When we were in Paris a couple of years ago we noticed that there were places in the city where the government had provided electrical sites to charge their electric cars. Manitoba does this as well but to a very limited extent. In discussions with an American he asked me, “why should the government pay for that? ”Why should I have to pay for someone else to charge his car?” I would say in response that we should all pay for that because we all want a clean environment. Clean air is a public good and we should all pay for it. Besides, the government spends billions (many billions) subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. Surely it can spend a little to subsidize cars that don’t pollute the air and don’t increase our greenhouse gas emissions. Though I recognize that electric cars are not all good either. Life is rarely that simple. We all have to realize that there are many public goods that are important to a good life on this planet. We must all pay for those. The French have learned this. Canadians and Americans not so much.
One good thing about the Covid-19 pandemic is that we are starting to appreciate (not nearly enough of course) that the common good is important. Often more important than private goods, no matter what those who hoard the private goods tell us. It’s time to start thinking for ourselves.
I heard Mark Ruffalo who played Bilott, and Bilott himself on the PBS television show, Amanpour & Company and the real life Bilott. They made some important points.
Commenting on the legal fight that took almost 20 years of relentless endurance on the part of Bilott, Ruffalo had this to say:
“The system is rigged—against the people. They want us to think that it will protect us, but that is a lie. We protect us. Nobody else. Not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us We protect us. Nobody else.”
This is the fundamental idea behind the film. The system is rigged. Against us.
Of course, this was just one case. But is in any different in the pharmaceutical sector? Or oil and gas? Or tobacco? Or anywhere else? Not according to Ruffalo.
Ruffalo put it this way in his interview by Amanpour:
“We have a system where the government is not responsive to the needs of the people and where it is slavish to the corporate system. We have a democracy that is in service to an economic capitalist system, instead of that system being in service to our democracy. Yes that system is rigged. It has been rigged because there is so much money in politics. If you wanted to fix the problem, really quickly, you would have the state have a stake in health care. Then this stuff would get cleaned out really fast because right now we’re getting poisoned. We have to pay to get ourselves healthy and the state just keeps taking money from both sides, to keep the vicious circle going.”
In the American legal system the people have to prove the chemical harms them. The corporations can sit back and do nothing other than, of course, block the science of the opponents. This is a fundamental flaw.
According to the film there is still no regulation of PFOSA in America. And PFOA’s are ubiquitous. As Nathanial Rich who wrote the article on which the movie was based, explains,
“But if you are a sentient being reading this article in 2016, you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord. Or you might have drunk tainted water…
Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA in the world, they have found it. PFOA is in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions and Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, a wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia.”
As Manohla Dargis said in a New York Times review of the film:
“But at its strongest, the movie makes you see that the poison that is killing Wilbur’s cows and so many other living things isn’t simply a question of toxic chemicals. There is, Haynes suggests, a deeper malignancy that has spread across a country that allows some to kill and others simply to die.”
This is the bigger issue. The exploration of this issue is what makes this film, and the article on which it is based, so important and so interesting. Ultimately it comes down to these two closely related questions: is our modern political system democratic and is modern capitalism anti-life? Those are two very big questions. Worth thinking about.
Dark Water is a really good film. It is a monster/horror film, but not but not the kind you might expect. This is a real life horror show with real life monsters,.
The opening scene is dramatic, spooky and menacing. The scene is idyllic at the outset, like so many scenes in so many horror films. In 1975 a group of cavorting teenagers trespass onto property for a classic midnight swim. It’s obviously loads of fun. I have done exactly that type of thing. But just as in any self-respecting horror film you know from the menacing music that something is wrong. Danger lurks and teenagers dressed only in skimpy swimsuits are defenceless before the danger. There must be a monster lurking in that dark water. And there is. But it is not the typical horror film. It is much worse than that.
The water is oily—slimy. This can’t be good. Suddenly the strong deep male voice of authority rousts them up. The kids are forced to leave. And they do. After they leave a small boat softly glides across the pond spraying something over the slick and shiny surface of the water. The boat is marked “containment.”
In time we learn the monster is not supernatural. It is real. It is indeed profoundly menacing and dangerous. It is a chemical monster the result of corporate malfeasance of a high order.
The film was based on an article in the New York Times Magazine by Nathaniel Rich in 2016 titled, “The Lawyer who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” That lawyer was Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo). He was a lawyer that typically acted for chemical corporations. He was an environmental lawyer—for the wrong side!
Bilott was persuaded to go to the other side by a friend of the family, a West Virginia dairy farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who was profoundly angered by what happened to his cows. His cows were strangely dying in horrible ways on land he farmed. He was suspicious. Something was wrong. It was a mystery and Bilott was intrigued. Like a relentless detective on the trail of truth. And the truth is ugly and leads to an astonishingly long drawn out legal battle against a corporate giant and weak government regulators.
Tennant was unable to get help from anyone before Bilott. No veterinary or lawyer would talk to him. DuPont owned the town and the town was grateful for the ownership. People did not want to rock the boat. It got good paying jobs and security. But did it get something else too? Something less benign?
The corporate giant at the heart of the case, DuPont, never admitted liability or wrongdoing, but it did pay hundreds of millions of dollars for harm caused to animals, property, and people as a result of their chemicals ending up in a local stream and drinking water. The chemical central to the case is called PFOA short for perfluorooctanoic acid. It is a chemical that was entirely unregulated.
In the lawsuit Bilott asked for and got an order requiring DuPont to provide all relevant documents to Bilott. But he got more than he bargained for—110,00 pages of documents! He was literally swamped with paper. It took him months to just sift through the papers. Information in those papers did not come out easily.
It took 16 years for the case to wind through the courts, but of course all the resulting lawsuits have not been completed. Far from it in fact. Many of the parties involved died before judgment of the court was delivered, including Wilbur Tennant.
Yet with enormous—no heroic—work Bilott found a story. Sometimes, I am proud to say, lawyers are heroes. This was one of those times. According to Rich’s articles this was the story:
‘‘I started seeing a story,’’ Bilott said. ‘‘I may have been the first one to actually go through them all. It became apparent what was going on: They had known for a long time that this stuff was bad.’’
DuPont used TFOA in its wonder product Teflon. According to Rich, it was the source of about $1 billion in annual profits for DuPont. Worth defending with vigour. And that is what DuPont with the aid of their team of expensive lawyers did. They defended in the American style—with overwhelming force as the Powell doctrine demands.
PFOA, although unregulated at the time had some very interesting properties. According to Rich,
“PFOA’s peculiar chemical structure made it uncannily resistant to degradation. It also bound to plasma proteins in the blood, circulating through each organ in the body.”
For decades DuPont had been dumping it into their own landfill near Tennant’s property and that in turn drained into a local creek. As Rich explained:
“By 1990, DuPont had dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA sludge into Dry Run Landfill. DuPont’s scientists understood that the landfill drained into the Tennants’ remaining property, and they tested the water in Dry Run Creek. It contained an extraordinarily high concentration of PFOA.”
The court ordered an independent scientific analysis of Tennant’s claims that the harm was caused by DuPont’s chemicals and that report blamed poor animal husbandry on the part of Tennant instead of the chemicals. But DuPont had not been entirely forthcoming in disclosing information for the scientific panel to make its determination. The fight should have been over here. But Bilott was as relentless as a bulldog with its teeth in a human leg.
Bilott kept digging and as he kept digging he kept finding interesting stuff. Watch the movie or read the article to find the details and they are fascinating. Well worth the read or view. And he discovered a lot of people that were harmed. Horrendous birth defects and worse. An interesting little scene showed an adult person with horrible birth defects who had been shown in a photograph as a young baby in the film. The actual adult man, played himself as a happy-go-lucky gas jockey.
Here is Bilott’s side of the story according to Rich:
‘‘I was irritated,’’ he says.
DuPont was nothing like the corporations he had represented at Taft in the Superfund cases. ‘‘This was a completely different scenario. DuPont had for decades been actively trying to conceal their actions. They knew this stuff was harmful, and they put it in the water anyway. These were bad facts.’’ He had seen what the PFOA-tainted drinking water had done to cattle. What was it doing to the tens of thousands of people in the areas around Parkersburg who drank it daily from their taps? What did the insides of their heads look like? Were their internal organs green?
Tennant’s suit was eventually finalized after 16 years, but this film actually raises a much bigger question. Or even two. I will talk about that in my next blog.
On our trip to Arizona we saw that the Rio Grande River was dry again. This magnificent historic river has been reduced to a few puddles here. Nothing that would warrant the name “grand” or even “river.” This is a shame. After we passed it I realized I should have stopped to photograph its demise. Next year I should photograph that as well.
Will Rogers once described the Rio Grande as “the only river I know of that is in need of irrigating.” This was funny, but also a wise observation because thanks to dams and withdrawals for agriculture this famous river has become fragmented. It is nearly 1,900 miles longs second in the US to only the Missouri-Mississippi network. At least at one time the Rio Grande was that long. It really isn’t anymore as we could see. Water no longer flows through its entire channel.
The Rio Grande’s headwaters are found in the San Juan Range in Colorado. From there it empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville Texas. Water flows into the Rio Grande from 11% of the continental United States. Much of that land is drought prone, but it is also vulnerable to many dams and irrigation projects that divert much of it historic flow. In recent years significant portions of it have run dry. In 2001 for the first time the river failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico. It happened again the next year.
Diversions for municipal and agricultural use claim 95% of its average annual flow. That is the problem. Recent droughts have exacerbated the problem. Climate change may mean there are more droughts. So the future of the river is grim. Growing populations around Albuquerque and El Paso sharpen the problems.
Yet parts of it are still spectacular. But we did not see any of them. We just saw puddles. No river at all.
As we drove to Arizona we listened to CBC radio. There was a story about Lynn Lake. In many ways it is a familiar story. It is a story about mining towns. And it happens over and over again. A valuable mineral is discovered, a mining corporation or international conglomerate gets wind of it, scoops up the rights, usually along with some “incentives” from various levels of government, and establishes a mining town.
For a while the town booms. Everybody is happy. Everybody makes money. People move in to work in the mines, others to support the miners. Life is good. For awhile at least.
Then the industry collapses either because the rich vein of minerals is exhausted or prices drop so low it is no longer economical to keep the industry alive. Profits dry up and so does the town. The mining corporation of course, gathers up its chips and moves out. Ordinary people are left holding the bag, in more ways than one. People who owned homes in town find that their homes are worthless. No one wants to move in. Most want to move out, not in. Some die-hards want to stay. After all this is their home. They want to live there. Even though it no longer makes economic sense to stay. This can work for awhile, until the population is so low the town just can’t keep going anymore.
Then sometimes–as in Lynn Lake–remnant problems remain. Often these are environmental. The corporations leaves a mess behind. A mess that someone else has to clean up. This is what happened in Lynn Lake. According to the former Mayor who was interviewed on CBC, the contamination of the water was caused by tailings from the mine. A fund has been created from mining taxes but for some reason can’t be used to clean it up or pay for the Lynn Lake Water Treatment Plant upgrades that are required. So poor citizens in a dying town are left holding the bag. The townspeople don’t want to pay more for water they are told not to drink. That is understandable but who should pay?
I would say the polluter should pay. If that was the mining corporation they should pay, but often it is costly and time consuming to pursue legal uncertain remedies. The townspeople want the province to pay, but why should the province pay? I am all in favor of the collective helping out a group down on their luck, but does it really make sense to keep a town like Lynn Lake going? Is this going to be a classic case of throwing good money after bad?
The town of Lynn Lake now has a population of about 500 from a high of near 4,000. Now it has many abandoned houses. Such homes are not easy to deal with. There were at one time more than 230 abandoned lots in the town and 50 of those have vacant homes that are an invitations to rodents and vandals. They also pose a fire threat to the rest of the community. The town has taken to burning them down or pushing them, literally pushing them, to the dump. After that their foundations have to be covered up and sewer pipes closed. All of this costs money, for a community that does not have a lot of money.
Is this the best the mining industry can do? Can it just cut and run without any heed to the consequences. Is this how our mining industry works. Often it seems that is exactly how it works. If so is it time to abandon the mining industry? I admit I don’t now squat. I just raise questions. Awkward questions.
I heard David Schindler speaking on National Public Radio in April 2017 on our way home from Arizona. I have also heard him speak a couple of times in person. He is one of Canada’s most respected scientists. He is an expert on water and the harm we do to it. Schindler warned that the damage to the environment that we hav caused would have profound effects on people 50 to 100 years from now. But it seems we are incapable of looking ahead that far. No one cares. That short-sightedness is extremely unfair to future generations. Don’t we have obligations to them too? Instead of worrying about them we continue to spew out pollutants into the atmosphere, the ground, and the waters we use. That damage might become irreversible.
The classic example of this, according to Schindler, is the Alberta Tar Sands that he had studied for the last decade or so of his scientific career. The pollution in those Tar Sands are a ticking time bombing, he said. We are leaving it behind. We will have a lot to answer for.
Another long-term problem we are creating for future generations is climate change. Scientists are 90% (or more) certain that our actions are causing irreparable harm to our climate. We can’t afford to wait until they are 100% certain.
Many people—like the editorial writers in the Wyoming newspaper I read early that morning driving home from Arizona concentrate instead on short-term economic losses of pollution or climate change mitigation. I don’t want to entirely discount those consequences. They will hurt some people. But these writers fail entirely to take into consideration the immense longer-term damage. The costs of mitigating climate change will dwarf the cost of the damage to our economy, but others (like our grand children for example) will pay them in the future. That makes it easy to ignore those costs now. It will be someone else’s problem. Our actions are extremely selfish, unwise and unfair. The editorial writers consider the cost of current job losses, extra taxes, and things like that. These are nearly insignificant in comparison to the costs of the harm of doing business as usual. We cannot afford to ignore the cost to the planet.
The editorial writers appeal to the same people Republicans and Conservatives appeal. Or my Member of Parliament. He only cares about the economic cost to his current electors. The next generation is not his problem. All these leaders are concerned about is what costs will they have to pay. The next generation can be dammed. That attitude could lead to disaster. In fact, it looks like it is leading to disaster.
Did you notice how the federal government in Canada characterized their carbon tax as a tax on pollution when it introduced the tax. I thought that was smart actually. After all it was true.
Then did you notice how last year (2018) the government quietly, without much fanfare, delivered a $1.6 billion bailout to oil firms in Canada! Some people keep telling me how Indigenous people are always standing with their hands out waiting for money from the government. Well, if that’s true they are not the only ones. You could buy a lot of water treatment plants on Canada’s Indian Reserves for that amount of money.
Here is how Mia Rabson reported on this in the Winnipeg Free Press reported quietly on it in the business pages of the paper:
“Canada’s $1.6 billion bailout package for Alberta’s battered oil industry is well underway, but with little transparency about who is getting the money and for what.
Almost $1billion of the package of loans, guarantees and government grants is in the hands of companies, but details are available for a small fraction of the spending.’
So just as Canada has been falling behind its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as international agencies recently announced, we are paying the oil and gas industry $1.6 billion to pollute more! Makes a lot of sense doesn’t it? Paying to pollute.
A subsidy is a financial benefit that the government gives, to businesses or industries or even consumers. Oil and gas subsidies support oil and gas production (and even coal production). Subsidies can be paid directly in cash or indirectly in tax breaks. Either way its 6 of one or half a dozen of the other. Either way the tax-paying public pays. The fossil fuel companies take. You could call it socialism for the rich.
It is not well known that Canada already subsidizes its oil and gas industry by about $3.3 billion. Canada is the largest subsidizer of financial support to its oil and gas industry in the G7 per unit of GDP. Countries around the world have criticize us for it too. That money could instead be used to pay for 44,000 hospital beds, or put 260,000 high school students through high school or pay for a lot of transition to cleaner energy. So instead of using that money to pay things like that, we pay industries to pollute and we do it at the cost of our international reputation.
Such subsidies also help to lock in our dependence on fossil fuel in the country and continue to supporter the competitor to clean energy provides by making oil and gas seem cheaper.
European countries are already protesting Canada’s position. As Rabson reported,
“Sweden’s central bank, the Riksbank, said Wednesday it had sold its Alberta-government issued bonds because it will no longer invest in assets held by governments or companies with large climate footprints.
A day later, the European Investment Bank (EIB), the non-profit lending institution of the European Union, announced it will no longer invest in any fossil fuel projects after 2021.”
I know that the Canadian oil and gas sector is already hard hit by the withdrawal of $30 billion in capital in the last 3 years and it is still an important industry in Canada, but isn’t it time that we stop paying people to pollute? Can’t we find better ways to invest our money?
The Oil and Gas sector is heavily subsidized in both Canada and the United States. It has been for years. But many people don’t know how much. This is the case even though their profits are enormous.
I started paying attention to this issue during the Obama administration. At that time, Exxon was the world’s biggest oil company and perhaps the world’s biggest company, and also had the world’s largest profits ever in one year. President Obama, pointed out at the time that Exxon earned $4.7 million profit every hour! He said that the 3 largest oil companies made combined profits in 2011 of $80 billion or $200 million every day.
What was even more astounding was that such large companies, with such huge profits, were subsidized by taxpayers. They were on the public dole! That meant average taxpayers contributed extra subsidies to those corporate giants. Many of those subsidies were paid through tax breaks. These were tax breaks that ordinary citizens and ordinary small businesses did not enjoy. According to President Obama, those subsidies amounted to 4 billion annually in the United States. A staggering amount considering who the recipients were, namely huge and already profitable corporations.
In 2012 US President Obama tried to eliminate those subsidies. Shockingly, to me at least, the Senate Republicans blocked the measures to eliminate those tax breaks. President Obama in arguing for the bill made a simple comment that is hard to deny. “With record profits and rising production, I’m not worried about the big oil companies,” Obama said, “… I think it’s time they got by without more help from taxpayers, who are having a tough enough time paying their bills and filling up their tanks.” Yet such simple logic was beyond the ken and understanding of conservative politicians.
When oil companies argue against reducing the subsidies that they have come to cherish their “best” argument is that these subsidies are less than that enjoyed by other huge corporations. Wow. Some get even more! This is nuts!
What is really strange—hallucinogenically strange—is that those subsidies continued right through the recession when both the American and Canadian governments claimed to be so lacking in money, they had to make all kinds of cuts. Meanwhile these subsidies seriously exacerbated the most serious environmental problem of our time—climate change. Ordinary people were paying to make things worse!
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008 we have been in and out of recession. Some think we never really got out of it. A lack of cash made it difficult to consider expensive projects. Projects like doing something about climate change. Yet we can afford even less to do nothing. Inaction is much more expensive than action.
Carbon emissions have continued to rise during the recession, though admittedly not as high as they would have risen had economic conditions been better. As Damian Carrington said on his environmental blog,
“The house is ablaze and we are throwing bucket after bucket at it—buckets of petrol. Worse if that is possible, the world’s politicians are not stepping in to stop us stoking the flames: instead they are helping us to pay for the petrol.”
In other words carbon emissions have risen during tough economic times because governments have dragged their feet on the necessary actions and then have made matters worse—much worse—by subsidizing fossil fuels the primary culprit behind climate change. These are truly weird times.
Despite clear warnings from the scientific community for a number of years, our political leaders have done nothing to halt the emission of greenhouse gases so those emissions have been rising by record amounts. This is beginning to look more and more like the people of Easter Island who kept cutting their trees down on their island until they were all gone. I always wondered who was the person on Easter Island who cut down the last tree and how did he think that made sense? Sometimes we are just plain stupid. And as I have said often about myself, making it a fundamental principle of mine, ‘life is hard when you’re stupid.’
Scientists have for a long time pointed out that any average temperature rise beyond 2° C would not be safe. “Safe” perhaps is not the best word. Average temperature rises of 2° C would be serious. Some say disastrous. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted a temperature rise of 3.5 °C based on current policies. Some agencies have predicted even greater rises. That means we will soon enter a world of mass migrations and severe water shortages. In such a world, England would have the temperature of Morocco today. Manitoba would be about like Kansas.
Another possibility though is that average temperatures will rise even more to 6 °C. According to Carrington, “That’s Armageddon: large parts of the planet uninhabitable and the risk of runaway warming threatening the rest.”
I am not minimizing what all of us individuals have to do. We too have to get serious about climate change. We have to change the way we live. But the role of governments is also of critical importance. The current inaction by our political leaders is a disgrace.
The IEA has said the role of government is “critical.” Yet governments like our own stand still. During the Harper regime in Canada he said, he would not inflict the costs of action on our country. Yet according to the IEA “delaying action is a false economy.” According to the IEA if we save $1 now by doing nothing we will pay $4.30 later to make up for it.” That certainly would be a misleading “saving.”
There is an amazing tree at the west end of Vancouver Island called Lonesome Doug. We did not find Lonesome Doug, a lonely Douglas-fir left all alone in the middle of a vicious clear-cut forest. We had seen photos of Lonesome Doug but felt we did not have time to try to find him. So he remains alone and unseen by us.
All the trees around it had been felled. Hence the name. Lonesome Doug is a massive tree. It pokes right through the forest canopy in this area called the Tall Tree Capital of the World. It actually had no limbs at all until it reached the top of the surrounding canopy. In other words all the surrounding trees were not as tall as the lowest branch of Lonesome Doug! This is a very big tree. Thank goodness it was saved, but I wish they had retained some of his neighbours too.
Lonesome Doug is about as tall as a 20-story building. Its trunk is wider than a truck. Apparently it is the second-largest Douglas-Fir tree in Canada. And now it is a freak in this clearing in the rain forest. Lonesome Doug has enough wood to fill four logging trucks or to frame five 2,000 sq. foot houses. That one tree could be sold for thousands of dollars, but thankfully it was saved. I don’t know why. It is one of the last Douglas-fir in coastal B.C. where 99% of them are already gone. And some people want to take them all! Sometimes the rapacity of men is inconceivable. It takes a rain forest like this to grow such a massive tree. Here it rains 2 out of every 3 days so the big trees are happy. Such trees love flat valley floors onto which the rain water flows. Even though we did not see Doug, we were very lucky because it did not rain.
For many decades the predominant method of logging in B.C. was clear-cutting. The loggers just cut everything down. There was no time for sloppy sentimentality. According to Harley Rustad,
“The introduction of mechanized feller-bunchers—capable of chopping, de-limbing, and cutting trees to length—made it possible for loggers to clear a hectare of second-growth forest in a matter of hours. But few machines are capable of felling old growth; the trees are too big. Every great tree that is cut down on Vancouver Island is done by hand. While it could take 500 years for a fir to reach fifty metres tall and two metres wide, it can take a skilled faller with a chainsaw five minutes to bring it down.”
That puts the whole process into perspective. Lonesome Doug has probably been standing for a 1,000 years! In other words he was already about 500 years old when Christopher Columbus “discovered” North America. He was a seedling at about the time Leif Ericson was building sod houses in Newfoundland.
The image of Lonesome Doug is a powerful one. I think it shows us what clear-cut logging is all about. As Rustad said, “Heroic life persevering amid destruction.” Destruction is the key. Sometimes I really think capitalism is anti-life. They call it creative destruction, and sometimes that is true, but all too often it is just destruction. I think it is really vandalism. Maybe even desecration.
The Globe and Mail called this tree “the loneliest tree in Canada.” Some people fear that because the surrounding forest has been felled, the wind will ruin Lonesome Doug. Yet he was surrounded by 150 year-old Hemlocks that had grown back after a massive storm. In other words, Doug must have been alone then too. He can take the wind. Doug is tough. Maybe he will make it. Lets hope.
We visited a second exhibit at the National Gallery in Ottawa. This was very different from the first one that displayed works by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries. This one did not have beautiful art. Or rather it did, but in a weird way.
The exhibit featured amazing works of photography by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier using a variety of techniques and technologies. Their works are stunning, but deeply disturbing, and that is what good art should do. It should disturb us. These 3 artists ask us to consider the environmental and ethical issues involving the exploitation of Earth’s resources by one species—Homo sapiens.
The exhibit included about 30 new enormous photographic prints and high definition murals as well as film installations. The title of the exhibit is Anthropocenea concept I have been interested in for a number of years. The concept arises from an important but little understood fact: Human beings now affect the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined.
This word has recently been invented. I wish it had not occurred to anyone that this word was needed. The word is anthropocene. It refers to the fact that humans have had such a profound influence on the planet that the era we are now in needs a name to reflect that. That word is anthropocene.
The word is closely associated to another word—anthropogenic. This word also refers to profound planetary forces that have a human origin. We created these forces. And many of these forces are not benign. Far from benign in fact. Malignant would be much closer to the truth in many cases.
In the spring of 2013 Christiane and I visited Africa. It was a marvelous experience. Never have we seen wild life that. We were astounded when we safaried into our first African ‘Game’ Park. That was Chobe National Park in Botswana. It is not the park with the most wildlife in Africa. That privilege probably belongs to the Serengeti. Yet we were completely stunned by the amount of wild life we saw that day. We saw large numbers of elephants, giraffes, gazelles, impalas, hippopotami, crocodile and water buffalo as well as small numbers of many other animals. Of course we saw many species of birds as well. It was one of the most exciting days of my life. We had never seen anything like it in North America.
Yet North America used to be like that. It is hard for us to believe. 200 to 300 years ago the Great Plains of North America resembled the plains of the Serengeti. It has been estimated that some 30 million to 60 million animals were found on the Great Plains of North America. These included the American bison and pronghorn antelope in the millions. They roamed freely across about 500,000 sq. mi. of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi. That is difficult for us now to comprehend. It is difficult because most of those animals were slaughtered—deliberately slaughtered. Now it seems incomprehensible that we could do that. But we did. Our species did that. This destruction was anthropogenic. We were the cause. Destruction on such a vast scale beggars our imagination.
The epoch we are currently living is called the Holocene epoch. It started 11,700 years ago. In geological terms that means this current epoch has barely begun. Yet already, some scientists are saying we need to declare that the Holocene epoch is over and a new one has begun–the Anthropocene.
Epochs are marked by momentous events–like Ice Ages. Usually they have lasted millions of years. For example the epoch that preceded the one we are now in, The Pliocene orPleiocene Epoch is the epoch in the geologic timescale that extended from about 5.333 million to 2.58 million years before present. It lasted about 2.8 million years and was by no means the longest.
Originally it was thought that the Holocene epoch would begin during the last Ice Age and then end when a new Ice Age started. That would make the Holocene an interglacial period between an experiencedice age and an anticipatedice age. During this period the climate has been relatively stable and this has allowed Homo sapiens to dominate the earth. Yet recently many scientists have become convinced that this traditional analysis is no longer accurate. They believe that over the last 200 years, or since the time of the Industrial Revolution, the impact of this one species has been so great that an entirely new geological age has been ushered in—the Anthropocene, or Age of Man.
According to British geologist Jan Zalasiewicz there is now a widespread belief among Earth and environmental scientists that changes created by human activities are now so great that they rival some of the great forces of nature that have in the past so altered the planet that at least 5 mass extinctions of species have occurred since the planet was created 4.56 billion years ago.
Think about this concept for a minute. This means that the consequence of activities of our species, are so enormous that we compare to the effects caused by an asteroid smashing into the planet about 65 million years ago that killed more than half of the species on the planet. According to this view our actions are so profound that the stability of the Holocene epoch has been disturbed to such an extent that the very life support systems that have nurtured and favored our species. How is that possible?
Scientists believe that so far there have been 5 major extinctions. the most massive extinction was the Permian Extinction that occurred about 600 million years ago and changed the nature of the planet forever. It was probably the most extensive extinction ever. It led to the extinction of 95% of life on our planet!
This extinction ended that Permian world. The cause of this extinction is not universally agreed upon. Some have suggested that massive volcanic forces inside the earth led to massive eruptions that poisoned the atmosphere and oceans so much that 95% of all species died. Other causes have been suggested but all of them are on the order of magnitude of what we call forces of nature. No pipsqueak can change the world’s climate.
To think that our actions are being compared to these massive destructive natural forces is stupefying. Yet that is exactly what some scientists are now doing. This is a disconcerting thought, but on this basis, our species isthe greatest serial killer of other species that the earth has ever seen.
Andrew Miall, a professor at the University of Toronto described this well,
Deforestation, agriculture, increase in erosion, the pumping of all kinds of artificial things into the hydrosphere; all these phosphates and nitrates going into the river systems (so that) we now have this huge dead zone in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico because of all the agricultural chemicals that have gone down there. These are all undeniable effects. There is no point in trying to evade it. To call this now the Anthropocene epoch would certainly crystallize that concept. It does seem that a number of scientists have started to use the term
How have we—one species—been able to have such a profound effect on the planet? According to William Marsden,
Scientists say the principal agents of this change are the machinery of the industrial age and its chemical toxins. Modern mining, urbanization, forestry, agriculture and fishing practices have refashioned both the terrestrial landscape and continental shelves. Toxic pollutants are changing weather patterns, warming oceans, increasing their acidity and raising sea levels.
Scientists say that there are already clear and distinct geological markers of this human impact that are clearly visible in the atmosphere and sedimentary rock as well as discerned changes to our weather patterns.
This impact has been felt in not just species extinctions, but species invasions. According to Jan Zalasiewicz, “the CO2increase associated with global warming and ocean acidification—this is large in scale and probably unprecedented in its speed.”
The idea that we have created our very own geological age has been around for decades, but the effort to formalize this notion began with a scientific paper by Paul Crutzen in 2002. He is the scientist who received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 for his work on the effects of ozone in the atmosphere. He is a respected scientist.
Scientists like Crutzen treat our actions as equivalent to a geological phenomenon that caused some of the greatest events in the Earth’s deep past. They also make it clear that the driving force for the global changes we are undergoing is human behavior, particularly in the social, political and economic sectors.
There is not yet general agreement about when the Anthropocene began. Some say it started with the start of the Industrial Revolution that began in about 1800. At that time in England a rapid transformation of English society from a predominantly rural agricultural one to an urban society began. This spread throughout Europe and from there to North America.
It was during this time that the concentration of carbon dioxide started to rise above the 278 parts per million (‘ppm’) that had helped to stabilize the planet so favorably throughout the Holocene. By 1900 the levels of CO2in the atmosphere had reached 300 ppm. We have now gone above 400 ppm, even though scientists warned a few years ago that it would be “dangerous “for us to allow it to go over 350 ppm. We are now well beyond that. We are in the danger zone.
Other scientists believe that the Anthropocene started later at about the end of the Second World War. Some have called this the period of great Acceleration. During this time the human population doubled to more than 6 billion people. During this time the number of automobiles grew to 700 million from 40 million, people began to abandon agriculture as a way of life, the use of fertilizers rose to 300 million tonnes a year from about 50 million tonnes while CO2expanded to 390 ppm from 311 ppm.
Most of the Grand Acceleration was powered by Western countries, but new emerging economies like China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa all had an important impact too. Greenhouse gas emissions have exploded exponentially. Coal use rose sharply, but 90% of the recent increase in the use of coal—a primary cause of increased greenhouse gas emissions—can be attributed to India and China alone.
What does all this mean? According to William Marsden,
Some scientists believe a formal recognition that mankind is now the most powerful force of nature on the planet will help draw the world’s attention to the damage mankind is causing to the Earth’s life support systems.
A paper of the Royal Society published in 2011 says, “The ultimate drivers of the Anthropocene, on the other hand, if they continue unabated through this century may well threaten the viability of contemporary civilization and perhaps even the future existence of Homo sapiens.” This is the consequence of modern industry, mining, urbanization, forestry, agriculture, and fishing activities. Pollutants are filling the air and water and soil with toxins. All of these human activities are refashioning the earth. They are changing the game. We have a lot that we are responsible for.
The photographic display we saw explored the effects of human activity on the planet in artworks that are amazing, horrible, and in some weird way beautiful. Bringing us images of places such as the enormous Dandora landfill in Nairobi, massive log booms on Vancouver Island, and the Gotthard Base railway tunnel in the Swiss Alps, among many others. Collectively these works show us the pervasive and complex repercussions of our modern way of life. It is disturbing to look at. It should be disturbing. What are we doing?