“I suppose Fitch lives in a cardboard box and uses no modern amenities.”
This is the flavour of many responses to my concerns about land use and the impacts on the environment. It is a dismissive response to any thought of stewardship, conservation or environmental alarm.
By attempting to demean me and my argument by irrelevantly directing the attack at me, about me, it is hoped this will, in some way, diminish my point.
These responses follow a similar, usually tendentious pattern. Any concerns over unsustainable logging will be met with a question of whether or not I live in a house made of wood. If I write about issues with the petroleum industry, I will be pilloried for driving a car.
Exposing the problems in mining, especially coal, will bring forth a litany of vitriol about my use of steel (forged in furnaces burning the black stuff). Writing about our rivers receding into tiny trickles because of irrigation agriculture will result in being asked if I eat.
Presumably my legitimacy to speak on these issues can only be based on living in a cave, which I constructed with a sharp stick, wearing only animal skins, trapped with vines, and walking everywhere, barefoot, summer and winter.
The use of argumentum ad hominem seems linked to those who really want to believe in some of the hype of prevailing land-use schemes. They are unwilling to buy anything that scrutinizes, objectively reviews or critiques their dreams. When you’ve drunk the purple Kool-Aid of growth at any cost, you are resolute in support even though the cost may outweigh the benefits.
“In the land of the ostriches, the blind are king. When politicians [and individuals] bury their head in the sand, ignorance rules the country,” observed Erik Pevernagie, a Belgian writer.
Ignorance is sometimes a choice, of not wanting to know. It closes the ears, the eyes and the senses. The absence of knowing means you can ignore the existence of evidence, of fact. As Dave Christiansen, a colleague, often reminds me, “However well intentioned, speaking to the deaf is futile.” It is not the inability to see and to hear, it is the choice not to, and to react negatively to anyone attempting to provide a different message.
Observation and critical thinking aided by some understanding of ecological principles might provide us a better pathway forward than shouting at each other in capital letters. Don Gayton writes tellingly on this in The Wheatgrass Mechanism:
“It is our nature to be free-form, hot-dog, and eclectic; we live holism. So reductionist science, if nothing else, is probably a useful foil to lives full of concatenated events. A method to test things one at a time, as a check on ourselves.”
Evidence-based decision making about checks and balances, of ecological thresholds and cumulative effects, might help us stop racing to landscape red lights that never turn green.
In our rush to fill up the landscape with money-making schemes, we might pause long enough to take in some natural lessons. One is allelopathy. One plant species will suppress the growth of others due to the release of toxic substances.
It can include auto-allelopathy, where the first generation of a plant species inhibits growth and survival of the second generation. Plant examples from both strategies include kochia, knapweed and cheatgrass.
Some land uses and their intensity resemble allelopathy. One is blasting the tops off mountains to expose a coal seam. This exposes many toxic substances like selenium, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Calcite and extreme amounts of sediment are also released. Mining essentially sterilizes a portion of the landscape and has negative impacts on watersheds downstream. The impacts of coal mining can persist for decades, if not centuries.
Rendering of essential watersheds unstable hydrologically by unsustainable logging practices has demonstrable negative impacts on native fish and wildlife populations, on flood risk for downstream communities and on both water quality and quantity for human populations. A landscape ravaged by clearcut logging no longer holds much appeal for outdoor recreation.
The positive feedback loop from continued (and expanded) petroleum extraction and use exacerbates climate-change impacts. These include flooding, drought, wildfires and excessive heat. All ratchet up concerns of our own survival.
Our inability to acknowledge the connections means we continue down a dangerous path. The legacy of land and water impacted by toxic petroleum development spills, exposed by Kevin Timoney in Hidden Scourge, is equally disturbing.
These and many more issues need to be talked about, to have reasoned dialogue about what we expect our future to resemble, if we stick to current paths, or new ones. Name calling, personal attacks and nonsensical arguments will not solve the dilemmas inherent in our growth-at-all-costs model.
Taking a page from one of my detractors, the prospect of living in a cardboard box without any modern amenities isn’t a future I find solace in, as I’m sure some in the world who now live in those circumstances find. If we continue to trade off landscape integrity, resilience and the indicators of those essentials, like native fish, we might find ourselves in similar circumstances.
We can be rich, at least in the short term, with large bank accounts and inflated stock portfolios. Or, we can be wealthy in the long haul with some of both, edging towards maintaining intact, diverse and essential landscapes and ecosystem services. As Don Gayton observes, we have to develop the sense and the courage to draw the line between the sustainable and the unacceptable.
Invective towards concerns on land-use issues may find favour with a few. But, as General Eric Shinseki said, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.”
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