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Column: 'Intolerable’ is a dirty word

Column: 'Intolerable’ is a dirty word

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Ecology is a long-standing interest of mine. It’s on my mind more and more.

Ecology is the science that’s the parent of environmentalism. I never participated in a protest march in an attempt to save the planet as have a number of people in my generation, but I have advocated for a sensible, realistic approach to the coexistence of humans and nature.

Humans, after all, are the only creatures on Earth capable of materially and methodically changing the habitat around them — for better or worse. We have reshaped our habitat far beyond anything our ancestors could envision.

By today’s standards, our Elizabethan era forebearers are primitives, even though technological wonders were emerging throughout the world. Ah! And there’s the rub: technology. In making ourselves more comfortable (and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that), our habitat is turning into a cesspool.

We have islands of castoff plastic floating in our oceans. Many rivers are little more than dirty drainage ditches. Vast forests that produce oxygen and purify our air are shrinking, and even if they remained the way explorers of long ago found them, pollution would strain them beyond their abilities.

For sure, we have made strides in reducing air pollution and setting aside land for wilderness and not for construction. It’s not enough. The stress on our planet is not a hoax. It’s all too real.

I will not try to convince unbelievers that humans contribute to climate change. But climate is changing. The loss of polar ice is not a succession of fake videos. Years of deepening drought is not a scary bedtime story.

I saw David Attenborough on “60 Minutes.” He’s an outspoken environmentalist whose conclusions are based on direct observation. I think a proper term would be “pragmatic empiricism.”

In part, Attenborough said, “I didn’t say anything much about the world being in ecological peril until I was absolutely sure that what I was talking about was correct. … Our planet is headed for disaster.”

I read similar words from multiple sources, including Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson. I have also heard denials accompanied by the belief that technology will save us. That may be so, but only if we are willing to participate and greed does not override our good sense.

Attenborough sees interest in environmentalism growing among young people as positive and said there is still hope to avoid choking our habitat on the only planet we have. Too, there are technological advances like solar power and one that even my grandfather wished for years ago: electric transportation for the masses.

Too much of our trash escapes the recycling bin, too much smoke escapes the stacks, and many habits are not compatible with habitat.

I do not want to go backward regarding technology. I would not relish a primitive existence. Still, I must agree with those whose warnings about the future are dire at best and cataclysmic at worst. The damage is real.

If I did not believe we can have our technology and our blue planet too, I would not bother to write this. But we have only so much water. It cannot be manufactured. Nature can produce only so much oxygen, and not as much as she once did — especially under current circumstances.

I expect I will be assigned the appellation of “alarmist” by some readers. That’s OK. I’ve been called worse. Science — that wondrous mechanism that has given us so much — confirms what ecological alarmists have been saying for many years. We’re in trouble.

We must balance wants with needs, desires with necessities, greed with honesty, and the politics of denial with sensibility. Yes, avoiding ecological peril comes with a cost. Please name one fabricated item that does not come with a cost.

We are very much aware that nature is not always a gentle mother, but a terrifying beast with storms, floods, earthquakes and volcanoes. In spite of all that, life has found Earth more than tolerable for millions of years.

We could ask coral reefs about the meaning of tolerable, but they’re dying.

The notion that future generations will be able to “fix things” is fallacious. We’ve taken some baby steps toward environmental salvation, and we can lengthen our stride without compromising our comforts. We have demonstrated over and over that we are capable of greatness.

We can lust for more (nothing wrong with that, either) and still have a beautiful blue planet.

Like Thoreau wrote: “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Ecologically speaking, “intolerable” is a very dirty word.

Reach Larry Clark at


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