Posts filed under ‘Environmental Issues’

Reflections On An Oil Spill

“Dear future generations:  Please accept our apologies.  We were rolling drunk on petroleum.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

Dear Kurt,

It is too late to apologize.

I am worried that the human race is not going extinct quickly enough to protect the Earth and its creatures from the devastation we are perpetrating on it.

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we are riven by conflicts that increase the likelihood that the weapons we have built, supposedly to protect ourselves, will be used against us.

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we experience climate change at an unprecedented rate because of our lust for more things: things that go faster, that shine brighter, that “enrich” the “quality” of our “life.”

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we experience earthquakes caused by tectonic plate shifts as Mother Earth readjusts her mantle in response to her polar ice caps becoming lighter.

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we strip people of the habitats that sustain their lives–lives already below or barely at the poverty line–and we drive those in the “undeveloped” world further into desolation and despair for the sole purpose of enhancing our already opulent lives in the “developed” one.

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we extinguish life at 100 to 1,000 times the naturally occurring rate of extinction ever, ever in the history of the planet.  Not the history of humankind.  The entire history of our 4.5 billion year old PLANET.  Current modelling suggests that up to 50 per cent of all animal life on Earth (arrogantly, we have not included human beings as part of the equation) will be extinct within 100 years.

We are in a sixth mass extinction, called the Holocene extinction.  We are entering a new Ice Age, and this one is caused not by asteroids hitting the Earth or a natural warm-up in the environment allowing bacteria to take over the oceans, but by us. By the one species with the most evolutionarily advanced brain–a brain capable of considering itself the top of the food chain.  By creatures who evolved to create technologies that are beyond our own comprehension to manage and that inevitably will, and clearly are, destroying everything on Earth including ourselves.

But not, in my opinion, fast enough.

We have developed nuclear power–so called “clean” energy–bringing power to people around the world and improving their productivity so they can make more stuff, and also make more people–requiring us to generate more power.  We have nowhere to store the radioactive waste, which we know will outlast our species by hundreds of thousands of years.

We have developed atomic weapons that we can’t and shouldn’t ever use, for they will more surely destroy us than save us from destruction regardless of who fires first.

We have manufactured space-age materials and technologies to communicate with each other over vast distances, but the gaps between cultures are as wide as ever and we don’t understand each other any better than we did in the Dark Ages–we’re only more aware of how many more of us there are and that they live on the opposite side of a round ball that circles the sun, rather than a flat disc at the centre of a finite Universe.

This latter knowledge–that we are but one species on one planet of an infinite number in an ever-expanding Universe–has really not given us the perspective it should have, because at the same time as we’ve developed the means of communication to bring us together as citizens of that planet, we’ve also developed religions and national borders and political systems still rooted in the philosophies of the Dark Ages that drive us apart.

The devices that we manufacture using the space-age materials we’ve invented now fill mile-high landfills in China and Latin America and an area the size of Texas swirling in the South Pacific because they cannot be re-absorbed by the Earth and we don’t know how to get rid of the core materials.  Although we sure do know how to get rid of the devices that we make of them–cell phones, computers, game consoles, radios, TVs–and have come to accept the term “planned obsolescence” without really thinking about the impact it has on our oceans, our land and our people.

We have developed genetically-modified foods that cause the very cancers that we’ve developed life-saving surgeries and treatments to eradicate.  Despite being able to farm healthy foods better and faster than ever before, and despite eating 2,700 calories a day–500 calories more than people ate just 40 years ago–the U.S. has the highest diabetes, cardiac and obesity rates of any nation on Earth because there’s more money to be made manufacturing and selling junk food than there is growing and distributing healthy food (genetically modified or not).

We spend kajillions of dollars a year sending probes into space and to distant planets looking for signs of life, while back on Earth millions of our own people die for lack of food, water, medicine and shelter that would cost a fraction of that.

Somewhere buried in the rock of the Earth’s pre-Cambrian shield in Norway is a cement-encased bunker that holds half a million seeds,  gathered over the past two years from every area of the world.  The best and most resilient grains that can restore plant life to Earth and provide sustenance for any survivors of environmental cataclysm, either natural or human-created.

My fervent hope is that, if it ever came to needing them, no one survives to plant them.  Because I think we’ve pretty much proven that human beings are a failed species, destined to obliterate not just themselves but pretty much every other living thing–animal,vegetable and mineral–that surrounds us on this beautiful and currently still blue-and-green rock hurtling through the Universe.

I am so very, very glad that I never had children. My line and legacy will die out with me. It’s the least I can offer you, Mother Earth.  I pray that as we wipe ourselves out through our own greed and ignorance–or rather, through being too smart for our own good–we leave you with enough of what you need to replenish yourself after we’re gone.

May 1, 2010 at 6:09 pm 1 comment

The Worlds Within Us

Mila Zincova

Coral Reefs, Papua New Guinea Photo: Mila Zincova

There is a poem by Helen Humphreys that I’ve had posted on my fridge since 2001. Halfway through reading The World Without Us, I took it off my fridge and have had it sitting near my laptop. I’ve read it again several times, and it now has taken on another layer of meaning. That means it’s a good poem, I guess. And it also points to the fact that the issues touched upon in this poem and in Weisman’s book have simmered in my unconscious mind for … well, a long time–much longer than the time the poem has been on my fridge, that’s for sure.

The ideas are so big, it’s difficult to process them. So difficult to process, that I spent a sleepless night last night with images roiling in my brain: nuclear waste leaking into the planet’s bedrock for millions of years and the fact that “nurdles” may exist for the same amount of time. (Nurdles is such a cute word for such a deadly thing: the cylindrical plastic pellets that now infest our oceans, killing creatures at the very base of the food chain–and you know what that means). This is what will remain of us:  the products of our ingenuity are the very things that have destroyed our planet.

The Swimsuit Calendar Frog

Red-Eyed Tree Frog: The Swimsuit Calendar Frog

The inevitable conclusion from Weisman’s book is that humanity’s most distinctive and redeeming capacity–the power we have to think, to create, to imagine–is the one leading most irrevocably to our extinction. If that capacity also includes the ability to problem-solve and act in our own best interests as an entire species, it might also lead to our salvation. That, however, I feel less hopeful about, at least this morning.

As I said in a prior post, the only way I can wrap my mind around the enormity of the issues presented is through art and literature. Ironically, with the exception of bronze statuary, these products of our complex meta-cognition–our art, music and writing–are the most ephemeral, the ones most likely to fade away quickly, the ones with half-lives that often don’t survive one lifetime, never mind lasting into a world without us. Books and paintings will be among the first to decay, and even though newsprint is actually one of the last things to decompose in oxygen-depleted landfills, decompose it will and with it will go much of human knowledge and artistic production.

River in Costa Rican Rainforest

River in Costa Rican Rainforest

The poem on my fridge, clipped from the Globe and Mail back when they used to publish poetry fairly regularly, is yellowing now with age. It is impossible to find online: it is not included in any poetry anthologies or databases. Humphreys is better known for her short novel, The Lost Garden, which is infused with her poet’s sensibility. As much as I enjoy her writing, Humphreys is no Tennyson, no TS Eliot, no Shakespeare. Her work will not very likely be chosen to blast out into space, etched on a copper plate in some interstellar time capsule. But it has provided strange comfort to me over the years, and I will enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

Installation

By Helen Humphreys, Anthem (Brick Books, 1999)

What we make doesn’t recover from us.

Twisted scaffold, trellis of rust. This

is how we will be gone. The steel hull

grinning with rivets. Shiny notes of chrome

swinging from the stave of the wrecker’s wall.

Those we loved and nothing for that. The moon

a chalk circle over dark harbour.

Old rail tracks slippery under my feet.

Broken ladder on the tanker. My breath

ascending the rungs of air. I have

been here, lived in this place, loved you.

There’s a snarl of wire on white sand.

Plastic bottles nested in tall grasses

by the channel mouth. We are survived by these

shapes, by the shape of our lives without us.

August 25, 2008 at 4:00 pm Leave a comment

Seriously Eccentric Saturday Musings

Ok, brace yourselves. When nothing in particular occupies my mind, it leaves a lot of room for randomness. And so it begins …

Mama elephant and her kids - Kilimanjaro in background

Still reading The World Without Us. The author, Alan Weisman, is jumping around quite a bit from topic to topic; era to era; location to location. Since we’re often dealing in geologic time, you can imagine how disorienting this is. It suits me to a T. It forces the reader to seek patterns in trends and events across time and invest them with meaning that might not occur if she was led down a straight, chronological path.

Current mood: a heightened sense of excitement brought on by the bracing winds of chaotic intellectual stimulation. (Bite me, facebook and myspace. Let’s see you come up with an emoticon for that.)

After the jump, we travel to the origins of Homo sapiens accompanied by Paul Simon’s Graceland and U2’s One.

(more…)

August 23, 2008 at 7:44 pm Leave a comment

The World Without Us

I’m reading a book called The World Without Us. It’s “speculative non-fiction” by a writer named Alan Weisman, who poses the scenario of the elimination, in the blink of an eye, of all human life from the planet. Poof. We are gone, and the buildings, animals, plantlife, air and water start to revert to their natural state, decaying or growing as the case may be, without human intervention.

He details what will happen in 100 years; in 1,000 years; in 10,000 years: as seasons change, as the oceans rise and lakes and rivers reassert their natural pathways, and as trees, vines, plants and animals retake their habitats until the next ice age–which we’ve pushed back through the climate change already wrought–scours the slate clean again. In a best-case scenario he presents, it will take a minimum of 1,000 years for the earth’s oceans to cleanse the air of the carbon we’ve dug from the earth and spewed into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Age in about 1750. Eventually, there will be no trace left of us except, perhaps, for some stainless steel pots that will befuddle the next lifeforms to evolve or arrive on Earth; and the Statue of Liberty, cast in bronze, barnacled and buried under a mile of silt in the Atlantic Ocean.

Weisman is saying that it will take a tremendously long time but left to its own devices, the earth will replenish itself. This, evidently, is supposed to be good news–a message of hope that, despite our current predicament, if humans finally drive ourselves to extinction before doing too much more damage to the earth, air, water and other species, things will rectify themselves.

Well, ok … but the problem I’m having (and granted, I’m only on p. 51) is the implausibility of that scenario actually transpiring. Weisman overtly says that the premise is not to speculate on what ends humanity, only that it ends quickly and completely–all at once, everywhere.

But, but … it won’t happen that way, will it? Even a massive asteroid hit, a broadscale nuclear war, biological warfare or the outbreak of a world-wide plague will have human life petering out slowly, unevenly, inconsistently. There will be no quiet overtaking of our cities by kudzu, birch and aspen. Instead, as human beings slowly–slowly and agonizingly–die off, those small bands of survivors who’re left will not go gently into that good night. As resources dwindle, as infrastructure fails, as hope fades … human nature and, never mind that, our basic will to survive, will remain intact. And the will to survive is an individual, not collective, one. Individuals will fight for the basic resources to survive: food, water, shelter. Maybe, maybe, parents will share those resources with their own children. Maybe, maybe, small bands or communities will form, if they are more powerful together than alone. But civilization, government, order and what we in the coddled, so-called developed world construe as morality and humanity, will cease in any meaningful, effective way.

It won’t be pretty.

Perhaps I am a pessimist about human nature, informed by my study of social psychology, and more recently, my reading of The Road and Blindness, which foretell gruesome, cruel and barbaric acts perpetrated by humans on humans in the face of just such doomsday scenarios. There has never been a situation, in the lab or in the real world, throughout history, where–especially in the face of annihilation–those with power and resources have not wielded them to their own advantage, to the extent of overtaking and enslaving those without.

So. I struggle with the premise, and before humans are wiped from the face of the earth, I wonder how much more damage we will do, not just to each other but to our home planet.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter. Perhaps the lingering, cruel destruction of humanity–the “every man for himself” phase–is just a blip on the timeline, as brief as the 15 or 20 minutes of twilight marking the transition from day to night.

We are on an inevitable path, though, to this twilight. By 2100, if we do nothing to curb it, the earth’s atmosphere is projected to contain 900 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2), up from 380 ppm today, which is up from 280 ppm in the pre-industrial age. In other words, in less than 100 years, we will triple our CO2 emissions, which have taken 250 years to rise by slightly more than one-third. This is just one measure of the escalating destruction of our planet. Another is the exponential increase in the number of species we have eradicated in the last 100 years by deforestation–and the proportion of species that will be made extinct by climate change in the next 45-50 (between 15 to 37% by 2050, according to a January 2004 Nature article).

Mr. Weisman–as much as I appreciate your long-term view, I can’t buy it. We will not get to your 1,000 year recovery scenario. We have less than 50 years to dramatically and unequivocally turn back the clock on climate change, on the destruction of habitat, on greenhouse gas emissions and on species extinction. If not, there will not be much left to recover.

I leave you with a poem. In the end, I can’t process this kind of information with scientific facts, journal articles or non-fiction treatises. I need poetry and literature to fully grasp the beauty of what we are destroying, and to galvanize me into the action required to save it.

We Have A Beautiful Mother

Alice Walker, Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 Complete

We have a beautiful

mother

Her hills

are buffaloes

Her buffaloes

hills.


We have a beautiful

mother

Her oceans

are wombs

Her wombs

oceans.


We have a beautiful

mother

Her teeth

the white stones

at the edge

of the water

the summer

grasses

her plentiful

hair.


We have a beautiful

mother

Her green lap

immense

Her brown embrace

eternal

Her blue body

everything

we know.

August 18, 2008 at 11:12 pm 2 comments

What’s Up On Hump Day!

Mid-Week Highlights!

It’s SYTYCD tonight–Top 6! Mark and Courtney are likely in trouble, but let’s see if there’s another upset this week. They will all need to be in top form tonight, and the choreography will make or break them. I hope we get Mandy Moore back. Can’t wait … I’ll try to get my review up quickly this week, but I’m in post-vacation mode at work, and so quite busy. So check in again here frequently (bookmark the site or subscribe to my feed–look up and to the right; it’s the orange box that says “posts”).

I’ve added a daily quotation to the page, and I’m keeping these on a static sub-page called “WoW” (Words of Wisdom) Archive. I’m pulling these from some of my own personal faves that I’ve been collecting for years. You will see lots of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, some snark, and many that are inspirational to me about art, culture and the flaws and foibles of human nature. Many of them have a double, or triple, meaning. I like things that can be interpreted multiple ways. Ambiguity. Random juxtaposition. These things, in and of themselves, inspire creativity and lateral thinking.

What I’m reading right now: Blindness, José Saramago. It’s a bit harrowing, but I trust the reviews I’ve read (and the fact that it won a Nobel Prize for Literature). It feels to me very much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Possibly even bleaker. It has been made into a movie (another one that will be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival) starring one of my favourite actresses, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gael Garcia Bernal. I will be doing my darndest to get to see this one and The Secret Life of Bees, also premiering here in September. Ideally, I will have a review of the novel up sometime on the weekend.

And now, for something truly uplifting: After the jump.

(more…)

July 30, 2008 at 7:09 pm Leave a comment


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