On this day in 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, a book I co-wrote with my friend Will Steger – “Saving the Earth, A Citizen’s Guide to Environmental Action” – was published to good review. Its focus was on the causes and effects of eleven environmental problems then facing the world, with an emphasis on solutions. Every once in a while I revisit the book, to see how we’re doing globally on all of those issues.
On global warming, predictions are dire today. We did not predict how much ice would have already been lost at the Poles. In the book I quoted Dr. Stephen Schneider (who I just re-met in San Francisco at the Institute for the Golden Gate a couple weeks ago) suggesting, “We are looking into a very murky crystal ball.” Today it is less murky; we have many more clues about how quickly things are heating up.
Ozone depletion is one environmental problem that has actually been slightly mitigated since the book was published, thanks to constant monitoring of the ozone hole above the Southern Ocean and an international ban on ozone-destroying fluorocarbons; smog, or air pollution, has improved in some urban areas but grown far worse in others, especially as industrial Asia has boomed. Acid rain continues, but with major industries called on to build cleaner stacks and allowances made for emission bartering, there have been improvements.
The subject of what we were dong to the planet’s rain forest was a hot topic 20 years ago; today the threat is the same and we continue to lose vast amounts of forest each year. The contribution of forests as carbon-dioxide vacuums is as important today as it was then. In regard to garbage, the emphasis twenty years ago was largely on the fact that landfills were overflowing; hazardous waste – whether from home products or manufacturing leftovers – continues to be a health hazard around the world.
When it came to water pollution, we were right on: I wrote then about one of the themes of my work today – protecting our one ocean – specifically the weight of plastic already floating near its surface and the harm being done to its marine life. As for freshwater, in the U.S. and elsewhere there have actually been a variety of environmental success stories, particularly in regard to manufacturers dumping waste and chemicals directly into rivers and lakes. Energy consumption was a major worry then and we called for the obvious need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The world obviously didn’t listen; demand and usage has only gone up, up, up since 1990. Though there is a renewed emphasis on alternatives these days, there is still little real money being spent on development; even the Obama administration is having a hard time admitting there is no such thing as “clean coal.” Overpopulation was the final chapter in the book and spoke to the discrepancy between the impacts on the planet of a baby born in the U.S. versus Bangladesh – the American would during his/her lifetime use one hundred times more resources and energy as his/her Bangladeshian counterpart. That has not changed.
An emphasis of the book was on what the individual could do to reduce what we have in the past two decades come to know as his/her footprint. On only a couple environmental fronts have we made significant steps forward (ozone depletion, freshwater pollution). One good thing to grow in the past twenty years is a boom in green consciousness. I wish I could say books like ours have contributed to that greening; perhaps they have, it’s a hard thing to measure. Personally it’s a good exercise for me to revisit “Saving the Earth” every year to see just how we’re doing and to ponder an updated version on some future anniversary. Though one most likely available only for the Kindle, to save on trees.
While I had read the great accounts of Antarctic exploration when I was a teenager, my firsthand introduction to travel here came in 1989, when I documented the longest crossing of the continent – 3,741 miles, 220 days – by dogsled. That Transantarctic Expedition, led and organized by my friends Will Steger and Jean-Louis Etienne, would be the final dog sledding expedition on the continent; in 1991 the Antarctic Treaty banned dogs for good, publicly worried they might introduce distemper to the seal population and privately tired of private dog sledders desiring to come to Antarctica.
That expedition, documented in the book Steger and I wrote about the expedition (“Crossing Antarctica”), had its lowlights: A forty-day cold storm on the Peninsula, which stopped travel or limited it to several miles a day. The death-by-freezing of one of Steger’s favorite dogs, Tim. Lost caches. A very impolite welcome by officials at the U.S. Scott-Amundsen base at the South Pole. Long, arduous days crossing the high plateau west of the Pole, known as the Area of Inaccessibility. But ultimately that $12 million expedition will be remembered as both the final dogsled adventure here and the longest of any kind ever.
Dog sledding through the Transantarctic Range, 1989
Since then each season I pay attention to the variety of serious expeditions and stunts that come to Antarctica to test their mettle. By now the continent has been skied, kited and walked from almost every angle possible. Some are successful (Borge Ousland’s solo, unsupported ski), some less so (hot air balloonists and golfers), others simply too bizarre to understand why they are continued (a marathon on King George Island?).
This season a handful of teams and a few solo men and one woman are attempting to reach the South Pole from various starting points, with various goals. Todd Carmichael is speed skiing to the South Pole, unsupported, solo. The great grandson of Ernest, Peter Shackleton, is part of a team recreating the hundredth anniversary of grandpa’s great attempt. An old friend, Richard Weber, who was on Steger’s North Pole team in 1986, is part of the South Pole Quest Team. Veteran explorer Mike Horn is skiing from base camp at Patriot Hills to the South Pole, as part of his four-year-long round the world by-all-means Pangaea Expedition. And a couple dudes, as far as I know, are still planning to drive across part of the continent in some kind of motorized vehicle.
It’s cold in the interior today, but a balmy twenty degrees along the Peninsula, under gray skies and a light snow. Midday I picked up Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s “Worst Journey in the World,” one of the best-written books about early Antarctic exploration, for a quick reminder of how those first adventurers found travel on the seventh continent. Gerrard’s is an account of a trio of Robert F. Scott’s men who went, at their boss’s behest in 1910, on a wintertime march on the west side of McMurdo Sound, some 70 miles around Ross Island to Cape Crozier, to collect penguin eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter.
“The temperature tonight was -75.8 degrees, and I will not pretend that it did not convince me that Dante was right when he placed the circles of ice below the circles of fire … The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated; and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. The weeks, which followed were comparative bliss, not because later our conditions were better – they were far worse – but because, we were callous. I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain. They talk of the heroism of the dying – they little know – it would be so easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and blissful sleep. The trouble is to go on ….”
Makes me wonder what those traveling inland today are reading, and writing?