Destroying the environment is nothing new, of course, but as resources become more scarce, the pace of the destruction will pick up. And since all the agencies that are supposed to protect the country actually represent industry, it would take a full scale overhaul of the government to reverse the trends. (Did I say overhaul? Perhaps I meant revolution.)
I grew up visiting National Parks on family vacations. Those trips triggered my lifelong hunger for travel, and also instilled in me a deep appreciation of natural beauty. I'm not a backwoods hiker and I don't even like camping, but being around natural beauty - mountains, coastline, forest, desert, rock formations, anything - is, for me, one of life's great gifts.
Both the US and Canada are such huge land masses, with so many different kinds of terrains and landscapes. (That's what happens when you take over a whole continent!) Both contain such an incredible wealth and diversity of natural beauty. I hope to see as much of Canada as I can, but I'm not yet done exploring the United States, either.
I have often imagined what the US might be like if its great natural wonders had not been preserved from commercial use, if people like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir and Oswald West hadn't been successful. Grand Canyon Condos? Redwood Golf Course? Or would all the giant Sequoias have been pulped?
It's no surprise that the US's great physical legacy is being eroded by the same forces destroying its democracy.
There are snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park, creating a haze over pollution Old Faithful, frightening bison and elk into ditches as they flee in terror. Supposedly we have to "balance" the concerns of the snowmobile industry against the intent and purpose of the park itself, along with its wildlife, human visitors and rangers. Yellowstone Park Rangers need respirators to breathe during snowmobile season.
If you visit the Grand Canyon, you can buy a book that says the magnificent sight was created by the biblical flood of Noah fame. I blogged about that way back here. (And looking back, I see I was writing this same post.)
Right now, the British mining company Vane Minerals has uranium-mining rights right outside the Grand Canyon. How did they get those rights? From the US Forest Service. Several large environmental organizations have joined together to fight this. Whether or not they succeed, it is clear that the battle lines have changed. I fear we will only hold back the tide for so long. (Which doesn't mean we should stop fighting.)
Among the many environmental horrors being perpetrated in the United States, one of the most sickening - as well as permanent and irreversible - is mountaintop removal. This is a radical form of coal mining in which entire mountains are blasted out of existence. Local water is polluted, forests permanently destroyed (with all the subsequent flooding and mudslides that brings), landscapes altered forever.
In 2002, the Environmental Protection [sic] Agency reclassified the waste product of coal mines as "fill". And because it is now fill, it does not have to be replaced. In short, the EPA gutted the Clean Water Act of 1970, which was the result of so much activism, and which led to the rehabilitation of formerly polluted waters throughout the US.
Mountaintop removal is taking place in 23 states, but it is particularly devastating to the Appalachian region.
People from Appalachia are often the butt of jokes; poverty and isolation will do that. But it is an area with an old, distinct culture, from which some of America's greatest music - and great labour organizing and radical activism - was born. It is also supposed to be distinctly beautiful. (On a purely selfish note, this is one area of the US I have barely seen, and its beauty may be gone before I get a chance to.)
Mountaintop removal mining has been going on for decades, but its use has recently expanded. And so has the activism against it.
One approach local residents are taking is to try to raise awareness in other areas that our energy use contributes to mountaintop renewal. For example, witness what took place at a recent town meeting in Massachusetts. This from the Boston Globe:
At hearings last week on the Cape Wind project, some of the witnesses spoke in a mountain twang that had no hint of Yarmouth to it. They hailed from coal-mining country in West Virginia and had come north to plead with New Englanders to find a renewable energy alternative to mountaintop-removal coal mining - a practice that is making a moonscape out of their countryside.
Each week, coal companies use explosives equal to the Hiroshima bomb to turn mountaintops into rubble and expose coal seams. The consequences are ghastly. Often, the blasts destroy wells or allow them to be poisoned by contaminants that decades of surface and underground mining have created. Residents say the earth-moving has also caused more flooding. And in 2004, a boulder dislodged by coal company blasting killed a 3-year-old Virginia boy in his bed.
Coal accounts for just 15 percent of New England's electricity, so even Cape Wind, which would use offshore wind turbines to supply power equal to three-quarters of Cape Cod's demand, would not stop much of the devastation of Appalachia. But activists such as Janet Keating and Chuck Nelson of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition hope that Cape Wind will usher in a whole new era of energy production that lessens the nation's dependence on coal. The country gets 50 percent of its power from coal, the biggest carbon emitter among fossil fuels.
Short of a nationwide shift away from coal and toward renewable sources, the Appalachia activists would like to see Congress pass the Clean Water Protection Act. This bill would reverse one of the Bush administration's most damaging concessions to industry on the environmental front.
For more information about the fight against mountaintop removal, and how you can help, try the End Mountaintop Removal Action and Resource Center (cool URL!), the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a West Virginia group with sickening high-resolution photos of the devastation, Mountain Justice Summer, and Appalachian Voices.
All the large US environmental groups are also fighting this, but I thought I would highlight local, grassroots activism. I wonder when they will start to throw themselves on the gears of the machine.
I don't know what I can do from here, but I'm going to find out. Although I have felt alienated from the US for a very long time, the most radical part of me will always be American, a country that was born of revolution. My parents taught me that this was the true national anthem, and they were right: "This land is my land. This land is your land."