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

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The North American Upper Midwest and Human Altered Landscapes

July 7th – 8th 2016

My home is in a place where humans have lived lightly upon the land throughout the country’s existence. Apart from minimal slash and burn activities to support subsistence agriculture, the primordial terrestrial and wetland ecosystems of the Caicos Islands, within the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), have been left largely intact. The same is true of the marine ecosystems of TCI, which were used only for small-scale artisanal fisheries for much of the country’s history. Such circumstances are a rarity in the world. Sadly, in the past few decades, TCI has undergone rapid development. Ancient, biodiverse tropical dry forests are being clear-cut to make way for large scale hotel and tourism developments, wetlands are being dredged and filled to accommodate marinas and housing developments, once-pristine coral reefs are being subjected to pollutants, boat strikes and the effects of global climate change, and fisheries are being over-exploited at a commercial-scale that benefits only a few individuals. In spite of this, much of the original landscape remains intact…for now. My hope and prayer for TCI is that it comes to realize the priceless value of its natural environment before it is too late, and TCI’s natural environment joins that of much of the rest of the world in becoming largely human-altered.

Intact but threatened coral reefs in Turks and Caicos
During my travels, I have now passed across 2,000 miles of human-altered landscapes. I have explored forests in Kentucky, Michigan and Minnesota, all secondary growth (with a few, small exceptions) and now trying to recover from a brutal deforestation that completely altered the baseline of almost the entirety of the northeastern US and Canadian ecosystems. I have inspected aquatic habitats, subjected to industrial pollution, sedimentation, overfishing and other effects, which are now also struggling to recover their previous baselines, possible in a large part to the Clean Water Act.
Many areas continue to be subjected to devastation or are living within a destructive legacy that is currently irreversible. The people of Kentucky have inadvertently traded clean mountain water for jobs, arsenic and heavy metal-laced, poisonous water and a ruined landscape. The people of Flint have been subjected to the contaminants of a legacy of on-going industrial pollution. The people of Manitoba and the upper Midwestern U.S. have traded forests and prairies teeming with wildlife for endless fields of genetically modified crops. The enormity of the scale of the human alteration of the North American landscape is mind boggling and cannot fully be appreciated without passing through it.

Impossibly yellow genetically modified rapeseed in Manitoba
During my journey, I stopped briefly at Voyageurs National Park. Contained within the park’s boundaries are countless islands, floating in large expanses of freshwater lakes. The area was once heavily hunted for the fur trade and logged. Now, wildlife, such as river otter, beaver, timber wolf, snowshoe hare, moose and others are returning to this small refuge. The forests are regenerating. The night I camped on Kabetogama Lake, I heard wolves howling in the distance. The sound inspired a nascent rejoicing in my soul.

Voyageurs National Park

As I set off in the morning to resume my journey, I passed through International Falls, a town adjacent to Voyageurs and built around a massive Boise paper mill and smaller particle board manufacturing plants. The plants belch out foul exhaust into air and God knows what into the headwaters feeding into the National Park. The wood pulp for the industry is sourced from surrounding secondary growth forests, and so a perpetual cycle of slow recovery and devastation continues. This is the cost of toilet paper and American dream homes.

Boise Paper in International Falls
Other ways do exist. American family homes have doubled in size since the 1950s, while at the same time, family sizes have approximately halved. A single income was once enough to sustain a household. Now everybody works. Work hours are longer. Families are disintegrating. Everybody is miserable. So much for the American dream. I would trade a McMansion for the joy of listening to the songs of wolves any day.

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