6 Facts About The Environment (That Just Aren't True)
If it wasn't for Earth's environment, we'd all resemble California Raisins right now -- but dead, perhaps on fire, and certainly not grape-flavored. So we're confident that, as upstanding readers of Cracked, you do your part to keep Captain Planet brimming with proud tears on the daily.
Unfortunately, some of the lessons he taught are about as useful as telling people to wipe their butts with recycled uranium fuel rods. So the next time you want to do something green, keep in mind that ...
"Biodegradable" Is A Meaningless Word
"Biodegradable" is a word that looks good on product packaging, like "organic" or "sextacular." But do you know what's actually biodegradable? Fucking everything, under the right circumstances. The plastic container your new headphones came in might require decades in very specific conditions to decompose, but in the long run, they're as biodegradable as a banana peel.
Which is why you were buying new headphones.
We think that anything labeled "biodegradable" veers towards the banana end of the spectrum. But in reality, it's much closer to that bullshit, impossible-to-open plastic packaging. When composted with carefully maintained moisture and temperature, biodegradable plastics will indeed degrade as intended. But toss it in the garbage, standard recycling, or even the compost heap in your backyard, and you might as well set that plastic on fire for all the good it's going to do the environment. Your so-called biodegradable plastic is either going to degrade in a process your distant descendants will be able to witness, or it will degrade improperly and release methane gas, which is basically the worst thing you can release, short of locust plagues.
And that factors in the fact that locust plagues are usually bookended by frog rain and 40 days of darkness.
But don't get too down on yourself for throwing biodegradables in the trash and assuming that science magic would unfold, as most communities lack proper composting facilities. While their numbers are growing, there's a good chance that seeking out biodegradable packaging in your neighborhood will help about as much as seeking out sunscreen in a firestorm. And good luck on that search, as the FTC recently cracked down on companies whose claims of making biodegradable plastics were as accurate as our claims of winning The Great North American Sex Contest (In truth, we only made it to the semi-finals in Winnipeg).
Throw in the fact that the claim of "biodegradable" has no specific standards and no governing body to oversee those nonexistent standards, and you might as well stand in the aisles of your grocery store and toss darts to determine which food has the most environmentally friendly packaging. We're not saying that you should throw up your arms in despair, but you do need to acknowledge that helping the environment requires more work than buying the package with a leaf on it.
Planting Trees Can Hurt The Environment
Thanks to Earth Day PSAs and the relentless persistence of the diehard propagandists behind Arbor Day, most of us know that planting a tree is one of the most important ways you can help save the planet. Unless you live in a cold climate, that is. In that case, planting a tree can cause more damage than good.
Thanks a lot, dick.
We're taught that trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, like leafy friends that always have our backs, even though we keep turning them into boxes for our cats to play in. Trees also absorb the Sun's energy instead of letting it reflect back into space to let the Martians get a little warmth, and that raises the Earth's temperature. The water that trees consumes evaporates back into the atmosphere, forming clouds that shield us from the Sun. Trees, in other words, are the Earth's guardian angels. Planting more trees is like planting tiny, living soldiers who will protect us from the Sun's anger bullets.
There's one problem with the theory that trees are unequivocally awesome under all circumstances: science. Let's say that someone figured out a way to destroy all of the world's forests in one Bond Villainesque blow. Our first reaction to the arborcide would be "Great, where are all the monkeys going to live?" Our second reaction would be the horror of realizing that the whole planet will go to shit without trees. That's probably true, but not for the reasons you think.
One climate model predicted that if all of world's forests were cut down, the earth's temperature would decrease within a few decades. While trees in tropical regions are awesome at absorbing carbon dioxide, absorbing the Sun's heat, and sending water back into the atmosphere (a.k.a. everything we love about trees), trees that are closer to the poles suck at two out of those three tree-jobs. This is why Canadian forests don't get to call themselves rainforests.
You hear that, Canada? Stop all that sex training and start chopping your picturesque landscapes the fuck down.
So planting a forest of trees in Brazil helps the global climate because the trees emit enough water to cool the earth down a bit. Planting a new forest in North Dakota is less helpful, because those trees will absorb carbon dioxide without putting a ton of moisture back into the atmosphere. They're warming the planet, not cooling it down.
And while they're replacing carbon dioxide with oxygen, they're also belching out their own chemicals. Trees need to protect themselves from bugs, heat, and other environmental factors. That protection comes in the form of "volatile organic compounds," which sound like concoctions that zombify people, but are natural emissions that mix with the by-products of cars and factories to form some nasty shit.
But wait, burning forests down is also bad? God, the environment's confusing.
Finally, trees are responsible for far less oxygen than we think. We could scour the Earth of them today, and we'd still be able to breathe easy. That's not to say that we should, as trees still offer countless benefits, like giving us something to drink our beer under in the summer. But while avoiding deforestation is good, simply planting a ton of trees won't solve climate change. So don't cancel your landscaping plans, but don't brag to your friends about how green you are, either.
Earth Hour Is Pretty Useless
Earth Hour is the one time of the year when sitting alone in the dark makes you feel good instead of pathetic and lonely. But not only does Earth Hour offer little tangible benefit, it's also arguably counterproductive. For starters, everyone turning their lights off for an hour to combat climate change is like trimming your toenails to lose weight. It's a nice gesture, but at best, it's the equivalent of cutting China's carbon dioxide emissions for four minutes. That's what, one crate of bootleg Powder Rager toys?
And what do people do during that hour in the dark? Talk to their loved ones? Sit quietly and contemplate their mortality? Hell no. We said we'd help the Earth, not get all existential. We want to play Monopoly, or get drunk, or play drunken Monopoly. And to do that, we turn to the candles that have been sitting in our emergency supply kit for the past 25 years.
"So, how's ... stuff ...? Jesus, how long until we can get back to Netflix?"
There are many variables to consider, but as a general rule, it doesn't take much to make candles less environmentally friendly than leaving your lights on -- especially if you've already swapped out your incandescent lights for low-energy compact fluorescent lights. One parraffin (oil-based) candle, for example, emits about 10 grams of carbon dioxide after an hour. One CFL bulb emits about five grams of carbon dioxide an hour.
But what if you have regular light bulbs, and you're burning soy or beeswax candles during Earth Hour? Well, good job. You're helping the planet! Just don't go nuts by heading out to a special Earth Day candlelit dinner or candlelit concert before heading home to a candlelit lovemaking session, which will probably be followed by a trip to the candlelit burn ward.
Sure, it looks sexy, but don't attempt anything until you've got a fire extinguisher
sitting next to the whipped cream can. Also, try not to mix those two up.
So Earth Hour is two baby steps forward and one candlelit step back. But it's still progress, right? And even if it's not making a tangible difference, it's still raising awareness for a serious problem, right? Do we hate flowers and pandas?
Yes, we do. Flowers make us sneeze and pandas are dumb. But more to the point, we tend to take "raising awareness" as an excuse to get right back to accidentally leaving the bathroom light on all day and not feeling bad about it. Why should we? We've already done our part. And "our part" during Earth Hour is arrogant -- as Slate points out, electric lights are the least of the environment's problems. We're still sitting in air-conditioned rooms and playing on our phones. Meanwhile, the developing world could really use some of that electricity we're shutting off for 60 minutes. In fact, they could probably improve their own environmental standards if they had easier access to some.
You mean that being forced to keep warm with trash fires might have unintended consequences? We refuse to believe it.
But turning the lights off for an hour is easy, and having serious talks about the need to significantly change our lifestyles and invest in green technology is, like, hard work and stuff. So in a way, sitting in the dark is oddly appropriate.
We Need To Stop Blaming One Industry For Drought
California's drought is a big problem, but we like easy solutions. We think that adding a salad to every meal will trim our stomach fat, that climbing the stairs to the office will get us in shape, and that getting a new hairstyle will fill the emotional void our significant other left when they abandoned us because we were chubby and wheezy. So our first instinct to point at something that uses a lot of water and tell them to cut that shit out like it will singlehandedly fix everything.
"You know that this gym is air-conditioned, asshole?"
For example, almonds. No one likes you, almonds. You're bitter and gross, and you think that just because your cool friend cashews gets invited to all the nut bowls, that you can ride in on his coattails like an asshole. And then we hear that it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond? Fuck you, almonds!
But as much as it pains us to say it, we (ugh) owe almonds an apology. Calls to boycott them are well-intentioned but fundamentally misguided, like everything else your Facebook friends have ever tried to rope you into. Seventy percent of California's almonds are sold internationally, so Californians boycotting them is like Texans boycotting snow shovel manufacturers. And while a gallon per almond is a terrifying statistic on the surface, it ignores the sustainability practices of many almond farmers. They may use lots of water, but unlike your half-hour shower, they use it efficiently. And in the grand scheme of things, almonds don't use as much water as it sounds like they do.
Alfafa?! So it was you all along!
Our brains are bad at numbers, and that makes it difficult for us to grasp the scale of the drought. For example, what we're sure is a totally accurate Facebook image says that fracking uses two million gallons a day.
If there's one source you can trust for all the information, it's Twitter hashtag campaigns.
Holy shit! That's a lot, right? Well, it is compared to what you use in a year (hopefully). But compared to the 11 trillion gallons NASA thinks is required to end the drought, it's a drop in the ... uh ... sorry, bad analogy. Look, educating and mobilizing every member of society on smart water usage is tough. Pointing at one industry and screaming at it as though it's the only cause of the problem is way easier, and you get to do it from your very own moral high ground!
Solar Panels Don't Make Your House More Valuable
Solar panels sound great in theory. Slap a few funny-looking tiles on your roof, and suddenly you're free of the power company's constant demands for money? That's enough to make even the staunchest climate change denier consider going green. And if you ever decide to sell the old homestead, having solar panels is like sticking a sign in your yard that says "This house is a better value than that energy-sucking behemoth next door."
They're like bumper stickers for your roof!
But here's the thing everyone forgets when they picture themselves humble-bragging to their neighbors: Solar panels can easily cost $20,000 or more. The short-term solution is to lease the panels, which offsets the cost over a couple of decades. That all but eliminates the money you save from cutting ties with your power company, but at least you still get that sweet sense of smug superiority.
But then if you want to sell, interested buyers are stuck with a whole second financial headache. They'd have to take over the lease, so you'd better hope they're as committed to saving the planet as you are. To many people, solar power is still mysterious and arcane. They're either going to be flat-out uninterested in taking on the responsibility, or they won't ask many questions about how it works for fear of angering Ra, only to back out when they find themselves being asked to sign a document that puts them on the hook for 10 years of payment.
"Wait, what's this part about being legally required to build 'mighty Obelisks'?"
Even if buyers are willing to take on the lease, they may find themselves put off by high credit rating requirements or unfair terms. It's a problem that's going to get worse as solar gets more popular, because much like that drunk lawn gnome you thought was cute, the real estate market has a dim view of good intentions. Deals are falling apart at the last minute, and sellers are forced to pay off their panels before they can get serious interest on the housing market, which knocks 10 to 30 grand off their profit margin.
Outright buying, installing, and running panels yourself provides more profit and eliminates complications when selling, but then you're stuck running your own little power plant. And who wants to do that? We want to feel good about helping the planet without having to work, goddammit.
No One Is Being Forced To Drink Sewage And Toilet Water
It's the kind of story that lazy journalists love. A drought so bad that people are forced to drink toilet water? Great! Write a sensational headline and hit the bar for a two-hour liquid lunch!
Those headlines need more asterisks than a baseball record book. Terms like "toilet to tap" and "sewage water" conjure up images of an innocent little girl standing on her tiptoes to get a glass of water before bed, only to turn the tap and spray herself with an uncontrollable wave of fecal matter, menstrual blood, and super-AIDS. But wastewater goes through so much purification before it reaches your throat that it's cleaner than bottled water. Yes, even if the bottles have mountains on them.
Water gets recycled for irrigation all the time, but as soon as there's talk of using it for drinking, some people react like they've been asked to stick their head in a urinal and slurp. Attempts to use recycled drinking water in California were beaten back by misguided activists in the '90s, and even today, 13 percent of Americans say that they'd refuse to even try water that they wouldn't recognize as unusual if the media would stop associating it with toilets at every given opportunity.
Attitudes are starting to shift, thanks to the drought, and the concept has been successful elsewhere. Disneyland's been using recycled wastewater since 2009, and astronauts on the International Space Station have been drinking recycled urine and sweat for years. Apparently, the only way for some people to get over the ick factor is to threaten them with a natural disaster and then point out that Goofy and astronauts do it. But it's still a battle, because while we're happy to tell entire industries that they need to change completely to make our lives easier, the moment we're asked to personally change, all this talk of making sacrifices for the planet doesn't sound as convincing.
You can read more from Mark at his biodegradable website.
Also be sure to check out 5 Environmental Myths Too Many People Still Believe and 5 Seemingly Innocent Ways You've Screwed The World Today.
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