Will the Earth Heal Itself?
We are not only responsible for the earth; we’re part of it. A chemist’s perspective on global climate change.
By Maria Gelabert
On a recent shopping trip to Target, I brought along my reusable cloth bags. When I remember them, I feel proud that I’m doing something small to help the environment. During checkout I lay them on the conveyor belt in front of my items, in hopes that the cashier doesn’t blindly default to plastic bags.
This particular day, the cashier noticed my bags. With my usual polite procession of words, I kindly asked that he place my items in the cloth bags first. After all, I do recognize the additional effort required to use them.
The cashier, a seasoned, talkative gentleman, was perfectly agreeable to my request, but he said something that gave me pause. “The earth will heal itself,” he remarked. His tone was not arrogant or critical, but it made me wonder what he intended. Was he implying that I shouldn’t bother going to the extra effort of using cloth bags, because the earth can handle anything humanity throws at it? That we bear no responsibility for its care?
As a chemist, I see major problems with that line of reasoning. Earth will heal itself? Sure, on the millennial time scale, the earth will be where it was meant to be. But what are we doing to ourselves in the meantime?
Chemically speaking, there is no distinction between us and our environment. Virtually every molecule of oxygen we breathe comes from a plant, and some of the carbon dioxide absorbed by plants comes from us. That other molecule we need, water, makes up most of our bodies and of the earth. Planetary scientists use it as a marker for evidence of life. We are not only responsible for the earth; we’re part of it. Caring for the environment has two beneficiaries: the earth and ourselves.
The main issue with our excess of plastic bags is also related to chemistry: compared to paper, plastics never fully break down. When placed in water, paper will eventually disintegrate into something similar to its wood pulp origins. Plastic bags, however, do not. Scientists have even documented a “plastic island” about 500 nautical miles from California, nestled between Pacific Ocean vortices. It is estimated to contain 7 billion pounds of plastic waste. (And I’m worried about the bolus of plastic bags in my house, waiting for recycling!)
In my first-year learning community with molecular biologist Dr. Heather Cook, we’re studying the plethora of evidence supporting anthropogenic — human-made — global warming. Hundreds of scientists working on the problem — people who are experts in ice core samples, ocean temperature, and many other markers — have contributed to the overwhelming big picture: that it’s time to take care of the earth, globally.
I believe that with the acknowledgement that humanity and the earth are inseparable, Earth really will heal itself. But the responsibility falls on humanity to correct previous activity that has endangered the one habitat we all share. And I would argue that, in the immediate here and now, each of us can make a difference with a small change in lifestyle and a modest startup investment: reusable cloth bags.
Maria Gelabert is an associate professor of chemistry at Wagner College.