Archive for May, 2008

The Cost of Living

May 12, 2008

Up around my neck of the woods, there is a huge debate going on as to whether a nickel mine should be allowed to open. The land that sits on top of the nickel deposit belongs to the State of Michigan. The mining company, Kennecott Minerals, argues that there is money to be made. The opponents argue that the cost to the environment will be higher than the financial payout. It really is as simple as that.

Now everyone knows that the non-sentient entity known as “Kennecott Minerals” doesn’t care about the environment. Like an earthworm, it’s only concern is to continue feeding so that it may continue living. If an earthworm found out that it’s poop was toxic to the soil that it lived in, it would simple keep moving forward, leaving the poop comfortably behind; it will keep doing this until there is no more ‘forward’ and it must do this right up until its own toxic poop kills it. It has no other alternative.

The question of whether Kennecott should be allowed to open a nickel mine on the Yellow Dog Plains is a pretty simple equation: will we end up paying more for it than what we get out of it? Kennecott is very invested in convincing the State and the locals that the payoff will be significant and the costs negligible.

The other two speakers in this debate are the locals and the State of Michigan.

Like a corporation, the State of Michigan is also a non-sentient entity. But instead of requiring profits for its survival, it requires reelection. I concede that there are officials who will make a stand for what they believe is right against public majority opinion, but for the most part, party officials will not throw their support behind a cause that is unsupported by their constituency.

Which leads to the locals, the people who will be left to live in Kennecott’s poop trail. There are several reasons why the locals are comfortable with the notion to open a new nickel mine on the Yellow Dog Plains.

Organisms strive toward life. First and foremost, living things must take in nutrients, dispose of waste, and breed new life. This truism flows from the cellular level on up through the whole organism. Because of this, an organism will become toxic to itself if it must do so to live. An example of this is the disease phenylketonuria, or PKU. Some newborn infants are born with a defective enzyme. The infants are unable to correctly metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine, an amino acid in breast milk. When these infants are nursed at their mother’s breast, their bodies cannot convert the phenylalanine into tyrosine. Toxic levels of phenylalanine cause severe mental retardation. But the baby has no choice; it must eat to live, even if eating causes causes her system to become toxic. Severe retardation is still life, and the organism always strives towards life.

In the same way, many locals are convinced that the immediate financial payoff of jobs that will provide sustenance to themselves and their families is more essential than the eventual toxicity of their environment. This is mining country, and the people here are used to having to acclimate to toxicity in order to live.

And besides, the poop pile is over there. Since most people live a significant distance from over there, they are more comfortable with making that place toxic. It’s a shame, but folks gotta make a living.

Finally, Kennecott has spent a lot of time and money convincing the locals that the damage won’t be any more significant than what they’ve known all their lives, and the payoff is worth a little sacrifice.

In the meantime, the people who actually live on the Yellow Dog Watershed are going absolutely apeshit. They are being betrayed by their neighbors, and they are angry, hurt and horrified. Because they are a small group of people with limited assets, there is a good chance that they will not be able to convince their neighbors that the payoff will not be worth the sacrifice.

Deciding whether sacrifice is worth averting probable future pain requires a level of sentience. I’m curious of what a sentient community would look like. I wonder how “American” it would be; We The People are so invested in individual rights that we forget that we live communally in our environment. There really is no over there.

I think that it’d be a good idea to move toward sentience. Does our society really need this nickel mine? Does our community really need these jobs? Is the toxicity worth it?

I believe that sacrifice now might better insure life for our grandchildren. That is my answer. Perhaps you have a different answer. I would be willing to debate the question.

Currently, the decision process includes applications to the DNR and EPA. The DNR is holding a hearing in Lansing, Michigan as this post is being written on whether it is legal, by the laws of Michigan, for Kennecott Mine to open.

The hearing is being conducted before Richard A. Patterson, an administrative law judge with the state Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules. It involves two permits — one for building and operating the mine, and the other for groundwater discharge. Patterson could uphold the DEQ’s ruling or recommend that it be rejected. The final decision would be made by DEQ Director Steven Chester, who already has endorsed his staff’s recommendation to approve the mine. Entire Associated Press Article

Most of the locals think that the hearing is about whether the mine will be safe enough; what the hearing is actually about is “a challenge filed by the National Wildlife Federation, the Huron Mountain Club, the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. They contend the DEQ wrongly concluded that Kennecott’s plan meets environmental protection standards set under a state nonferrous mining law enacted in 2004.”

I think that we, as a society and as a species still think of this planet as one of limitless resources. There is no end to the air in the sky and the sea is vast beyond our imagining. But, like the people of the Easter Islands, our resources are finite. And like the Easter Islanders, our choices may spell out disaster.

Or maybe we are canny enough, intelligent enough, and sentient enough to ask the right questions, to find the answers that point down a path toward survival. This new path will take courage and belief in our fellow humans. It will take hope. It will be frustratingly difficult. But working toward solution is the only really interesting option.



May 10, 2008

Up here on the southern shore of Lake Superior, we do a lot of ice fishing. It’s a hell of a lot of fun — not the fishing, per se, but all the stuff that goes with the fishing. By fun, I do not mean exciting; ice fishing is just like other kinds of fishing; long periods of calm contemplation of the human condition and ones own place in’t.

A person knows when they’ve got a fish on the line when the tipup is triggered — on my rig, a little orange stick that springs up and literally quivers with excitement.

When I read the story in the Chicago Tribune about Russian scientist Sergei Zimov study of methane gas release from Siberia’s melting permafrost, a tipup spronged up in my head.

In Siberia, the permafrost entombs billions of tons of organic matter from the Ice Age, when northern Russia’s steppe teemed with mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, musk oxen and other wildlife. Dormant for millennia, the permafrost is being thawed by global warming, triggering the microbial consumption that results in the release of greenhouse gases.

The process feeds on itself. As the climate warms, permafrost on the banks of Siberian lakes collapses into the water, supplying bacteria with more organic material to consume and further raising the level of methane released into the air.

The melting of permafrost cannot be stopped, Zimov said, but it could be slowed.

(Chicago Tribune – entire article)

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Konrad Steffan on a National Geographic program calmly say that the Greenland ice sheets are experiencing a positive feedback of melting. As an aside, I get a huge kick out of how calmly scientists talk, how their tone, word usage and body language say “Move along, nothing to see”; a person’s really gotta listen to get their point.

A few weeks before that, I read an article about how shocked scientists are at the rate of polar ice melt. Just five years ago, most scientist predicted that we may have an ice-free arctic summer sea by 2070. Mark Serreze, of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) just predicted that this summer, the summer of 2008, may experience an ice free arctic polar ocean — a sight last seen by the dinosaurs.

I’m reading Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse. What I like about it so far is that it is so beautifully hopeful. There are ways that societies throughout our time on this old earth have dealt with these issues. Some societies, like the Easter Islanders, have failed completely. But others have managed not to fail.

We’ve hooked one hell of a fish. It’s easy to see that the global climate is going to change in increasingly dramatic ways. I think that, personally, I need to turn my attention to something other than staring horrified at the Loch Ness Monster that’s on the end of our line. It’s time that I started talking about what we might do with the bastard.