As I was driving north to Slave Lake and Peace River and then west into British Columbia to see for myself the Green and Pleasant Land that Province’s government intends to flood with its “green” hydro-electric dam at Site C, I got thinking. And then, as I sat in my hotel room in Grande Prairie, I did a very modest bit of calculating.
There is a very major industry in Alberta, a lynch-pin of the Province’s economy since before its transformation from a bit of the N.W.T. This industry today has almost 40% of the Province’s land set aside for its exclusive use. (As a reality check, Alberta’s entire oil sands deposits, the vast majority of which are unrecoverable, underlie only about 21% of the Province’s land.) This industry has ruthlessly stripped native species from those lands, forcing most into local extinction and some into absolute extinction. This industry douses these lands in products of the petrochemical industry and raw sewage virtually without restriction or oversight, causing unknown degrees of toxic contamination. This industry has introduced countless non-native invasive species to the lands it has been given. Perhaps worst of all, this industry has been allowed to operate in this frightful manner without even the slightest requirement, expectation, or even thought that the land should be someday remediated to any extent, let alone to the extent the oil sands extractors promise they will remediate the land they are so excoriated for destroying and poisoning (with materials that have already been in the soil for hundreds of thousands of years).
You’ve probably figured out by now that the major industry I’m talking about is agriculture, both crop and livestock production.
I’ve long been troubled by what I acknowledge is the most often pragmatically necessary replacement of native species with what I like to term “non-native invasive species” such as cattle, canola and cats, but on this trip I suddenly became aware that the fact of the massive environmental change/damage that agriculture — not just modern corporate agribusiness — does to the native ecology — that this fact is rarely if ever acknowledged. Sure we worry about fertilizer runoff sometimes, or about antibiotic over use sometimes, or, very rarely, about an occasional news-worthy invasive species. But do we ever actually sit back and say “Gee, agriculture — even the finest organic, sustainable, green, Polyface Farm, Michael Pollan endorsed, free-range, humane farmers’ market agriculture — it’s just plain unnatural and is inevitably and by definition squeezing out the natural environment. Even the most wonderful permaculture set up is by it’s nature unnatural, no matter how you slice it.
Lest it be misconstrued that I’m saying that agriculture is just as bad or worse for the environment than oil sands extraction, I’ll say again that by no means am I wonderfully cozy with the idea of taking the oil out of the sands by burning a whole lot of natural gas and pumping rivers through the guck and then burning the little drops of fuel we get at the end and making plastics from the stuff we don’t burn . . . but, whatever the big tar sands companies do in the way of remediation, the tar won’t be in the sand any more. I honestly don’t know what the “right” answers are about oil sands extraction. Probably nobody does. But the discussion sure is happening, isn’t it?
But, with all the various conversations about the environmental effects of agriculture, has anybody actually articulated yet that agriculture in any form is fundamentally a necessary environmental evil? Human agriculture has completely restructured the ecology of huge stretches of Eurasia and North America and probably Africa. There is no going back, to be sure, but should we all not be very much aware of the environmental history and baggage of what we eat?
And are there not fundamental lessons to be drawn from the massive environmental effects of that Neolithic technology, a technology that must have seemed indispensably useful at the time of its invention and ever since. Agriculture is the original “sustainable resource development”. But, like every sustainable resource development of the last ten thousand years and more, it is sustained by the elimination of the existing ecology.
Are we going to learn to live with oil sands extraction, continued fossil fuel use, continued destruction of vibrant ecosystems for hydro-electric production, and global climate change just like we’ve learned to be blissfully unaware of the damage even the most benign agriculture does?
Or will Greenpeace and others start protesting the very existence of agriculture when the environmental damage its caused is finally totalled up?
Or is it possible that we all need to finally acknowledge that we have for generations been the product not of evolution in the natural world but of evolution in an artificial environment of our own and of our ancestors’ creation, for good or ill?
In closing, a few clichés: we can’t go back; we can’t put the genie back into the bottle/lamp; the cat’s out of the bag; we’ve pissed in our bed, now we have to sleep in it. . .
Update, January 15, 2014: According to the Alberta Government’s figures here and here, Alberta’s livestock industry accounts for 1% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions whereas the Oilsands account for 8%. Remember, most of that livestock is fed grain grown with synthetic fertilizer manufactured and transported by means of fossil fuels.