Last weekend, millions of eco-conscious citizens of the world saved the planet from going the way of Alderaan, and it only took an hour.
I refer, of course, to “Earth Hour,” a worldwide event in which participating individuals, households and businesses power down for 60 minutes, turning off lights and unplugging energy-sucking appliances. Earth Hour has been celebrated annually since 2007, and it must be working, because so far the Earth is intact.
Like most people, I did not observe Earth Hour. I slept in on Saturday, though, which had roughly the same effect.
I also did not partake in a rival event some boosters are calling “Human Achievement Hour.” The point of Human Achievement Hour is to show how awesome the human race is by turning on as many gizmos and gadgets as are readily available, sucking up as much energy as possible and generating the maximum amount of pollution — seemingly, mostly because we can.
Do not get me wrong — I am a big fan of human achievement. And we are having a very impressive year in the field of science and technology.
Last month saw the first successful solo manned expedition to the deepest point on Earth, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, 35,756 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
The month before, researchers at MIT announced the development of a new battery technology with 10 times the life expectancy of current top-shelf models.
Researchers are moving ahead with plans to clone a woolly mammoth from preserved DNA. If successful, it will be the first project to produce a specimen of a previously extinct species, and it could inject fresh hope into struggling conservation efforts fighting a losing battle against poachers, deforestation and climate change in many parts of the world.
Medical science has boomed in the early months of 2012 as well, with potential breakthroughs in fighting off HIV/AIDS, mental ailments and even certain types of cancer all being recorded in rapid succession.
And just today, Google unveiled a prototype of its new “smart” glasses, which function like a personal heads-up display while reading eye movements, recognizing the wearer’s voice and responding to both optical and audio commands. The best part is that they don’t even look incredibly dorky.
Maybe 2012 in human achievement lacks the drama and panache of, say, the lunar colony-state proposed by Republican presidential also-ran Newt Gingrich. But a potential cure for cancer — or a computer you wear on your face, for that matter — is nothing to sneeze at.
The thing is, I have my doubts the researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs behind all of these amazing advancements in science and technology intend for their efforts to be portrayed in opposition to the cause, trite and cursory though it may be in the medium of a hour-long annual lights-dimming tradition, of environmental awareness.
Call me crazy, but I am a skeptic that the types of people who celebrated Human Achievement Hour this year really did so out of genuine admiration for human achievement.
The thing is, the less savory (and horrendously convenient) aspects of human achievement do appear to be driving our climate to a tipping point, wiping out natural habits, upsetting fragile ecosystems, acidifying our oceans and waterways, altering the composition of the atmosphere and degrading the very ground in which our crops are planted and on which our cities are built. And while I would not describe myself as a hardcore environmentalist, I might venture to say that probably is a bad thing.
Human Achievement Hour and the reactionary, self-satisfied ideology that promotes it has it all wrong. In many cases, to paraphrase The Six Million Dollar Man, we have the technology. We can make things better than they are. And it is not scientists or engineers standing in the way — it’s politicians, business executives and lobbyists.
Take, for instance, the ongoing controversy over the nominally meat-based substance known to its advocates as “lean, finely textured beef” and to its detractors as “pink slime.” This material, created from mechanically separating refuse from beef carcasses during meat processing, dousing it with poisonous ammonia fumes to disinfect it, and packaging it in bricks for use as filler in commercial ground beef, was considered unfit for human consumption and used primarily in dog food until 2001.
Was it necessary to reclassify LFTB, to use the industry-preferred acronym for the dubious additive, as appropriate to sell in food people eat? Probably not. Did it make the production of ground beef cheaper? It surely did.
But the bizarre thing, to me, about this controversy is that while people are outraged to find their hamburger contains a gross-looking, chemically disinfected amalgam of less-than-prime beef trimmings, they are still directing little scrutiny at the meat industry as a whole.
The vast majority of commercially sold meat can now be sourced to a mere handful of factory farms known as CAFOs, or confined area feeding operations. At these enormous sites in the American interior, millions of animals are born, grown, fed and fattened in extremely small spaces, before being slaughtered by a mostly mechanized and far from clean process.
The carcasses are then sent to meat processing facilities, from which “pink slime” is far from the only unappetizing product. Even high-quality cuts of red meat sold in supermarkets are frequently dyed with chemicals to make them look more appealing.
But let us return to the CAFOs. It logically follows that a giant warehouse full of cows, pigs, chickens and other animals packed together like sardines in a can, often wallowing in their own waste, is a breeding ground for infection and disease. But not to fear — the friendly handful of agribusiness mega-conglomerates that own and operate these facilities (along with the vast majority of all other farms in the country, and quite a few outside it) have devised an ingenious solution.
When you go to the doctor and get a prescription for antibiotics, there is a strict limit on refills. You cannot simply get antibiotics prescribed for anything that ails you, and you cannot use them to stay healthy indefinitely. That’s because over time, bacteria and other nasty microorganisms antibiotics are designed to combat can build up a biological tolerance for the medication, creating resistant strains with the potential to cause major health emergencies.
But the likes of Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland have no such compunctions. Liberally dosing animal feed with antibiotics, whether the animals ingesting them are sick or healthy, is routine practice at CAFOs.
Through the power of human achievement, we have this miracle technology that can stop diseases from spreading. And through the power of human achievement, we know how to use it and how not to use it.
Yet colossal corporations that create the food we put in our bodies — as well as generate an eye-watering amount of pollution from these feeding operations, as well as from the gargantuan grain (read: corn and soybean) and vegetable farms they control — are treating human achievement like a Chinese take-out buffet, picking the discovery they can use to decrease their overhead and ignoring the discovery that would seem to make stuffing livestock full of antibiotics an outrageously unethical and irresponsible thing to do.
Human Achievement Hour is just a microcosm of that irresponsibility. For that matter, so is the noisy outrage over pink slime, and the mostly symbolic gesture supermarket chains have taken by refusing to stock ground beef containing it, even while gladly serving as the middle merchant for the rest of the corrupt industry’s product.
We have made great strides in science and technology so far this year, and if I have faith in anything, it is that the progress of human achievement will march on as long as the incredible men and women behind each new discovery continue their work. But it would be a real bummer if the capstone of our long list of impressive human achievements were to be our own extinction.
So if we can stop fooling around with these superfluous things and these unconstructive attitudes and start taking a serious look at how human achievement can save us and repair our planet, that would be great — because I’m sure we can do it, but probably not as long as we see invention as an excuse to run a blender for an hour just to annoy the hippies across the street.