Editorial. Why, Daddy, why? - Environmental Science & Technology

Why, Daddy, why? D H Michael Bowen. Environ. Sci. Technol. , 1971, 5 (1), pp 9–9. DOI: 10.1021/es60048a604. Publication Date: January 1971. ACS Lega...
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Why, Daddy, why? Many of society’s common practices are environmentally ridiculous, but it is seldom that they are challenged

f- l n y o n e who has children can testify to the accuracy of their pesky reputation for asking awkward questions. If it isn’t “Why the birds and the bees?” it’s “How do they get all that toothpaste into that itsy-bitsy little tube?” One sad thing in life is that education in school and in the home all too often manages to teach children that asking questions is a waste of time and breath. After a sufficient number of rebuffs, the average child learns never to question anything. And for an adult to charge about enthusiastically firing off question at others is regarded as at least unusual, and quite possibly impolite. For a supposedly innovative society, we are in many ways remarkably uninquisitive. Fortunately, of course, it does not take too many inquisitive souls to set the pace for society. The conveniences of modern life-television, automobiles, etc.-were conceived by a handful of thoughtful men, and are used by millions who never even wonder how appliances work. If this lack of inquisitiveness were confined to the mass of society-if, in other words, it did not characterize its leaders-then it would be harmless indeed. But there are signs that even those whose efforts are depended upon to carry society forward-the scientists, technologists, politicians, and professional civil servants, many of them readers of this publication-are getting so bogged down in the dayto-day morass of research or paperwork or whatever, that they are becoming less and less able to question the purpose of what they are doing. Which is a pity, because there are lots of purposes that need questioning and lots of assumptions that should be challenged. In the environmental area, there are certainly some questions that should be asked. This

month’s Viewpoint contributor, Harold Leich (see page 11), brings up a good one. Why do we continue to use such an obviously inefficient way to dispose of human wastes? By diluting the wastes with huge amounts of water, as we casually flush them away, we force ourselves to buy large pipes, large pumps, and large (and costly) sewage treatment plants. Why don’t we contrive a method to return the nutrients in the waste to the land, rather than synthesize fertilizers to replenish the soil? Then again, why do we spend a heap of money to provide water pure enough to drink, then use much of it for washing dishes, doing the laundry, cleaning our teeth, and watering our roses (and flushing wastes down the toilet)? What childish questions! One can add to the list: Why does society arrange itself so that commuter automobiles are all in the same place at the same time, so contributing mightily to air pollution while standing motionless on what is ironically referred to as a high-speed freeway? One could go on. Of course, we are not so naive as to be unaware that there are conventional answers to most of these questions. Generally, the answer is either: ( 1 ) We’ve always done it that way; or ( 2 ) It’s the cheapest way there is. As Alex Mills and his colleagues point out in this month’s feature article on fuels management (page 30), such answers are really not good enough. We had better start asking some questions. If you find it hard to ask them, maybe your children should ask for you. Perhaps, as Tom Lehrer’s song says about the new mathematics, “It’s so simple, only a child can do it.”

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