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

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.

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.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Ironies of Tourism

6 July 2016

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a complex landscape, where environmental, social and economic factors converge, creating a sense of surrealism. Surrounded on three sides by Great Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior. It feels like an island in a vast ocean, rather than a finger of land protruding into freshwater lakes. Towering sand dunes, long stretches of white-sand beaches and crystal-clear waters rival some of the finer Caribbean destinations, and on the sunny day I was there, the shores were crawling with happy beach goers.

Because of the crowds, I was surprised to find numerous boarded-up roadside motels and other small businesses, as I drove across the peninsula. One would think that with such a beautiful vacation paradise, right on the doorstep of Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, that tourism-related businesses would be pulsing with economic vitality. I speculate about two possible causes: 1) tourists are notoriously fickle, with improved air routes to more exotic locations, they have simply taken their tourism dollars elsewhere, and/or 2) the economic downturn in the surrounding areas due to losses of manufacturing jobs (see: has resulted in people in the area no longer having the funds for any kind of vacation, even one close by. Perhaps somebody who lives in the area can weigh in on this.

In either case, one of the great ironies of tourism is that in most cases, tourism development actual despoils the thing that attracts tourism in the first place. As the 1970’s pop band the Eagles once noted, “call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.” The Upper Peninsula’s apparent tourism recession has inadvertently saved the character and natural beauty of the place. While one wishes that sufficient economic opportunity exists for an area’s residents, one also hopes that such opportunity will take place without threatening the ecological treasures that coexist there. Few examples of this fragile balance exist in the world.

In the Upper Peninsula, as soon as one ventures a short distance from the beach in any direction, nature takes over. Mixed forest types extend out in every direction, interrupted only by expansive wetlands and small pockets of human populations in tiny towns. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore encompasses more than twenty linear miles of uninterrupted shorefront, with spectacular cliffs, pebble beaches, sandy shorelines with backdrops of temperate rain forest (maybe it just seemed like rain forest on the day I was there).   

The Seney National Wildlife Refuge is a vast wetland area resplendent with trumpeter swans, Canada geese, loons, belted kingfishers and myriad other waterfowl. The wildflowers within the refuge are also spectacular.

The small businesses that do exist along the roadsides are worth visiting. Intimate diners with friendly proprietors, gas stations with now-archaic gas pumps and country stores, stocked with basic supplies are about all you will find here. But the dollars you spend will go straight into a a real person's pocket, rather than padding a corporation's share price. There are no Walmarts, McDonalds, etc. to be found, and that’s a good thing.

Kirtland's Warblers and Other Natural Surprises

5 July 2016
Michigan is a state of contrasts. Venturing from south to north, post-industrial gloom gives way to sweeping vistas of rolling hills and forests. Like most other areas in the eastern United States, Michigan’s forests were logged relentlessly, although isolated pockets of old growth are still found. At the Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling, a mosaic of old and new growth forests converges to create a haven for biodiversity.

I set out early in the morning with the intention of seeing Kirtland’s warblers in their summer breeding range. The warbler, like many other organisms, is finding it difficult to survive in the modern world. For one thing, it nests on the ground, which makes it highly susceptible to predation. In order to compensate for this, the warbler choses nesting sites only in areas of jack pine forest that have openings in the tree canopies. The openings allow light to shine on the forest floor, encouraging low-lying pine branches to remain leafy. The leaves then hide the vulnerable nests, or so the theory goes. The warbler’s highly specialized nesting behavior has been exacerbated by land clearance, logging and development, resulting in fewer and fewer suitable habitats.

In addition to these setbacks, the Kirtland’s warbler is also migratory, spending its summers in the jack pine forests of Michigan and Wisconsin and its winters in the Bahamas and (marginally) in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Development and land clearance in those areas also threatens the birds. Given all of the above, the United States has placed Kirtland’s warbler on the Endangered Species List and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the international authority on rare, threatened and endangered species, has listed the warbler as Near Threatened. Like many creatures, the warbler needs an intact natural world to thrive.

In my naiveté, and being one who has had great successes in the past in finding rare and endangered species, I entered Hartwick Pines this morning fully expecting to see Kirtland’s warblers. I did not. I did hear one or two (it may have been the same bird), but I did not see any. Initially, I was disappointed by my failed conquest, but then I switched my focus from what I wasn’t seeing to what I was seeing. Old-growth coniferous forests of cedar, white pine and Eastern hemlock blotted out the sun in some areas, creating a barren forest floor, spongy with centuries of fallen needles. I have never seen white pines so large and tall, and the smell of terpenes and other volatile conifer scents in the air was too delicious to be described. A riot of bird song, made it almost impossible to pick out the individual singers, a pileated woodpecker, a drumming ruffed grouse, a hermit thrush, a veery, chickadees galore. Black squirrels!

Profusions of wildflowers erupted wherever light penetrated, along trails, windfalls and roadways, calling hordes of insects to partake of their nectar. And then, a surprise visit from a juvenile white-tailed deer that came to investigate, as I was stooping to take a picture of a sulfur butterfly on a milkweed. The fawn was alone and entirely unafraid. A magical moment. Today I went looking for something and found something better. I found nature, rebounding exuberantly from an earlier onslaught of human destructiveness. This gives me hope.