Nothing imprints things upon our brains like seeing them with our own two eyes. That's why most of us are not content with simply seeing pictures of pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canyon; we'd much rather go visit them.
In today's world, humans are consuming more than ever, but many consequences of the way we live are far from the average person's eyes and thoughts. So here are six places we'd all do well to visit, for a reality check, some imprinting and some reflection.
A mine site
Mines are the source of many of the materials we depend on daily. It's easy to assume that they are merely holes in the ground that yield gold, silver and other valuables, but reality is not quite that simple. In most cases, what we want is present at trace levels only, mixed in with a lot of what we don't want. That means much ore must be mined and moved. It means what we want must be extracted from the ore, a process that involves a lot of energy and/or the use of toxic chemicals with long-lasting health and environmental impacts. It results in tailings: heaps or ponds of waste materials that can languish and leach for a very long time (particularly in places where regulations are weak).
But perhaps more than anything else, mines are real-life reminders of what "non-renewable" means, because they eventually get depleted. Brunswick Mines in Bathurst, New Brunswick was the world's biggest lead/zinc deposit when it opened in 1964, but it's all gone now; the mine is closing forever this month. A graphic reminder to reduce, reuse and recycle.
A meat processing plant
Most of us are comfortably insulated from the supply chain that delivers food to our plate, and that's especially true of meat. For those able to bear it, a visit to a processing plant promises to be very imprinting.
An emotional response might have us outraged and pointing fingers. A rational response might have us understanding that what happens daily on the processing floor is just a logical consequence of a hungry, carnivorous society that demands ever cheaper food.
A balanced response might have us wondering about our own dietary choices and how we can best get the nutrition we need. It's no secret that plant-based foods have a much lower carbon footprint than animal-based foods, and that North American meat consumption is among the highest in the world.
In our world, trash disposal couldn't be much easier: we just put our unwanted stuff at the curb and it magically disappears. No fuss, no mess -- and no responsibility or incentive to generate less garbage.
So perhaps a tour of our local landfill would help us understand that nothing disappears; it just goes elsewhere. That taking care of society's waste is a complicated, unsavoury and expensive business. That, in spite of our best efforts, landfills are not pretty places and they continue to seep and belch their contents long after we've filled them and moved on.
Perhaps it would help us understand that producing less trash is a smart thing to do.
A clear cut, before and after
Several years ago, a parcel of mature forest near my home was clearcut. In just weeks, it went from being a vibrant, undisturbed habitat for birds, amphibians, wildlife and people to a deserted, visually jarring moonscape with only ruts, mud, stumps and slash heaps.
Trees are a cornerstone of our planet's terrestrial ecosystems, but in our economic system, they only have value when they're cut. A visit to a forest before and after clearcutting reminds of the need for conservation and management of our precious resources, and for sharing our space with other creatures that have no less right to be here than we do.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
This must-see isn't very realistic for a visit, but picture a giant ocean whirlpool constantly drawing in more and more plastic and you get the idea.
The Pacific trash vortex is believed to contain over three million tonnes of plastic, most of which originated on land but entered the ocean thanks to wind and rivers. You wouldn't see much of it if you visited, however: most of it consists of tiny particles, the remnants of bottles, bags and other debris.
And therein lies the problem. In ocean environments, plastics are forever: they break down into small particles but never really go away. They accumulate toxins and enter food chains.
The plastics are so widely dispersed that cleanup is virtually impossible. Recent research suggests there are similar garbage patches in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
Even without an actual visit, a few conclusions become clear. Plastics don't belong in the ocean. Recycling is good; reducing is even better. Litter sucks and beach cleanups rock.
The Tar Sands
It's easy to breeze through a gas station without a thought about the origins and journey of those litres of fuel. But our world's insatiable thirst for oil means that all the easy stuff is gone and we are forced to resort to dirtier, riskier sources like tar sands. Even if the oil burned here in Eastern Canada doesn't come from Alberta (at least for now), our consumption adds to the collective demand driving the resource feeding frenzy in Fort McMoney.
The extraction of oil from tar sands is an engineering wonder and an economic drug, but it's hard to disagree that it's also an act of gross environmental carnage. Conventional extraction involves total disruption of the landscape, huge amounts of water and massive tailings ponds laden with noxious byproducts. Plus greenhouse gas emissions.
By the industry's own measures, the current active mining footprint is 760 km² -- the combined areas of the cities of Saint John, Moncton, Fredericton and Miramichi. It's an enormous scar being scratched bigger daily, with the potential to increase sixfold. Tailings ponds are nearly the size of the cities of Bathurst and Edmundston combined. Just 10 per cent of the land mined since the 1960s has been or is being reclaimed by industry. A new study by Environment Canada and Queens University conclusively links tar sands development to increased toxin levels in nearby lakes.
For a bit of eye poison and to underscore the need for breaking our addiction to oil, there's probably no better destination on the planet than the tar sands.
Perhaps visits to these six sites -- a mine, a meat processing plant, a landfill, a clearcut, an ocean garbage patch and tar sands -- could somehow have a similar effect for us, imprinting the need for us all to live more sustainably -- on Earth Day and every day.
Carl Duivenvoorden (www.changeyourcorner.com; @CDuivenv) is a speaker, writer and green consultant
living in Upper Kingsclear, New Brunswick.
Although PETA might not be the worst of Lindsay Lohan's worries, the troubled star's fur obsession has made her one of the group's targets. They have repeatedly asked Lohan to stay away from animals, pelted her with flour in a Paris nightclub and offered to pay for her 2010 rehab stint if she agreed to give up meat.
In an interview with Think Progress in 2011, David Koch, the co-owner of Koch Industries, expressed skepticism about climate change. "Climate does fluctuate. It goes from hot to cold. We have ice ages," he said. Greenpeace recently called out the billionare for donating millions of dollars to climate change denial groups. And in a 2010 New York Magazine profile, Koch insinuated that global warming was actually a good thing. “The Earth will be able to support enormously more people because a far greater land area will be available to produce food,” he said.
The "maverick" ex-governor of Alaska's attitude toward man-made climate change is no secret. In a 2010 California appearance, she called studies that link global warming to disappearing polar bears "snake oil science," and insinuated that such research was merely an effort "to shut down a lot of our development." "A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location," she said in a later interview with Newsmax. "I'm not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made."
PETA has long tried to get the famous Vogue editor to give up her fur habit, but to no avail. The group crashed a 2009 event for Wintour at the 92nd Street Y in New York, chanting “Anna Wintour, Fur Shame.” After they were thrown out, Wintour allegedly told the audience that "fur is part of fashion and we will continue to report on it as long as that is the case.”
The legendary guitarist has recently seen an upswing in publicity, thanks to his outspoken support of conservative issues, including the idea that climate change is not a real problem. According to the Daily Beast, Nugent called Al Gore a “fraud” and a “global-warming Ponzi-schemer,” and told high schoolers that global warming was a hoax and that they should listen to more Glenn Beck.
Snooki might be cleaning up her act as a new mom, but she has a pretty spotty past when it comes to the environment. The "Jersey Shore" star recently sold her beloved Cadillac Escalade, which the EPA named as one of the most polluting, least energy efficient SUVs. Last year, PETA criticized Polizzi and MTV co-star Jenni "JWoww" Farley for dyeing Farley's dogs' fur pink and purple.
Despite performing in a Live Earth benefit concert in 2007, Madonna has been slammed as caring more about money than the planet. Fox News reported that the Material Girl's Ray of Light Foundation has invested millions of dollars into some of the world's largest corporate polluters, such as Alcoa, Weyerhaeuser and BP. In addition, Madge has taken heat for her emissions output. According to the BBC, an environmental consultant named John Buckley estimated that Madonna's total carbon footprint from July 2006-July 2007 was 1,017 metric tons, an exponentially higher amount than the average person. "She needs to be seen to be walking the walk as well as singing the song," Buckley said in reference to her efforts as a green ambassador.
In a December 2009 op-ed titled "Misplaced Priorities," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argued that the presence of snow and a high unemployment rate made "unilateral economic restraint in the name of fighting global warming ... a tough sell" for Wisconsin. Forecast the Facts campaign manager Brad Johnson wrote that Ryan has voted "to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from limiting greenhouse pollution," and vetoed other environmental legislation.
Following Hurricane Sandy, Donald Trump took to Twitter to express doubts about the existence of climate change. Among other things, he tweeted, "It’s extremely cold in NY & NJ—not good for flood victims. Where is global warming?" He also posted, "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." In November 2012, Trump also tweeted, "Global warming is based on faulty science and manipulated data."
Once a beloved "Saturday Night Live" star, Victoria Jackson's recent buzz has less to do with levity and more to do with radical conservatism. According to the Daily Beast, Jackson allegedly spoke out against climate change science during a recent interview on "The Howard Stern Show." “Human-caused global warming has never been proven,” she said. “It’s based on false science.”
Not only was the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback famously arrested for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring, but, he writes in his autobiography, he was "more dedicated" to learning about the illegal practice than studying his football playbook. Although Vick served his time and is attempting to reform his reputation, many still associate the football star with animal abuse.
George W. Bush has a pretty bad record when it comes to climate policy. Not only did he refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol during his time as president, but a 2007 article by Rolling Stone magazine claims his administration tried to actively mislead the public on climate science. Bush's climate record dates back to his pre-Oval Office years. During a presidential debate with Vice President Al Gore in 2000, Bush said, "I don't think we know the solution to global warming yet. And I don't think we've got all the facts." He also said, "There's differing opinions and before we react, I think it's best to have the full accounting."
Follow Carl Duivenvoorden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@CDuivenv