Aug 152008

Having a few days off I decided to make a 24-hour escape to the hills to enjoy Lake Tahoe. Everyone should see Lake Tahoe at least once in their lives, this mammoth sun-bathed lake rimmed by Sierra peaks. Fed by melted mountain snows, this reservoir in the crater of an ancient volcano is known for its particularly clear waters.

Such a gorgeous locale could hardly escape human notice, and patches of civilization line its shores. Of course, with civilization comes pollution, and Tahoe’s clear waters are in danger of losing their amazing clarity as a result of the nearby development. Consequently for a number of years there’s been a movement, as expressed by a lot of bumperstickers, to “Keep Tahoe Blue.”

Development-wise what’s done is done, however, and the human dimension of the Tahoe environment is interesting to see for its own sake, particularly in the area of South Lake Tahoe. It’s a unique place, with clusters of 1950s kitschy motels on the eastern edge of California’s lake shore and high-rise hotel casinos shooting up just on the Nevada side. Still, Stateline, Nevada, is hardly Vegas, or even Reno, and the surrounding mountains appropriately dwarf it all.

I had a nice day out, swimming in the lake during the afternoon and visiting the casinos in the evening. Being a Thursday, there was even a deal on a buffet, and I decided to treat myself to a meal that turned out to be both tasty and sickening, all at the same time. For this was a meal that turned out to be a crucible for so many things wrong about how America treats the environment.

Buffets seem to be very American things. I rarely see them in other countries. True, in France there are occasionally certain menu offerings that are “a volonte” but the concept of all-you-can-eat seems to be unique to America. Maybe it’s in some ways a celebration that our nation has been able to feed itself so successfully, evolving from untamed wilderness into an amazingly generous breadbasket. Or at least that’s how America’s been thought of in recent decades, a nation that always has plenty of cheap food in all of its stores — and therefore plenty of all-you-can-eat restaurants. The question does emerge, however: at what environmental cost has all this cheap food been produced?

I will leave alone the issues involved with the production of the meats, starches, and vegetables offered by the buffet. In any case, at least with regard to them I took only what I could eat. Maybe that restraint meant I didn’t get as much bang for my buck as I could have had, but I’ve reached a point where I can no longer feel comfortable taking more than I need just because I can.

Where I’m particularly cognizant of waste is when it comes to seafood. I do love certain fish, like salmon, fish whose stocks are disappearing at horrific rates due to overfishing and other environmental damage. I do continue to eat it, but I’m careful to mete it out to the infrequent occasion, and, even then, consume only what I need.

The fun thing about a buffet to me, though, is not the access to quantity as much as it is access to variety. I’m perfectly happy with little bits of lots of things, and so I thought it might be nice to have a little bit of the sushi they were offering at the made-to-order station. I asked for a salmon and avocado roll, a decadent treat of some of my favorite ingredients.
In my mind I would have gotten a few small rolls to complement the rest of my meal. Instead I got this enormous wad of rice and fish, with strips of salmon and tuna rolled up both within the roll and then layered on the outside. It was huge, and consequently disgusting. Gluttony never tastes good.

But maybe my taste is unusual. Maybe for anyone else in the restaurant this would have been seen as a great deal, because, after all, the bigger the better, right? But for me, it was sushi at tragic proportions, emblematic of what ills America: our inability to satisfy our wants and needs with sustainable moderation. (I did eat it, at least all the fish, because I couldn’t bear to waste it. But while there may be riots in the developing world as staple grains become unaffordable, I just couldn’t eat all that rice in that bloated roll.)

Of course, it’s not just food that Americans treat as if it exists in bottomless supply, but other materials, including fuel. Which strikes me as really odd. I have a very clear memory of the oil shock of the late seventies, when stations hung out red, yellow, or green flags to indicate their supply of gasoline, but it seems no one else does. I absolutely cannot fathom how in the intervening thirty years we have not moved towards greater fuel efficiency. All the wailing and moaning done by car companies about how it’s too expensive to develop more economical automobiles… What if in all this time they’d taken the money they spent on lobbying against fuel standards and instead developed better cars? Or diversified into mass transit vehicles? What if during the years of their wealth they’d done that, instead of finding their backs against the wall today as fuel prices spike and their stock values plummet because suddenly no one wants to buy their gas-guzzling cars? How well off would we all be today if long ago we’d all learned the lessons of frugality?

But here we are, with an economy straining under the weight of skyrocketing prices of a good we just can’t get enough of. Which politicians increasingly are trying to salve with promises of increased supply from our own offshore drilling.

Only it’s hardly a solution. For one thing, offshore drilling would have no effect on supply for many years. Secondly, consumption of fossil fuels causes other environmental consequences, like air pollution, which increased supply would only exacerbate.

But the biggest reason I’m repulsed by the whole idea returns to the idea at the beginning of this essay, of keeping our waters blue. Because oil and water do not mix, and yet so often they are.

No matter how careful any driller pledges to be, they just won’t be careful enough. There’s insufficient motivation to be. Oil spills are just not regarded as the environmental apocalypse they really are. While litigation surrounding the Exxon Valdez disaster continues to drag on nearly twenty years after it happened, plenty of other ships continue to damage waterways with their sludge. Meanwhile we can’t even achieve an infrastructure to prevent sewage from spilling into our bays and estuaries. The New York Times recently ran an article about New York beaches closed for sewage overflow, while in the Bay Area there was yet another discharge off of Marin County — at least the fourth this year alone!

If we can’t even have an infrastructure that can manage to reliably keep sewage out of our water, how can we risk offshore oil drilling? Santa Barbara beaches are still cleaning up from the effects of a massive oil spill in 1969. The amount of harm at stake, and the likelihood of it occurring, is just too high too afford. We cannot afford to have our waterways further polluted, our fisheries further damaged. If we’d like our children to ever get to experience their own overstuffed sushi rolls, then we must make sure that there still will be fish left for them. Risking their further harm, just because we are a society incapable of moderating our wants and needs, is utter folly.

Instead, if we really want a solution to our fuel crisis, maybe it’s finally time to get a grip on our consumption, to finally as a nation intuit that nothing is limitless so we’ll have to learn to live within our means. I don’t mean to say that we must be completely ascetic; I did after all just take a gratuitous solo trip to the mountains. Of course, I did it in a ’94 Sentra that got 380 miles on 9 1/4 gallons of gas, a mileage rate few of today’s cars can meet.

I can only hope that more of tomorrow’s do, so that we can be assured of having beautiful blue waters to visit in the future too.

 Posted by at 11:47 pm

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