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!
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/
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.