My Number One Planet…How ‘Bout You?

Happy Earth Day! I’m thankful someone about 50 years back had the foresight to begin a special day to think about and pay attention to this wonderful planet we call our own.

In Earth Day news, I was pleased to read that a team of researchers this winter were able to find, and get some photos of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Louisiana. I’ve mentioned them before, perhaps the most iconic of American birds, a giant woodpecker of the Southern deep woods and swamps that many are for some reason eager to write off as extinct. So even though their findings made news as far afield as British newspapers, it will likely not change people’s minds if they inexplicably want the bird to be gone. There are a series of odd paradoxes and errors in logic applied to the secretive bird. For instance, people who manage to get a poor quality photo or video of one (the bird was long hunted by both Natives and settlers and is thus remarkably shy around people) get written off because the pictures are deemed “not good enough” or “inconclusive.” Come up with a decent photo of one, as happened one time in the ’70s, and the same experts say the photo is too good and thus must be staged or fake. Anyway, without belaboring the point, let’s say that optimists among us are pleased that there’s still more evidence that the “ghost bird” still flies….adding to the 40+ records, several photographic, detailed by naturalist/author Christopher Haney in the first decade of the 2000s alone in areas as far flung as southernmost Illinois and coastal North Carolina.

Undertaking a serious search for a bird like that takes money, which brings me to my main Earth Day theme. Last night somehow our family got talking about Elon Musk, which generated some strong opinions pro and con. Personally, I admire his curiosity and ambition but question many of his choices. Especially his fixation on Mars. The Space X guy keeps firing rockets up, many just going a few miles then falling back down, and is full-speed ahead on getting to Mars. He even hopes to be able to build a city there by 2050. To which, again, I ask “why?”

A brief science tutorial. The average temperature on the Red Planet is anything but red hot – about -80 F in fact. And while there is an atmosphere, it’s nothing like ours. It contains only 1% oxygen (Earth’s atmosphere is about 21%) . So you’d better take along some woolly socks and maybe a few air tanks if you want to go space truckin’. Obviously, any habitation there would require huge domes with oxygen (presumably rocketed in from here) piped in and some form of climate control… not to mention water tankered in from… well, your kitchen taps. There’s no water there they we know of either.

Musk casually throws around figures into the trillions of dollars required to build a permanent settlement there. But I thought, let’s get back closer to the imaginable and look a the cost of just one manned flight getting there and back home safely. NASA put the cost of that at just under $3 billion. Three billion to fly for months or years, get out , maybe knock a golf ball a few feet, say something like it’s another small step for man… then hightail back to our little blue ball in space.

Now, if it’s NASA that comes from the pockets of you and me. If Elon does it, it comes from his own deep pockets (which of course have been funded by our consumer choices.) Still, whoever funds it, doesn’t it seem just a bit wrong to spend so much for so little?

To put it in context, here are a few things that could be done with $3 b down here. For instance, take the Amazon. Not the warehouse that sends you books on how to straighten your hair and shiny hair curlers, but the big old rainforest in South America. It’s deforestation is having serious effects on the climate of the southern Hemisphere, adding to extinctions of many species of plants and animals and ultimately creates farmland that’s only usable for a couple of years due to overall lack of nutrients in the soil – which quickly bakes anyway. Bloomberg magazine estimates it costs, on average under $1000 to buy an acre of actual rainforest there. Some United Nations agencies suggest it might be up to $2000. If we split the difference and guess $1500, that means you could buy a full square mile of jungle (640 acres) for just shy of a million. For the cost of one Mars flight, you could save about 3000 square miles. For two flights, you could buy an area of forest as big as Connecticut and have money left over to pay for security and game wardens, or maybe pay the Natives who try in vain to have sustainable farms on the land. Brazil might be encouraging its use for lumber right now, but do we think they’d turn down an offer of several hundred billion dollars up front to turn a good chunk of the Amazon into a natural reserve? I don’t.

Or, we could tackle the problem of “greenhouse heating” and our reliance on dirty fossil fuels. Obviously, energy is a big and complex problem lacking easy solutions, but let’s just imagine how much of a difference wider use of solar power could make. In areas well-suited to it – particularly fast-growing Sun Belt locales like Texas and Arizona – a substantial amount of the electricity consumed could come from “Mr. Sol”. Getting definitive stats on the costs of that are tricky, but averages suggest it would take about 24 normal solar panels on the roof of one 1500 sq. foot house in such areas to provide enough electricity to run it completely. Typical prices to have those installed, are about $15 000 per house. A bit expensive, but a long-term investment that eventually pays for itself. Well, that $3 billion could get about 200 000 houses off the conventional grid and self-sustaining. Not an answer to all the problems, but enough to make most of El Paso, or Austin no longer dependent on oil or gas… and create a ton of jobs in the process. Those panels don’t float themselves up to the roofs or get hooked up. Every Mars flight could be Tucson, or part of Phoenix, or San Bernadino going “green” instead.

Or let’s think smaller still, and more hands-on. Trees add oxygen to our atmosphere, prevent erosion and flooding and of course, are home to beneficial birds. Not to mention cute squirrels. How about a giant tree-planting campaign. Reforest some of the abandoned farms in the Midwest and New England, fill in some empty lots in run-down cities, give each school child a tree for wherever they want it. Little oak saplings cost about 89 cents each and are ideal shade trees and food sources for wildlife. Rounding up to a dollar each, that could be about three billion trees for the cost of the rocket flight. Even if we cut that in half, and added in some extra soil and paid some out-of-work people to put them in the ground if volunteers were in short supply, a billion and a half trees would be growing.

Well that’s a lot of acorns and a lot of forest in the making. Assuming we plant them about ten feet apart, you’d need something like 500 per acre. Three billion dollars? That’s about two million acres growing, or about 3000 square miles. An area bigger than Delaware going green for every Mars shot.

That’s just a start. I’m sure many of you could come up with equally inventive and beneficial ways to put that money to use. Personally, I’d admire Mr. Musk a lot more if he used his creative noodle to come up with ways to help our one and only planet rather than think about how we, as a species can move and despoil another one.

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