I Was Only in Newfoundland, A History Boy, 07/08/2015

It turns out that my days wandering around bits of my home province with girlfriend Gillian were so busy I had no time to blog. Well, I don’t really mind that, because some level of vacationing should be allowable. I suspect that, as more social media jobs require continual monitoring, labour activism will include rights for time off work out of his provider’s wireless range. That way, she won’t be encouraged to respond to tweets or manage comment boards while on vacation.

We also visited Trinity on this trip, a town that has
embraced the tourism industry to such a degree that they've
become a replica of a Newfoundland fishing village.
I’ve been thinking about Newfoundland, and how growing up here affected some of my priorities in writing. Particularly, I’m thinking of my non-fiction, and what may have helped nudge me along to my work about environmentalism. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is about how to think ecologically, how to think about ourselves and what we are that will put environmental connections and causes instinctually at the top of our minds. 

When I was nine years old, the entire Grand Banks cod fishery was shut down. The reason was that cod stocks had fallen to levels that were near extinction. Small coastal communities all over the province who had relied on a robust commercial-level fishery for literally hundreds of years now had no industry or employment at all. 

Twelve per cent of the province’s labour force was out of work. These regions depended on direct government bailouts to corporate fish plant owners and individual fishers simply to give tens of thousands of people enough money to subsist. The economies of entire small towns collapsed as incomes plummeted and huge numbers of people simply didn’t have money to spend anymore.

The teachers, news reporters, and government of the province had to explain to nine-year-olds what was going on. I was taught a lot about the dangers of overfishing, and the disastrous scorched-earth harvesting of factory trawlers. But it was only when I got to university that I heard it described for what it was.

I grew up in the middle of an enormous ecological disaster.

I feel like ecological consciousness only really developed in my own generation in Newfoundland. Local fishers deeply understood their relationships with the fish stocks, how a resource population could shrink radically in relation to harvesting rates. They knew the cod stocks were in trouble long before the government or seafood companies acknowledged or cared.

But it was only in the 1990s that environmental regulations became a main priority of the government. A lot of lakes in Newfoundland near human settlements are polluted. St. John’s Harbour, despite its central location in Newfoundland’s largest city, had an enormous sewer pipe spewing toxic waste sitting in it for decades before cleanup was even suggested. The province’s forestry and paper mills produced a significant amount of pollution before the period of environmental laws began.

When we visited Cape Bonavista this week, they had professionally mounted displays on how lighthouses worked and the history of the fishing industry. Its display urging hikers and bout tour patrons not to litter or pollute the land or ocean was cut-out construction paper on bristol board, laid haphazardly against a wall.

It occurred to me this week that, in all the times throughout my education here that I was told about the tragedy of the Ocean Ranger oil platform sinking – the terrible storm, tidal waves, 84 workers lost – no one mentioned anything about whether or how much oil had spilled from its exploratory wells. 

Environmental failures in our epoch of disastrous climate change are rooted in how we think. Humans have trouble conceiving of aggregation: the large-scale impact of many ongoing small-scale actions. “What’s a little sludge dumping into this huge sea going to do?” can poison many kilometres of ocean and seafloor when enough thousands of people say it. 

Yes, I think it was exactly like this.
Humans are also short-term thinkers in cost-benefit analyses, the inability to understand the impact of long chains of causes. “My factories and coal plants may produce a lot of pollution, but we bring electricity and products to millions of people right now!” ignores that enough smoke billowing into the atmosphere is absorbed in ocean water, and the chemical reactions lower the oceans’ pH, as much of the world’s waters are too acidic for most plankton to survive. These interactions that lead to the collapse of entire marine ecosystems’ food webs and mass extinction are too complicated for us to grasp beyond the clear immediate benefits human industry provides.

My generation of people who grew up in Newfoundland are probably the first to develop a popular understanding of environmentalism, ecology, and humanity’s deep, complex integration with all the processes of Earth. It only took an ecological disaster.

Watching Captain Planet as a kid probably helped too.

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