There is a clock ticking.
Anyone attentive to the environment knows this. But no one knows how fast the clock is ticking, how much time we have before our greed pushes us past the point of no return. It could be a 1,000 years. Or 100. Or less. And that uncertainty, which leads our species to mill about and argue, could be our undoing.
Writers more eloquent than I have marshaled the facts of industrial civilization and its damage to the world that supports us all. There is no room left for argument, so I wonít reheat a dish already oft served and bland with age.
Fact is, we are using up limited resources faster than we replace them. There are two reasons for this. There are too many of us, and we want too many of the wrong things.
There are also two key questions. Will a critical mass realize that weíre far down a path to destruction that must be altered? And will we realize it in time to reverse it?
Throughout human history, weíve shown an ability to coordinate and succeed at phenomenal tasks. That ability makes humans unique among animal species. But that same history shows we are malcontents prone to digression into parochial bickering. It takes some common understanding and overriding urgency to transform ourselves from dilettantes to heroes.
Will the the environmental crises be our next such awakening?
I have been a soldier in that movement, and I will be again.
All who come to that battle have had their epiphanies.
Mine came at 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, while I was bouncing in a wild ride down a mountain on gold mine property in the back of a company pickup, cradling my golden retriever/Malamute cross named Jake. Hoping to make it to the mine building in time to reverse the effects of cyanide poisoning and save his life.
Jake was the best dog I ever had.
I went to work for the mine, the only one left operating near Cripple Creek, in the late 1980s. It used a solution of water, potassium cyanide and lime to pull gold into solution out of low-grade ore crushed into finger-sized pieces and stacked on giant flattened ďpadsĒ of hundreds of thousands of tons.
Atop each pad was a system of hoses and fittings that spread the solution in a cloud of droplets over the ore, like watering acres of lawn. Beneath each pad was a heavy black poly liner, and the yellow gold-filled solution ran down these liners into giant poly-lined ponds for later processing. Ponds, pads and metal and PVC distribution lines crisscrossed the landscape.
And they leaked, occasionally spilling thousands of gallons of solution onto the land. Deer and horses got past the fences and died after drinking the solution. If thereís not enough lime to keep the pH up, the cyanide can become gas, and Iíve seen birds fly over the systems and fall dead because of that, once just before I was to be walking onto those pads to service the sprinklers.
And then there was Jake, who fell into a pond half a mile from our house and couldnít climb up the slippery poly slope and out of the pond to safety.
Cyanide, aside from killing things that breathe and ingest it, is absorbed through human skin and can kill you that way. Dogs, luckily, donít take it in well through their skin but through their foot and nose pads. Those small absorptive surfaces are the only reason Jake was still paddling weakly around when we got the word and blazed up to the pond.
I lassoed him out of there and we hauled him to the headquarters building. No one weíd heard of had tried administering the oxygen and amyl nitrate antidote to a dog before. Jake was breathing about three times a minute when we got him in.
He responded to the amyl nitrate and made a full recovery, as living things do from cyanide poisoning if it doesnít kill them.
But there in that dingy, dusty mill, surrounded by half a dozen good working and beer-drinking companions in waterproof gear, steel-toed boots and hardhats, who were happy for me and my dog, I made a silent commitment to work to reverse this polluting and dangerous way of life weíve come to condone. I told no one of that vow, not even my wife.
Industry provides a seductive deal with the devil. It allows us to make enough of a living to dwell in splendid places, and the Cripple Creek Mining District was one of those places, as is the landscape of northeastern Minnesota. But industry also dominates any rural economy, and in our hope to melt into the physical and spiritual beauty of the landscape we are pinned to that industry with the iron spike of our own desire. We come to believe itís the only way to live where we are. But itís not true.
Six months after the poisoning near Cripple Creek, I was working as a canvasser and teacher of canvassers for Clean Water Action in Minneapolis, Fargo and Duluth, going into neighborhoods each weeknight, showing individual people in their own homes how contributions to the movement and letters to legislators make a big difference in the political process. Calls to action from individual citizens grew into thousands of communications to the Capitol and had enough weight for environmental victory after victory. And we helped elect Paul Wellstone, one of the environmentís greatest champions in Washington, D.C.
Sometimes, you could see the light of success actually switch on in a citizenís eye, the glimmer of understanding how simple and formidable it can be to empower a population, the firming of a mouth with a new and profound purpose.
A beginning, certainly, but we are good at beginnings. More demanding is the perseverance required to give beginnings meaning.
What must happen is a fundamental shift in priorities among people. Too many of us care too much about the wrong things. I see this in myself. Bigger boats and motors to speed myself faster from fishing spot to fishing spot, when this contemplative pastime actually becomes richer with each decreased mph. More money to buy these toys, these ATVs and snowmobiles and faster computers and plasma televisions, and to blazes with the natural resources it consumes and the world it pollutes to manufacture and use and throw away.
No, millions of people in this country have come to the realization that more is not better.
To simplify, to slow down, to ponder the nature of things and reach humility through a more basic lifestyle ó these are things we both can and should do.
Will this happen in time? Will it happen to enough people?
I look through the glass that is my 41 years of life, a glass slightly warped as are all such by each individualís unique experiences. Iíve spent the 12 years since my work with Clean Water Action on the environmental sidelines, gaining insight through 10 years of newspaper work into the best and worst of human character. Mulling, digesting, evaluating.
In my heart of hearts, I have more doubt than hope. I donít believe we have the essential ability to cast off our way of life and embrace such radical change.
However, Iíve spent too much time on the sidelines.
I could fight for womenís rights, take up the battle on behalf of the poor or of victims of discrimination. These are all worthy efforts.
But without an environment to support us, those causes would fall by the way as immaterial. Survival first.
Itís time to get back in the fight that matters most, to demonstrate the perseverance to turn what was a beginning 12 years ago into the remainder of a lifeís work.
I donít think we will win the war, but Iíve been wrong before.
And there is honor in the fight, if it is the right fight.
Foss is Ely-Babbitt editor of the Timberjay. Contact him at (218) 365-3114 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003 The Timberjay