We don’t know what we don’t know.
You know, for decades we thought that DDT was the be all-end all for controlling pests. We sprayed it on our food, on our beaches, and even sprayed it on people to show how easy it was to get rid of mosquitoes. When we first started playing with atomic energy, we dumped our radioactive waste in big metal barrels and threw them off of the sides of boats into the ocean. Lead was our friend, asbestos kept our homes warm, and olestra just made our chips taste better.
But what do we know.
When James Cameron went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, he was the first live human to see it since 1960. But we still don’t really know what happens in a space that is deeper than Mt. Everest is high. In 1960, Joe Kittinger jumped out of a capsule at 102,800 feet. Felix Baumgartner is trying to break that record, but we still aren’t sure what will happen.
We’ve spent decades trying to decipher the building blocks of life, and now know that there’s a bigger genetic difference between a horse and a zebra than there is between a human being and a chimpanzee. Humans, in fact, share a remarkable genetic similarity to a banana. Don’t know why, but there it is.
Researchers recently discovered a new species of monkey in Africa. In 2011, we actually discovered over 1,300 brand-new-to-science animals, plants, and organisms. One was a frog whose habitat is in New York City, centered pretty specifically around Yankee Stadium. Seems that someone would’ve noticed.
We now know that DDT wreaks havoc on babies, radiation kills life pretty quickly, lead makes great paint but kills nerve cells, asbestos ruins your lungs, and olestra…well, it’s not pretty.
But it’s what we don’t know that’s really scary. We catch little glimpses when we witness a bigger dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay, or when we realize that our rivers are full of run-off from industry. We know that certain materials take hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years to break down, but we can’t say what the effect will be because most of them, and us for that matter, haven’t been around long enough to find out. We relate stories of prairies swarming with buffalo, and as nice as that image sounds, it is just that – and image in our minds, because we probably won’t see it in our lifetime. And we wonder what someone from the time of the great buffalo herds would say were they to pop up in our day and time? “What the heck did you do to my planet?”
Sir Isaac Newton said that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Buddhists call it Karma. Christians refer to the Golden Rule. If you smile at someone, they react. Punch them in the face and you’ll see that there’s more than just physics to Newton’s Law.
We don’t think about this when we toss something carelessly out the window of a moving car. It doesn’t register when we topple a tree, or pour detergent in our washer. You may want to ask yourself what the reaction will be to your action. Where does it go when I spray by lawn? How much carbon am I releasing today? Where will those organisms go when I whack down that tree?
But what do we know? We’re just Keep Virginia Beautiful.