Lawrence Solomon: Nature needs a hand

(June 18, 2015) The tar sands sites will leave a lasting man-made legacy that will be more enjoyed by humans than the sullied lands they found.

A pine forest in the barren volcanic landscape surrounding the volcano Teide on Tenerife, Canary Islands

Lawrence Solomon: Nature produces scenery that — by most aesthetics — is sometimes spectacular, sometimes sad. Credit: Fotolia.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, was first published by the National Post

Nature can make a mess of things. Before we — or the Pope — attribute Nature with infallibility, we should accept it for what it is, warts and all. And before we paint man as the culprit in some morality play — guilty of having “slapped nature in the face,” in the Pope’s words — we should accept man, too, for what he mostly is: a force for good, that often improves on the lot Nature has left for him.

Let’s stipulate that Nature is capable of awesome beauty and majesty, and has given us indescribably precious flora and fauna. And let’s remember that 99 per cent of all the species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct, virtually none of them by the hand of man. Before Nature’s mass extinction that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, Nature’s Triassic mass extinction of 200 million years ago wiped out three quarters of all species.

But that was nothing compared to the Great Dying of 250 million years ago that wiped 97 per cent of all species off the face of the Earth. Wag your finger at us humans for potentially endangering the snail darter — that’s fair. But a little context would also be fair, not least because, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision, we humans decided to save the snail darter. During the Great Dying, Nature didn’t give any of Earth’s countless, now-lost species their day in court.

Nature produces scenery that — by most aesthetics — is sometimes spectacular, sometimes sad. Sometimes the two reside in proximity to each other. Early explorers who reached Alberta marveled at the Rockies, one of the planet’s most magnificent creations. Early Alberta explorers also saw marvels of another, less beauteous kind.

In 1788, the first European to describe the Athabasca’s tar sands, fur trader Peter Pond, described “bituminous fountains into which a pole of 20 feet long may be inserted without the least resistance …. In its heated state it emits a smell like that of sea coal.” Wrote Agnes Deans Cameron in her Journeys through Unknown Canada: “An earth-movement here has created a line of fault clearly visible for 70 or 80 miles along the river-bank, out of which oil oozes at frequent intervals,” adding “Tar there is … in plenty…. It oozes from every fissure.”

Though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and some purists somewhere doubtless cherish the aesthetics of a never-ending ooze and the gooey soil that elsewhere abounds in the Athabasca, many others would prefer a cleaner Athabasca river and a less carbonized tar sands region. Nature would in time — perhaps millions of years — accomplish a clean-up by slowly emptying the tar into waterways. Humans are speeding up the clean-up process, courtesy of the multinationals extracting the bitumen from the soil. By law, they are required to rehabilitate the land when they’re done, leaving no sign behind of any industrial activity.

The first fruits of these efforts can be seen at Gateway Hill, Syncrude’s 104-acre reclaimed site, now a tourist attraction complete with hiking and biking trails, wetlands, and an interpretive centre. Over time — human time, not geologic time — all the tar sands sites will be reclaimed, leaving a lasting man-made legacy that will be more enjoyed by humans than the sullied, if virgin, lands they found. The reclamation will have been financed by the extraction of the oil — as little as $2 per barrel of the amount the oil companies fetch for their oil finances the improvement to the land. A better example of sustainable development would be hard to find.

Those who worship Nature, as if it can’t be improved upon and mustn’t change, ignore the fact that Nature always changes and not always in ways that humans might desire, as attested to by the mass extinctions of millions of years ago, the ice ages tens of thousands of years ago, the Little Ice Age hundreds of years ago, and the tsunamis, droughts, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and hurricanes throughout. They also ignore the fact that humans are part of Nature, doing much good and little harm, and certainly slapping Nature far less than vice versa.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe. Email:

The original version of this article is available here at the publisher’s website

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