October 4, 1990

Carbon Dioxide

The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor his theory.

Thomas Jefferson

Pollution is a dirty word! "Self pollution" was used for masturbation, to get the message across that it was BAD, BAD, BAD. You don't have to do much thinking to know that a lot of garbage(also a BAD word) in your air and water is bad for you. Even if it isn't a particular health hazard, it doesn't taste or smell good.

If it smells GOOD, like perfume, garlic, onions, bread baking, most of us don't consider it pollution --provided that we happen to like those smells. Some substances that make water taste bad, such as iron, may actually be good for you.

Many of us like the faint smell of wood smoke. Large amounts are unpleasant. Wood smoke is loaded with chemical carcinogens and if you breath a lot of it for a long time, you can expect problems from it that are similar to those that you get from living in tobacco-smoke filled rooms.

In spite of what you might have read, carbon dioxide (CO2)is not a pollutant. It's as essential a part of our life as are water and oxygen. It's essential to plant growth, which is essential to us. We need plants to survive and plants need carbon dioxide. All life, animal and plant, breathes out CO2. In the presence of light, green plants take in carbon dioxide and put out oxygen. Carbon dioxide and sunlight are ultimately the source of almost all of our food.

In large quantities, carbon dioxide is lethal. You can suffocate in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide just as you can drown in water. It is used to kill experimental animals and it is a humane way of doing so. If you breath into a plastic bag, you can increase the amount of CO2 in your blood. You can also commit suicide by that means. However, if you stop before you pass out, you will be no worse for it; there are no residual effects that I know of.

While I haven't examined the evidence, I have read that increasing the carbon dioxide in a greenhouse is a stimulant to plant growth. If true, increasing the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere might make plants grow better all over the world, thereby using up more CO2. That is, provided we leave the vegetation.

There is a hypothesis that increased CO2 in the atmosphere may contribute to global warming and there is some evidence for it; although it is by no means conclusive. The Earth has, in the past, both cooled down and warmed up. There were periods of global warming and ice ages long before man started cluttering up the atmosphere.

Most environmentalists favor the conservation of energy, which is an excellent idea. While it will help, it will not solve the problem as long as the number of people and their need for energy continues to increase.

An excellent case can be made for the fact that a very large percentage of the energy used in an industrial society is wasted. If you get your energy from a utility company, consider how much of the light and heat that you produce serves no useful purpose whatever. Those of us who make our own power don't waste as much.

I have heard it said that our energy use could be cut in half without any loss of much of anything. I believe it. However, getting all of the people to change their energy-use habits is not something that can be done overnight. The proverb "waste not, want not" is now more honored in the breach than in the observance. Habits of conservation require education from the cradle on, and I'm not sure that it would work because of a basic resistance of people to doing things that make sense. This will be the subject of another essay, some day, on Conspicuous Consumption and Conspicuous Leisure. The use of other sources of "clean" power, such as solar, wind or hydroelectric, are also a good idea.

If you are concerned about it, and want to do something to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, you can do your part and, at the same time, make your own world a nicer place in which to live. Plant things --trees, shrubs, grass --anything that's green. Don't cut anything green down without having a good reason.

However, don't be too fanatical about carbon dioxide, or you may decide to stop breathing --which can be hazardous to your health.

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