turns into litter, or finds its way into the digestive tracts of marine animals.) Like
many plastics, styrofoam can also leach chemicals into your food. A nationwide grassroots
campaign convinced McDonald's to cut back on its use of styrofoam packaging in 1990. If
that clown Ronald can do it, so can the rest of the world.
If you like lakes and seashores, it's hard to avoid this noisy, hugely popular brand of
"personal watercraft." Powered by loud, inefficient two-stroke engines, most Jet
Skis discharge as much as a quarter of their fuel directly into our water. The effects can
be toxic for fish, plants, and people. According to the EPA, two-stroke engines -- which
power a variety of other watercraft as well -- are a leading source of toxic water
pollution. If cigarettes could dream, they'd dream of growing up to be Jet Skis.
Television has long been called the "boob tube," but it didn't really earn the
title until the invention of the wireless remote control. It was infrared remote-control
technology -- as well as the rise of cable, which brought us enough channels to make
mindless surfing practical -- that turned the idiot box into a narcotic. Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of clutching our clickers for dear life, Americans were spending more time in the wilds, and then taking action to save them? Wouldn't it be grand if our attention spans were long enough to remember our elected officials' voting records, as opposed to their latest 30-second TV spots? Well, wouldn't it? Hello?
They're loud. They're smelly. They require the burning of fossil fuels to do the job of a rake and broom. And they're proliferating--sales total well over a million per year. Gas
blowers entered the U.S. market in the 1970s, and Carmel, California, banned them in 1975.
Los Angeles followed suit in 1998, and dozens of cities have now passed ordinances
regulating their use in residential areas.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was reportedly one of the first civilians to own a Humvee, the
tanklike all-terrain monster truck that went to war in the Persian Gulf and whose official
military name is High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. The mother of all
off-roaders, the 10-mpg Hummer makes as much sense on a paved road as a B-52 in your
backyard. You can drive it off the lot for around $80,000, after which almost nothing
(literally) can stop you. Don't fret about fossil fuel--we won the Gulf War, didn't we?
And who can worry about global warming in the heat of a battle for a strategic stretch of
Forget, if you can, that they're "reconstituted," the nearest thing you can find to airline food without actually leaving the ground. The biggest problem with our ravenous
appetite for chicken products--as well as for pork and beef--is that soaring production
has given rise to factory farms, or "concentrated animal-feeding operations."
While the feeding may be concentrated, the impacts are anything but. Domestic livestock
generate 2.7 trillion pounds of manure a year and have polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in
22 states and contaminated groundwater in more than 17 states. Did you want fries with
Money may be the root of all evil, but soft money has become the mother's milk of
politics. It allows the wealthy to funnel unlimited contributions to political parties,
which use the money to boost the campaigns via "issue" advertising that is
virtually indistinguishable from your basic candidate plug. Although both major parties
have profited handsomely from soft money, Republican leaders remain the biggest obstacle
to real reform. And until we close this gaping loophole in the law, polluters will
continue to give us the best government money can buy.