By Donella Meadows
–October 24, 1991–
A bonfire on a crisp night at the darkening time of year is a heartwarming thing — especially a huge bonfire like the one they light for Dartmouth Homecoming every year. Freshmen labor for a week to erect its star-shaped wooden structure, three stories high. When it burns, showers of sparks fly up into the black sky, and its flames light up the joyful faces of thousands of people.
Many who come to see the bonfire have no connection with Dartmouth and couldn’t care less who wins the next day’s football game. They come, I guess, for the same reasons I do — to feel the comforting, tribal, unifying emotions that a bonfire evokes — good feelings in these individualistic, Nintendo-zonked times.
“Big White-Man fire,” sniffs a young woodsman friend of mine, who would never put on a fire one stick more than he needs to boil his soup. The Nintendo generation is an environmentally aware one, especially at Dartmouth, where students chastise professors for failing to put discarded mail in the white-paper recycling container. These young people have been carrying on an earnest debate for several years about whether bonfires are environmentally acceptable.
What a waste of trees, say the eco-purists. They are better left standing in the forest, building soil and ridding the atmosphere of greenhouse gases. When reminded that the bonfire is traditionally made from derelict buildings and old railroad ties, the purists calculate how many poor families could heat their houses all winter from the wood splurged in one glorious night on the Hanover Green. (Two family-winters per bonfire, they claim.)
And what is going up into the sky along with the sparks? they ask and then answer. Particulates. Carbon dioxide. Sulfur dioxide that makes acid rain.
The environmentalists won a point a few years ago, when they began asking about the creosote in the railroad ties. What happens when THAT burns? Is the bonfire carcinogenic? Nervously, the College switched to other sources of wood. The first creosote-free year, the fire didn’t burn. Now they douse it liberally with gasoline.
The absence of creosote has not stopped the debate. “I cannot help but see [the bonfire] as a symbol of the times we live in — a symbol of a generation that has been rapidly depleting the resources of our planet, making waste a part of our lifestyle and polluting the environment.” So wrote freshman Chris Carson this fall in “Sense of Place,” the students’ computer-based environmental magazine. (It’s computer-based so it won’t consume trees for paper.)
Chris Carson was writing two weeks before he saw his first Dartmouth bonfire. I agree with his analysis of the “times we live in,” but I hope he was able to bring himself to enjoy the fire.
How can I say to these fine young people that they need to lighten up? It’s hard enough to be an environmentalist and always be accused of spoiling everyone’s fun — why spoil everyone’s fun unnecessarily? Think globally, act locally, that’s fine. Start with the problem right in front of you, that’s what I try to teach them. Don’t waste resources. But there are still enough resources in the world, thank goodness, to have some fun.
Nature can handle bonfires. Nature makes bonfires all the time (not, admittedly, out of creosote-soaked railroad ties or gasoline). The environmental lesson in a bonfire is not that it’s wasteful or polluting, but that, if human beings don’t curb their wastefulness and their penchant for constant expansion, there will come a time when the planet will provide neither the sources nor the sinks for bonfires.
There are already places in the world where once there was wood for bonfires, but now no wood grows at all. There is also at least one place where there is not enough pollution-absorption capcity for a bonfire — Los Angeles.
Autopsies on Los Angeles teenagers killed in accidents or homicides reveal that nearly all of them, even non-smokers, have chronic lung inflammation by the age of 20. Pollution control technologies have reduced the contaminants coming out of each car tailpipe in California by 85 percent. But while that was happening, the number of cars in southern California grew by 50 percent and the number of miles each car was driven in a year grew by 65 percent. So Los Angeles still has 190 days each year when it’s not safe to breathe.
To keep the air from getting worse, the people of southern California, instead of choosing to limit the number of cars, car-miles, people, or factories crammed into their territory, are choosing to limit many of their own activities, including bonfires. And outdoor barbecues. And the use of spray paints, volatile solvents, and organic propellants in hairsprays or deoderants.
New Hampshire is a long way from California in more than miles, but the lesson of Los Angeles is worth pondering. Environmentalists don’t set limits, nature’s laws do. If the choice is to go on pushing against limits, the first cost won’t be at the level of survival, it will be at the level of freedom and fun.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991