For the Birds Radio Program: Energy Crisis

Original Air Date: March 20, 2001 (estimated date)

In 2001, why aren’t we working harder to conserve energy?

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The United States is entering another energy crisis and this bodes ill for the birds. Thirty years ago, when I was an idealistic young college student on the first Earth Day, I was absolutely certain that we’d quickly learn how to conserve energy, and develop plenty of clean energy sources that would solve all our problems before I had children.

Now my oldest child is an idealistic young college student, and we parents have left the world in not a whole lot better shape than our parents left it for us. In the past 30 years time we’ve lost countless species of plants and animals in the tropics, and right here in America lost the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Dusky Seaside Sparrow, and Bachman’s Warbler forever. People still burn dirty coal without adequate scrubbers, spewing more and more mercury into our skies to ultimately contaminate our air, land, and waterways. We still allow single-hulled ships to carry oil through the most sensitive waters of the world–this January there was even an oil spill offshore from the exquisite and irreplaceable Galapagos Islands. Despite the current energy crunch, I haven’t heard a single word from the administration encouraging conservation. The only proactive idea to come from the oilmen now running the country is to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

From my standpoint, the energy situation is complex but guaranteed to hurt birds one way or another. The safest energy source I know of is solar, and I wish I knew more people taking advantage of that. Wind power is perfectly clean, but does kill birds. I suspect that the numbers killed are much smaller than the numbers killed or deformed from oil spills and mercury contamination. Wind power would have enormous potential for absolute good if only its proponents would devote as much energy into researching how to minimize bird kills at their turbines as they do to denying that any birds are killed there. Natural gas burns much more cleanly than oil or coal, and nuclear power would be even cleaner if only there weren’t that pesky, persistent issue of what to do about the radioactive waste.

I’m always mystified when we as a people postpone difficult decisions, placing the burdens for our waste and carelessness on our own children. Being human, we certainly have a greater vested interest in the survival of human beings than we do in other species, but we never seem to quite grasp the connection between the well-being of birds and the well-being of our own species. That canary in the coal mine isn’t just a story—birds with their faster metabolisms and more finely-tuned physiologies provide us with a fine early-warning system, if only we heed the warnings.

Anyway, ever since I realized at some point late in my childhood that oil, gas, and coal are limited resources, I’ve firmly believed that squandering energy is a sinful waste. Future generations depend on us to preserve the treasures of this little planet. Trying to adapt to winter’s cold and summer’s heat, turning off lights and computers and TVs and games when not using them, taking buses or joining carpools—all these little gestures of energy conservation are a drop in the bucket—the bucket of our children’s futures. The first step is to plug up the holes we put in that bucket with our wasteful ways. Only after we’ve done our honest best to deal with the energy and pollution problems we’re bequeathing to our children will we start dealing with what we’re bequeathing the birds of future generations. Meanwhile, turn those extra lights out.