September 24, 2017
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The environment can’t afford an east-west highway

By Edward Hummel, Special to the BDN

One of the most controversial issues in Maine at the present time is the proposed east-west highway. I’m sure I would have been strongly in favor of such a project when I was in high school back in 1962 for all the reasons stated by its proponents.

But I have learned a lot about how the natural world operates over the past 50 years from my work as a meteorologist and a science teacher. So my view today is that the corridor is a very bad idea for various reasons having to do with the long-term viability of the economy, society, and ecology of this state and of the world.

Until about 500 years ago, the few existing civilizations were still relatively isolated from one another, and most people in the world still lived in traditional small societies. But the European age of exploration and consequent economic expansion started a trend that has culminated in our present global civilization being dominated by huge private corporations that have become more powerful than most individual nations. It runs on the assumption that unrestricted production and consumption of goods will lead to higher living standards for all if we just allow free markets to distribute a seemingly endless supply of goods with maximum efficiency.

However, very little thought has been given to the consequences of what constantly converting natural resources into human consumer goods would have for the complex and interdependent natural systems that really keep everything running, including human societies, whether we realize it or not.

Our present global system needs cheap, easily available energy to function. Over the last 150 years or so, this energy has been provided by burning prodigious amounts of fossil fuels. They took millions of years and countless dead organisms to accumulate, but we’re using them up in a few centuries and releasing their stored carbon back to the atmosphere and oceans at an accelerating rate.

Most people don’t see anything wrong with this, since most tend to be generally unaware of the consequences of doing so. To most people around the world, economic costs and benefits are the only important factors in any human activity. They seem to assume that such things as energy availability and natural system services are just passive background factors that will always be there, and not worth consideration. But nothing could be further from the truth.

A real understanding of what we have learned through science over the last few hundred years should make us aware that nothing we do is done in isolation and that everything is connected in very complex webs of interactions and feedback loops. In this view, every single thing that humans do has physical consequences, some small, but many others very large and dramatic, since we are all a part of these complex webs.

One of the most important consequences we see today is the growing climate disruption caused by the continuous release of fossil carbon. Another major consequence of our expanding economic, industrial and agricultural activities is the increasing degradation of ecosystems around the globe leading to a dramatic increase in species extinctions. But many people, especially many in business and politics, continue to ignore, or even angrily deny, that there’s a problem, even while the problems become progressively worse and probably unsolvable.

Building a transportation system is one of the most important things that keep a civilization going. But such systems always have a major impact on the underlying natural systems. It should be a necessary requirement that ecosystem impact studies become the overriding factor in determining the feasibility of any transportation project. In fact, such studies should be the most important factors in any human endeavor since we depend on stable ecosystems for everything that keeps us alive.

We should be looking at how our civilization can blend in with the so-called “natural world” and not try to conquer it. This should be the vision that guides a rational approach to how we form our societies and live our lives. In my opinion, the competing vision of constant growth and expanded consumerism is ultimately a suicidal one that plays only to ephemeral human desires and emotions, but not to our more rational selves.

The vision of huge container ships, feeding endless consumer goods onto long-haul trucks, traveling a new road through pristine areas, to be ultimately discharged as trash into landfills and incinerators after very short life-spans seems to me to be the height of “irrational exuberance.” For these reasons, I think that the proposed east-west corridor is a very bad idea that all of human civilization, not only central Maine, can definitely not afford in our overcrowded and degraded world.

Edward Hummel is a retired meteorologist and science teacher who runs a small weather forecasting business from his home in Garland.

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