This is the text I prepared for my remarks at the Save The Wild UP December Gala. My talk deals with the ethics of Lake Superior mining, connecting it with climate change, the loss of the wild and the dawn of the Anthropocene. It’s also a reflection on human ingenuity and human responsibility. The half-hour keynote makes for a long blog post, but I hope readers will find something here worth sharing and discussing.
When you invited me to speak tonight, I tried almost immediately to come up with names of people who might be better suited to the task. In this crowd, I ought to be listening and trying to catch up.
I’m an outsider, and a latecomer to boot. Some of you were here when Kennecott and Rio Tinto first staked their claim to the Yellow Dog Plains. I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of the new mining activity in this area and all around Lake Superior until about 2012. That was right after Ken Ross and I had finished making 1913 Massacre, our documentary about the Italian Hall disaster.
I was so caught up in the story our film tells that I was under the impression that copper mining — sulfide mining — was a thing of the past in the Upper Peninsula.
Very near the end of 1913 Massacre, there’s an interview with an Army veteran who’s sitting at the counter of the Evergreen Diner, drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. He says that after the copper mines closed in 1968, attempts to re-open them failed because people were “bitching about the environment and all that shit and the water and the runoff.” The camera, meanwhile, is exploring the industrial damage left behind by the mining operation.
This is the one moment in the film where we had to bleep out some bad language before Minnesota Public Television would air 1913 Massacre on Labor Day in 2013. The only time anyone in our film curses is when the subject turns to protecting the water and the environment.
That these two things — a destroyed, toxic landscape and a hostility toward people who care about the environment — exist side by side; that people can watch a mining company leave a place in ruins, poison its waters, damage it to the point that it’s now a Superfund site, with high levels of stomach cancer and fish that can’t be eaten, and direct their anger and curses at people trying to prevent it from happening again: our film presents all that as part of what we’ve come to call “mining’s toxic legacy.”
The Army veteran went on to say — this part didn’t make it into the film — that people who bitch about the environment are “people from out of town.” He wasn’t complaining about environmental regulation or about big government; he was complaining instead about out-of-towners, strangers who make it tough for regular guys to make a living.
Strangers can be people from faraway, or just people from whom you feel estranged: people who don’t share your ways or speak your language; and it would be possible to talk at some length about the way the mining operations in the Keweenaw estranged people from each other and from the place they live.
Everywhere it goes, it seems, mining divides and displaces people. It’s never just about extracting ore from the ground. Mining is development and the power to direct it.
When strangers come to town or when people feel estranged, we need translators, guides and mediators. This is one reason why it’s so important to have a local, grassroots organization dedicated to the shared interests people have in the nature and culture of the Upper Peninsula.
You might look like the underdog right now. But I think you’ll agree that there’s a pressing need for a more responsible, inclusive and respectful conversation about development in this place. Save the Wild UP is in a great position to lead it.
Back home in Brooklyn, I have a fig tree. I planted it last spring. I just finished wrapping it for the winter. I love the work the fig tree involves — the care it involves — because it connects me to the memory of my grandfather and the fig tree he kept. My tree connects me to my family tree (my roots), to history, and in my imagination the tree belongs as much to history as it does to nature. The life of my tree depends almost entirely on my care. I sometimes wonder if there is anything wild about it.
There is a wild fig. The ancient Greeks even had a special word for it: φήληξ. They seem to have derived its name from another word (φῆλος) meaning “deceitful,” because the wild fig seemed ripe when it was not really so. The ancient world knew that wildness is tricky. It can deceive and elude us, or challenge our powers of discernment.
Nature, we claim, is our dominion, as if it (naturally, somehow) belonged to history, the world of human activity. Our economy organizes nature to produce natural resources. But the wild represents a living world apart from history and another order of value altogether.
We can’t assimilate the wild into an engineered and technical environment: it will cease to be wild the instant we try. The wild begins where engineering and ingenuity stop, at the limits of human authority and command. So “wild” is sometimes used to mean beyond the reach of authority, out of control.
But what’s wild is not alien. Sometimes the wild calls out to us, usually to ward us off. The wild is almost always in flight from us, leaving tracks and traces for us to read. It always responds to us, as wild rice and stoneflies respond to the slightest change in water quality, offering guidance if we are attentive and humble enough to take it.
The wild marks the limits of our powers, our ingenuity and ambition, and before it we ought to go gently.
We have not.
The headlines tell us that our carbon-intensive civilization, which brought us so many material advantages, is now hastening its own demise. We are entering an entirely new era of human life on earth. Some scientists and philosophers talk about the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene — the dawn of a new geological epoch of our making.
The story beneath the headlines is a record of loss. A map of the terrestrial biosphere shows that today only a quarter remains “wild” — that is, “without human settlements or substantial land use” — and even less is in a semi-natural state. Data from the Mauna Loa Observatory tell us that this year was the last time “anyone now alive on planet Earth will ever see” CO2 concentrations lower than 400 parts per million. Those levels started rising in the 1700s with the industrial revolution, spiked dramatically in the postwar period and have climbed steadily higher. Since 1970, the populations of vertebrate animals have dropped by 52 percent. The same report by the World Wildlife Fund tells us that freshwater animal species have declined by 76 percent since 1970.
That precipitous drop in freshwater species should set off alarm bells, especially here, on the shores of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Since the 1970s, Lake Superior surface-water temperatures have risen and ice cover has dramatically reduced. Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. There’s an earlier onset of summer stratification. By mid-century, according to the National Wildlife Federation, Lake Superior may be mostly ice-free in a typical winter.
Now I know it’s the holiday season and these aren’t exactly tidings of comfort and joy, but they are tidings all the same. And what they announce is this: we are responsible. We’re responsible for all this destruction of the wild — of the whole web of life — and for the changes sweeping over us. Denial will not let us off the hook.
Responsibility is not just about being held accountable for the damage you’ve done; it’s also about taking steps to limit damage, repair the broken world, reclaim it and make things better. We have that responsibility to ourselves and to future generations.
“Loss belongs to history,” writes the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, “while politics and life are about what is still to be done.” But, he’s careful to remind us, loss still has a strong claim on the way we live now and on our future plans. The loss of the wild gives us a new responsibility that should inform our politics and our lives at every turn, direct the investments we make and the activities we sanction, and give rise to new conversations about what to do.
Saving the wild is now bound up, inextricably, with saving the human world — for ourselves and for future generations. We can appreciate in a new way Thoreau’s famous statement: “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Knowing all this, why don’t we act? Why haven’t we acted?
One answer to this question has to do with the word “we,” and our underdeveloped capacity for coordinated, collective action.
Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, suggested another good answer in a speech he gave back in September to a group of insurance industry executives. Not exactly a bunch of tree huggers, but actuaries, people interested in accounting for risks and costs.
Carney talked about the future in terms of horizons, near versus long term. When we focus only on the near term, we don’t account for the true cost of our activities. That’s why for Carney, climate change is a “tragedy of the horizon,” or the tragic consequence of our inability to see and plan and take steps beyond the near term. Since “the catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt beyond our immediate horizons” — beyond the business cycle and the quarterly earnings reports, beyond the political cycle and the current election — we have deferred the cost of fixing the problem to future generations.
We’ve organized things — markets, politics, institutions — so that near-term interests win out over longer-term well-being and more sustainable arrangements.
Nowadays, if you look out at the Lake Superior horizon, you might see all the way to China. An unsustainable scheme of Chinese urbanization and economic growth fueled much of the new mining activity around the lake, and especially the exploration and exploitation of copper-rich deposits. Over the last decade or so, copper was used not just to build and wire new Chinese cities, many of which today stand empty; it was used mainly for collateral on loans. As much as 80 percent of the copper China imported was used to back loans. Today, as China unravels and the price of copper plunges, commodities investors are expressing remorse. Nickel’s down, too. The rush for Lake Superior minerals now seems to have been reckless — part of a larger market failure, with unforeseen risks and costs current and future generations are likely to incur.
Or look at the Polymet project in Minnesota. It’s an exaggerated case of not accounting for the long-term costs of mining. Currently, the Polymet Environmental Impact Statement says that water treatment will go on “indefinitely” at a cost of 3-6 million dollars a year. There is no way, so far as I know, to multiply 3 or 6 million dollars by a factor of indefinitely; and even the company’s most concrete prediction is 500 years of water treatment. Just to put that in perspective, the state of Minnesota has only been around since 1858: 157 years.
How is it possible that a proposal like this can be taken seriously? They promise jobs, a fix to a near-term problem; but there’s something else at work here as well: technology or, rather, misplaced faith in technology and human ingenuity. We make technology a proxy for human responsibility.
But technological advances that create efficiencies or solve problems for mining companies can carry hidden social and environmental costs: for example, a study done after the Mount Polley spill last year concludes that “new technologies, deployed in the absence of robust regulation” have fostered a “disturbing trend of more severe tailings failures.” Recent events in Brazil underline the point.
Great machinery, even full automation, will never amount to responsible stewardship. New technologies can have unintended consequences, distancing us from each other and from our responsibilities. Things corrode, repairs are made or not, entities dissolve, contracts are broken, obligations are forgotten, empires decline and fall, even within definite time horizons.
The industrial development that mining brings distorts horizons in another way. One theme of Tom Power’s research on the economics of the Lake Superior region and on what he calls wilderness economics is that “protecting the quality of the living environment…lays the base for future, diversified economic development.” Over-reliance on mining — and mining that damages or threatens the living environment — hinders economic diversification and makes the economy less resilient. It also requires us to discount the value of water and land it puts at risk, a value that is only going to increase over the long term, as freshwater becomes ever more scarce and as carbon capture afforded by peatlands and forests becomes more critical.
To allow that calculation for the nonce is not to concede that the market value of these wild places is their true value. The living world, creation and generation, is more than a bundle of ecosystem services, a tap and a sink for human activity. That way of thinking won’t save the wild; it is bound to open the door to the very forces that have already destroyed so much of it.
Let’s not lose sight of the larger point: if you take the long view, looking forward into the future and out across the horizon, protecting the land and water in this region actually looks like a more attractive investment than extracting all the ore from the ground.
That makes the capture of government by mining and extractive industry — from Marquette County to the state and federal levels — all the more troubling and deplorable. It directs investment and development down these risky and unsustainable paths, where short-term interests of multinational corporate actors are paramount and enjoy the full protection of law. The coercive power of the state, which ought to place constraints on corporate actors, is used mainly to benefit them. When things go south, society ends up bearing the cost.
This grassroots effort challenges that whole topsy-turvy arrangement. We have to continue to challenge it, at every opportunity, in every forum, recognizing that the results we’re looking for probably aren’t going to come on a quarterly basis or anytime soon. We have to lengthen our horizons.
At the same time, we have to re-open the conversation about how we are going to organize ourselves in this place, so that what remains of the wild UP can flourish and the people living here can thrive.
It’s imperative, too, that Save the Wild UP stay connected with other groups around the lake facing similar challenges. To take just one example: Kathleen’s recent Op Ed in the Star Tribune about Governor Dayton’s visit to the Eagle Mine. That made a difference to people in Minnesota: it was widely shared and talked about. People connected with it.
I have to believe that there’s power even in these little connections — and in conversation, cooperation and community. There is power where we come together, when we are no longer strangers and no longer estranged from each other. There would be power in an international congress where people from all around Lake Superior gathered to talk about responsible development. This isn’t the power the mining companies and the state can wield; it’s another kind of power, coordinated, collective, non-coercive, one we as a society have not done enough to realize.
We’re going to need that power to meet this current set of challenges.
Now you may have noticed that I keep using the word “we,” and I’m conscious that by including myself here I might be overstepping and intruding. But maybe that’s why I keep coming back to the UP: deep down, I know this is not a faraway or a strange place but a familiar place, where I have a stake in things — where we all have a stake.
The “wild UP” that we are organized to save is not just wilderness, waterfalls, wolves and warblers. It is the stage of humanity’s tragic predicament. It marks a boundary that we cross at our great peril. It can be a vital source of economic and social renewal.
Ultimately, saving the wild UP is about realizing the power and political authority we all have, everyone in this room, people across the UP and around the lake, to govern ourselves and make decisions about the future we want. What do we see on the horizon? What do we want for our children, grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and so on down the line? What do future generations require of us? What do we owe them?
That’s a conversation we need to keep having. And that’s why this organization deserves all the support we can give it, because Save the Wild UP connects us and shows us that we can be both powerful and responsible at the same time.
Thanks for listening so patiently, and thanks again for inviting me to the Gala.
delivered 5 December 2015