How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Alaska - The Final American Frontier*

3rd August 2016

March 24, 1989, 12:27 A.M.: “We’ve fetched up hard aground…evidently we’re leaking some oil, and we’re going to be here for a while” – Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph Hazlewood to the U.S. Coastguard

The end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at Valdez
*Alaska is known as America’s final frontier. A Google search of the term “frontier” yields the following definition:

“The extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness…”

I have spent the past couple of weeks traversing some of the state of Alaska. I have wandered to the northernmost land within U.S. territory at Barrow, and I am currently waiting in Haines to take a ferry to Prince Rupert in British Columbia, marking the end of my Alaska adventure. In between, I have visited Fairbanks, Anchorage, Denali, Kenai, Coldfoot and Valdez, a fraction of the largest state in the United States of America. I have seen vast areas of wild lands, all of which have been impacted, to some degree, by humanity. We are at a place in human history where a new definition of frontier is needed.
Satellite dishes on the tundra at Barrow, the northernmost land in the United States
My intention is not to denigrate the incomparable value of Alaska’s natural areas. I have traveled across the globe, and I have never before experienced such vast wild landscapes. Alaska has one of the most commendable protected areas networks on Earth, with 104,000,000 acres put into conservation, an area approximately the same size as the state of California. Outside the two cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks and a few scattered towns, most Alaskan land areas are unmarred by visible signs of human development, as far as the eye can see. From the airplane window enroute from Anchorage to Barrow, the never-ending vista of mountain, forest and tundra is awe-inspiring.

Wilderness in the Denali National Park
Frontier was once the edge of civilization, beyond which the wilds represented an unknown, untamed and unpredictable force. Nature no longer has any impenetrable boundaries. In Alaska, bowhead whale populations in the far reaches of the Arctic Ocean were hunted for oil and baleen to the brink of extinction. Sea otter populations were annihilated for the sin of their luxurious fur, recovered, and then were decimated again by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Oil rigs, in one of the most remote areas on earth, supply at least 20% of the U.S. supply, pumping billions of gallons of crude 800 miles down a pipeline, across the Alaskan wilderness from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. During my visit to Barrow, no sea ice graced the Arctic seas. 

An iceless Arctic Ocean at midnight in Barrow, Alaska
On 24th March 1989, just after midnight, the largest oil spill in history (at that time), poured millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds and other wildlife. Crude oil can still be detected in the sediments, and toxins are present in the tissues of sea animals in the region, more than 28 years later.

Seabirds feeding in the Gulf of Alaska
Denali National Park is larger than the country of Wales. The combined protected area, which includes the Wrengell-Saint Ellias National Park, Glacier Bay National Park and Kluane National Park (Canada), represents the largest internationally protected area on Earth. Within Alaska's protected areas grizzly bears, moose, caribou, eagles, sea otters, bowhead whales and thousands of other species of flora and fauna can recover from human impact, thrive and live, for the most part, in accordance with their own natural histories. Outside Alaska’s protected areas, even in apparent wilderness, wildlife is rare. Alaska’s wilderness continues to exist because of man’s consent, not in spite of it.

Sea otter in the Kenai Fjords National Park
My brain is now attempting to process the overload of stimuli it received during my Alaska experience. Over the next several days, I will try to compile the data into succinct pieces and post them, based on each location I visited.

Humpback whale and seabirds in the Kenai Fjords National Park



Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dawson City and the Top of the World - Thawing Rivers and Wildfires

19th and 20th July 2016

Dawson City feels like the most remote city on Earth. To get there by road, one can travel 532 kilometers northwest from Whitehorse on YT2 or 298 miles northeast from Tok, Alaska on the Taylor Highway and then YT9 (a.k.a. "the Top of the World Highway"). Neither one of these options offers easy open highway. Both involve narrow, two-lane roads, with long areas of no pavement, some areas of pavement that have been dramatically altered by "frost heaves," no guardrails, soft shoulders, precipitous drops from the soft shoulders and many areas where roadworks are being undertaken. I drive to Dawson City from Whitehorse and from Dawson City to Tok, thus being able to take in the full perspective of access, for better and worse.

A Section of Yukon Highway 2
One of my recurrent dreams (or nightmares) is driving along a deserted, narrow road, with no guardrails and precipitous drops. As I drive through the wilderness of Yukon and Alaska, I am hoping those dreams are just manifestations of sub-conscious fears of constraint, changes in life, loss of control, etc., rather than prophecy. I pass two accidents, which are statistically alarming, since I only pass about 20 other cars along the entire route. Police are on the scene (where did they come from?) The cars are mutilated beyond recovery. I hate to think about what happened to the people inside. I think this is what happens when you hit a moose at high speed. Arctic ground squirrels dart about and play Russian roulette on the road in front of my vehicle. Ravens clean up the losers. I drive slowly.

Baby Arctic Ground Squirrel - Too cute to squash
The trip up YK2 takes much longer than anticipated for the above reasons, and I get in to Dawson City around 11:00 pm. It seems much earlier because the sun is still up. Given its proximity to the Arctic Circle, Dawson City enjoys about three hours of semi-darkness in the summer, with a similar amount of semi-lightness in the winter. I am glad to be here in the summer. The office to the roadside motel is closed, but this isn't a problem because they have left keys in all the doors for late arrivals. A helpful board on the door lets me know which rooms are available. "Help yourself and pay in the morning," it says. Isolation seems to have some benefits, trusting your neighbors being one of them.

Modern Dawson City on the Yukon River
I spend the following morning taking a tour around Dawson City. The town experienced its boom era more than a century ago, during the Klondike gold rush of the late 19th Century. The boom was brief, starting in 1896 and ending only a few years later in the early 1900's, as prospectors moved on to the next boom town. At its peak, Dawson City had a population of about 30,000 people. Today it has about 1,500. While some people made their fortunes during the Klondike gold rush. Most did not.

Main Street Dawson City
"All Yukon belong to my papas. All Klondike belong my people. Long time all mine. Hills all mine, caribou all mine, moose all mine, rabbits all mine, gold all mine. White man come and take all my gold. Take millions, take more hundreds fifty millions, and blow ‘em in Seattle. Now Moosehide Injun want Christmas. Game is gone. White man kills all moose and caribou near Dawson... Moosehides hunt up Klondike, up Sixtymile, up Twentymile, but game is all gone. White man kill all" (Chief Isaac of the Tr'ochek Han, quoted in Dawson Daily News, 16th December 1911). Today, only two people speak the Han language fluently, and they are both in their 80's. The cost of gold is high.

A casino and ravens in Dawson City
No bridge has been constructed across the Yukon, and the government of Canada provides a ferry service to take vehicles across the river from Dawson City to West Dawson during the summer months. During the fall, winter and spring, people can just drive their cars across the frozen river. The only time when it is not possible to cross the river is during the spring "break up" and the fall "freeze up." During these times, the  approximately 200 people living in West Dawson, who even under normal conditions are "off the grid," are completely isolated. During break-up and freeze-up it is traditional for people in Dawson City to open their homes to the people of West Dawson. The process usually takes between three and six weeks. Spring break-up typically takes place during the first or second week of May. 2016 set a record, when the began to break up at 11:15 am on April 23rd. Someday soon a bridge may be required.

A view of the Yukon River from my car window, as I cross from Dawson City to West Dawson
The Top of the World Highway snakes along mountaintops across the distance between West Dawson and Tok, Alaska, crossing over the U.S. border along the way. Except for one small town (Chicken, Alaska), in approximately the middle of the distance, the area is practically devoid of human settlement, with the exception of a few small-scale gold mining operations along the way. From what I can tell, the population of Chicken is approximately 10, and the town consists of a gas station, gift shop and restaurant (where they serve excellent food, by the way).


Like most small towns in these parts, Chicken started as a small gold mining outpost. Apparently, the original settlers wanted to name the town "Ptarmigan," but they couldn't spell the name of that particular species of fowl and so decided upon "Chicken" instead.

Not a Chicken, in Chicken Alaska
If one manages to survive the pitfalls, the views from the Top of the World are spectacular. Dense forest cover at lower elevations gives way to herbaceous meadows above the tree line. The seemingly endless landscape of mountains and rivers is interrupted only by wildfire scars, which when functioning according to nature's laws, cleanse the earth of dead and diseased things and bring forth healthy new life.
View from the Top of the World
Fireweed is the official plant of Yukon. It is often the first plant to emerge from the ashes of forest fires and therefore symbolizes rebirth and renewal after adversity. I can think of no better symbol for this place.

Fireweed at the Top of the World
The next morning, I leave my campground at Tok and head for Fairbanks. After a short distance, I cross over the Robertson River Bridge, noticing as I cross a mother moose, leading her calf across the shallow river below. I stop on the bridge to watch (I can do this because there really is no traffic at all, and it's 6:00 am in the morning). While I am watching, a pickup truck pulls up next to me, heading in the opposite direction. An elderly Native American gentleman is inside the truck, motioning me to roll down my window. I do. He tells me with tears welling up in his eyes that the mother moose is teaching the calf how to swim and to cross the river. We both agree it is a beautiful sight it is to see.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Whitehorse, Yukon - A Start to Healing?

16th and 17th July 2016

Canada's Yukon Territory is one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth. The land area, which stretches across 482,443 square kilometers, supports a human population of 37,566 (2015). The capital and most-populous city, Whitehorse, is tiny by city standards, with a population of 23,276 people (2015). The city's namesake, the Whitehorse rapids, once graced the Yukon river at this location, but the construction of the Whitehorse Rapids Generating Facility in 1958 forever erased them from the river's landscape.


Given the small human population of the territory, one might expect that environmental impacts would be minimal here, and they do appear to be so. In spite of gold prospecting, copper mining, timber harvesting, etc., the ecology of the Yukon territory now thrives and continues to function much as it has since the end of the last ice age.


One might say that it's easy for Yukon to maintain environmental sustainably, with such a large resource base and such a small human population, and this is true to an extent. A too-large human population on Earth is at the heart of all environmental woes, but here we are, and this is the baseline we must contend with. Yukon is actively taking steps to heal the wounds of the past. Because of this, the area is one of few places on Earth where one can see that the current baseline is actually an improvement over recent previous ones. Yukon stands as an example that it is possible to work towards healing the planet, rather than continuing to harm it.

The vast majority of Yukon's electrical power comes from renewable sources, including wind and hydroelectric, with only backup generation being provided by conventional fossil fuel combustion. Renewable energy, particularly hydroelectric, does not come without an environmental footprint. The damming of the Yukon River, and subsequent loss of Whitehorse's namesake also annihilated salmon spawning activities. These impacts were grave, but efforts are now being made to improve the impacted baseline. Fish weirs, ladders and screens have been installed to facilitate salmon migration, and the fish are returning, slowly. The measures taken are not perfect. The rapids will never return, but healing is taking place.


From a town planning perspective, Whitehorse also represents an environmental best case scenario. The town is compact and walkable. Businesses are, for the most part, small and locally owned. Many resources that supply the population are sourced locally. For example, I was able to have fresh, locally grown salad greens at a restaurant for the first time in a couple thousand miles. Free plastic bags are also no longer available in stores. If you want a bag, you have to pay for it. Everything has a cost, and it is about time we start paying it.


On April 1, 2005, the Kwanlin Dun First Nation signed the "Final and Self-Governance Agreement with the Canadian government." The agreement gave back land areas to the original inhabitants of this space, in addition to providing some compensation. The Kwanlin Dun have now been able to reclaim their place on the Yukon River, which they call Chu Ninkwan. Their former way of life, just like the Whitehorse rapids, is probably gone forever, but they are now at last free to determine their own destiny on their own land.

The Kwanlin Dun people believe that "all creatures have a conscious spirit, and when hunters show great respect and humility to these creatures, the animal spirits offer themselves in harvest." The universal truth of this belief has been ignored by Western cultures for centuries, with predictable results. We have taken from the Earth whatever we can get, without respect or humility. Consequently, the animal spirits and all other natural spirits have gone away. The Earth and her history move on in a perpetual state of flux. We cannot unwind history and undo the things that were done, but we can take steps to foster an environmental of healing, rather than an environment of harm. And then, by showing respect and humility, perhaps the spirits of the Earth, like the salmon, will return.






Saturday, July 16, 2016

Alaska Highway Mile 613 - Wilderness at last, and the last wilderness

14th and 15th July 2016

A few short miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, the seemingly never-ending patchwork of human altered landscapes finally gives way to wilderness. The road is the only anthropogenic structure as far as the eye can see, and as many as 100 kilometers of wild space stretch between small roadside towns, where one can possibly, although not definitely, get some gas.


As soon as exploited land gives way to nature, the original inhabitants on the land begin to make an appearance. Over a few short miles, I see bears, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bald eagles, a porcupine, moose and bison.


The oppressive sense of gloom and doom that has overshadowed much of my journey is erased, but my exultation at breathing in clean air and being able to feast my eyes on sweeping vistas of unspoiled natural beauty is accented by a trace of fear. I am traveling alone on a highway into the wilderness, with other humans few and far between. I am completely dependent on the reliability of my vehicle and the probability of available gasoline and food every 400 miles or so. The wilderness is awesome, in the true sense of the word, but it is filled with myriad beasts that could effortlessly render me into prime rib and chops. I have a sense that, in spite of the feelings of unbounded mental and physical freedom the wilderness inspires, I do not belong here. I am completely and utterly helpless. My tools for survival in this wild reality are pathetically limited. I have a bit of knowledge of herbal lore and a can of bear spray.


My religious views in no way trend towards the conventional, but I am still a product of Judeo-Christian culture. For thousands of years, most of the people from which I have descended have been driven by a purported divine mandate to, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ (Gen.1:28)." I realize now that the Biblical creed to control nature must have originally arisen from fear: fear of the unknown, fear of not having control, fear of death. Nature is the antagonist for all these human frailties.


Western Civilization's earliest known written myth, The Epic of Gilgamesh, tells the tale of a legendary hero. Gilgamesh tames a wild man, clear-cuts forests, vanquishes lions and dams a great river, among several other feats of subordinating nature, but he fails to escape his own mortality. Gilgamesh ultimately learns that the cycle of birth and mortality is unavoidable and that humans are better served by enjoying the gifts that life has to offer, rather than trying to escape death. Unfortunately, we have failed to heed Gilgamesh's advice and are futilely still engaged in attempting to avoid our own mortality via the control of nature.


Other cultures managed to avoid the Judeo-Christian solution to the fear of mortality. I understand now why early settlers to the Americas fiercely clung to religious extremism when they arrived here. Native Americans, lived within the wilderness, rather than apart from it. Such an attitude towards nature was entirely unknown to the Puritans. Such humans would have seemed like wild animals, or "savages"  to a people who had been imprinted from time immemorial, on the necessity of subduing nature and then praying to an unseen god for immortal salvation. Faced with brutal natural reality and a complete inability to cope in the wilderness, the Puritans clung desperately to their dogma. They are the forebears of North America's current baseline.


An informational sign along the highway advises that the vast wilderness I am passing through is actually a protected, albeit "managed" natural resource, meaning that when humans feel the need for the fossil fuels, lumber and other minerals found here, they will take them. The wilderness cannot be seen to be left to its own devices. The reality I am coming to terms with is that there is no true wilderness left on Earth. I mourn for the loss of what could have been. My four-times grandmother was a Mohawk. I wonder what this place would be like the ideologies of her and her kin had succeeded in the clash of cultures that took place here centuries ago. Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to this. Instead, the humans of Earth, like myself, are now destined to separateness, a separation, which ironically leads not to immortality, but to death.

Fossilized Dinosaur Footprints at Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Alaska Highway Mile Zero - The Truth About Truth

12- 14th July 2016

I have arrived at mile zero of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. This morning marks what I hope will be a journey of wonderful wild places and endless, unspoiled landscapes, punctuated only by herds of wild beasts. I was hoping to get a bit of wilderness therapy to help me recover from the experience of Fort McMurray, but alas, all I have seen is yet another 500 miles or so of canola, interspersed with a patch of secondary growth forest here and there, and a wetland or two. I have seen two prairie dogs (very cute), a couple of dead skunks, three deer, some American coots, a lot of mallards and a plethora of red-winged blackbirds. The canola fields and forest fragments doesn't seem to be providing good habitat for much of anything except canola and cows.

There have been some highlights. I stopped by the Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park Boreal Center for Bird Conservation. The Center is a lovely sliver of boreal forest surrounding Lesser Slave Lake, which serves as a wildlife corridor for migrating birds. I met some of the researchers working there and talked to them while they were tagging some individual birds they had caught that morning in nets. Some of the birds they were tagging, American redstart, ovenbird, black and white warbler, magnolia warbler and others, are actually winter stop-over visitors and winter residents in the Turks and Caicos. I am awed by these little birds that, weighing less than a pencil, fly all the way from Canada to the Turks and Caicos and beyond every single year. My journey in a Toyota Highlander has been taxing, and I have not traveled as far. I also have the benefit of stopping at grocery stores every few days for supplies. The tiny warblers have no such luxury. Instead, the grocery stores they depend on during their journeys, wetlands, forests, prairies, etc., are being systematically wiped out. The global population of migratory birds is dropping precipitously. I cannot help but admire the tenacity and perseverance of the survivors. The persist largely due to the ever-shrinking small patchwork of protected habitats that remain, such as the Boreal Center for Bird Conservation.

The natural landscape has failed to capture my attention, but the human landscape along this leg of my journey has been interesting. Suncor offices (the purveyors of tar sands) at Fort McMurray are powered by solar panels. The entire building and parking lot are covered in them. At the grocery store at Fort McMurray, I must buy or use a reusable bag. Plastic bags have been eliminated. Billboards on the side of the road advise, "water is precious, please use it wisely" (tar sand extraction requires three barrels of water for every barrel of oil extracted). The elephant in that room is enormous. Leaving Fort McMurray, I pass a car on the road that has two bumper stickers. One says, "the only truth is Jesus." The other says, "only the truth will set you free." At Kinusayo Museum on Slave Lake, I have an in-depth discussion with a beautiful young Cree woman, who talks to me about missionary residential schools (some were better than others), lost culture and a lack of good-paying jobs. A taxidermist in the same town (not a native), while surrounded by carcasses of wolves, bears, wolverines, and other slaughtered noble beasts, tells me that "the tar sands aren't bad like everybody makes out," that "solar panels bankrupt every place they are installed," and "that Muslim President in the U.S. is to blame..." (for something. I had tuned out at that point).

I have been plagued by feelings of unreality since I left Fort McMurray. Perhaps I am detoxifying as the brimstone and hell fire are being metabolized within my tissues. However, I think it is because I have come to realize everybody is living in their own state of unreality, which for the most part, they assume to be truth.  The unabashed truth of Fort McMurray has knocked me from my contented delusions. Truth is an elusive elixir, the objective nature of which we can not ever entirely know. Religions depend on people accepting their dogmas as truth, with minimal supporting evidence. Economic and political theories work in much the same way. For example, universal suffrage has now brought us Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Free market capitalism has given us the world we have today, environmentally bankrupt and excessively unequal. Gospels from "gods of love" promote genocide. When any of the above logical contradictions are pointed out, we are told that we simply don't understand the higher workings of gods, economies, etc.

Science is perhaps the only belief system that at least acknowledges that it doesn't actually know the truth. Instead, science observes phenomena, quantifies it and then applies levels of probability to hypotheses about the phenomena. The more times a phenomenon is observed behaving in a predictable fashion, the more reliably we can regard it as "truth," although we can never be entirely sure. For example, it appears that the sun revolves around the Earth. We now know that this is probably not the case. When Galileo delivered reliable evidence to this effect, he was charged as a heretic and forced to live out his golden years as a prisoner. His more statistically reliable truth did not square with the doctrines of those in power.

We currently have a lot of scientifically probably realities that compete with the doctrines of the powerful. Human activities have led to the loss of 50% of Earth's wildlife in the past 40 years. The combustion and extraction of fossil fuels is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane concentrations, causing global climate change. The great cultural and physical genocides of the past cannot be undone by forcing Western economic doctrines on the victims. Hunting wild animals for trophies (rather than for need) in a world where wildlife is disappearing is morally repugnant. Hillary Clinton makes contradictory statements and appears to like military action. Donald Trump is a terrible business man, a racist and a misogynist and would make a terrible President. This is the world we live in, and more of the same will bring us more of the same. Jesus has failed to materialize, and the ship is going down.

I don't want to live in a world dominated by humans, cows, chickens, pigs, canola, rats and cockroaches (not that I have anything against any of those species, although I will be happy if I never see a canola field again), but this is the trajectory we are on. The only way to escape the trajectory is to challenge the dogmas that people and institutions hold as truth, and remember always: the truth about truth is that what you think is the truth is not the truth. Now to hopefully spend some time among the moose. I have had enough of human civilization.

Sorry. Slow internet. No pictures today. Future days will bring beautiful photos. I hope.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Alberta Tar Sands - Ground Zero for Western Civilization

10th and 11th July 2016

I now know what it is like to enter a disaster zone. On approach to Fort McMurray, Alberta, roadside signs advise that mental healthcare is available. Roadworks are underway to patch rearranged asphalt on the highway. Blackened sticks line the highway where boreal forests once stood. A roadside sign advertises a Denny’s, but only a pile of white ash exists where a restaurant once stood. The air stinks of what I presume is the stench of melted buildings, melted plastic, blended with some other, undefinable bitter smells. The air feels toxic.


On 3rd May 2016, Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada experienced a catastrophe when a wildfire swept through the town, razing ten percent of the town’s structures and forcing residents to flee. Insured damages are estimated to be the most costly in Canadian history. The firefighters who saved what remains of the city are now grappling with a host of health concerns that mimic those of 9/11 first responders. 



I am beset with a confusion of thoughts and emotions in this place. The fire was undoubtedly an abject tragedy, but another layer of desperation taints the gloaming. The streets are lined with buildings that, apart from the stains of smoke, shine with synthetic newness. Whatever authentic history that may exist here is indiscernible, buried under a gleaming, artificial facade. Perfect modern playgrounds are scattered liberally across the town, but they are eerily quiet, empty of the happy chatter and stampede of little feet. I have never seen so many liquor stores. There is at least one on every street, sometimes two. Head shops, strip clubs and adult video stores accent the scene. Desolation is not new to this town. Fort McMurray lost its soul before fire ever torched its landscape. This is ground zero for the mining of the Alberta tar sands.


The oil industry prefers to call tar sands, "oil" sands, but the thick, black, smelly, viscous material that coats each grain of sand in the ground bears little resemblance to oil. Just as the glossy exterior of the town belies its misery. Whitewashing the name of the substance being mined does not alter its reality. Fort McMurray enjoys the highest median family income in Canada, a whopping $186,782 per year. Most of the people who live here have come to work in the tar sand industry. They have come to make money and leave. They don't want to be here. They have no connection to the place. They are only interested in selling themselves for a short time, with the hope of economic salvation in the future. If any place is a testament to the fact that money does not buy happiness, it is this place.

There are people who are of this place, who have been here since time immemorial. Cree, Chipewyan and Dene-zaa (and recently Metis) settled here thousands of years ago, living off a biological abundance sourced from the majestic Athabasca river, endless square miles of boreal forest and fecund wetlands and fresh, clean air. These First Nations shared beliefs that all natural phenomena are animated, that all living things are equal and that it is the human's responsibility to ensure balance and harmony with nature. Alongside this culture, the natural environment of the Athabasca watershed thrived and flourished for millennia. 


Within less than a century, everything they believe in has been ruthlessly destroyed. Forests, redefined as "overburden," have been rendered into matchsticks. The toxic brine of mine tailings are leaching slowly into the Athabasca, turning it into a river of death (they give me bottled water at the front desk of my hotel and warn me not to drink the water). Refineries belch out noxious smoke that saturates everything with the smell of melted plastic and other undefinable bitter smells. The fire is not to blame for the toxic miasma that surrounds the city. Everything the First Nation people value has been rendered into dollars and ashes. 



Suncor and Syncrude are the companies actively mining the tar sands. They are making billions of dollars squeezing figurative blood out of stones. In a video presentation given at the Oil Sands Discovery Center, a commentator tells us that "oil means wealth." Apparently, tar sand deposits cover an area the size of the state of Florida. The abject devastation of Fort McMurray is only the beginning of more ecological destruction and "wealth" to come. Suncor and Syncrude are profiting enormously from the devastation, but they do not bear the full blame for this ecological and human disaster. Fort McMurry is the sacrificial lamb on the altar of western civilization's worship of dollars and oil. This is the cost of our cars, our too many clothes that we never wear, our plastic bags, knives, forks, cups and spoons that we carelessly toss away, our HD televisions, iPhones, and all the other things we crave that don't really add up to anything and certainly don't make us healthy or happy. 

The fire seems like foreshadowing in a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. We are all tragic heroes chasing the false idols of fulfillment that only exacerbate our own demise. Like all tragic heroes, it appears that we will only realize our folly when it is too late, when the trajectory of global climate change is unalterable and Earth becomes a living hell. Perhaps the human religious concept of Hell is, after all, our most apt literary creation. We are all sinners, but many innocents will be joining us in the eternal inferno. 

I am fleeing to wilderness today. I feel like a canary being let out of a coal mine. The smell of tar sand, heavy in my hair and on my skin, makes me feel like I have been infused with toxicity. I long to breathe fresh air and take in vistas of unspoiled landscapes, but I will not be able to escape the taint of this experience within myself. I am driving a car across the reality of North America after all, belching out climate changing chemicals as I go. We are all complicit. We are all tainted with the stench of tar sands. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Agriculture and the Lies Humanity Tells Itself

9 July 2016

In the past couple of days, I have passed from temperate forests to boreal forests to prairies, shifting with earth's latitudes and precipitation rates. The temperate and boreal forests have, for the most part, been logged, but many are regenerating with secondary growth. I drove 500 miles today across Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and I am still looking for an unfragmented piece of natural prairie. Check out Google Earth of the area to get an idea of what it looks like. Rapeseed, wheat and cattle fields make a patchwork blanket on the landscape that stretches on and on and on...



In the 1960s, rapeseed was a crop grown almost exclusively for local consumption in Canada. In 1986, Canada had approximately 6.5 million acres of rapeseed under production. In 2015, the number of acres under production was almost 20 million. In 2015, Canada exported more than 10.6 million tonnes of rapeseed oil, meal and seed. Rapeseed oil production is such a significant agricultural commodity in Canada that they went ahead and changed the name to "Canada oil" or "canola" for short. The transition from prairie to cropland has been great for Canada's economy, with canola bringing in billions of dollars in foreign exchange annually. I am trying to imagine why the earth needs so much canola oil. How is it used? How much is going to the production of potato chips and Cheetos, and how much is actually going to supporting healthful nutrition for the population of the planet? My guess is that much of it ends up in cellophane bags on the shelves of convenience stores.


As prairies have been converted to electronic and paper dollars, something of real value has been lost. Temperate grasslands are among the most endangered habitats on earth. In North America, the loss of these habitats has resulted in significant population declines of at least fifty percent of all prairie bird species. The birds are just an indicator of everything else that has been lost: frogs, salamanders, wildflowers, carbon, natural history, cultural identity, aesthetics, the list goes on and on.



As I am driving, I am listening to Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (what a great name). In this book, Harari objectively describes the anthropological history of humankind. In doing so, he challenges all of the anthropocentric, arrogant and misguided beliefs we humans cling to. In particular, he talks about the human inventions of money and agriculture and the mythologies surrounding them.



Money evolved as a means of exchange for practical purposes.  If I have a lot of apples and I want a pair of shoes, the shoe maker may not want any apples, so we need a common form of currency that we both recognize as valid. This is a practical and important use of money. Unfortunately, money has taken on a life of its own. The people of the world are now driven to earn it, accumulate it and spend their entire productive adult lives in its pursuit. It has become the cornerstone of modern existence. In and of itself, money actually has no real value. It is paper, coin and electronic bytes of data. Worthless and meaningless stuff. It is only our belief in it that gives it value. Shoes, wildflowers, birds, salamanders and apples have value. Money doesn't.


Agriculture is another myth. We are told in our history classes that it was this human invention that lifted primitive man from the terrible toil of hunting and gathering into the age of enlightenment. In fact, neolithic hunter gatherers were far healthier, enjoyed shorter working hours and led far more enriched lives than their agricultural counterparts. Even modern hunter gatherers (where Western cultural values have not invaded) work only a few hours per day, enjoy rich and varied lives and strong communities. The myth that they die young is also just a myth. If infant mortality is taken out of the equation, on average they have longer, healthier lives than most people living in the industrialized world (think Bangladesh, India and similar countries, where the majority of the world's population lives, not Canada or Finland). The main problem with hunting and gathering is that there is a small environmental carrying capacity for this kind of lifestyle, and the world now has too many humans for it to be a feasible option anymore. We must come up with alternative solutions.


Fortunately, such solutions do exist. We can limit agricultural production to crops that actually feed people, rather than subsidizing and encouraging monoculture commodity crops, such as corn, canola, wheat, etc. We can reduce meat consumption, thereby reducing the need for livestock feed. We can use permaculture, growing soil enriching species, such as legumes, side-by-side with other crops to avoid the need for fertilizers. Permaculture also mimics natural habitats, which in turn supports wildlife. We can eat seasonally appropriate food. We can eat locally. We can grow our own food. We can employ farmers, rather than machines and chemicals, thus boosting the economy for everybody, not just for multinational corporations. This is one environmental area where there actually is significant hope and feasibility. We can foster a paradigm shift back to things of real value and away from the worship of modern man's false idol, money. The birds and the wildflowers can return, and the world can be a healthier place for all species, including humans.