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Sierra Magazine
Goodbye to All That

Before we usher in the bright new millennium, there's some old junk we should toss on the compost heap of history.

Every party needs a pooper, so let me refer millennial revelers to baseball great Satchel Paige, who said, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."

"Something," in this case, is the 20th century, which is nipping at our heels as we cross the bridge to the 21st. And with due respect to PCs, penicillin, and polypro-major advances for civilization all--it doesn't take a Luddite to see that the past hundred years were a breeding ground for some colossally bad ideas.

A few of these lemons, thankfully, are biting the dust as the new age dawns. Here in the United States, at least, we've effectively pulled the plug on nuclear power and begun removing dams from once-free-flowing rivers. We've outlawed DDT, which nearly wiped out the bald eagle, and drastically reduced our use of CFCs, a major threat to the ozone layer. And let's not forget Astroturf, which, while not a huge environmental danger, was turning America's fields of dreams into fuzzy concrete. It, too, is headed for the scrap heap.

But there's a lot more of the old century that we need to get rid of. The items highlighted here aren't necessarily the most destructive inventions of the past hundred years, nor will their elimination ensure a healthy, sustainable future. They're here, mainly, by virtue of the beautiful splash they'll make when we finally push 'em off the bridge. After all, this is a party, isn't it?


Frankenfood

Monsanto insists it's safe. Britain's largest supermarket chain, on the other hand, has banned genetically altered food, and one member of Parliament has labeled Monsanto "Public Enemy Number One." Here in the United States, genetically altered food is barely on consumers' radar because it's typically not labeled. Yet bioengineered ingredients go into such all-American staples as Coke, Pepsi, and assorted breakfast cereals; even the hallowed soybean has had its DNA adjusted. Last spring, the journal Nature reported that pollen from corn engineered by Monsanto to produce its own "natural" pesticide was having an unfortunate (and unforeseen) result in the lab: In addition to the pesky corn borer, it was also killing monarch butterfly larvae.

Styrofoam

Polystyrene is the generic name for the petroleum-based stuff the industry proudly calls "America's choice for packaging." While manufacturers like to point out that polystyrene packaging accounts for less than one percent of the solid-waste stream by weight, those ubiquitous white-foam clamshells and coffee cups are 95 percent air. So they add a big bulge to America's already bulging landfills, where, because they're not biodegradable, they languish for centuries. (Styrofoam that never makes it to the landfill turns into litter, or finds its way into the digestive tracts of marine animals.) Like many plastics, styrofoam can also leach chemicals into your food. A nationwide grassroots campaign convinced McDonald's to cut back on its use of styrofoam packaging in 1990. If that clown Ronald can do it, so can the rest of the world.

Jet Skis

If you like lakes and seashores, it's hard to avoid this noisy, hugely popular brand of "personal watercraft." Powered by loud, inefficient two-stroke engines, most Jet Skis discharge as much as a quarter of their fuel directly into our water. The effects can be toxic for fish, plants, and people. According to the EPA, two-stroke engines -- which power a variety of other watercraft as well -- are a leading source of toxic water pollution. If cigarettes could dream, they'd dream of growing up to be Jet Skis.

Remote Control

Television has long been called the "boob tube," but it didn't really earn the title until the invention of the wireless remote control. It was infrared remote-control technology -- as well as the rise of cable, which brought us enough channels to make mindless surfing practical -- that turned the idiot box into a narcotic. Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of clutching our clickers for dear life, Americans were spending more time in the wilds, and then taking action to save them? Wouldn't it be grand if our attention spans were long enough to remember our elected officials' voting records, as opposed to their latest 30-second TV spots? Well, wouldn't it? Hello?

Leaf Blowers

They're loud. They're smelly. They require the burning of fossil fuels to do the job of a rake and broom. And they're proliferating--sales total well over a million per year. Gas blowers entered the U.S. market in the 1970s, and Carmel, California, banned them in 1975. Los Angeles followed suit in 1998, and dozens of cities have now passed ordinances regulating their use in residential areas.

Humvees

Arnold Schwarzenegger was reportedly one of the first civilians to own a Humvee, the tanklike all-terrain monster truck that went to war in the Persian Gulf and whose official military name is High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. The mother of all off-roaders, the 10-mpg Hummer makes as much sense on a paved road as a B-52 in your backyard. You can drive it off the lot for around $80,000, after which almost nothing (literally) can stop you. Don't fret about fossil fuel--we won the Gulf War, didn't we? And who can worry about global warming in the heat of a battle for a strategic stretch of the interstate?

Chicken Nuggets

Forget, if you can, that they're "reconstituted," the nearest thing you can find to airline food without actually leaving the ground. The biggest problem with our ravenous appetite for chicken products--as well as for pork and beef--is that soaring production has given rise to factory farms, or "concentrated animal-feeding operations." While the feeding may be concentrated, the impacts are anything but. Domestic livestock generate 2.7 trillion pounds of manure a year and have polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in more than 17 states. Did you want fries with that?

Soft Money

Money may be the root of all evil, but soft money has become the mother's milk of politics. It allows the wealthy to funnel unlimited contributions to political parties, which use the money to boost the campaigns via "issue" advertising that is virtually indistinguishable from your basic candidate plug. Although both major parties have profited handsomely from soft money, Republican leaders remain the biggest obstacle to real reform. And until we close this gaping loophole in the law, polluters will continue to give us the best government money can buy.

B. J. Bergman is Sierra's writer/editor.


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