Recent fall in gas prices concerns environmentalists



In any given October, as the sweltering summer days cool to crisp autumn and the trees exchange the greens of their foliage for fiery reds, brilliant oranges and regal golds, Elizabeth Baach, co-president of Environmental Action Club and junior, can be found strolling through the woods.

Junior Elizabeth Baach recycles a used item. Baach said she strongly believes recycling is the key to improving the environment.
Junior Elizabeth Baach recycles a used item. Baach said she strongly believes recycling is the key to improving the environment.

She frequents Cool Creek and Flowing Well parks, she said, and although she attempts one nature walk every season, her favorite scene is that of fall.

“It’s like an oil painting,” she said. “It really moves you how undisturbed nature is so beautiful.”

As somebody who describes herself as a “passionate environmentalist,” Baach shares in the growing concerns of the scientific community for the planet’s future. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) cited pending environmental catastrophe along with worries about modernized and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals in its Jan. 22 movement of the iconic Doomsday Clock from 11:55 to 11:57 p.m.

Nowhere is the struggle teenagers experience between sustainable living and the typical modern lifestyle more apparent than in gasoline prices, which have dipped in the last part of 2014 and the early months of 2015 to levels unheard of since the recent recession of the 2000s. While an overwhelming majority of Americans are joyful to purchase gas at under $2 per gallon, there is a segment of the population that worries low prices may not be such a good thing after all, particularly in their environmental implications. According to a Business Insider article “5 Ways A Low Oil Price Affects the Geopolitical Landscape,” low gas prices have a direct effect by increasing consumption, but additionally, they have a secondary impact on policymakers, who  are no longer under as much pressure to limit U.S. oil consumption.

John Rupp, adjunct faculty member at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and senior research scientist at the Indiana Geological Survey, said this decrease in the price of gasoline can be attributed to an increase in supply in the United States as well a decrease in demand in China, India and Europe. According to him, comparatively cheap gasoline has the potential to impact the environment especially in diminishing the priority placed on fuel efficiency.

w.febcover.2“With high gasoline prices and efforts for conservation and efficiency, there was—and continues to be, to some extent—quite a bit of development going on with compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, cars, vehicles, trucks and electric cars and electric vehicles,” he said. “There is a big concern now that those vehicles, which are much friendlier to air emissions than standard internal combustion engines of gasoline and diesel, are going to be those research programs and those rollouts (that are) going to be diminished because the price of gasoline is so low.”

Maddie Adkins, co-president of Environmental Action Club and sophomore, said she agrees that currently low gasoline prices will affect American consumption habits, an unfortunate phenomenon in light of their tendency to oscillate.

“As I see it, gas prices fluctuate all the time, and the fact that gas prices are low does not mean that people should start buying gas-guzzling vehicles. It’s really unfortunate that a small fraction of people are thinking that’s a good way to save money if they start,” she said. “What I really see as our dependence on gasoline bothers me so much, and even if oil prices are low right now, they’re going to go back up, and people are going to regret their decisions.”

However, in terms of the gas price discussion, Rupp said, there exists yet much uncertainty as to what the long-term impact will be.

Pros and cons of gas prices on the environment

“The United States has quite a bit of effort going on. There’s a number of big companies that are making those cars, so we’ll have to watch and see if the sales of those really drops off and the companies are less inclined to think about providing those as an option for people. There are some big policy decisions that are coming up,” he said. “There will be a big policy decision in 2017 when the federal level on (tax incentives for electric vehicles) are possibly embattled with some changes that are happening (in Washington D.C.). There are lots of questions about alternative vehicles in this time of lower gasoline prices.”

These questions, in a sense, mirror the same ambiguities that exist as to the very future of the environment. The indicators are grim: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Japan Meteorological Agency report 2014 as the warmest year since in the inception of modern record-keeping in 1880, and according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the current extinction rate is up to 10,000 times the natural one, with the planet permanently losing dozens of species each day.

Adkins said unsustainable practices in the present give her reason to fear for the planet’s future.

“I’m kind of a pessimist because I believe that right now we’re not doing enough, and if we don’t start to do something more and come together and really make it a priority and work together to make it happen, it’s going (to) be really bad,” she said. “I don’t see anything good from continuing our lifestyles the way they are.”

On the other hand, Baach said, a step toward better practices can represent a change in the course of the environment as it stands.

“If we continue with our bad practices of just throwing away and deforesting and using up all our natural resources, then I don’t think it’s going to be a good (future), but if we move on to a more sustainable way of living, and we find different ways to create energy and reuse what we have, then I think it will turn out to be good,” she said.

According to Rupp, while the current outlook seems bleak, there is reason still to work toward sustainability on an individual basis.

“I would refer you to a text by Paul Sabin, called The Bet. It’s about a bet that was made in 1978 by an environmentalist and an economist at the University of Illinois, and one of them said, ‘You know, we’ve got to stop consuming. We’re not consuming things at a sustainable rate. We’re overconsuming and we’re over-polluting and we’re overpopulating the world.’ And the economist rebutted that, ‘Well, (it) doesn’t matter because there’s always an economic driver. If things become more precious, people will become more ingenious and they’ll figure out ways to utilize resources better,’ and that’s kind of what the story behind genetically modified organisms (GMO) is and unconventional oil and gas development, things like that,” he said. “It’s a very tough question; it’s a super tough question. If you think about it on a big scale, it can be a grim prognosis, but there are definitely things that individuals can do if (they) have the resources to act sustainably.”

This is Environmental Action Club’s mission: to promote sustainable living one step at a time, beginning in the very hallways of CHS.

According to Kara House, club sponsor and science teacher, the projects for this year include a recycling program for the school and the maintenance of a garden plot in the community garden.

“The main thing that we are working on right now is the recycling program for the school, which is basically nonexistent. Our goal in the long term is to flip the whole school to recycling first and trash second. So we’re making up these numbers because we don’t have the actual amounts, but right now we recycle 10 percent of the stuff that we have here and trash 90 percent. Our goal is to flip that—recycle 90 percent of our stuff and only throw away about 10 percent,” she said. “The other thing that we’ll do in the spring is work on the garden plot in the community garden. The high school has a plot that the former Sustainable Living Club took care of, and now it’ll be the Environmental Action Club. That’s just a good experience to see what it’s like to grow your own food, and the students get to eat that stuff throughout the summer after they take care of their garden and everything.”

While she feels most connected to the environment through her initiative works, Baach said, sustainability is an aspect of her life she carries with her everywhere both at school and home.

“I’m definitely a big recycler at my house and at school,” she said. “I love to reuse things; if I have something that could be trash, I try to reuse it or turn it into something else, kind of like upcycling. At our house, we always try to find different ways to keep energy use down. We use light-emitting diode (LED) lights, compact fluorescent lamps (CFL), and we have very good insulation so that we don’t lose energy that we’re using.”

According to Rupp, while there are steps people can take to help the environment—moving toward a greater level of technology in food production with GMOs and herbicides and pesticides, saving water through most efficient appliances, turning off the lights and keeping the thermostat down, to name a few—the greatest obstacle to sustainable living is the sheer magnitude of the human population.

“There are 8 billion people on the planet, and more than 5 or 6 billion of them are essentially impoverished, and many hundreds of millions of them are moving up into higher levels of affluence,” he said. “They’re consuming resources at rates that are not sustainable, so if we move a billion or two of those people up to middle-class standards or to upper-class standards, as we know them in the United States and Western Europe, the resources on the planet will all be expended, and the effluent from that expenditure will pollute all the water, the land and the air.”

For high schoolers specifically, House said, a great challenge to sustainable living is unawareness.

“I think for teenagers, a lot of it is just that you don’t know. You don’t have those good ideas; those are things you don’t think about. I’m surrounded all day by students that are in AP Environmental Science, so I know I can tell (them) to think about it, but as far as kids that never take a class like that, I think it’s just something that’s not on their minds,” she said. “They’re not thinking about their electricity use; they’re not thinking about carbon dioxide emissions every time they drive. I think that the biggest challenge is just being educated about that stuff.”

However, she said, the rewards of this lifestyle make it worth any inconveniences it poses.

“It’s a great feeling to know you did your part, so when you see these stories about gas prices or emissions or climate change, (you know) you’ve already done some of those things to help reduce that, to help lower your own impact, to lower either your carbon footprint or water footprint or just overall ecological footprint. I think it’s a pretty good feeling to know that you’ve done that and to be able to talk about it with other people and pass it on to other people,” she said. “If you go so far as to eat sustainably and things like that, I think health-wise you’ll feel a lot better. Just the idea that you’re generating less trash and composting and reusing maybe the food you don’t eat—I think everybody can feel pretty good about all sorts of things.

According to Adkins, the epitome of her environmental work, her model for the work society currently needs to do to preserve the planet, is something rather unassuming: growing tomatoes.

“What was cool about the tomatoes is they would start kind of small and grow up the stake we had set up there,” she said. “I think what was amazing because we stuck seeds in the ground and watered it, we created life, and life is so persistent, and it will grow anywhere, and it will overcome all these odds. I think just seeing the strength of nature was pretty cool.”

Cooperation, Adkins said, will ultimately be the key to saving the environment.

“It’s going to be a sort of thing where gardening is almost like you’re working as a team with the plants to have them grow in this environment,” she said. “We’re all going to have to work together to accomplish this goal. While there are individual things that you can do to make impact on the environment, it’s when you all come together that is the most important.”