Tag Archives: environment

God is Whoever Will Recognize Your Sacrifice (A Spring Poem)

When the heat rose

It brought the ants out with it—


The bedrock slumbers under the shivering topsoil,

All winter huddled up—


Now comes the tilt of the earth—

Now comes hibernation hangovers—


The creak in your elbow

Only you can hear—


Now comes the sun again—

Now the snakes sun on gravel roads—


God is whoever

Will recognize your sacrifice—


So every bud, rosette, and bug eye

Turns to the blinding star—


Half a life

Lived in chrysalis—


Half a life

Lived in fits—


Spring demands stridency,

Summer demands sweat—


Autumn begs for acceptance,

Winter requires sacrifice—


No one pouts as the beetle

Strains over mustard seeds—


Whimpering is pathetic,

Go gnash teeth instead—

Taking a Trip Through Love Canal: The Residuum

About 2.5 years ago, I heard Lois Gibbs speak. Her story, as a resident affected by the environmental disaster at Love Canal, NY, served as a touchstone for the work I do IRL—as an environmental scientist, a large part of what I do is contaminant remediation. As I mark five years of doing my best to reduce contamination and the risks it poses, I see Love Canal rise in the news again.

People often hear “environmental scientist” and automatically translate this to “environmentalist” (I need a whole other post to explain what’s wrong with that misnomer). Moreover, people usually think my main focus is climate change. To the wary public, I am the guy who wants ‘everyone to live as if we were in the stone age’.

I have very little defense to that, besides sighing quietly to myself.

I am not of the inclination to hold climate change as the biggest environmental threat to humanity. The dangers posed by climate change are largely out of our control. Perhaps how change is initiated is within our control (or so popular scientific opinion postulates)—but the outcomes, once change in the system is initiated, are outside of humanity’s grasp.

Realistically, we cannot stop a hurricane once it’s formed. We cannot guide tornadoes to gracefully sweep between rural communities. We cannot negotiate amounts of radiation the sun outputs.

In western society, we are increasingly overloaded with this guilt that we need to do something about everything. As I get older, I am starting to appreciate my small radius of influence. Many adverse environmental effects caused by the human hand are reasonably controllable. For what I can reasonably affect in my professional and personal roles, climate change doesn’t even hit my top five concerns.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a valuable topic. But my concerns about climate change are not about what will happen to humanity. My concern is that humanity, in its current (generalized) state, has a questionable chance of being the kind of resilient species that spans eons of history.

Maybe you don’t believe in your body, but it is intimately connected to this earth. From what we understand about ecology, as long as there is an ecological function that a species can perform, that species will continue to find a place within its ecosystem.

We are an adaptive species—if it rains we try to remain dry, if it’s cold we try to stay warm, when it’s warm we try to keep cool. My study of yoga has further re-enforced my belief that as long as your system is maintained in a certain way, what’s happening externally is inconsequential. If your system is damaged in any way, your ability to flexibly adapt to a situation is going to be impinged upon.

Try this fun experiment.

Go to a summer music festival. Have a blast, but don’t take drugs or alcohol. Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of water. Take regular, qualitative notes on your body temperature, sweat, and urine colour. Wake up the next morning and take some notes on how you physically feel.

Ask a friend to join in on your experiment. Ideally, this friend is similar to you in body shape and medical history. Tell them to a have a blast, but they get to drink as much alcohol as they desire. Ask them to eat only spicy, greasy food. Take matching qualitative notes on your friend’s body temperature, sweat, and urine colour. Ask them the next morning how they feel (if they don’t spend the night in the medic’s tent).

I think it’s obvious what the outcome of the experiment is. I don’t even have to be a pedantic asshole and ask leading questions. You and your friend are experiencing the same external conditions. The difference is in the physical condition of the body. By what has been put into the body, a dramatically different experience—and a different outcome—can be induced. You may wake up with ringing in your ears from loud music. Your friend may spend the next week recovering from dehydration or sun stroke.

Of course, the acute and chronic effects of alcohol are self-evident. It’s easy enough to say, “You knew drinking nothing but vodka all day was going to lead to. Smarten up.”

Fair enough. Humanity doesn’t have a great record on being kind to its self. We have been around on the planet long enough to have figured out that we can get away with recreationally harming ourselves. If a substance hits our brain’s reward centres, chances are, we will put up with a lot of damage to our systems before we stop.

In a similar vein, we quest for comfort, convenience, and compulsion. Since the late 18th century, this quest has been characterized by the Industrial Revolution. In the short period that this has begun, humanity has synthesized a number of chemicals and substances that we would never otherwise find in nature.

With the exception of the well-known tryptamines, phenylethylamines, and other psychoactive substances we have created (mostly within the last century), many of the new, synthesized substances are not the kind of chemicals hipsters ingest so that their peers acknowledge how cool they are.

I am talking about substances that have practical uses in our industrial processes (or are by-products of those processes)—the substances that help drive our comforts, conveniences, and compulsions. Here, I am talking about halogenated compounds, pesticides, plastics, and polymers.

And then there are the natural compounds that we use in high concentrations or expose ourselves to in a way we very rarely would otherwise: heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and minerals.

These contaminants are ubiquitous in our environment. And not a benign ubiquity, like up-talk. In Canada, we have had a real knack of picking interesting locations for our most intense industrial activities. Think Hamilton Harbor, Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, Edmonton’s Refinery Row, Montreal’s industrial hub, and Vancouver’s Dockside Green.

And if you don’t live in one of these centres, don’t think you are immune. Even some of our remotest outposts have long-lived residual contamination in soil and groundwater (e.g. Ontario’s Grassy Narrows First Nation). And even then, if you think you are far and free from the dirty crowd, there is that thing that keeps coming in and out of your lungs: the air.

Toxicology is a relatively new science, and environmental technology is newer yet. It was thalidomide in the late 1950’s that first brought attention to the teratogenic effects of drugs (Rachel Carson followed up in the early 1960’s and brought the effects of pesticides to light). And in all reality, the thalidomide connection was made because it was directly following the drug’s release in 1957 that thousands of babies were born with deformed limbs and other defects. It was the immediacy of the impact that made the effects apparent.

Since then, we have started to understand the acute effects of the usual suspects on the human body. Year after year, we are learning about the effects of more and more chemicals, both the ones we take willingly and the ones we are exposed to in our environment.

And it’s not just acute effects. The chronic effects are starting to become obvious. Now, common substances we liberally used in our homes—plastics, fabrics with flame retardants, household cleaning & garage products—are being considered straight-up toxic.

Canada (Chemicals Management Plan) and the U.S. (Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act) have poorly funded programs to investigate the many chemicals used in our countries. Apart from that, we rely on companies to willingly identify their chemicals as toxic, or wait for universities to publish research.

Here’s a fun example.

Ever have your clothes dry cleaned? Ever use Brakleen to degrease something in your garage? Ever handle refrigerants?

If so, you have very likely been exposed to tricholoroethylene (TCE). The EPA announced in 2016 that TCE is deemed as toxic (it was also recently added to Canada’s toxic substances list). The US EPA recognizes TCE as a carcinogen and teratogen, with a number of effects on the respiratory and central nervous systems. In Canada, it has been detected in ambient air, the air inside homes, drinking water, and surface water.

But don’t worry! You can still have full access to it. The EPA is just now in the process of proposing a ban on TCE in commercial vapor degreasing. That will not stop its use in a multitude of other industrial and residential uses.

As we start to understand the effects of a multitude of chemicals, we are starting to understand how we might have fucked ourselves over. I can’t put a quantitative value to it, but we have a shitload of our vast landscape that is effectively poisoned. We are also finding out places we didn’t think would be impacted indeed are.

Which brings me back to resiliency. Compare two men in their 50’s. One worked in a garage, exposed day in and day out to a degreaser with TCE. Another worked in an office, and for arguments sake, we will say he was never exposed to TCE (or at least to a significantly less amount). Let’s turn up the heat in the room they are sitting in together. Let’s change the composition of the air they are breathing. Let’s throw some disasters at them. All things being the same, who do you think would fare better?

This is why contamination, to me, is head and shoulders above climate change. Sure, we may not have a home if the climate changes. That’s no problem—we are gone, end of story. But we all know nature doesn’t work in black & white. If doom is on its way, it will happen periodically and incrementally. There will a long, hellish road for humans before this planet is human-free.

If we continue to expose ourselves to chemicals, and allow contaminated sites to remain unmitigated, it won’t matter much whether the climate changes or not.

Which brings me back to Love Canal. This month, residents of North Tonawanda, NY have filed notices of claim for $60 million apiece against the neighbouring Town of Wheatfield (totaling a nearly $1 billion claim). The town’s inactive landfill historically accepted the spectrum of hazardous wastes, including material from Love Canal.

Residents paid for an independent soil investigation. Results showed hazardous chemicals, including those from Love Canal, were present on their properties after having migrated from the boundaries of the landfill. Additionally, the landfill was so poorly managed that lack of fencing and supervision meant people used it to dirtbike or jog. The plaintiffs in the proceedings have all been affected by cancer, headaches, respiratory issues, and nervous system disorders.

This may appear to be an isolated incident, and it may be right now. But this is primarily how we handle our hazardous chemicals. We choose a sacrificial area, call it a landfill, and then rely on public or private companies to monitor and manage the waste into the undefined future. The private companies will do their jobs as long as there is money. Love Canal became the first SuperFund site because the Hooker Chemical Company left their liability behind. It’s not unheard of for owners of environmental liability to go bankrupt, dissolve, or disappear.

These sacrificial areas may not be so unrealistic. Even in the body, there are distinct areas suited for handling ‘waste’ for our physical systems. The liver is a vital organ because it is such a dirty place—if toxins were everywhere else in the system, we could be dead. But because toxins accumulate in the liver, we have a buffering capacity. A little bit of bad exposure won’t kill a healthy liver.

But overwhelm or inhibit maintenance of the liver, and the body falls into trouble. The Wheatfield Landfill is a liver with cirrhosis. It is very likely not the only one like it. Just like any other addict, we are damn good at hiding that we get blotto and our livers whimper through our daily hangover.

Love Canal contains waste dating back almost 100 years. We are still dealing with its devastating consequences. “Climate change” may be fighting words in some parts, and guaranteed to spark a strongly opinionated conversation anywhere else. Some of that is the perception of deniability. But there is no denying environmental contamination. There is no doubt that certain chemicals have a detrimental effect on our bodies. The argument comes down to risk of exposure, which is always nuanced but is unable to dismiss the inherent adverse effects of those chemicals.

Technologies available to actually denature contaminants, or manage them in a reliable, long-term manner, are rare and expensive. If the money that went into climate change research went into contaminant remediation research, we could be so much farther along in enjoying a healthy environment.

To me, belabouring over climate change as opposed to something like contamination is like the yoga enthusiast who reads that through samyama, you can control other peoples’ minds. Cool! So this yoga enthusiast makes this their highest ideal. But this eager yogi can’t even sit straight or touch their toes.

That’s where we are at. As a society, our bodies and minds are in such a poor condition that we cannot touch our proverbial toes—we cannot control ourselves, yet we want to control something outside of ourselves.

In the legend of Saint George, a malicious dragon holds a Libyan empire under its long-clawed thumb. It lives in the emperor’s lake and requires two sheep (or children) per day to appease it or else it will poison the countryside. Saint George tames the dragon and convinces the pagans he saved to convert to Christianity. In one heroic swoop, Saint George conquers the problem and also convinces everyone to think like he does. In a way, climate change advocates are attempting to re-create this narrative.

I can sympathize with climate warriors. I get it. It’s much more rewarding to go to war with the dragon. Victory is so much sweeter, and failure is forgivable because it was a dragon, after all.

Somewhere Up Meander River Way

For the past couple weeks, in my part of the world, there has been a disheartening deep freeze. That damn “polar vortex”. Or for those whose memories stretch past this decade’s latest fad, or don’t care about feigning a peripheral knowledge of meteorology, it’s more cozily known as a “Canadian winter”.

Nationalities aside, we are talking about temperatures that are unfriendly to a hairless ape. At -25⁰C (-13⁰F) to -40⁰C (-40⁰F), the outside becomes intolerable very quickly. At the bottom of the range, the inside of your nostrils freeze, your eyelids feel cold, and your fingers become utterly useless unless they are bound in mitts or gloves.

The coldest wind chill I personally experienced was just below -50⁰C. But you don’t need to get to those extremes to empathize. The experiential difference between -25⁰C and -50⁰C is often negligible. It’s the difference of a few minutes of toleration. It’s fucking cold.

So when I am out, unable to feel my face, I often wonder what the hell all those pioneers were thinking. Who thought Europeanized “civilization” belonged in a place where the air hurts your skin?

And I think even more fundamentally about all the people who called the northernmost reaches of Turtle Island home for millennia.

For many First Nations, centuries of oppression and white-washing have rendered them not all that different than the paler naked apes who have flung their shit all over the place. Biologically speaking, it is difficult to discern whether aboriginal peoples are better equipped than any other human from any other continent to manage the cold. I am sure there are some epigenetic triggers from living in the northern environment generation after generation.

For the purposes of being equitable form the perspective of the overall energy system we consider an individual human being—there is biological adaptation, but no super-human difference (I am open to compelling evidence otherwise). Particularly after any cultural techniques to bear the cold were forcefully rubbed out by residential schools. Particularly after the environment that influenced those genetics for so long changed so quickly.

But where Wasichu have high-efficiency natural gas furnaces and pink insulation, First Nations often have woodstoves and plywood walls.

segó͔łį gots’ę jo͔ deneilé

“I lived here since I was born”

So my mind, detached from my frostbitten senses, goes to a Dene Tha’ community in northern Alberta, where earlier this year I was wandering around with hurt in my heart and a chill in my bones (my cold tolerance was lower then, the freezing point felt brutal).

I had Meander River, AB specifically marked as a stop on our road trip to the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. If you are travelling through Alberta, there are two ways into the Territories. The more travelled is Highway 35. Also known as the Mackenzie Highway, it heads north from High Level, AB (once poised as the new capital city of Canada II), until it turns into Highway 1 at the border but maintains its moniker until Fort Simpson, NWT.

Even Wikipedia notes Meander River, AB is a highway service centre on that route. Otherwise, there is a stretch of ~175 km (109 mi) between the gas stations in High Level and the gas station at Indian Cabins, which is the last stop for gas before Enterprise, ~100 km (62 mi) north.

If we could gas up in Meander River, we could get to our campsite in the NWT for the night, and gas up in nearby Enterprise the next morning. It was all set.

Dark was a few hours away, but it had been dim all day. Rained steady the day before. We woke to more of the same. As we crossed degrees of latitude the air became chillier and some of the rain became sleet. I fueled up in Fort Vermilion, AB and passed clean through bustling High Level.

It started raining again as soon as we hitched off the highway around bridge construction, through the red clay that lay underneath the dense forest we were starting to see more regularly. I knew I had 151 km (94 mi) to Meander River. Right around the sign that said 1 km Up Ahead I prepared myself.

And then I saw the 1 km Up Ahead sign again, in my sideview mirror. We passed no gas station, no highway service centre. I pulled over on an approach, rocking our 1973 Boler as I cranked us around to head south. I drove slower this time, and passed both signs for Meander River again without seeing so much as another vehicle on the highway.

I made another U-turn and decided to take the first unmarked road after the sign. There was another unmarked road further north. They were the only access points on the town’s side of the highway. I took us on a loop, trying to keep my bearings and hoping I didn’t run into any dead ends–turning the Boler around was a pain in the ass.

Behind an outcrop of trees we started seeing houses. They were large and spaced out. They weren’t surveyed on proper streets, it seemed, but their placements seemed to work. There were outcroppings of the town, undulating westwards to the Meander River.

This reserve was not unlike other reserves I had been on. It appeared neglected, with a noticeable need for up-keep. Siding was missing, windows were busted, shingles peeled, cars rusted, garbage clumped in tall grasses. There were cars at almost all the houses, but it felt like a ghost town.

The road I took looped us back to the Mackenzie Highway. At this northern access, there was the service centre. But where there would have been pavement or gravel or something to drive on, there was grass and weeds. The pumps stood in the middle of the clearing, white and shiny.

I parked on the road and took a walk around the abandoned gas station. The door to the store was locked. The windows were covered with plywood, except one. The interior was gutted. I checked the pumps. Their Measurement Canada inspection was still valid. The pumps looked hardly used.

The cold was making me paranoid. This was no place to spend the night, mostly because it would be below zero that night and we would feel it inside the un-insulated Boler. We would later find out from a woman in Hay River that they didn’t ever want to end up stranded on the Mackenzie Highway. Too many anecdotes of sexual assaults on that long, lonesome highway [Note: I wasn’t able to find anyway to link, though].

No gas at Meander River made this leg of the journey ~250 km (155 mi). That doesn’t sound so bad, but on a loaded crossover’s 55 L tank hauling a 1000 lb Boler with headwinds on the western jogs, it was cutting it a little closer than I liked. If there were troubles at Indian Cabins getting gas, we would have another ~100 km (62 mi) to Enterprise which we probably would not make.

Cell coverage was spotty. I could load a map, but not do much with it. I have done most of my travelling without the crutch of everything a Google search away, so it didn’t bother me. I was in a town and there was bound to be someone around that could help me.

So I left the car parked and went for a walk into Meander River. I could go north and check out some houses, but there were some on the same road I was on. So I started for the first house. There were four vehicles parked in front of the house. There was no noise from inside but I knocked anyway. When no one came to the door, I started to the next house.

On my way a black pick-up truck was coming down the road. I made eye contact with the driver and waved to him. He took a corner and disappeared.

Before I reached the next house, I could hear people. That was promising. There were no windows on the top floor, so I could track down the voices to a corner room. There must have been about a half dozen people. They were shouting at each other. Screaming, and it didn’t sound like anyone was listening. The television played infomercials on full blast, filling in the space of what sounded like a party.

There was a thin bed sheet that looked like it was meant to cover the window, but it did nothing. Half of it hung out the window, the rest of it barely attached to the rod. The icy rain blew into the room, and still they all shouted like it was just another Saturday afternoon in Meander River.

I tried to outdo their roar. I shouted Hello! and Yo! and Can I get some help? and Anyone there?

That last question seemed stupid. No one was there. At least not for me.

I eventually found someone on a bicycle, who felt safest shouting at me across a patch of tall grass that was too wet for either of us to cross. She was perfectly fine with me not getting any closer. She was already on her bicycle and heading away before she finished explaining that I couldn’t get gas until Indian Cabins.

On my way back to the vehicle, I passed the house with no windows. They were no quieter. I tried to get their attention again. I wanted to ask them about the windows. If they were planning on replacing them. It was only fall, things would get colder. What would they do in January? What happened to all the snow that came in through the windows? Were they okay? Was there anything I could do?

That last question seemed stupid. Of course they were not okay. And there was nothing I could do.

Things became colder, of course. Like, 40⁰C colder. In that cold, when each icy breath rasps the back of my throat, and my hands became bricks, and frost starts to build on my eyelashes, I think back to that house with no windows in Meander River.

The memory doesn’t stop the cold. Doesn’t help my sunless mood, either. Whether I shunt reality or try to embrace it, I have to live through it all the same. And maybe that was what they were doing in that house that afternoon. They were living through it, all the same. Heat-trapping windows be damned.

On Where to Stick Your Free Parks Canada Discovery Pass

WARNING: This blog entry contains unapologetically elitist opinions. Reasonable arguments are included, but I’m going to make you read through my opinion first.

About a week ago, Canadian news reported that the Parks Canada website had crashed when traffic overwhelmed its servers. The reason for the traffic? The free Discovery Pass up for grabs in 2017.

The Liberal government announced that, as part of its platform and in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, national parks and historic sites would be free for every Canadian citizen. It was a very minor platform plank, something to tout Canadian heritage and maybe win over some newer Canadians who feel disconnected with the natural abundance of our great landscape.

A minor platform plank—but for me, this was a sticking point. And it still is.

Before the 2015 election, my father and I were standing in Banff National Park, waiting for the Canada Day parade. He offhandedly brought up this policy idea. I didn’t even have to tell him how stupid of a platform plank that was. He just had to look around.

For those not in the know, Canada Day is probably the worst time to visit the mountain parks. The crowds become mobs, drivers become the me-first-and-fuck-you-very-much kind of motorists you find in any city, and the roadside attractions become mere backdrops for narcissistic selfies. I put up with the parade for my parents. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be within earshot of the place.

In brief, the Banff townsite becomes a diorama of everything I find sad about modern society. And the Liberal government only wants to proliferate this tragic diorama.

Let me unpack that statement a little. I am no old stock Canadian, fearful of immigrants starting to infiltrate parks and historical sites. Despite that—or at least, despite the image propagated by the Liberal government—I am an avid outdoorsman, hopelessly devoted to the Canadian landscape.

That doesn’t mean I am the best at everything outdoors, or that I have fancy expensive equipment. In fact, I pack lo-fi gear as a rule. My friends ask for gear tips for the backcountry, and I have nothing to offer them.

Quite frankly, you only need two things to enjoy nature: the capacity to be present, and a will to survive.

And let’s face it. Our society has a massive attention deficit problem. As a culture, we do not have the capacity to be present. It’s just not a value that is promoted. Even the Lululemon aphorisms or optimistic Instagram quotes about ‘staying in the moment’ are bullshit lip service. The true capacity to remain focused, and to maintain that focus for a prolonged period, is very difficult.

I don’t claim to have this capacity any more than you. But I sure do value it. And our national parks, typically being the largest, wildest places a public citizen can visit, offer a brilliant opportunity to practice. There’s no better place to get in touch with your animalistic nature than being wildly unprepared in a place that offers no help, no comfort, no easy way out.

Trudeau sees—or so he says—an opportunity for new and old Canadians alike to get to know their country. What does that mean, in our current cultural mode, for a place like Banff National Park? It means more commercial properties, more roads so we don’t have to actually walk, more intrusion, more fragmented ecosystems, more big name brand stores so you can shop for the same shit you would buy in any suburban mall—but with a mountain in the background!

National Geographic had a lengthy look this year at how this same model operates in Yellowstone National Park. With the intent to try to infuse nature back into our lives, we impose our lives on that very nature and hope that seeing it in small glimpses out the side of a tour bus will be the placebo we need.

I will say, from personal experience, this opera glass experience is useless. If you go into the wild and don’t break a sweat, or feel lost, or get the minutest sense that all your synthesized identities are a facade of the mind, to convince itself it is something other than nature—forgetting you are nature—well, you might as well throw in an episode of Planet Earth in between binge-watching the newest season of Fuller House.

That’s my elitism about it. No Kardashians allowed, basically.

Now for a little more reason.

It is easy to forget that little over a year ago, Canadians had a very different federal government. Not only was our national leader a lot less prone to selfies, he had a fundamentally different approach to our natural resources. For the Harper regime, Parks Canada was just another department that needed to cut its budget…you know, so Harper could spend money saving Christians and advertising about how great it is.

Since 2012, Parks Canada had its budget drastically cut, seeing 600 jobs lost, winter service suspended for many locations, and a doubling of entry rates. More than $27M was cut from the 2014/2015 budget, even though Parks Canada identified a $2.8B backlog of maintenance and repair work for its buildings in “poor and very poor” condition. At the same time, Parks Canada generated $3.3B for the economy, spread across 400 communities in the country. And still, Harper let it bleed out.

Now, after all these cuts, the Trudeau government is throwing open the gates. Harper starved the beast, and now Trudeau is putting it on display in a cage.

Revenues account for ~25%  of Parks Canada’s permanent budget, with approximately half of this revenue from entry fees. This ~12.5% will need to be accounted for by the federal government, so in a way, we’re all paying anyway. But what’s worse is that the use of government funding is notoriously inefficient. Generated revenues are probably the most carefully spent 25% of the budget. Will this be the same when it’s coming from government coffers?

That doesn’t matter to Trudeau and Catherine McKenna, because they obsess that the experience isn’t accessible. How is a decimated public service going to be any more accessible to people? How is overcrowding and development of a wild area going to help that? Should this experience be easily accessible?

Liberal MP John Aldag, formerly in parks management, put it best: “[…] when you do have crowding conditions, it impacts the entire visitor experience and it can have ecological or cultural integrity impacts.” The current visitor experience manager for Banff National Park echoed these concerns.

Aldag’s solution? “In some ways, it’s managing visitor experience.”

Oh ok, great. So in order to gain an experience of our national parks and historic sites, we have to compromise that experience. That makes a lot of sense.

Overall, this minor opinion won’t change a minor policy. So I am appealing to you, dear Reader.

Sure, take advantage of whatever bonus the government is providing. They are few and far between. But don’t be an asshole about it. Go to the parks, see the sites, but leave some of your civilization at home. Park your car (if you can find parking), leave behind your entitlement for comfort and convenience, and try to immerse yourself in our natural wonder.

Value that experience that can’t be had anywhere else. You can manage your own experience, without compromise, without the government patting you on the back and saying “You’re a real Canadian now!” Make this more than a reprise of a Black Friday sale.

 

Think radicals like me shouldn’t have so much to say about Parks Canada? Then get in on this federal consultation on the Parks Canada Agency Act, because you’re fucking right that I’m bringing my opinion: http://www.letstalkparkscanada.ca/

Archaeological Preamble (Found Poem)

Environment has always

provided the parameters

within which human cultures may develop

by providing both

opportunities and limitations.

 

As a result, elements

of the regional environment

are important considerations

in the understanding of cultural development,

as they influenced

not only the types of activities

that could be conducted,

but the ways in which

they could be

accomplished.

 

In the archaeological record,

this pattern is observed

in the type and location of

archaeological sites

found in

specific environments.

 

Locally, archaeological sites

are found associated with a specific set

of landforms—

valley edges, knolls,

rivers, lakes and

sloughs—

which would direct travel,

bias routes of communication

and enhance or restrict

resource procurement

and occupation.

 

Due to this close relationship of

human settlement and

the environment,

a brief overview

of the regional and local

environments

is presented…

The Office Window Tease (a poem)

Real hell is there in the office; I no longer fear any other. […] For me it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no way out except insanity.”

–FRANZ KAFKA


My office window

is a mute tease.

Bared for me to see,

glass bones and all.

 

Just on the other side

a few millimeters away

the wind blows

lilac bushes.

 

They smell lovely, probably.

The wind feels refreshing, I bet.

No need for all that life

in this office, though.

 

A few millimeters of glass

will be just enough

to let me know what is out there–

and remind me what is not.

Taking a Trip Through Love Canal: The Real Rises (Part Two)

I woke up tired. I had left the conference’s inaugural party early, but co-workers had also decided to leave…only to initiate a pub crawl. They talked about hockey and hunting and (personal) history, things I could not speak to cleverly, nevermind when I was getting progressively drunker. I was about 128 ounces of beer into the night when I made the twenty minute walk back to my hotel in the crisp mountain air.

Fortunately the conference had a full hot breakfast. And I wasn’t late, although my hair was wet.

My mind still resounded the chorus from the night before: “Everyone is so full of shit.”

And I still believed it that morning. Seeing everyone all cleaned up and tucked in made me existentially nauseous. So many fake fucking smiles that morning. And dull-headed small talk, hiding mouthfuls of mushy eggs behind polite hands or bunched napkins. I felt like shit and just wanted to eat, but I had to be polite and pretend to give a damn about the man from some company who did something something.

Thankfully there was a plenary speaker that morning. And she was the best thing that could have happened to me that day—maybe even in a long time.

I did not know Lois Gibbs before seeing her presentation. I did know about Love Canal, the disaster of the the 20th century that was so close to my home, and so close to absurdity, that it was one of the sparks that led me to my philosophical position…that eventually led me to the environmental sciences…that I used to be a humanist, until I realized that humanity was 0.00001% of the picture.

If you do not know about Love Canal, educate yourself. It is incredible, but all too real. In short, an unfinished trench (intended to be a transportation canal in the late 19th century) on the shores of the Niagara River became Hooker Chemical’s dump for toxic waste—that’s right: Hookers were dumping toxic waste in the Love Canal—I am not shitting you. In 1953, that waste was capped, and a subdivision was built over it (lubricated by Hooker Chemical’s land sale to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1).

Lois Gibbs was a mother of two children who lived in that subdivision. In her presentation, she described life in the LaSalle neighbourhood of Niagara Falls, New York. It was the typical white suburban neighbourhood you hear about in so many stories. Children played in the parks, families met for backyard barbecues, fathers got their crew-cut hairstyles at the barbershop. Nothing was out of the ordinary for upstate New York in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Lois then started describing the children in more detail. How her son started becoming allergic to many things, and started to become constantly ill. He developed epilepsy, asthma, and a low white blood cell count. Her daughter, similarly, was always sick. The other children in the neighbourhood were showing odd illnesses or were born with weird birth defects.

She never said this part, but I am sure there were quiet nights where Lois wondered what she had done wrong…days when she was paralyzed with wondering why her children were suffering so much. This subtext—the break in her voice—broke my heart.

Lois Gibbs and her daughter, 1978.

But in 1978, two reporters from the Niagara Falls Gazette started investigating the history of Love Canal—the historic toxic dump that was now the location of the elementary school and was surrounded by hundreds of suburban homes. They found disturbingly high levels of toxins in long forgotten about sumps. They exposed the 21,000 tons of toxic waste that was the foundation of the school and the neighbouring park. And they wrote a story about it.

Lois Gibbs being heard.

When Lois read this story, things changed in her life. She was, in her own words, a quiet, normal home maker. But in 1978, she transformed from Mrs. Cleaver to a radical community leader. She organized the community, and began rallying for the city, for the state, for anybody to address the issues at Love Canal. She conducted surveys about birth defects in the area around Love Canal, and investigated the area’s history obsessively. She documented unidentified waste seeping to surface, and sinkholes where rusted barrels of waste lay exposed. She recounted stories of children playing with the waste, picking it up and chasing each other around. She rallied Hooker Chemical and the government to act, but they both ignored her.

Lois Gibbs hard at work protecting her children and the people of Love Canal (I just love this photo).

Lois made a poignant point about risk and the value of people (and really hit her stride in her presentation). Hooker Chemical was able to say that the risk of contamination was negligible, and even if there was contamination, the value to clean it up would outweigh the cost of leaving it in place. Which essentially meant that the lives it was endangering were not worth the money to clean their mess up. And even though the government, in theory, is an institution to protect people from this kind of blundering greed, Lois and the people of Love Canal were ignored.

Until Nixon’s best legacy, the Environmental Protection Agency, visited in 1979. An administrator noted the same things Lois and her organization were capturing. New York’s Health Commissioner did the same. He declared a state of emergency.

“Will I see age 7”

If you were pregnant or had children under the age of 2 in a specifically-defined area, the government was willing to pay for you to move, temporarily. But as soon as you were outside of those parameters, funding was done, and you were back in the vicinty. These were working class families who did not have the funds to move willy-nilly, and their houses, now, were essentially worthless. Their choices were limited.

The state condemned the school, and properties directly bordering the school. Jimmy Carter got involved, and directed emergency funds to address the issue. They hired geologists to try to figure out where the problem was, and how to resolve it.

To a room of environmental remediation professionals, what they undertook in the very early 1980’s was crude. It was the equivalent of early aviators strapping balsa wood planks to their arms and jumping off hills. It just wasn’t enough. And, like they still do now, they shrugged and accepted the status quo and said, ‘This is the best we can do.’

There are book fulls of history about Love Canal. Lois did her best to reduce it to an hour and a half presentation. I will not tell you the whole history, you can read much more about it yourself. It is the perfect case study of human error, and a malicious pride to hide that error. But Lois shared insights from an on-the-ground perspective that are not so easily transferred in history.

Lois Gibbs and the green chain link fence that still stands at Love Canal.

Like the green chain link fence. When they finally started work on the Love Canal site, the company and state erected a 10’ green chain link fence. For Lois, this became a symbol of the Us vs. Them mentality that had characterized their struggle. It became an ever-present reminder that there were things that the people in the Love Canal area did not know about Love Canal. Lois touched on the symbol many times, emphasizing how much of an imposing figure it became in the debate. There was the knowing, cover-your-ass rich people on the inside, and the unknowing, sick and poor people on the outside.

Facing down the pigs who protected the green chain link fence and not the people.

For me, far from Love Canal in time and space, the green fence had a metaphysical twinge. First, and most simply, it represented the need for scientists to communicate better. Later in the conference I watched a presentation by a gentleman with two masters degrees. I am sure he had all sorts of knowledge. But he had a debilitating stutter. His half-hour presentation should have taken ten minutes, and content suffered as a result. Knowledge is useless if you cannot communicate it.

Secondly, and more mystically, the fence appeared to me like a shortcut of consciousness—a shortcut that we feel as necessary because of our increasingly superficial understanding of an increasing number of things. Think about the subway or train: I don’t need to think about standing back from a moving train, because there is a yellow line that does the thinking for me. These shortcuts of consciousness also represent a loss of presence, something that was evident by all the heads bent to their smartphones during Lois’ presentation.

But maybe the shortcuts are not such bad things. I mean I had met Lois, indirectly and unnamed, in grade eleven, in a one-page photocopy my World Issues teacher passed around (I still have it). He lectured on Love Canal in a simplified way, just enough for us to get the gist without getting caught up in what I now know are the complications of liability. Love Canal, when I was seventeen, was a shortcut of consciousness—a shortcut to my environmental consciousness. It was the same shortcut that had roused such bitterness and outrage the night before, at all the phonies who could not possibly be serious about doing good work for the planet.

But they were human. I am too (unfortunately or not). I am not my awakened teenage self who wanted to tear down fences. Sometimes, now, I put up fences too. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” I am human. I hate shortcuts sometimes. I make shortcuts the rest of the time.

Love Canal was one of the sparks that lighted my path in the environmental sciences. It was invigorating and inspiring to hear about it first-hand from someone like Lois Gibbs. Lois has gone on to good work for lots of people who are fucked in similar situations. And I hope that I can say the same. I have that aspiration, at least. Those phonies probably do not.

Taking a Trip Through Love Canal: The Phony Night Before (Part One)

I had been half-drunk at a notorious Banff bar, packed shoulder to shoulder with people, when I realized with a very Salingeralian bitterness: “Everyone is so full of shit.”

I had an hour or so ago traded my business card for a handful of drink tokens marked with the party’s sponsor for the inaugural night of an environmental remediation technology conference. This conference spares no expense, and neither do the companies who compete for sponsorship. The individual entry fee is almost $1000 and it takes place at the bourgeoisie Fairmont Banff Springs—the place where, weeks later, our Prime Minister met with the President of France. For now, companies vie for each others’ business with ludicrous amounts of branded swag, five-star food, and expensive alcohol.

The next night would feature an absurd champagne-toasted four-course meal at the swanky Walhaus, a charming Bavarian-style clubhouse hidden behind the Fairmont (invite only, of course). I felt like Fitzgerald, drowning in bubbles and stuffing myself with unnecessary calories for the three hour event—which was only foreplay for the grander ‘networking social’ hosted by a laboratory in the Fairmont’s fancy event rooms, which featured live chefs, mounds of hot appetizers, free drinks and an elaborate ice sculpture that you could have your crantini poured through. That night would end in the after-party suite, hosted by…who cared at that point? It didn’t start ‘til 2 and went ‘til 5 AM…it became more of a sloppy alcohol den than anything professionals would be proud to say they soldiered through.

But that was the next night. By that time I came to understand the phoniness. It made sense in context, even if it didn’t make sense in this world.

That first night a co-worker had decided that the best bang for our free drink tokens would be top shelf tequila, which seemed very efficient for me. And in most situations, this is the kind of intoxication that is required for me to be fun in this kind of chaos. But this was different—I was with a former boss, co-workers, and vendors I worked with. It didn’t feel like the right time to debate the singular beauty of the word ‘cunt’, or other things I may talk about drunk.

And it was in this retreat, this self-protecting self-isolation, that I fell into that poetic observation that led me to fall into complete disillusionment and proclaim: “Everyone is so full of shit.”

Maybe not everyone, but many of the people there certainly were. One sales lady was perfect in her game, even though she had to shout over the bar’s cackling din…she knew when to get casual and talk about non-work things…because she knew building the relationship would build business…but she was mad, wasn’t she? She spoke to one of my co-workers, a handsome man who is far from shy—they leaned head to head across the small bar table, by all accounts flirting. Except that she was compulsively picking at her wedding ring and he was twisting his—I remembered what so many told me about this conference—that they are hotbeds for infidelity—for lies, I guess…and I wondered if her sales meant that much to her. If she would suck a dick just to build that relationship. But everyone here was doing the same. The sexual tension crackled through the air. But it was forced, wasn’t it? Those dolled up girls couldn’t really be interested in that fat bald man, could they? Was he really that funny?

I had to leave. I didn’t even use up all my drink tokens. I had had enough. I felt bloated and anxious with all the phoniness.

But the next morning there was a sunrise. It had a chance to start all anew.

Except that there was a clarity that came that morning, in the form of Lois Gibbs.

[ To be continued ]

Are You Down With the IPCC?

The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published its report on climate change.

Last year parts of the report were leaked, and some of the corrections made to the 2007 report were a win for climate change denialists and skeptics—the report contained adjustments to modelling predictions, and included tidbits that certain climate indicators were not occuring as predicted. Nevertheless, the report included its typical warnings about the coming climate apocalypse.

This year, climate change champions are hanging the report on their banners (unless you lend any credence to the NIPCC). News article after news article expounds how the IPCC is painting a perilous picture of the future of the world…if we don’t change our ways.

I will not be treading on ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments [Note: yes, there is a debate…maybe not on the science itself, but surely on the meaning and implications of the science…this is its own blog entry that I won’t even bother to write]. I’m not a climatologist and I just don’t have the time to wade through the science. I am an environmental scientist, true, but I am far more interested in the small ‘e’ environmentalism that the charismatic big ‘E’ environmentalism. People ask me all the time about climate change—or, according to their bias, ‘global warming’—and, quite frankly, I have nothing constructive to say. My brain shuts down when I hear the climate arguments. I blame it on years of obsessive philosophical contemplation that has led me to an existentialist nihilism on the subject, for the most part. It’s not that I don’t care; I just don’t think it really matters what we think.

James Lovelock conceived the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1960’s. My ecology instructor avoided Lovelock at all costs. I brought it up on certain occasions, and I like to feel that if it wasn’t for me, my fellow peers might not have ever even heard the word Gaia (none of them cared, anyway).

But it’s an important theory, one that really characterizes my ‘nihilism’ (for lack of a better term, right now). The basic tenet of the theory is that the Earth as a whole is a living organism, named after the Greek goddess, Gaia. This organism is evolutionarily inclined to survive. It does what it has to do. Its component parts, including biological life, all interact to support the survival of the organism.

There are some quandaries with the theory—such as what’s the point to survival? and at what point in the formation of this rock in space did it become an organism?—but the idea provides a fractal-esque postulation of the macrocosmic globe as no different than the single-celled organisms that we figure first populated the Earth.

 But why wouldn’t my ecology instructor want to include this theory in his teaching plan? Well, he said, it applies too much of a nihilist view of the world, like there is nothing we can do. He was partially right—as much as the theory promotes interconnectedness and purpose to biodiversity, it also contains the idea that humanity really means nothing in itself. Humanity is merely a component part of a larger organism, an iteration of biological life that fulfills an ecological function at this current period of time. Apparently, this is a scary thought.

 But I’m not too proud to acknowledge that humanity is not special. This isn’t even a special thought in itself. We are animals, nothing more. We are not God’s chosen creatures, or the epitome of evolution, or even the beloved experiments of a race of hyper-intelligent aliens. That’s my take, anyway.

 Ecological function is a well known and studied aspect of ecology…but one that typically excludes humans from the picture. It is a common battle cry of the environmental movement that we are all connected—when something affects one aspect of the environment it affects every aspect. But, at the same time, the movement’s arguments typically distinguishes between ‘natural’ activities and ‘anthropomorphic’ activities, as if humans are not fulfilling a suitable biological function on the earth.

 So Gaia leads me to beg the question—what if ‘destroying’ life on earth is our function? What if, like Methanosarcina, the newly proposed culprit of the largest extinction in our fossil record, humans have evolved to reduce biodiversity in the Gaia system?

Cyanobacteria were single-celled organisms that are theorized to have been the first photosynthetic life-forms—they essentially transformed earth’s atmosphere into one that had enough oxygen to support a proliferation of aerobic life-forms. Were their actions unnatural? Could the (hypothetical) carbon dioxide-supported life pre-cyanobacteria have been destroyed by the selfish bacteria and their addiction to photosynthesis?

 There is an entirely different aspect of the climate change—the urgency, the redemption, the eerie religious undertones that we shall receive the utopian Eden-on-Earth if we shall only change our shameful, sinful ways. Don’t feed me end-of-days salvation bullshit. At the same time, the corporate-driven denialist movement is just as repulsive, feeding empty and desperate rhetoric for the purpose of profit.

 Taoism has a wonderful concept, wu wei, or ‘do nothing’. In essence, act natural. Do what thou wilt, in a way. And, it would appear, acting natural to the modern human is to act in a way that we see as harmful to the Earth (which is a weird dichotomy in itself, but one I won’t delve into because this is convoluted enough).

 Who knows. I don’t. Here again, my brain is shutting down. I’ve overworked these neurons thinking in circles, only to come to the conclusion that you just need to choose what’s your natural. And who even knows what that fucking means?

 Aldo Leopold was absolutely right when he said that the environmental question is fundamentally a philosophic question. The science is auxillary to the philosophy. That’s probably why there is logic to certain arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ climate change. I really enjoy engaging with people so embroiled in one view or another. They are unwavering. They are so fucking sure of themselves. It’s kind of like a form of yoga, to be so steadfastly sure of yourself.

 Unfortuantely I don’t have that reassurance. I have my ideas, but that’s all…par example: yes, the climate changes, and we are probably not helping it not change…but the morality of it, that is a tougher thing to chew. I’ll leave it in your mouth, mine’s getting sore.