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Posts Tagged ‘environmental destruction’

dirt3

In April, it rained, rained, rained. In May, it rained, rained, rained. Then, in an abrupt about-face, we finished up May with several scorchingly hot, humid days. The morning of June 1st began as another hot day, and while the temperature remained high, around noon the wind swept in from the west and blew hard all afternoon. The resulting dust storm lifted so much soil from the neighbouring field that the horizon was obscured and grit blew into my eyes as I worked outside.

The flat landscape in this area lends itself to agriculture on a large scale. Many fields are huge, devoid of windbreaks or fences. Drainage systems have been installed to move moisture from the soil and improve access to the fields for heavy machinery. Fertilizer laced with heavy metals is delivered and applied with Industrial equipment that compacts the soil. And when the wind blows, open soil is lifted off the unprotected fields and carried away.

dirt2

I don’t doubt that someone is making money here. It’s said that old-fashioned family farms are dead and no longer viable. Still, living next door to an industrial agricultural site has been eye-opening. It’s hard to believe that these methods respect the very soil on which our lives depend.

William Bryant Logan refers to dirt as the “ecstatic skin of the earth”. Fresh water is the very fountain of life. Yet we treat water and soil as so much waste, to be discarded in our rush for money, economic ‘growth’, more of everything…except what really matters.

dirt1

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Collapse by Jared Diamond. Viking Penguin, 2005.

I first read Collapse a few years ago and was impressed with Diamond’s examination of the collapse of societies. Diamond defines collapse as the drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time. His topic is broad. He considers past societies such as that of Easter Island, the Anasazi, Maya, and the Vikings in the new world. Each of these societies once enjoyed prosperity and wealth and left behind ruins that we still marvel at. It has been suspected that each of these mysterious ends were triggered at least in part by environmental problems, a sort of unintended ecological suicide. Diamond argues that past societies are united by the same economic and environmental challenges facing modern civilizations today and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril.

From past societies he moves into the present day for a look at Rwanda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, China and Australia. It was his discussion of Haiti that caused me to pick the book up again recently, as Haiti has dominated news media following the recent earthquake disaster. While the earthquake was the cause of a terrible tragedy, grinding poverty has been central to Haiti’s story for centuries. Diamond provides a useful thumbnail sketch of Haiti’s history. He looks at factors that have contributed to its poverty and compares the situation in Haiti with that in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Diamond concludes that there are twelve serious environmental problems that challenge societies, past and present. Number one is the destruction of natural habitats, including deforestation. Deforestation was often the most important factor in the decline of all of the past societies described in his book. Today, we are destroying natural habitats at an accelerating rate, cutting down forests and replacing natural landscapes with human-manufactured ones: ciites, golf courses, roads, farmland and more.

Other factors Diamond discusses include the destruction of wild food sources through overharvesting (fishing); loss of diversity through species extinction; soil erosion and infertility; shortages of freshwater and more. He then goes on to look at the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of a set of obstructions routinely set out to block effective action: Technology will solve all our problems; If we run out of one resource, we’ll replace it with another, etc.

Diamond’s writing is clear and enjoyable to read. His arguments are well-constructed, thoroughly documented and convincing. Collapse is a thoughtful overview of environmental issues facing people today, well worth reading. One of my favorite lines in the book relates to Easter Islanders who cut down all the trees on their island, thus depriving themselves of firewood or any way to build boats in which to catch the fish they fed themselves with. Diamond writes:

What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology wil solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or: We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”?

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stupidtothelast

Stupid to the Last Drop by William Marsden. Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2007.

I assume that when author William Marsden came up with the title for his book, he thought that “Greedy, Self-interested, Irresponsible, Exploitive, Suicidal, Environmentally-devastating and Just Plain Crazy to the Last Drop” would be a bit too long, although all those adjectives could surely be applied to Tar Sands projects. On the other hand, his subtitle of How Alberta is bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn’t Seem to Care) does run on impressively. It’s hard to argue with him.

It’s impossible to hear anything about global warming, environmental disasters or the end of cheap oil without also hearing about Alberta’s tar sands. I decided it was time I learned a bit more about the topic, and Marsden’s book offers a good, readable introduction. He looks at some of the history to the development, how oil is extracted, and provides some of the relevant facts and figures. His first-person interviews of people impacted by the tar sands in various ways, from employees and managers out at Fort McMurray to First Nations residents in Fort Chipewyan, lends the book a human face.

The strangest thing about the tar sands is the way in which the people of Alberta have been complicit in their own sell-out. If you have a supply of a product that everyone in the world wants, it pretty much follows that you can name your price. And when extracting that product is going to devastate the very land you live in, pretty much forever and ever, you better be building up one hell of a reserve for the future. Instead of that, Albertans have sat by while their government sold off their one-time resource to the lowest bidder.

Compare Alberta’s situation to that of Norway. Alberta’s Heritage Fund, begun in 1976, contained only $15.4 billion 30 years later in 2006. Norway didn’t begin receiving oil revenue until 1996, and just ten years later Norway’s fund contained nearly $306 billion. In addition to charging much higher royalties than Alberta does, Norway ensures that a state-owned company controls more than 50 percent of North Sea oil production. And that doesn’t even address the government subsidies and tax breaks Albertans happily dish out to oil companies. For this boondoggle, Albertans rewarded the Ralph Klein government by re-electing them several times. Incredible!

Consider the spectacle of citizens of this oil-rich province having to stage demonstrations just to get adequate health care. Last weekend, the Globe and Mail reported that hundreds of Albertans held just such a demonstration in front of Premier Ed Stelmach’s riding office in Fort Saskatchewan to protest the shortfalls and poor management of Alberta’s health-care system.

The aspect of the tar sands projects that I found most disturbing relates to the devastation of the watershed. The prairies are naturally dry. Alberta’s rivers are fed by a network of streams that have their source in the snowpacks and glaciers of the Rocky Mountains. With climate change, glaciers are receding and there is evidence that suggests precipitation will decline in the future. Somehow, Albertans have been convinced that oil is the most valuable of liquids. Of course, that’s silly. Water is the most valuable of liquids, regardless of how many dollars a barrel of oil may fetch. You can live without oil. You can’t live without water. Alberta has about 70% of the irrigated farmland in Canada. Yet the province has failed to protect wetlands and water supplies. The flow of the South Saskatchewan River has been reduced by 84% since the early 1900s.

The extraction of oil from the Tar Sands requires huge amounts of water, from 2 to 6 barrels for every barrel of oil produced. The water is mostly drawn from the Athabaska River. The water cannot be returned to the river, however, because the mining process poisons the water. Instead, huge tailing lakes of contaminated waste water are held behind one of the worlds’ largest dam systems, second only to China’s Three Gorges project. The effects of the resulting contamination, as water leaks into the Athabaska watershed, isn’t well understood because the government deals with problems in a “shoot-the-messenger” way, with severe cut-backs to the Environmental department, thus limiting investigation of problems. And that doesn’t even get into the problem of private wells poisoned by coal bed methane (CBM) drilling.

The prevailing Albertan view has reached other Canadians in the form of an Imperial Oil exectuive’s son and climate-change denier, Stephen Harper. I can’t stand the Conservative Party’s attack ad campaign and enjoyed this parody, produced by Environmental Defense. Watch it here.

stephen

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