environmental essay

21st Century Greenland Mining: Self Reliance Meets Reality TV

Americans, for all their environmental and ecological instincts and preservationist dreams, still posses a remarkable capacity for ruthless plunder in the name of self sufficiency and personal determination.

The ideals of toil and earning a place at the banquet table of prosperity is a deeply American trait, nurtured often at the expense of the environment.

Yet in Greenland the idea of broadening mining and drilling divides the country as the nation wrestles with competing ideas of economic self sufficiency versus environmental harmony. A motivating piece to this debate comes from Greenland’s continuing dependence on economic assistance from Denmark.

Curiously, we Americans have a perspective on this foreign discussion and its formed by “reality” television. In recent years a program called “Ice Cold Gold” has broadcast the adventures of a group of American prospectors working their way across Greenland in search of fortunes.

This curious idea of self determination by drill, pick ax or shovel is what led to the plunder of many of America’s natural resources since our earliest days as colonies. New England forests were coveted and cleared to become masts of English ships. Gold was hacked and flushed from California by the ton. Some look back on the old process of exploiting the lands of North America by drilling, digging and cutting with soul quivering shame. While others believe the earth is ours to command and cull in order for our survival and prosperity. To get the latest and greatest cell phone, rare earth metals are needed and some believe they rest beneath Greenland. While others, like the Ice Cold Gold team see Greenland as a new mineral rich Colorado of the past and do not shy away from controversial opinions. Greenland remains unexploited with mineral and gem resources potentially available to feed the world’s insatiable hunger for things shiny and precious.

Meanwhile as some of America brings its brash and abrasive energy to Greenland, there is a third group looking at mining as nowhere near an economic panacea. Comprised of specialists from within Greenland’s mining community, a committee was assembled and determined that small scale, limited time frame resource explorations would help shore up Greeland’s economic base. However, according to a report, resource mining would not provide a long term independence from Denmark’s financial aid.

So as Greenland struggles to find an economically viable and independent future, modern American prospectors dig away under the glare of camera lights in search of fortune and fame.

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Cli-Fi: Eco-Disasters and Electric Sheep

Last month I wrote about eco-disaster as a form of entertainment and its lack of spirituality. While conducting some research I came upon a news story from the University of Copenhagen of a thesis defense that argued environmental disaster fiction prepare us or inform our imaginations on potential climate change disasters.

Gregers Andersen PhD, using the term ‘Cli-Fi’ (coined by climate activist Danny Bloom) for the genre, is quoted in the university news piece, “We use these films and novels to imagine what life and society might be like in a future when global warming has dramatically changed our world because, as opposed to numbers and statistics, fiction can make us feel and understand the changes.”

Andersen importantly diversified the spectrum of experiences created by the Cli-Fi he studied breaking them down into five themes: social breakdown of civilization, nature judges man, establishment conspiracy, loss of nature’s aesthetics and mankind developing technology to survive disasters.

Also, Andersen hit on something with fiction adding punch to our understanding potential ecological disasters. Only when rendered in print or pixels does disastrous consequence come to life, even if briefly.

An example of fiction’s power to portray ecological themes is a scene from 1968’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In Phillip K. Dick’s novel the extinction level of animal life is vividly portrayed by the character of Rick Deckard encountering a wildlife menagerie collected at astronomical costs.

In the scene, Deckard is transfixed by an owl, long time symbol of wisdom and mystery, “For a long time he stood gazing at the owl, who dozed on its perch. A thousand thoughts came into his mind, thoughts about the war, about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the papers had reported it each day- foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits.”

Deckard longs for a real owl and sees a raccoon for the first time. He understands a clearing house has been created for the sale of once mundane now exotic animals and loathes the synthetic sheep which he cares for, “the tyranny of an object,” as Dick wrote. The sharp loss of something like a raccoon seems insignificant considering they are often nuisance animals to suburbanites. They are pest dumpster divers to be trapped or poisoned. Yet remove them from the picture entirely, as Dick does, and the raccoon becomes as precious and invaluable.

Perhaps our every day lives keep us preoccupied or blind to the news of climate change, disasters or extinctions. Or perhaps we retain an pre-Copernican view, where we are the center of the universe, the Earth merely a vehicle for our corporeal form to bide time until an after life? Potential disasters are as inexplicable or mysterious as the minute tweaks and changes of Darwin’s Evolution. And no fiction or scientific lecture will change minds.

The complete press release on Andersen’s thesis defense can be read here.

Asymmetric History: Drowning Culture

In the rush to preserve river valley flora and fauna ahead hydroelectric dam construction mankind’s cultural impact is often ignored and often lost. Here is an excerpt of a paper I wrote on Drowning Culture.


Modern protests against nature altering construction projects- in particular river halting dams- generally center on the defense of a geographical feature, saving a species of flora and fauna, or guarding the river itself. Historically, dam opponents and dam builders have overlooked or completely ignored a vital aspect of the landscape: mankind’s cultural artifacts, settlements and cemeteries clinging to river valleys around the world.

Traditionally, the dam construction debate rallies defenders of plants, animals or natural features. Rarely, if ever, has cultural heritage been weighed in these heated debates. The roots of this historically significant problem are entangled in the nature of human exploration. Whether cutting timber or damming a river to create a hydro-electric plant, developers often define the natural world as virgin or unspoiled by mankind. As we see time and again, in North America and around the world, mankind is a proxy term for civilized peoples, ones with technology and determination to shape the future. The very language of progress ignores or devalues the cultures of native or indigenous peoples that lived and thrived in the lands coveted for development.

Mankind’s culture is tied to river valleys even though it may not be obvious to all, according to a report from the World Commission on Dams. An international effort to study and assess the economic, environmental and social effects of dam building, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) possess a unique authority on the controversial subject. Without hesitation the report authors state that large dams, in particular, “have had significant adverse effects on this heritage through the loss of local cultural resources… and the submergence and degradation of archaeological resources”. It is incongruous that the dam is also considered by the WCD to be “our oldest tool” in controlling water, while also drowning ancient cultural artifacts. The detritus of earlier civilizations can take many forms from structures, tools, butchered animal remains and burial sites. The evidence of cultures lost to dams litter history, as the WCD authors explain, ” In most cases no measures have been taken to minimize or mitigate the loss of cultural and archaeological resources”.

In the case of Washington state’s Grand Coulee Dam, Native American burial sites submerged by the dam were relocated by the tribes, but only after waters receded enough to expose the burial grounds. Most famously when the site of the Egypt’s Aswan Dam was selected, the entire Abu Simbel temple complex was carved up and moved to higher ground, in order to prevent its loss. When planning for the large Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, Chinese developers chose to submerge  nearby ancient carvings and building an underwater museum, instead of proactively preserving the site.

Viewing the river valley as a natural place outside the culture of man, a place of detached admiration, implies mankind does not belong there and therefore should not long for a connection to it. Scott Russell Sanders captures man’s connection to place, and its importance, in his work After the Flood, “A footloose people, we find it difficult to honor the lifelong, bone-deep attachment to place. We are slow to acknowledge the pain in yearning for one’s native ground, the deep anguish in not being able, ever, to return” . By constructing a dam, building a housing development of cutting a countryside to lay a highway, we permanently sever our connection to our collective past. The language and act of building in the wilderness becomes an act of redefining history, ignoring a richer collective history in favor of writing a new one. Techniques to protect cultural heritage sites are at hand, according to WCD recommendations, but still very much ignored. Not every valley shelters irreplaceable cultural heritage, but we will never know unless we slow down, acknowledge the entire spectrum of potential loss, whether natural or manmade. Like Sanders, perhaps we should slow our pace, look past the winding river, its fertile shores and through its dense verdant vegetation in order to find those arrowheads. To see and save our collective past.


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