Six places we should all visit: part two

Published Tuesday, January 22, 2012 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 just seeing pictures of Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge; we’d much rather go visit them.

In today’s world, humans are consuming more than ever, and it seems we’ve lost our understanding that our existence depends on a healthy planet.  So here are three more places we’d all do well to visit, for a reality check, some imprinting and some reflection.

A clear cut, before and after
Several years ago, a parcel of mature forest near my home was clearcut.  In just weeks, it went from being a vibrant, undisturbed habitat for birds, amphibians, wildlife and people to a deserted, visually jarring moonscape with only ruts, mud, stumps and slash heaps. 

Trees are a cornerstone of NB’s ecosystem, but in our economic system, they only have value when they’re cut.  A visit to a forest before and after clearcutting reminds of the need for conservation and management of our precious resources, and for sharing our space with other creatures that have no less right to be here than we do.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
This must-see isn’t very realistic for a visit, but picture a giant ocean whirlpool constantly drawing in more and more plastic and you get the idea.

The Pacific trash vortex is believed to contain over three million tonnes of plastic, most of which originated on land but entered the ocean thanks to wind and rivers.  You wouldn’t see much of it if you visited, however: most of it consists of tiny particles, the remnants of bottles, bags and other debris. 

And therein lies the problem.  In ocean environments, plastics are forever: they break down into small particles but never really go away.  They accumulate toxins and enter food chains.  The plastics are so widely dispersed that cleanup is virtually impossible.  Recent research suggests there are similar garbage patches in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

Even without an actual visit, a few conclusions become clear.  Plastics don’t belong in the ocean.  Recycling is good; reducing is even better.  Litter sucks and beach cleanups rock.  

The Tar Sands
It’s easy to breeze through a gas station without a thought about the origins and journey of those litres of fuel.  But our world’s insatiable thirst for oil means that all the easy stuff is gone and we are forced to resort to dirtier, riskier sources like tar sands.  Even if the oil burned here doesn’t come from Alberta (at least for now), our consumption adds to the collective demand driving the resource feeding frenzy in Fort McMoney.

The extraction of oil from tar sands is an engineering wonder and an economic drug, but it’s hard to disagree that it’s also an act of gross environmental carnage.  Conventional extraction involves total disruption of the landscape, huge amounts of water and massive tailings ponds laden with noxious byproducts.  Plus greenhouse gas emissions.

By the industry’s own measures, the current active mining footprint is 760 km2 – the combined areas of Saint John, Moncton, Fredericton and Miramichi.  It’s an enormous scar being scratched bigger daily, with the potential to increase sixfold.  Tailings ponds are nearly the size of Bathurst and Edmundston combined.  Just 10% of the land mined since the 1960s has been or is being reclaimed by industry.  A new study by Environment Canada and Queens University conclusively links tar sands development to increased toxin levels in nearby lakes.

For a bit of eye poison and to underscore the need for breaking our addiction to oil, there’s probably no better destination on the planet than the tar sands.

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 next three sites – a clearcut, an ocean garbage patch and tar sands – could somehow have a similar effect for us, imprinting the need for us all to live more sustainably.