There is no “away”

On Friday I joined hundreds of people, including a large contingent of Islanders, in Pictou where we expressed our concerns about a plan to pump effluent from Northern Pulp’s mill through a pipeline directly into the Northumberland Strait. The company’s own estimates predict that upwards of 70 million litres will be discharged every single day of the year. That’s a lot of waste water from a paper making process which produces some of the most dangerous chemicals known to mankind; carcinogens like furans and dioxins, and heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium. For over 50 years this water has been “treated” by flowing it through Boat Harbour – a lagoon near the mill, now profoundly contaminated – where much of the particulate matter in the effluent would settle out, and eventually the water was released into the strait, which locally has suffered severe environmental problems as a result.

As of 2020, Boat Harbour will no longer be allowed to be used (the clean-up cost estimated at over $130 million being largely if not entirely borne by taxpayers courtesy of prior agreements between Nova Scotia governments and the trans-national owners.) Hence the “solution” being offered to pump the waste directly into the strait – a proposal which, sadly, is being embraced enthusiastically by Nova Scotia’s current provincial government who doesn’t even think this initiative merits a full environmental assessment.

I could go on and on about the history of poor environmental management aided and abetted by a series of provincial governments in Nova Scotia, the deceit, the manipulation and the devil-may-care attitude of the various mill owners over the years, but quite literally, there have been books written about it. (Joan Baxter’s “The Mill: 50 years of pulp and protest.”)

What struck me most strongly in Pictou the other day was the depth and intensity of the concern expressed by local residents, fishers, First Nation representatives, business people and others who said with one loud and unified voice: “No pipe; no way.”

This story is a very local one, but it is a version of a tale that has played out all over the world. The extraordinary growth of humanity, both in population, and in terms of the size of our economy which we have developed to keep us fed, clothed, warm, mobile, entertained etc, etc, has expanded to cause things like massive deforestation, our oceans being emptied of fish and filled with plastics, and the very chemistry of our entire atmosphere being changed.

We have gone from being a relatively small and insignificant presence on a seemingly limitless planet, to a dominant species consuming resources and emitting wastes at blatantly unsustainable levels.

We sometimes talk about throwing our garbage “away”, as if there is some separate and unconnected place where we can mindlessly unload our waste. The truth is that there is no away. The Earth is one mind-blowingly complex and intimately connected singular whole.

Whether it is massive plastic islands floating in our oceans, carbon dioxide pollution in our atmosphere or paper mill wastewater in the Northumberland Strait, we need to re-evaluate what on Earth we’re doing, and to develop a whole new understanding of our relationship with this planet we call home. A place from which we all come and to which we shall all return, and from which every single thing in our economy is derived, and to where every bit of our waste gets flushed. As long as we can think it’s OK to use the Strait as Northern Pulp’s personal toilet, and the Earth as nothing more than a dumping ground for whatever waste we generate, we will continue to bump up against uncomfortable and inconvenient limits.

This issue has woken a lot of people up; people who now recognize that we need to live on this Earth as if we intend to stay for a while, and leave it in a habitable state for future generations.