She is blessed with great beauty, this place we call home – towering mountains, lush valleys, vast deserts and deep oceans. For all that we can see, from our tiny human perspective, she is a bounty of unlimited wealth. Yet, we must also realize that this planet is but one tiny island in the vastness of space.
I’d like to take you on a journey if I may, and show you this planet, our home, in a way that you may not have seen before. Take my hand and walk with me, and we will begin our journey.
Our walk begins in Antarctica; a frozen wasteland to many, but home to penguins, seals, sea lions, fish, whales and the abundant food supply that they require. Standing on this point, if we look up, a sharp eye may notice something wrong. High up in the atmosphere, a piece of the ozone layer is missing, forming a large ‘hole’ in the sky. Ozone is a unique oxygen compound that serves to protect the earth’s inhabitants from the majority of the ultraviolet light that we receive from the sun. Without this protective layer, life as we know it would be vastly different, if not impossible. The reason for this ‘hole in the sky’ is because of the various chemicals we spew into the atmosphere that break down this layer of ozone. Fluorocarbons, for example, are used in some aerosol sprays, dry cleaning solvents, etc. Due to global wind patterns, the north and south poles are among the most polluted places on earth.
While we are still traveling the southern seas, look down and see the pods of whales, nature’s giants. The blue whale is the largest animal ever known to have lived on earth. Know then that Japan plans to kill 1650 whales over the next 3 years as part of a ‘scientific experiment’ to determine the world’s population of minke whales. The Japanese government is willing to admit that ‘some’ of the remaining carcasses may be used for commercial processing. Although the International Whaling Foundation is completely against this action, they have no legal authority. As a result, Norway and Iceland are considering similar ‘studies’.
If we move a little further north now, we come to the equatorial zone, home of many of the earth’s rainforests. The rainforests have aptly been called the ‘lungs of the earth’. The Amazon river basin holds some 20 percent of the world’s free fresh water, and the South American rainforest contributes approximately 25 percent of the world’s oxygen supply. Yet, two thirds of the original endowment of rainforests are now gone, and the remaining forests are being cut down at the rate of hundreds of acres per hour. An area roughly the size of England disappears each year. Aside from their role in providing the air we breathe, rainforests are a source of incredible genetic diversity. Thousands upon thousands of species of plants and animals have been identified, and many biologists feel that they have barely scratched the surface. Considering the forest’s importance for the fields of agriculture or pharmaceutical products, this practice of logging is insane. The cure for cancer may be lying in some tropical valley, or it may already be gone. In Malaysia, the traditional Penan people have medicinal uses for 6500 different plants.
Continuing our trek north, we pause for a quick stop in northern California. High up on the mountainsides of this and five other states grow a species of conifer known as bristlecone pine. A combination of thin air, little rain, high winds and cold temperatures makes this a hostile place to live. This fact is illustrated by the twisted forms of the trees there. One of them is a tree known as Methuselah. An estimated 4500+ years old, it is the oldest known living thing on earth. It is 90 percent dead, but the other 10 percent still produces needles. In the mid 1960’s a geology student received permission from the U.S. Forestry Service to cut down a similar tree in Wyoming. The student and his team cut down a tree known to the local people as Prometheus. When it was killed, it was over 4950 years old – the oldest living thing on earth.
If we turn east for the next leg of our journey, we come to the middle states – the breadbasket of America. Thousands of tons of food are grown here every year. However, degradation and erosion of topsoil from drought, improper farming practices, urban sprawl and deforestation has been accelerating for many years now, and may soon threaten our food production capacity over the long tem. Worldwide, arable land is declining at a rate of roughly 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) per year.
Turning north and west now, we come to settle on a small string of islands off the coast of British Columbia known as the queen Charlotte Islands. Some may know of part of this place as the South Moresby complex. The Queen Charlotte Islands were missed by the last ice age, and have evolved to be an ecologically unique area. The islands are also the traditional homeland of the Haida People (Haada Gwaii in their tongue). It may be interesting to note that the Queen Charlotte Islands are one of 12 places worldwide that qualify as a World Heritage Site, and one of only 3 that qualify for both cultural and environmental reasons. There are over 40 unique plant species on the islands, and over 100 disjunct species. The area is home to Canada’s largest subspecies of black bear, a white subspecies of black bear known as the kermodii bear, and Canada’s largest nesting colony of bald eagles. Salmon use the streams to spawn, and 11 species of whales ply the strait between the islands and the mainland. The issue here has been logging, but the proposed reserve area accounts for less than one percent of the forested land in British Columbia. The South Moresby area is destined to become a national park, but that is only a small part of the island chain itself. The fact that it took the effort of many dedicated people over 10 years and a final compensation agreement of $105 million is a disgrace.
The South Moresby issue has become a popular one in recent years, but many people have at least heard the name. Less well known is Nimpkish Island, in the middle of Vancouver Island that holds (held?) Canada’s last remaining stand of healthy, 400 year old douglas fir trees, Meares Island, off the west coast of Vancouver Island, with its tall western cedars and Native land claim issues, the Stein Valley, Carmanah Valley, the Sitikine, to name but a few. Forestry and logging are a strong economic resource in Canada, but unique habitats must be recognized for what they are, priceless. There is a B.C. statute that says that lumber required by the local mills cannot be exported, but there is a sub-subsection that states if the local mills don’t require the lumber within two weeks, it is considered superfluous to their needs and can be exported. The sad truth is that the best lumber from the whole Keewatin area in southern British Columbia is shipped to Chilcotin for dry sort, where it is shipped whole log to Japan. Japanese factory ships are floating mills that have the lumber processed by the time the ships arrive.
Moving east, we come to Wallaston Lake, in northern Saskatchewan. The ground here is rich in uranium ore, and the area is the site of a large mining operation. Some of the deposits are considered so ‘hot’ or radioactive that mining with robots is being considered. However, the tailings have been left to pile up in the open, with runoff flowing into the lake that is the source of food and water for the local Native people.
If we journey east once again, we stop for a time in northern Ontario. Truly beautiful country this, with wild rivers muskeg, and endless stretches of spruce and pine. Logging has continued here for well over a hundred years, and the effects are obvious. The same logging continues today, albeit with more specialized equipment, and vast tracks of forest are being cut at for wood and paper at up to 10 times the rate they are being effectively replanted. Large clear cuts are not effective for any but the logging company, and the ideas, technology are available to change that, but they aren’t for the most part being implemented.
Traveling south, we come to Lake Ontario, and the home of one of Canada’s largest cities – Toronto. Toronto draws its drinking water from Lake Ontario, and Toronto’s drinking water is reputed to have traces of 83 chemicals in it, including 7 known and 23 potential carcinogens. In 1985 it was suggested to build a pipeline from Georgian Bay (on Lake Huron) to Toronto for drinking water, at an estimated cost of $220 million. After this suggestion was made, it was discovered that the water around Owen Sound was also contaminated by chemicals leaking from waste dumps in the area. The situation in Lake Ontario is much worse. The Hyde Park dump in New York state, for example, holds an estimated 3300 tons of trichlorophenol (a dry cleaning solvent), one of the byproducts of which is 2378-TCDD, the most deadly form of dioxin. An estimated 200 gallons of dioxin lie in this dump alone, and an estimated 10 tons of toxins flow into the Niagara River every day. Levels of toxic chemicals in Lake Ontario fish have been found at up to 60 times ‘acceptable’ levels.
At the same time in 1985 as the pipeline concept, it was estimated that it would cost $235 million to start cleaning up Lake Ontario. At that time also , the estimated cost of a domed sports stadium in Toronto was $130 million. Now, two years later, we can be proud to say we have the Sky Dome, at a cost of close to half a billion dollars.
For our final journey, we travel up, up, up, to view the earth as the floating sphere it really is. If we look closely over the northern hemisphere, we can see everywhere the effects of toxic precipitation, commonly known as acid rain. From the acidified lake in Sweden to the dying German forest, to the reduced crop loads in the mid-western states to the reduced fish populations and dying sugar bushes in eastern Canada, the effects are well known. Again, the technology exists to change this, and yet we wait.
The other things we notice from this height are the poverty and the weapons. Seemingly unrelated, but it has been suggested that to provide food , clothing, education and shelter to EVERYONE in the world would cost $17-20 billion. This is a great sum of money, and represents what the world spends on weapon production every 10 days. Current world spending on weapons production is about $30,000 per second. Last year the military spent close to a trillion dollars.
As we complete our journey and settle back to our homes, a sense of shock, horror, and hopelessness sets in. It becomes easy to say “I am only one person, what can I do?” and this is a convenient attitude to take. Consider the snowflake for a moment. One snowflake seems so infinitesimally small as it drifts down and melts quietly on your tongue, but an continued snowfall can literally stall the world around us. Learn to be a snowflake.
So, you ask yourself, “What CAN I do?” There are really a number of options. One could suggest terrorism, but who would you hold hostage? Environmental terrorism seems a great contradiction in terms.
There are protests, but unless people understand what it is you’re protesting against, the average person couldn’t care less, and may be against you for disturbing their peace. No, the key to change is understanding, and the key to understanding is education. In the society in which we live at present, only political change will bring about real results. This is starting to happen today, with international coalitions signing agreements to reduce toxic emissions, etc. It is happening slowly, but a beginning has been made. The fallacy of an unlimited bounty is starting to fade away.
On a personal level, be aware of the products that you use, and the chemicals they contain. Exercise conservation. Acquaint yourself with the facts behind the issues that concern you, teach others of your findings, and write to your politicians to let them know how you feel and what you have learned. Finally, take the time to truly appreciate the world around you. I cannot change the world, but WE can.
In closing, I’d like you to consider two things:
1) A generation that hates war cannot bring about peace. Only a generation that loves peace can do that.
2) This earth is our Mother, in that EVERYTHING we have comes from the earth. If we screw this up, we have nowhere else to go.
Thank-you to all who have been my teachers, for I am a lucky man, and I am grateful.