This column first appeared in The Environmentor, Volume 10, Issue 4, September 2005, Page 6.
Good or Bad?
Author's Note: Youngsters tend to categorize things sharply as either Good or Bad. One of our jobs as educators is to help their thinking mature, to understand that in real life, things are often more complex.
KING MIDAS knew what was good: gold. As king of Phrygia (an ancient kingdom in what is now Turkey) he was already rich, but he taxed his people to buy more golden ornaments and to fill his treasury with gold coins.
He had a good heart, though. He took good care of an ailing old man, Silenus, whom peasants had found lost and wandering. In fact Silenus was the teacher and foster father of Bacchus, god of music and wine. Bacchus was so grateful to Midas that he offered to grant him one wish, anything he wanted!
Greedy Midas wished, "I want everything I touch to turn to gold." Bacchus reluctantly granted this wish. Midas was delighted when he found that he could turn stones, twigs, flowers to gold merely by touching them. At supper time he gave the Golden Touch to his tableware, utensils, even the table! But when he hungrily picked up a piece of fruit, that turned to gold too. He almost broke a tooth. His cupful of wine solidified in his hands. Bread turned hard as a rock, beautiful but inedible. He went to bed hungry.
His sheets and blankets turned to gold. So did the mattress! It was cold and hard, worth a fortune but very uncomfortable. He rested uneasy, plagued with nightmares about starving to death. At last he prayed to Bacchus, "Please take away this Golden Touch! I thought it would be a blessing, but it's a curse!"
Bacchus told him to travel to the source of the river Pactolus. There he washed away the Golden Touch in its fresh waters. But they say it passed into the river, explaining the flakes of gold which were often found in its sands.
CHICKEN & HOG FARMERS knew what was bad: manure. The stinky waste products of their animals had to be disposed of somehow. But manure contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and other valuable nutrients. It can be used as fertilizer on crops: good! If rain washes some from the fields into the water, the nutrients will help algae grow. Plankton and little fish will eat the algae, game fish will eat them, producing more game fish: good! And if a little is good, more is better, right?
Farmers were tempted to spread too much chicken and hog manure on their fields. Rain washed too much manure into the water. The algae grew alright... and when the plankton and little fish could not keep up with the supply, the extra plankton died and were consumed by bacteria, recycling the nutrients. That's good -- except that the bacteria needed oxygen to do their work. They consumed so much oxygen that there wasn't enough left in the water for the fish, who died of suffocation. And the rivers began to stink from dead bacteria and fish, as well as from manure.
To protect our waters, Oklahoma's attorney general is suing big hog and chicken farms to stop the practice of excess manure spreading. Fertilizing fields with manure is a good idea, but it has to be done right.
Suggestions for environmental educators:
Futurist Buckminster Fuller said " Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting." Brainstorm with your students other situations in which "good" things become pollutants when they get into the wrong place. Examples: recyclable paper trash blowing along the roadside; chlorine gas released into the air from a water treatment plant; toxic rare metals leaching into groundwater from the printed circuit boards of computers and cell phones in landfills.
An old proverb says, "The dose makes the poison." Brainstorm with your students other situations in which too little or too much of a "good" thing creates problems. Examples: drought versus flood, killer frost versus heatwave, dietary deficiency versus toxicity (selenium, vitamin D, iron).