Natural Resources: A Minority Report

I want here to explore the proposition that certain things that the people of our culture have identified as “resources,” put here for human use, are no such thing. What we call “renewable resources” are gifts of Nature, and their use is permitted to humans, as long as they are in fact renewed. The forests of the British Isles and of Europe have been cut down for human use, but not renewed. When a renewable resource is used in this way, it is mining the resource for one-time use, and, I would say, is in violation of an ancient human compact with Nature– the ultimate source of our lives. It is allowable to live off the interest of Earth’s solar budget and to partake of Nature’s emergent abundance. It is not permissible to live off the principal; that constitutes mining, and is theft.

According to the ancient worldview which preceded the culture of civilization, taking another creature’s life is allowed only under specified conditions, including the asking of permission, and the giving of thanks, through prescribed ritual activity. And, as with all ritual, it is most meaningful when sincerely felt. Respect and reverence for all life forms is appropriate and should arise naturally out of the recognition that all life is sacred. Accordingly, when a life is taken for human sustenance, nothing should be wasted. Waste shows disrespect. These simple principles have been practiced by humans for tens of thousands of years, and, for the most part, those humans did not degrade or diminish their world—which they recognized was not theirs alone. Living in this way honored the compact between Nature and the human, and might have continued indefinitely on just these same terms, in a way of life we would now call “sustainable.” Living within the planetary solar budget was inherently durable because it was in balance with the whole.

In addition to renewable resources, the people of our culture have identified another part of the living planet to be used by humans, which they call “non-renewable resources.” These include fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas; metals such as iron, copper, nickel, silver, and gold; various other elements, including the rare earths, and any number of miscellaneous compounds. All of these are integral to the Earth, are under the Earth’s skin, and can be accessed only by ripping into the Earth itself. Inevitably, it is a violent process, whether accomplished directly by humans using sharp prying tools, or giant machines that gouge out the Earth, tons of flesh at a time. Few, if any, of these non-renewables come to the surface in pure form. They come with a lot of the rest of the Earth, referred to as “overburden,” which is treated as waste. In the case of mountaintop removal, everything that is not coal is bulldozed toward lower ground, including into creeks and rivers. Much of what is brought up to the surface of the Earth, along with the sought-after treasure, is toxic to life. As long as it was buried, its life- and health-threatening properties were no problem. But, once above-ground these poisonous and/or greenhouse gasses are released into the biosphere to work their ongoing harm.

Metals, such as gold, require highly poisonous chemicals, like mercury and cyanide, in the mining and refining process. Where do these chemicals end up? In the biosphere, of course, and in the bodies of animals and humans, even decades and centuries after mining operations have shut down. To this day, the Rocky Mountains retain the toxic legacy of its mining history, with no relief in sight. The hydraulic fracturing process introduces a dangerous brew of chemicals (including benzene) into underground aquifers, even as this risky process releases methane (a highly potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. The Gulf Oil Spill is a reminder of how environmentally devastating deepwater oil extraction can be, while the Alberta tar sands continue to expand the sacrifice zone of that dirty, corrosive project. In the world of mining, a few people get filthy rich, the consumer gets a certain amount “stuff’ of some kind, and everybody else gets the toxic legacy, while the tissue of the Earth itself is ravaged and left for dead.

All of this, by itself, should tell us we are doing something wrong. As a practical matter, simply in terms of costs and benefits, this equation does not add up. The epidemic of cancer and other diseases coincides with a witch’s brew of chemicals we are all exposed to through our chemical agriculture and our deepening reliance on pharmaceuticals just to live “normally.” Meanwhile, industrial processes release a plethora of dangerous chemicals into our air and water, nasty things like PCBs and dioxins. All but a very few of these compounds come from under the skin of the Earth, and what seems obvious to me is that they should be left there–based simply on cost-benefit calculations which look beyond quarterly profits for the few to the long-term welfare of the whole.

Then, too, it may be that the subterranean zones of Earth constitute their own kinds of ecosystems, whose functions we have not begun to understand. Just for an instance, the iron that is in the Earth may function in important ways in terms of Earth’s electro-magnetic field, affecting the stability of Earth’s orbit. The point is, we do not understand the implications of everything we are doing. A cost-benefit analysis, even leaving out such mysteries as these, suggests the costs far outweigh the benefits—and this is based strictly on practical, materialistic considerations, leaving out any possible spiritual components to the equation.

But what if the Earth is sacred? What if all Life is sacred? What if the Mayan spiritual perspective, as presented by Martin Prechtel, is a more profound understanding of our Universe, our world, and our place in it, than our own? What if, as he suggests, taking “resources” out of the hide of the Earth creates a “hollowness that’s been carved out of the universe” that can only be made right by ritual sacrifice, to reciprocate for what has been taken? What if it’s true that: “The universe is in a state of starvation and emotional grief because it has not been given what it needs in the form of ritual food and actual physical gifts. We think we’re getting away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all leads to violence.” What if he and the Mayans are right and we are wrong?

What if all that is under the Earth’s skin belongs to the Earth, and not to us at all—and that taking what we mine from the Earth is indeed theft? That it is culturally sanctioned theft does not make it anything other than theft, it just means we have given ourselves permission to be thieves, and sanction the plunder of the Earth. We have been at this plunder for a few thousand years now, but only in the last few hundred have we gone about the job systematically. And where has that left us now in 2014? All of the ‘easier’ resources to get at have already been mined, and what is left is generally of lower quality and harder to get at. All these “resources” are on the down side of depletion. The availability of oil is likely past its peak. All the non-renewable resources we’ve come to depend upon are in decline, and it looks as though we are willing to fight with other humans for what remains. (See Michael T Klare: The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources.)

This is violence begetting violence, in a self-amplifying positive feedback loop. “We think we are getting away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all leads to violence. The Greek oracle at Delphi saw this a long time ago and said, ‘Woe to humans, the invention of steel.’” As I see it, all the violence and disorder of our own time is the price we are paying for breaking our compact and bond with Nature. If we had stuck to that bargain, and lived only on the interest of Nature’s abundance (living in the Gift), and not helped ourselves to the principal (living in the Theft), we and the world would still be thriving in a state of ever-renewing balance.

If we are to ever reach that balance again, it will be by going back to the simplicity and honesty of living in the Gift.

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