This week is Environmental Awareness Week. The press release sent out from the College Marketing department on behalf of The Center for the Study of Ethics announcing all the topics and guest speakers for this week’s 21st Annual Environmental Ethics Conference opens with the following question and statement: "Did you know that Salt Lake City, Provo and Logan consistently rank in the top 10 U.S. cities for worst acute spikes in air pollution? Environmental issues and the health concerns that come with them are problems that are not going away."
It’s a good and relevant question to an important and compelling topic, to be sure. But what the hosting of this environmental ethics conference implies is that air, and most other types of pollution, I dare say, are topics that we, the public, must be coached like children into acknowledging.
Two weeks ago the Salt Lake Tribune reported that ASUSU — student government at Utah State University — proposed a campus-wide ban on smoking and any other tobacco use. Advocates of the proposal cited medical studies on the dangers of second-hand smoke and the risks posed to asthma sufferers as a primary reason for the ban, although neither of these reasons addresses the ban on other types of tobacco use. One wonders if there’s a study on the dangers of second-hand spit, the details of which are being suppressed from media attention by the interests of "fat corporate spit."
I would say that the day second-hand smoke is as harmful as car exhaust is the day locking one’s self in a smoke-filled bar becomes a widely used method of suicide, similar to locking one’s self in a garage with a running car engine.
There has even been some whispered speculation as to whether or not the USU smoking ban will set a precedent destined to trickle down south to UVU. It seems silly, and yet all too plausible, right? It’s said that the zoobies have bestowed UVU with the moniker "the high school with ash trays." Would we prefer to simplify the denigration to just "the high school?"
In any event, it seems as if a more locally pertinent question may be to ask why it is that expanding gasses and particulates from certain burning objects are held as morally problematic while expanding gasses and particulates from other burning objects are dismissed and ignored. The producers of the latter pollutants tend to be left unfettered to their own devices, aside from being the topic of conferences on environmental issues, of course.
The fact is there just aren’t enough people who smoke around here for the second-hand smoke issue to be of any serious concern. With exhaust from cars and factories being the most abundant and pervasive of the atmospheric pollutants in the region and with typical local weather patterns — temperature inversions and the like — compounding the problems all the more, it seems vastly more likely that the virtuous and peace-loving asthma sufferers of the local community would be harmed most by the most common pollutants. And yet we hear of no homegrown crusades against other pollutants germinating from within the local cultural paradigm. Do we not care? Once again, it’s dominion versus stewardship in a winner-take-all, steel-cage death match on pay per view. But nobody is buying.
True, Americans tend to be politically inactive and apathetic. Some say our apathy is a luxury we think we can afford. They may also say our apathy is the result of politics either working out in our favor most of the time or of feeling powerless to effect any real change regardless.
So in Utah, and I would guess other places as well, what activist endeavors we do undertake tend to have no broader scope or deeper depth than passing smoking bans, the removal of what are known as "alco-pops" from grocery store shelves, and the occasional censorship of television. And while these may make us feel good about ourselves, ultimately, they are just placebos. In the greater scope of things, all they amount to is the equivalent of the last genuflect of the condemned — a nod to dogma — just before the moment of death.
Last week in class, Michael Minch, a professor of philosophy, said, "It’s wrong to go around complaining about people’s apathy. The right question is to ask why people are apathetic."
I don’t know, but it sounds like a good topic for the next ethics conference.