Thursday, May 09, 2013

Unintentional Pollution

A common sight in Princeton is the stray bottle or aluminum can poised to disappear into the system of storm sewers leading to Lake Carnegie. From there, this plastic bottle will head down the Millstone River, past the intake for the treatment plant that provides most of our tapwater, and then down the Raritan River. If it doesn't get hung up anywhere along the way, it will eventually reach the ocean, where it will follow currents and congregate with other vagabond plastics in a widening gyre. Some plastics break into bits that clog the stomachs of marine life.

This small-sounding story is really the biggest story of our time, in which one small act, intended or not, is repeated billions of times over, with eventual consequence far removed in place and time from the original action. Collective action is rejected by some political persuasions, but the unintentional form of collective action is happening all the time, with great power to transform our world.

Carbon dioxide, released through the burning of fuels from the underground, is perhaps the tiniest yet most powerful example of how small, unintentional acts add up to something world-changing. Small acts by multitudes distant and near, accumulating over centuries, contributed to the widening gyre that became Hurricane Sandy.

Movies scare us with big manifestations of Evil wielding powerful weapons. But it's the accumulation of small things, unseen or invisible, slipping not only through the cracks in our storm drains, but also through the gaps in our perceptions and thinking, our regulatory and legal systems, that are proving to be the real enemy.

Related Post: Troubled Beverage Containers On the Brink.

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