The independent news organization of Duke University

Thinking inside the box

rants from the podium

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is this Wednesday. You don’t realize this yet, but fifty is a big deal. And so is the environment. So why am I not reading about this in my news feed? 

It may be because there’s nothing in my news feed but a constant flow of numbers (cases, deaths, cases, deaths). It’s as though everyone has shifted into a score-keeping mode now that we can’t watch sports anymore. In the middle of all this, I get the nagging suspicion that there’s an awful lot of important news going unreported, and that an awful lot of this news has to do with the state of the world’s environment. 

Unlike the majority of this column’s readers, I remember the first Earth Day. In 1970 the signs of environmental destruction had become obvious and tangible. I think people actually started thinking about this because of litter—obvious trash that was thrown out of car windows as a matter of course, and accumulated, in the way of discarded things, until it got ugly enough to bother people. And then they started noticing even uglier things. In my state, a river, the Cuyahoga, got so saturated with flammable stuff that it actually caught fire. In some US cities you could not see through the smog. There was a chemical called DDT that threatened to destroy a great swath of bird life, not least our national bird, the Bald Eagle. Toxic pollutants caused obvious, horrible diseases. There was—sorry, is—a thing called the ozone layer, which, it turns out, keeps us from dying horrible deaths, and it was dissolving invisibly because of certain chemicals in the air. Still is, btw. 

In those days I was young and frisky. I put on my special homemade smash-the-state T-shirt and boarded a pungent busload of compadres likewise attired. Off we drove on a raucous all-night ride to Washington! People were allowed to protest outside in those days and it was even fun, at least for us scruffy bottom feeders. Miraculously, a government agency was created to address environmental pollution (yes, the EPA). I was to get my first real job there. For eight hours a day I sat in a windowless office like Akaky Akakievich typing stuff on a typewriter (a clattering device designed to get words quickly onto paper) about something I didn’t understand called “peer review.” It didn’t feel like I was saving the world but it did pay enough, when combined with another minimum-wage job, this one in a famous local academic institution, to cover the rent in my rickety hovel. 

For a while, this flurry of activity produced results: in some parts of the world, including ours, the air and water cleared. Polluters went underground. Even litter disappeared, to the extent that your mom goes ballistic if she spots a cigarette butt on the sidewalk. The really scary dangers became invisible, like rats sneaking sick fleas across the border: Russian bots, nuclear waste, software, hedge-fund calculations, bitcoins, PACs, offshore bank havens, the fine print in your college-loan contract, electromagnetic waves and other stuff humanities people can’t wrap our minds around, and that void at the end of the 1-800 number where a disembodied voice periodically interrupts the endless loop of “I’m leaving on a jet plane” or “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” to tell you in a creepy monotone how important “you” are to “us.” 

When things cannot be seen, they are harder to fight. Not so long ago, companies realized that you would not be so irate if they would allow you to talk with what sounded like a real human being, who, for a shockingly low salary, would eventually pick up the phone and listen to you vent, while making gentle, sympathetic noises until you calmed down enough not to notice the true fact that your question was not to be answered, nor your money to be returned. Ever, sucker. 

In our current strange predicament, even people are becoming invisible. In the 1960s and 70s, clever engineers came up with a thing called the Neutron Bomb (or for you smart people, the Enhanced Radiation Weapon—ERW), which was designed to minimize actual physical blast power while maximizing the force of lethal radiation in the immediate blast area. Sounds fancy, but my primitive brain parsed it out to mean that the bomb would destroy squishy stuff (human beings) while leaving buildings intact. They even started building the damn thing. 

When enough people protested the ethical implications, the government—which in those days was still mildly functional—abandoned the project. But in the spring of 2020, a quick scan around our campus and city yields a picture not all that different from what a neutron-bomb blast would have produced: places where people used to go about their daily activities—campus buildings, places of worship, movie theaters, workplaces, labs, classrooms, gymnasiums, schools, day-care centers, malls, stadiums—all intact but vacant. No people. Meanwhile, places at the borders of human life, where things are never business as usual—hospitals, long-term care facilities, morgues—teem with activity.

The cost is human. The enemy, like the toxins with which we began this rant, is invisible. 

People go crazy cooped up like this, do things like clean the closets, sew weird little face masks out of old T-shirts, stare into their computer screen talking to nothing. Some of the rasher ones have even been known to go out after class and purchase a motorcycle. One thing about enforced idleness, though, is that when you’re done messing around, you still might have time to think things over calmly.

You might be sitting under a tree during a plague, and an apple might fall onto your head and generate radical ideas about gravity and inertia, and other stuff they now have names for in physics. You could be zooming in and out of non-existent classrooms, and random things pinging into your inbox could make you start thinking about sensitive issues like equity and justice, about why belt-tightening must always start with the bottom 99%, about what educational products might be worth preserving, about politicians who are promising, absurdly, to bring everything back to normal, about the upcoming election, which will be made completely of air, about what Dostoevsky might have to say about all this...

I hear the sound of throats being cleared. 

Blue hands flash one after another, lighting up my participants’ list.  

OK, all right:

...about how all this might lead people to save the planet.

This whole rant started with Earth Day. So even as we thank the heroes in our hospitals, trucks and stores who are keeping us alive, let us take advantage of this strange quiet time that we’ve been given to think things over. With so few automobiles on the road and planes in the air, the air quality around the world is better than it has been in decades. It is possible that we might discover, by not burning all that fossil fuel, that we actually don’t need it anyway? Maybe this crisis will teach us that our enemy is not human beings on the other side of the planet who speak funny languages, but terrifying stuff that threatens everyone’s survival: pollution, climate change, toxic waste. It doesn’t feel like it yet, guys, but trust me, our economy is toast. Standing on its ruins, we might discover new forms of work and compensation that would enable us to fight this common enemy together. But for this to happen, we have to abandon our usual ways of doing things. I know that this is especially hard for you, who’ve worked so hard to get an education, and who are now poised to enter this shattered world. 

But know that we’re all in this together.

I’m still thinking inside the box, but it’s not the empty box of our empty university. The box is my apartment. The box is my computer screen, where you and I live together. The box is our planet. 

Carol Apollonio is Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke. Her column, “rants from the podium,” runs on alternate Mondays.


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