Way up high in the Shenandoah Mountains where I live, it is difficult to maintain illusions about the natural world.
It is dying.
Maybe this is hard to see from a distance. Maybe from the confines of Senator Inhofe's dank office in Washington, D.C., or the musty bowels of the Huckabee campaign, it seems arrogant to claim that man is able to destroy the earth.
Up here in the mountains, it takes a world-class asshole to miss it.
Apart from the most obvious cases, like the Oriental Bittersweet vine, escaped from private gardens and smothering the mountains one acre at a time, the most painful proof of man's destruction is not what you can see right in front of you; it's what you will never see again.
A generation ago, hiking this part of the Appalachian Trail, visitors could easily look across 50, 60, 70 miles of the Piedmont foothills, almost to the tidewater basin. Today, on a typical summer afternoon, you're lucky to see 10 miles. That's because, according to the National Park Service, the Shenandoah mountains have the dirtiest air in the entire park system. Some days, visitors arriving at the entrance stations are greeted not only with glossy brochures about the flora and fauna, but with pollution health warnings. Enjoy the wilderness!
Just don't breathe.
Tracing the source of the pollution in these mountains is not complicated. It requires all the scientific sophistication of a third-grader. The park lies directly downwind from a slew of coal plants. Virtually all of the major contaminants in the local air and water are direct results of coal emissions. Coal produces ozone, which kills trees. Coal produces sulfates, which kill fish. No other park in the country has more ozone or sulfates than Shenandoah National Park.
A refresher on the food pyramid seems superfluous.
I have never considered myself anything other than an environmentalist. I have spent the better part of my life either in the wilderness, or trying desperately to get there. I have worked with solar power, rain-water catchment, and green living for more than a decade. And when I began researching nuclear power for my article, "Meltdown," in the current issue of GQ, it never occurred to me that an honest exploration of the subject would place me squarely at odds with nearly everyone else I know who cares about the environment.
Yet here I find myself. I did not set out to write "Meltdown" as an advocacy piece for nuclear power, and hope it doesn't read that way. But I think many of the facts about nuclear energy have been shrouded in a veil of mythology through the years. It has been my goal to get past the myth, and focus on the facts alone. Many of the fears about nuclear power, it turns out, are well-grounded in the data. Others simply are not. Taken as a whole, there is probably no question that the risk of a nuclear accident is both real and terrifying. Yet so is the stream of pollution that we choose every day instead, pouring millions of tons of carbon dioxide, mercury, and sulfates into the atmosphere, destroying ourselves and the world around us. While we wait for a more perfect solution, it seems to me that the environmental crisis is past critical. All of the options belong on the table. This includes the nuclear option.
A clear assessment of the facts is overdue. That is what I've tried to write.
Here's the link to the story at GQ.com.