Why we should change the way we live now
Published April 21, 2004

As a general rule of thumb, we Americans have it pretty good. Of course, there are plenty of people in this country who are suffering in dreadful poverty, but on the large scale, we are all a lot better off than the average citizen of, say, Myanmar or Somalia. We live in adequate housing--some of it lavish--a majority of us has a least one car, we eat huge meals by any standards, enjoy the best health care in the world, a peaceful, stable country and political and personal freedoms that are the envy of most of the world. We've got it good.

One thing that happens when you're not worrying about where you're going to find food, nor about if you're going to get shot at or blown up on any given day, is that you can focus more attention on the little things in life. We don't have that much to worry about, so why not talk about the latest episode of "Who Wants to Survive Your Fears to be A Millionaire Apprentice Makeover!"

It's quite possible, however, that this general good life that we're living is leading to a slowly-creeping malaise that threatens to engulf us in lard and air pollution. Let's face it: we're living a life of leisure and excess. We eat too much, and most of it is full of fat and calories; we drive everywhere, even if we don't need too, and always in the most expensive, least-efficient vehicle we can afford; we don't exercise enough, and instead spend our hours glued to the couch, watching the previously-mentioned TV shows or playing video games. I'm not pointing fingers here; I do all of this, all the time. And I love it.

But it might be time for a change.

The New York Times reported on April 13th that the EPA will release its new list of counties that violate clean air standards on April 15th, as revised by a process started under the Clinton Administration in 1997. The list includes 500 counties which are either above the limit of ground-level ozone or contribute to problems in neighboring counties. This is more than double the number included under the old standard, and affects 160 million people. It does not, if you are curious to know, include Crawford County, but both Erie and Mercer counties are violators, as are the counties to our west in Ohio.

Ground-level ozone damages respiratory and immune systems; the other pollutant regulated more strictly under the new rules is fine particulate soot, which has been found to be a contributing factor in lung disease, heart attacks and premature death.

The Times reports that San Antonio, among other communities, is working to reduce its pollution in order to avoid future government sanctions, which could hinder economic development. Instead of whining about the possible loss of investment that the report might cause, these cities are moving forwards with changes that they hope will keep them under the "legal limit," and in good standing. Crawford County isn't yet in violation, but it seems only a matter of time. What can we do now to fend off this problem and keep our community open to much-needed investment? More importantly, how do we exploit our standing to lure businesses here from counties which are in violation of the standards?

These are not idle questions. San Antonio managed to get an $800 million dollar Toyota plant built there, in part because of its low pollution. As environmental standards continue to tighten--we can hope that they will, at any rate--polluted counties will have to work very, very hard to stay up to date.

What can we do? With gas prices rising, let's think a bit about conserving fuel: drive less often, choose a more fuel-efficient vehicle, and slow down. Don't head for the drive-through. It's often slower anyway, and sitting there with your motor running creates lots of unnecessary pollution. Walking will incidentally improve your health as well, so it's a win-win situation. We can also use less electricity: turn off the lights when you're not in a room and turn down the heat at night or during the day when you're away from home. Use less hot water by taking shorter showers.

These are not big lifestyle changes. In fact, they're pretty small steps. We shouldn't be complaining about having to think about whether a drive somewhere is necessary; we should be thinking that all the time, even when gas is dirt cheap. We're still paying less than half the price of gas in most European countries. They get by--so can we.

Both for our health and for our economy, it's in our interests to lower pollution. Let's take some small steps now and work towards a better tomorrow.