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May 25, 2009

Dear People,

Two things this month--a visit to the Tar Sands in Alberta, and new stories from Russian colleagues about ongoing effects of Chernobyl--stoke my impatience with current debates on energy. I'm sick of strategies that don't center on efficiency and lifestyle changes. I want to puncture the delusion that nuclear power or fossil fuels have a place in our plans for a decent, sustainable world.

I first heard about the Tar Sands from Clayton Thomas-Muller, a young campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network, when he spoke at Bioneers in 2006. His words and pictures so riveted my attention that when an invitation came the next year to a conference on Ecology and the Helping Professions at the University of Calgary, I accepted with the idea of going on from there to see for myself what he had described. My plans for Alberta in May 2009 soon included talks and workshops in Edmonton and Banff, and the company of my Canadian-born friend Jennifer Berezan to enrich the events with her fabulous singing. Jennifer and I used our honoraria for the Edmonton event to fly, with my assistant Anne, North to the Tar Sands.

Upon landing at Fort McMurray, an overgrown frontier town now nicknamed Fort McMoney, we hired a little 5-seater plane. For an hour and a half we flew low over a landscape from hell. I'd seen photos of it (some good ones in an article aptly named "Scraping Bottom" in the March '09 issue of the National Geographic:, but I wanted to bear witness with my own eyes.

Click for large image Click for large image
Here, under the boreal forest that stretches across northern Canada, lie vast deposits of bitumen--an almost rock-hard tar mixed with sand, clay and heavy minerals. It is now being separated, extracted and up-graded to synthetic crude oil at a rate of some 3 million barrels a day, and almost two thirds must go to the U.S. (A clause in the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA forces Canada to continue delivering to the U.S.60% of its crude from the Tar Sands, regardless of any changes Canada may want to make to protect its land and people.) Ranked as the world's largest oil deposit after Saudi Arabia (bigger than Iran or Russia) and the site of the world's largest construction project, it covers an area the size of Florida, and virtually every oil company around the world has staked a claim.

Once aloft we looked down into black open-pit mines gouged by machines three- and four-stories high, and smoking chimneys of "up-graders," the vast tailing ponds to hold the poisoned effluent, and crisscrossing the farther forests and fens, sandy roads to new bore holes for the deeper stuff. Every barrel of oil takes three barrels of water to produce and four tons of earth must be moved. Thanks in part to the enormous amounts of natural gas to power it all, the emission of greenhouse gases is three times higher per barrel than with conventional oil. 80% of the bitumen lies too deep for strip-mining, so steam is piped down with solvents to melt and retrieve it--and those lethal waters too flow into the expanding ponds. The petroleum companies prefer to use the name "Oil Sands;" it gives the impression of something more plausible economically.

It was good to meet over lunch with a young organizer from Fort McMurray First Nation. 25-year old Gitz Derange has reclaimed some of his people's ancestral knowledge, thanks to the Ghost River Rediscovery Program, and devotes himself to motivating local native youth to retrieve their lives from the widespread drugs, alcohol, and prostitution that Tar Sands development has brought in its wake.

The next day Gitz drove us out along the once-great Athabasca river where it flows North between refineries, strip mines, and ever-spreading tailing ponds behind their low earthen berms. Toxic leaks are assumed to be frequent and unavoidable. We learned that the native communities down-river like Fort Chipewyan, which depend on fishing and hunting, are sickened now by blood, colon, bile-duct and liver cancers.

Out on the tailing ponds, which no migratory bird can touch and survive, we spied occasional "scare-crows," little metal cut-outs on floating buoys. Once, as we stopped and listened, we heard the dull thudding of cannon fired now and again from a mist-shrouded shore. These feeble-seeming efforts to scare away birds were mounted after public outcry over the media-report of 1600 ducks that perished after landing on a pond.

Edmonton journalist Chris Standring began an article about my work by suggesting how it helps us identify with other life forms:

"Imagine yourself as a duck drawn to a tailings pond deep in Alberta's oil country. From the air the pond looks cool and refreshing, a perfect respite for weary muscles.
"But wait, something is wrong. Now, as the chemical sludge coats your feathers and pulls you exhausted to an ugly, unimaginable death, be open to the terror and rage."

Since extravagant amounts of energy are needed to turn bitumen into synthetic crude oil, and since natural gas supplies are declining, Alberta is turning to nukes for the job. Bruce Power Alberta has announced plans for four reactors to produce 4000 megawatts of electricity, and other nuclear power stations are foreseen. Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk writes in his book Tar Sands: "The pursuit of bitumen in sand or rock seems indelibly linked to the proliferation of nuclear energy in Canada, a costly chain reaction that will radiate more problems than solutions." He points out that Canada is becoming the "the first nation to use nuclear energy not to retire fossil fuels but to accelerate their exploitation."

Given what we've learned about the long-term damage that their radioactive emissions, leaks, and accidents cause to organic life, the prospect of building more nuclear reactors turns the stomach. The unconscionable risks involved strike me with particular force right now because of recent news from colleagues working in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster that began in April 1986.

Viola, founded by biology professor Ludmila Zhirina with Igor Prokofyev, is the name of the spunky environmental nonprofit in Bryansk, Russia, which has been helping the people of Novozybkov and other heavily irradiated towns and villages nearby cope with consequences of Chernobyl. Through donations derived mainly through sharing the Elm Dance, we have helped them to:

  • Publish their Russian-language book, Living with Radiation.
  • Purchase handheld radiation monitors for distribution to families, school teachers, and farmers, along with workshops in how to use them.
  • Produce educational materials and medical teach-ins on urgent nutritional needs arising from soils impoverished by radiation.

In February and March of this year Viola's attention was drawn to the reproductive challenges now encountered by young families, including persons who were not even born when Chernobyl blew. Aided by volunteers from families that had received radiation monitors, the staff undertook statistical research in Novozybkov on health of men and women between the ages of 18 and 28. With permission of authorities, they analyzed the medical records of those who had sought help from doctors in 2008 and 2009; and personally interviewed 3000 young men. The results they gleaned showed that 69% of young men and about 72% of young women suffer reproductive problems, ranging from infertility to miscarriages and other difficulties in maintaining pregnancy.Click for larger image

Entitled "My most big dream" and drawn by a young woman who has been told by doctors that she will have difficulty conceiving because of uterine cysts. This drawing is used by Viola in its outreach programs.

In order for these problems to receive treatment, the doctors insist they must be addressed earlier in life: between the ages of 12 and 17, and with annual examinations. In helping her son, now a university student in Moscow, deal with this challenge, Ludmila learned that "varicocele" is diagnosed and, since there seems to be at the moment no functional governmental program, corrective surgery costs nearly $1000 (more in Moscow).

Knowing that $1000 is simply too much for most families in the irradiated zone, Viola is developing a project to make some twenty visits to towns and villages to meet teenagers and their parents. Each team will include Viola members plus a doctor of gynecology and urology, a psychologist, and a lawyer. Viola will assess local hospitals' capacity and willingness to provide treatment, and inform parents about the steps they can take. Ludmila believes there are laws in Russia that can be activated to cover this, and that officials and doctors can stop pretending that such laws do not exist.

Meanwhile, Ludmila writes, "we will continue to buy dosimeters (radiation monitors) and to give them to young families that cannot have children. Young men will start to check all foodstuff and will cease to eat those with high levels of radiation. Probably this step will help them to clear their organism and in 2-3 yeas to become parents."

I remind you that all gifts for Viola's work are tax-deductible when made through Living
Earth Gatherings in Portland.

As with the Tar Sands, the obscene suffering caused by nuclear power forces me to look at how ready we are to devastate the natural world, and the prospects for future generations, rather than change our habits of consumption and appetite for profit.

In Novozybkov and environs, Earth Day (April 22) and Chernobyl Day (April 26) were celebrated together this year. Many on hand have memories of Fran from his visits to the schools and families with the monitors we helped Viola provide. Now that he has died, they want to preserve these memories. So in Fran's honor, around the schools and churches in the more irradiated areas, Viola organized the planting of a hundred young oaks and a hundred weeping mountain ash trees; and photos of his visits were placed on stands. And for the observances in schoolrooms they created a banner reminiscent Gregoire's design for the program of Fran's funeral. As you can see, the banner features his three totems, including the Russian bear and the bald eagle he is most remembered for in Soviets of All Beings.

FLASH! To support Viola and stay in regular touch with its poignant, priceless, and promising work in and around Novozybkov, more time is needed that I can provide now. Is there a group of folks out there who would like to take this on with me? Perhaps a cluster of people within a church, school or eco-action organization, and who may feel connected to Novozybkov through the Elm Dance. I have the idea of going over next year, and one or two of your group might come with me.

FLASH! Ready to get up-close and personal with climate change? Veteran ecopsychologists and workshop facilitators in New England have created a brilliant seven-session workbook providing understanding, community, and empowerment for climate action. EARTH CIRCLES is ready for public offering: After a test run last year, it is a persuasive, sophisticated, and easy-to-use application of the Work That Reconnects.

FLASH Sri Lanka! The tragic "end" to the civil war in Sri Lanka is so brutal it promises more years of suffering, as resentments and revenge will continue to splinter this island republic. Yet Tamils and Singhalese once worked peacefully and productively together, adding variety and color to each others' lives. Remembering this is essential to our hope for the future. This hope is fed by a marvelous novel by Sri Lankan writer Rohini (Earthworm Books, 2004, Chennai, India). Playing Lions and Tigers interweaves an assortment of vivid and appealing characters from different religious and ethnic communities, who embody values of compassion and equality despite political changes that gradually darken their future.

Love, Joanna