The earth’s resources are not unlimited
By S. Tom Bond
All we eat, much of what we wear, much of our buildings, and much of our quality recreation depends on the biological world. In the biological world, energy is supplied by sunlight, and materials are recycled over and over. What dies and decays is recycled by microorganisms and used by the next, over and over. We don’t find dead, undecayed dinosaurs.
The same is true of humans, at least until lately. An early Western explorer observed that when you got to a Native American village you might think, “Here is the dump, where is the village?” But in the Stone Age, the volume of trash consisting of animal and plant remains would disappear in a decade or so and go back to the earth. About the only remains from the Stone Age are arrowheads, scrapers, a few trinkets, and, in protected locations, things that haven’t decayed yet.
When the proto-industrial age began, a new system became the rule: extract a mineral, process it into something useful, use it, and discard the remains. No decay! The extraction stage took something out of the earth, destroying what lay over it and around it. The processing stage required energy, at first supplied by wood and charcoal, but when the industrial age began in earnest about two hundred years ago, fossil fuel use began to operate much like extraction of raw materials, destroying the biological world around where it takes place. The final step is to discard the used products, which don’t decay.
The consequences of this last step are very significant. Solid waste is everywhere. I pick it up out of my meadow where it is thrown by passersby. Little dumps used to be up every hollow, (the remains are quite common through the countryside) but now trash is hauled to a few central locations where it is carefully contained between layers of earth and plastic to extend its life. Much is dumped in the ocean, making great deserts on the bottom in some places. The ocean has many places where it is full of plastic – hundreds of pieces per cup of seawater, down to microscopic bits, that sea creatures eat and which kill them.
Soluble and suspended industrial byproducts enter water and are carried away to enter municipal water intakes and poison creatures that live in and near the streams. Even fish that live deep in the ocean are being affected by chemicals used for medicines, cosmetics, solvents, plasticizers and other compounds that microorganisms do not degrade. Geologists have given a name to the new layer we humans are forming on the earth, which will be quite conspicuous to researchers in the future – the Anthropocene.
When the first copper, bronze and iron were made, the earth’s population was relatively small and the human “footprint” was also small. As the population grew, industrial waste became more abundant. The Romans, 2,000 years ago, found some areas contaminated and degraded, but added considerable more to it. The lead from the Romans is more conspicuous in the geological record than anything until the Spanish began to smelt silver in the 1600s in Peru. The Romans used lead for pipes for water and lined their cooking pots with it; those rich enough to afford these luxuries poisoned themselves, slowly and unknowingly.
Today, the problem is that the new cycle that sustains huge and growing populations is weak at every point. There are limits to what can be extracted. The term “extractivism” has been defined to describe the belief that this new, non-biological paradigm can go on forever without breaking down. It is popular with corporations, some economists and some others. In religion it takes the form of belief it is God’s intention for man to dominate the earth. The opposite view is that man is a caretaker of the earth that God made “and found good.”
Naomi Kline expresses it this way, “Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue.”
In addition to depletion and pollution, extractivism can be blamed for colonialism and war, as western nations determined that outsides have as much right to a nation’s resources as to that nation’s citizens. The other consequence of extractivism is climate change. Despite clear scientific evidence of it, politicians funded by the fossil fuel industry continue to deny its existence. As a result, we end up with policies formulated in the halls of Congress that essentially ignore the consequence of imperialism and global warming.
The resources of the earth are not limitless. Capitalism can work in a climate of cooperation and consideration of the needs of others. It doesn’t have to be dog-eat-dog process based in the politics of elimination that serves only the top dogs.
Tom Bond is a retired chemistry professor and a farmer in Lewis County, W.Va.
© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.
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