Environmental morality: a personal view

DOWNEY - We've been discussing recycling in this column since the Christmas season dropped its usual load of trash and recyclables upon us, with all the gifts and their attendant wrapping and packaging. Following that, as always, New Year's brings its own tradition of setting resolutions to do things a little better this year. It occurs to me that the topics of my articles may be of little interest to many people for whom recycling and numerous other environmental issues addressed in this space over the last year and a half are merely blips on the changing screen of their own personal lives. But I write every week because I believe these are moral issues which need to be kept in the public consciousness, as well as my own.

That's not because I have nothing better to do. My calling happens to be music. I compose and play the piano, and I would like nothing better than to spend about five hours a day writing a symphony or a piece for jazz band and another five hours every day "tickling the ivories." This goes back to my childhood when, in the early 60's, my folks decided to buy a Steinway baby grand instead of building one of the bomb shelters that were all the rage back then. That Steinway was a cherished part of my life for many years.

Bear with me while I cut to present day, and two reports I heard yesterday on National Public Radio which for me put the issue of environmental morality in perspective.

The first story had to do with car-sharing, a relatively new practice that is developing a following in some of the world's vastly overcrowded countries, as well as closer to home in places like San Francisco, for example. With car-sharing, you don't need to own a car; you just rent one that's permanently parked somewhere close by for an hour or two with a credit card. One of the troubling statistics reported in this NPR story was the fact that 700 out of every 1,000 Americans own a car, where the ratio in China is a mere 46 to 1,000. In India, with some of the most crowded cities on the planet, the ratio of car owners to cars is only 12 to 1,000.

Now I grant that in our culture--particularly in suburban Downey--it's hard to imagine a world where you don't just jump into your automobile at the drop of a hat. But it gives me pause to think of the incredible cost in natural resources that comes with the culture we've adopted in this country. The second NPR story dealt with the slaughter of an entire family of eleven elephants in Kenya just two days ago. These elephants were killed for their ivory tusks, which are sold on the black market in Eastern countries, especially China, where the ivory is used to craft religious icons. This is not a new problem. National Geographic ran an article this past October with the cover headline that 25,000 elephants were killed in Africa last year.

It would be nice if I were able to dismiss this as someone else's problem, but it comes back around to a very personal significance in the following way. My wife and I spent a weekend this November--after the aforementioned National Geographic article had arrived in the mail--in the charming pre-Colonial coastal town of Essex, Connecticut. I learned while we were there that Essex had become the center of the American ivory trade beginning in the 17th and continuing into the 20th centuries. Ships bearing ivory tusks, and the African hunters who were enslaved after transporting them, dumped their cargo at the port of Essex, just a short distance up the mouth of the Connecticut River.

But here's where it gets personal: because the Steinway piano factory was also in Essex. And for many years, even up to the 1980's when ivory became internationally illegal, Steinway manufactured pianos with ivory keys. So in some way, the blood of those slaughtered elephants is literally on my hands.

Obviously I can't change the course of environmental injustices that were set in place centuries ago. Maybe they weren't even unjust back in those days. Today, piano keys are made from plastic, and plastic, as I've mentioned numerous times in these articles, brings its own environmental problems, made as it is from petroleum.

So I'll keep writing, because for me, environmental morality is personal.

********** Published: January 10, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 39