Six places we should all visit: part one

Published Tuesday, January 8, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Nothing imprints things upon our brains like seeing them with our own two eyes.  That’s why most of us are not content with simply seeing pictures of pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canyon; we’d much rather go visit them.

In today’s world, humans are consuming more than ever, but many consequences of the way we live are far from the average person’s eyes and thoughts.  So here are three places we’d all do well to visit, for a reality check, some imprinting and some reflection.

A mine site
Mines are the source of many of the materials we depend on daily.  It’s easy to assume that they are merely holes in the ground that yield gold, silver and other valuables, but reality is not quite that simple.  In most cases, what we want is present at trace levels only, mixed in with a lot of what we don’t want.  That means much ore must be mined and moved.  It means what we want must be extracted from the ore, a process that involves a lot of energy and/or the use of toxic chemicals with long-lasting health and environmental impacts.  It results in tailings: heaps or ponds of waste materials that can languish and leach for a very long time (particularly in places where regulations are weak). 

But perhaps more than anything else, mines are real-life reminders of what “non-renewable” means, because they eventually get depleted.  Brunswick Mines in Bathurst was the world’s biggest lead/zinc deposit when it opened in 1964, but it’s all gone now; the mine will close forever in two months.  A graphic reminder to reduce, reuse and recycle.

A meat processing plant
Most of us are comfortably insulated from the supply chain that delivers food to our plate, and that’s especially true of meat.  For those able to bear it, a visit to a processing plant promises to be very imprinting.  

An emotional response might have us outraged and pointing fingers.  A rational response might have us understanding that what happens daily on the processing floor is just a logical consequence of a hungry, carnivorous society that demands ever cheaper food. 

A balanced response might have us wondering about our own dietary choices and how we can best get the nutrition we need.  It’s no secret that plant-based foods have a much lower carbon footprint than animal-based foods, and that North American meat consumption is among the highest in the world.

A landfill
In our world, trash disposal couldn’t be much easier: we just put our unwanted stuff at the curb and it magically disappears.  No fuss, no mess – and no responsibility or incentive to generate less garbage.

So perhaps a tour of our local landfill would help us understand that nothing disappears; it just goes elsewhere.  That taking care of society’s waste is a complicated, unsavoury and expensive business.  That, in spite of our best efforts, landfills are not pretty places and they continue to seep and belch their contents long after we’ve filled them and moved on.

Perhaps it would help us understand that producing less trash is a smart thing to do.

Like Masada
Masada, a historic fortification on an isolated rock plateau in Israel, is revered as the site of a famous last stand by Jewish rebels against invading Romans 2000 years ago.  Today, Israeli soldiers who complete basic training are taken to Masada for swearing-in.  It’s a solemn ceremony designed to imprint a powerful key message: never forget your history and be as brave as you must.

Perhaps visits to these first three sites – a mine, a meat processing plant and a landfill – could somehow have a similar effect for us, imprinting the need for us all to live more sustainably.