|Photo from the 1870s of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer.|
source of image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bison_hunting
Drury and Clavin describe the rapid demise of the massive buffalo herds:
A solitary hunter equipped with an accurate large-bore Sharps rifle could fell up to 100 buffalo in a single stand, and this technology marked the beginning of a Plains-wide slaughter that within four decades would reduce an estimated 30 million animals to less than 1,000. It was the greatest mass destruction of warm-blooded animals in human history, far worse than what the world's whaling fleets had already accomplished, and, as Sitting Bull was to lament years later, "A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell. A death wind for my people."In 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad was completed across southern Wyoming, Northern Utah, and into the goldfields of Montana. The wide open West suddenly became even more accessible to buffalo hunters with those 50-caliber Sharps rifles who could kill thousands of buffalo in a short amount of time. The white hunters took only the fur and the tongues, leaving the huge carcasses to rot on the prairie. The U. S. government promoted this massive slaughter as a way to subjugate the Plains Indians, who depended on the bison for food and clothing, and to force them on reservations. The slaughter also made way for cattle ranching--with its own devastating impacts on the environment of the West.
It is difficult for me to read this history and not get depressed over our current grappling with massive environmental degradation: we seem to be systemically unable to curb or control our voracious appetite for destroying this planet. We dress up our dreadful maw in words we hope to disguise the rotting carcasses of our environmental rampage: "Manifest destiny," "civilizing the natives," "economic growth," "job opportunities," "regulation over-reach." We slaughtered the bison that once were so numerous a herd could thunder by for days; for our sins, we then put the image on our coins and in nostalgic paintings that represent a West we say we yearn for yet willfully destroyed.
The negative reactions to President Obama's climate deal with China underscore my worries that we will not be able to face successfully the greatest challenge of our time: global climate change caused largely by fossil fuel usage. Even as a supporter of this initiative and of other movements to curb carbon emissions, I can't completely subdue the doubts I have about our real commitment to mitigate the negative effects of the dangerous levels of carbon in the atmosphere. The article to which I have linked above in Mother Jones notes that the deal with China includes "[e]xpanding funding for clean energy technology research at the US-China Clean Energy Research Center, a think tank Obama created in 2009 with Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao." All of this sounds wonderful, but I am also reminded that during the Obama administration, hydraulic fracturing (or, fracking) has been touted as a "clean" fossil fuel. Another Mother Jones' article, "The Chevron Communiqués," explores how "[u]nder [then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's] leadership
the State Department worked closely with energy companies to spread fracking around the globe--part of a broader push to fight climate change, boost global energy supply, and undercut the power of adversaries such as Russia that use their energy resources as a cudgel.How "clean" fracking is, however, is very much open to debate, as research suggests the environmental consequences of this process, from an increase in earthquakes to well water contamination to methane leaks to the possible health hazards posed by the chemicals used in fracking. The fossil fuel industry's protective tendency to downplay any hazards makes many people all the more suspicious of those claims to "clean energy." In a public forum that I attended last night at Lakeshore High School in Mandeville, Louisiana, one person testifying for a local oil company unequivocally stated that contamination of St. Tammany Parish's drinking water by fracking was "absolutely" impossible. The industry's secrecy also raises suspicions. The U. S. State Department's first shale gas conference in August of 2010 included "delegates from 17 countries," other departmental agencies, and industry representatives--but the media was barred from attending. And the fact that U. S. oil companies are "snapping up natural gas leases in far-flung places" calls into question just what our government is promoting--good stewardship of the earth or the bottom line of industry giants such as Halliburton and Chevron, in their world-wide attempts to wring the last bit of profit from diminishing fossil fuels?
Government and industry fail to engender the trust and commitment needed to make real changes in energy use, and few people seem to understand the global impact of their energy choices. This short-sightedness was particularly brought home to me in a single event at the public forum in Mandeville, Louisiana, led by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources but requested by the town of Abita Springs and Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany. One of the representatives of Helis Oil and Gas Co., had just described all the extra efforts the company "promised" (but has not committed to legal contract) to ensure the safety of its fracking operation and asked what more could the company do. "Drill somewhere else!" a local citizen yelled. Many in the crowd shouted and clapped in agreement, waving "Don't Frack St. Tammany" signs. It was difficult not to be sympathetic--such is the pull of tribal allegiance--but at that moment my support wavered and disillusionment increased. If we are concerned only with our little patch of paradise, we've learned little about global environmental degradation. Will it take the last drops of fossil fuel, just as it did the few remaining bison of the millions that once roamed the American West, to teach us the folly of our rapacious plunder of the earth? Too bad the lesson doesn't seem to stick.
Science has proven that global warming is driven by fossil fuel usage, and we need a united front--citizens, industry, countries--to cut our carbon emissions to prevent massive changes to the planet as we know it--but we may be too late. We already may be standing on the bones of our failure to fulfill what must have been a fantasy of our stewardship of this planet.