Savage earth wounds

Posted November 7th, 2011 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

The front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Sunday front section was nearly covered by a stunning photograph that made me gasp with horror. It’s a picture of the Empire Mine, an iron ore mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Check it out here.

As the headline reads (talk about understatement), it gives us a little perspective here in Wisconsin about a proposed iron ore mine near Hurley, as in, a portion of our beautiful north woods. The company that wants to open it is Gogebic Taconite, and like all mining companies, they have spent a lot of public relations money trying to convince us and the media that they can do this kind of mining in an environmentally responsible manner.

I have another little local blog called, Swedish in Milwaukee, and posted about this today. Do visit and then maybe even subscribe!

Empire Mine. Source: Tilden Mine. Found in Michigan State Univ., Dept. of Geography, pamphlet by Prof. Randall Schaetzl

An open pit iron ore mine. This is what those look like. Now just how will you do that? You either open a wound like this, scrape off the trees and start blasting away, or you don’t.

But then, whether or not they get the permit has a lot to do with who got voted into office in my state last year. There’s plenty of opposition to this proposal, led by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Leaders of the tribe met with Gov Scott Walker but you get that bad feeling that Walker’s decision is already made. On the other hand, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just gave rights to regulate water quality in the Bad River watershed to the Bad River band, a potential stumbling block for the mining company. We’ll see how this story unfolds.

Of course, the company and the politicians are touting this plan as a job creator in an economically stressed area of our state. To which I reply, are you really proposing good jobs in a healthy sustainable economy, or using the economic distress to coax people into an ecologically destructive industry? Are we really this bereft of ideas for how to promote the well-being of these communities without doing still more damage to our poor planet?

I mention this local story today because it sits upon a pile of other news that makes it iconic. Because we are in an economic-political climate in which the gloves are coming off when it comes to industrial projects that tear at the ecological fabric of the earth. For energy and minerals, we are ramping up the wreckage, and then some!

Here’s an article that puts the whole thing into scary context: The Energy Picture, Redrawn. It’s by Clifford Krause and was the cover for a special section on ‘energy’ in the NY Times back on Oct. 26.  See, the reality is this: with 7 billion humans on the planet and increasing by the hundreds of thousands each year (headed for 9-10b this century), we are of course seeing increasing demands for energy commensurate with this population growth in a global economy wedded to industrial growth. It is all happening so fast, and our ability to generate new renewable sources of energy is so woefully lacking or well behind the pace of this growth, that no politician, government, financial leader, or mainstream economist is about to say: Whoa!! Hold on here!  This is not sustainable!

Coal mining moonscape, WV. Photo: Vivian Stockman

Now there is a fundamental way in which this energy picture has changed since limits and peaks were becoming all the rage in the environmental world in recent decades. We assumed peak oil was here or imminent. We assumed that natural gas supply would also peak because the gas remaining in the ground was too hard to get. But thanks to high energy prices that we all have been paying in recent years, and thanks to the subsidies that the oil and gas companies have been receiving from our tax dollars, the investments have been enough to allow for the development of new technologies for exploration and drilling, and we are finding new sources of oil and gas all over the place – in shale rock and deep seas, the melting Arctic Ocean and the local farm, in oil sands in boreal forests, and then of course that other fossil fuel, coal, which is being blown out of Appalachian mountaintops.

Rare earth mineral mining is opening gaping wounds in China and California to meet the demands for iPods, Apple computers (other computers, too, of course), plasma TV screens, and cell phones.

We are ripping open the surface of the earth, drilling deep into rock, poisoning and polluting every step of the way, to keep those of us at the other end of the straw sucking all these resources out of the planet and into our consumer lives.

Here’s another one, a really good local story: Wisconsin regulatory authorities gave our own WE Energies company a pass on rules for construction atop old coal ash piles. The coal ash pile in question happens to sit on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan at the site of WE’s dirty old coal-fired power plant in Oak Creek, just south of Milwaukee.

“Department of Natural Resources officials determined in 2008 that construction activities on an ash-filled ravine and other small landfills south of the utility’s two plants on the property would not increase the risk of the ash or other contaminants getting into the lake, said Frank Schultz, the department’s waste supervisor in Milwaukee.”

Ha ha!! That’s funny! Because an odd thing happened there last week. A large chunk of the bluff collapsed pouring large amounts of toxic coal ash right into Lake Michigan!

Video of our little disaster:

Do we laugh or cry?

Here’s another story to throw into the mix here: Global carbon dioxide output soars in 2010.  According to the US Dept. of Energy:

“The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated, a sign of how feeble the world’s efforts are at slowing man-made global warming.

“The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst-case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago.

“‘The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing,’ said John Reilly, co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.”

The waste we leave behind. Photo: Margaret Swedish

What I’m trying to say here is that we are not really getting the extent of the damage underway right now to meet the energy demands of the global economy, thanks to the combination of higher energy prices, new technologies, lax regulation, the drive to fuel the global economy, and the rising demands all over the world for consumption levels to match ours. Then you can add in our insatiable thirst for new energy-intensive technology toys and ever faster and more immediate satellite communications and more HD screens in every bloody room in the house, and higher ceilings and bigger houses and gas-guzzling leaf blowers (for God’s sake, get some exercise!), and there you have it – a perfect recipe for the ravaging of the planet.

Really, you have to go online a bit and look at the extent of fracking that has sprouted all across the country to get a sense of how fast this is happening. Fracking isn’t something to be prevented any more. Now we are working past tense, not to prevent what will be but to stop what is already widespread.

Which is what so much of this work feels like these days.

So, here is my lament for the day. So much harm is already done. So much more is underway. We are not getting a good handle on this energy trajectory, yet the planet is screaming at us with the impacts of our industrial life.

At the end of Chapter 6 in my book (see sidebar), “The End of Cheap Oil, or, the Imminent Upset of Our Way of Life,” I quote economist/historian Robert Heilbroner (now deceased), who once wrote:

“Suppose we…knew with a high degree of certainty that humankind could not survive a thousand years unless we gave up our wasteful diet of meat, abandoned all pleasure driving, cut back on every use of energy not essential to the maintenance of the bare minimum. Would we care enough for posterity to pay the price of its survival?”

And then I continued:

“What if we knew that global warming and ecological destruction would cause the collapse of human societies and the deaths of billions of people over the course of this century unless we did all those things? Would we care enough to pay the price by altering our lives? Would we?”

Tune in later this week for thoughts on that question, and what we need to create, the spaces that need to be opened, to empower us to make that decision.


And then: kudos to Tar Sands Action and the thousands of people who have gathered at the White House to demand a halt to the Keystone XL pipeline extension. Go here for more info.


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One Response

  1. Steven Earl Salmony

    We face a culture of silence with regard to the growth of the human population on Earth. As a consequence, a colossal, human-induced tragedy is being precipitated in our time. But this is not the whole problem being utterly avoided. Even among top-rank scientists with appropriate expertise, extant scientific research of human population dynamics and overpopulation is being willfully ignored. Attractive preternatural thought and specious ideologically-driven theory by non-scientists, namely demographers and economists, about the nature of the human population have been widely shared and consensually validated in the mainstream media during my lifetime. This unscientific thought and theory is not only misleading but also directly contradicted by scientific evidence toward which first-class scientists have “turned a blind eye” for way too long. That is to say we have two challenges to confront and ovecome. The first is the culture of silence. The second is the deliberate collusion within a sub-culture of experts who have determined not to acknowledge, examine and report on vital scientific research. Some scientists have referred to “the first challenge” as revealing the facts of “the last taboo”. What I am asking scientists to do is address “the last of the last taboos” by reviewing and reporting findings of unchallenged scientific research of human population dynamics from two outstanding scientists, Hopfenberg and Pimentel(2001), Hopfenberg(2003, 2009). At least to me, it appears the denial of the population issue by people everywhere and the denial of scientific research of human population dynamics/overpopulation by scientists with adequate expertise have resulted in a betrayal of humanity and science itself. This failure of intellectual honesty and moral courage among so many so-called experts with responsibilities to assume and duties to perform is as unfortunate as it is unprecedented. A good enough future for children everywhere appears to be at risk on our watch and we are bearing witness now and here, I suppose, to the way silence ‘kills’ the world.