Ignorance is not bliss

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011

The saying "What you don't know won't hurt you" may apply to a few social issues. Let's say a guy cheats once on his spouse and doesn't tell her, to spare her the pain of knowing. She might be happier in ignorance. But what you don't know can hurt you when it's happening to the place where you live, whether we're talking about your back yard or Earth.

As a boy, I sometimes went with my father when he took our family's garbage to the town dump. The main thing I remember about those trips was that the town's dump was on the bank of the Skagit River.

The Skagit, once famed for its runs of all five species of Pacific salmon, was well past its peak years of salmon production by the 1950s. Most of its drainage had been clear-cut by loggers and criss-crossed by logging roads. The Skagit and one major tributary, Baker River, had been dammed, and the Skagit had been diked, rip-rapped and channeled into submission. In those "out of sight, out of mind" days, people commonly ran sewer and industrial waste pipes from houses and factories directly into the nearest river or creek.

It would be fair to say that people were quite ignorant back then. As recently as 50 years ago, most people were ignorant of what water pollution was doing to the water. They didn't have the scientific knowledge to know about the various kinds of pollution and what it would do. Many were skeptical that the water was actually being polluted, or that the trifling amount of waste that humans were generating could cause significant damage.

Doing very much to reduce it was controversial at the time -- and still is.

Today we not only have the ability to detect trace amounts of pollution, but we're able to communicate human and environmental concerns to the public almost instantly. When the nuclear power plant in Japan recently began leaking radiation, we knew about it within hours. It's increasingly difficult to plead ignorance.

Getting back to "What you don't know won't hurt you" . Having heard about a particularly troublesome issue, I sometimes wish I could bury my head in the sand and deny that I know about it. Some issues have no good or simple answers, no solutions to get a grip on. For example, I'd be happier not knowing that trawlers were catching tens of thousands of king salmon in their bycatch and damaging important coral formations in Alaska waters. But now that I know about it, I feel a need to do something, which entails going up against industry lawyers, lobbyists and an industry-biased regulatory panel.

The trouble with doing anything about such sticky-wicket problems is that we tend to do only what benefits us within the relatively short span of our own lives. Being short-sighted, we hesitate to act until the horse is not only out of the barn, but has died of old age. Trouble is, slowly developing problems such as ocean trawling and acidification are more easily solved before they become a crisis. Wait too long, and it might be too late.

Maybe it's time we took on some of the thorny issues we wish we didn't know about.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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