On Earth Day last week, I saw a burger wrapper tossed from an old Buick and was stunned that anyone still thought it was OK to use our shared habitat as a personal dumpster. Later that same day however, I saw a homeless man pick up a Styrofoam cup from the gutter and drop it in a trash can nearby, a tsk-tsk look clearly visible on his face.
Trivial perhaps, but those two incidents exemplify both the despair and the hope that we will ever climb the mountain ahead of us. The problems are obvious, from nuclear accidents in Japan to water pollution in the Marcellus gas fracking region, but perhaps one positive solution to our environmental challenges is simply applying know-how we already have to our problems. We just have to ask the right people for solutions.
Here’s two small and simple suggestions:
Last week marked the anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Meetings were held in the region to report the findings of the committee investigating the disaster and give residents the chance to tell their own stories. My colleagues Kris Haddad and Andria Mack were there to record these stories and have documented them at Livespergallon.net. The triumphs and tragedies were punctuated with one common refrain—that victims had trouble speaking with a live person to apply for help or to fix problems with settlements that had been already made.
In contrast, I had a billing problem with an Apple computer purchase recently, so I
called their customer service line. A friendly computerized voice
answered immediately and instructed me to describe my problem in regular
sentences (none of the usual "dial 1 to be frustrated; dial 2 to be
really frustrated; dial 3 to be REALY frustrated" and so on). I
explained the issue and was asked for the order number. Within 90
seconds I was speaking to a live person, who had already looked up the
record and was fixing the problem.
So here’s the idea. Why not ask Apple to use its system manage claims and complaints from something like the BP disaster, by piggybacking on an existing—and highly efficient—customer call center? It would cost a lot less than creating a new system and would clearly be more effective than the process cobbled together by a number of finger-pointing oil companies and government agencies.
While we’re at it, let’s ask Harvard to find all of the subsidies we give to fossil fuels so Congress can end them. In a recent article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, detailed the economic, health and environmental costs associated with each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transportation, processing, and combustion—and found that the coal industry passes on almost half a trillion dollars each year in costs to the public. G20 nations pledged last year to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and President Obama just asked Congress to eliminate $4 billion in tax breaks for oil companies. I bet Epstein could find more for beleaguered taxpayers and treehuggers alike. Imagine what he could find if he went to New Orleans and looked at BP’s books or the IRS to look at oil company tax returns.
Photo from Flickr user DanCentury