Pollution is a problem in a closed atmospheric system

Forrest Johnson

Editor's note: Please get climate involved. We have only one planet and our stewardship has been lacking.

When you live in a closed atmospheric system, as we do here on planet earth, human waste, emissions and pollution are trouble. Since we have been releasing waste, emissions and pollution from the burning of fossil fuels for the past 150 years on an ever increasing curve, it appears as though waste, emissions and pollution have overwhelmed the planet’s ability to absorb and store said waste, emissions and pollution. 

As a result, the environment and the climate are changing in a single lifetime.

That spells more trouble.

As a 65 year-old commercial salmon fisherman in Bristol Bay, Alaska I have concerns with a Bering Sea that is warming. I have concerns that rearing streams and lakes for the largest migration of fish on the planet are warming, that the snow pack in the mountains of Katmai, the Aleutians, Lake Clark and the Wood River are changing. I have concerns that rising seas, only a few inches so far, have already meant more visible erosion from higher tidal fluctuations. This is not speculative. Bristol Bay fishermen are living it. 

We humans are willingly driving the planet and all species toward an uncharted environmental future.    

I repeat, we live in a closed system. Whatever waste, emissions and pollution we produce are trapped. None of the particulates, soot or gases good and bad magically float up through our thin layer of breathable gases and harmlessly off into space. Waste, emissions and pollution stay with us within this slight protective veil that separates us from space. The thin veil of atmosphere that allows life on the planet is a mere five to seven miles thick, a slight whisp of protective air that we use as an open sewer for waste. The gases, both good and bad, don’t float away harmlessly into space. 

I won’t argue ideology. I will argue that a cleaner planet and the effort to shift from fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources and energy efficient infrastructure are the future for all generations to follow. We are at a cusp in time when we have the ability and knowledge to solve the pollution problem and create a more sustainable economy at the same time.

I will not argue any longer with folks who just can’t grasp the crux of the problem. The red herring argument that it’s too costly to head for a renewable energy system ignores the true costs of cleaning up after ourselves in a fossil fuel based economy. The true economic cost of pollution within a closed atmospheric system has to be included in the “penny-cheap electricity” motto of the past. Penny cheap meant greenhouse gas pollution and acid rain pollution and smog. Using fossil fuels has never been as cheap as we’d like to think when we add in all the environmental and health issues over time. Fossil fuels have been costly to the planet and all of us on it.

Time to wean ourselves and head toward a cleaner future. 

I was born in 1954 when the population of the United States was 163 million. We have now grown to 329 million, double what it was when I was born. In 1954 the population of the planet was 2.7 billion and in 2019 we have grown to 7.7 billion. That’s a lot of people and a lot of waste.

I have explained before that we in the United States have done a pretty good job of mitigating what wastes we produce. We have been successful in reducing the amount of the potential waste we produce but we have not slowed the overall amount of waste we produce. We are burning more fossil fuels than we did in 1954 because there are more of us, more cars, more power plants, more everything. We no longer simply send our waste out into Lake Superior in a pipe but the accumulation of wastes spread across the landscape still ends up in our waters. The accumulation of what we pump into the atmosphere, the particulates, soot and gases, still end up in our lungs and have increasingly overwhelmed the planet’s ability to store them harmlessly away.

We live in a closed atmospheric system. It’s a pretty simple equation that the doubling and tripling of populations will mean more pollution. We can bask in the success that rivers and lakes don’t catch fire like they used to but the overall amount of what we’re putting into our land, air and water has grown. As a species, we are using more energy, making and buying more stuff, making more people and thus creating more pollution and making more trouble for ourselves than we ever have.

It’s pretty simple as I see it. I won’t argue any longer with folks who want to ignore all the above. All I can hope is that at some point soon we will move quickly toward solving the problem that pollution creates for our planet and the climate. We live in a closed atmospheric system. The wastes we produce do not float harmlessly into space. I’ll repeat again and again, the wastes we produce are overwhelming the planet’s ability to utilize and store those wastes harmlessly away.

Pollution is a problem I won’t hand off to my children, my grandchildren. I won’t ignore the part of the problem the development of our nation has contributed. We are a responsible party in the development of the changes in our environment and the climate.

We have to accept this responsibility and move toward solving the problem. Fast.