One of the themes that is covered in Klein’s This Changes Everything is that in our world of interconnectedness, globalization, oil dominance, extractive industries, and path dependent non-renewable energy, there is no ‘away’ from this system. In the far corners of the globe, the places thought most remote and pristine, communities find themselves on the front lines against the destructive practices of extractive industries – whether is be oil in the Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Venezuelan, or Brazilian Amazon; fracking and oil lines that First Nations and Native American communities in British Columbia, North Dakota, and across the Americas are confronting; Tar Sands ecocide destruction faced by the First Peoples of Alberta; Uranium mining in Niger; risky Cobalt mining in the Congo; the list goes on and on.
But what really strikes home for me, considering this theme of ‘there is no away,’ are my own experiences and how the places I’ve lived, where I thought I was away ended up being not so far away from these destructive processes, too.
When I lived in Gao, Mali during my time in the Peace Corps (2005-07) I thought about how nice it would be to stay there in my little mud house on the Niger River indefinitely; I loved the community and I loved my simple life in the desert, my garden, my neighbors, my work with the Tuareg and Songhai artisans. I felt right at home, and that I couldn’t be further from most things on the planet.
Yet, this region was upended and taken over by chaos and brutal rebel warfare. Media sources say it was religious fundamentalism, but look a little deeper and you can see that the Sahara is full of untapped oil and Uranium and other minerals. This was the heart of the issue. There is no away.
I spent a year teaching English in Japan after my time in Mali. I lived in a village in the mountains in what was known as the home of the last Samurai. A very remote, pristine, traditional, rice growing hamlet of Japan. Yet, this region was also taken over by crises of our modern path-dependent energy systems, this time by nuclear. I lived in the mountains of Fukushima, and after the quake and nuclear meltdown, this region has struggled to regain farming livelihoods. People who thought they were living simple lives compared to the chaos of Tokyo realized, There is no away. Encouragingly though, some have switched to green energy solutions like solar, to find something positive to make out of tragedy.
Another year of my life was spent working on reef and rainforest education for a nonprofit in Trinidad and Tobago. The reefs there are some of the most diverse and abundant in all of the Caribbean. The government is well aware that they depend on the natural resources as a draw for tourism (that is why they wanted help with education and research). Yet, Trinidad is the largest oil producer in all of the Caribbean. To both want to protect the reef and rainforest, yet to continue oil extraction from platforms just offshore is a ticking time-bomb for a disaster that would effect the livelihoods of everyone on the island. It may be island paradise, but there is still no away.
I went back and spent another year in West Africa, this time in Guinea. Guinea is a beautiful country, lush with some of the best agriculture soil in West Africa; a dense forest region; mountains that are even cool enough to grow strawberries; and has the largest chimp population in West Africa. Aside from the capital, Conakry, most people live in villages and small towns. It definitely has the feel of ‘away.’ However, despite it being one of the poorest countries in the world, it has the world’s largest reserve of Bauxite – and the international mining company presence to match. I was shocked to see how mining companies could just get permits to put train tracks right through forests that chimps and local villages depend on. None of this wealth was going to the people of Guinea. No one in the government seemed to think holistically about what could be done for the good of the environment and the people combined. The mining companies and government seem to follow the mantra: just extract what you can while you can. The majority of the population here live a very simple, substance lifestyle, yet for them with these extractive industries, they are placed in the center of world politics. There is no away.
It’s like that quintessential moment in the movie the God’s must be Crazy (1980), where the main bushman character is walking in the Kalahari and gets hit on the head by the Coke bottle that comes out of the sky – there is no away. The pathways of modern development have encroached upon all reaches of the globe. Whether you’ve opted for it or not, you could get hit on the head by falling trash; find toxic pollutants leaching into your groundwater; have radiation kill or taint your livestock and your fishing supply; and any other number of ills that are normally seen as ‘external costs’ of the forces of the modern economy. This is not a state of progress or development to be proud of.
I used to think that it would be nice to move as far away from civilization as I could. Start a farm. Live a self-sufficient lifestyle. Grow what I need, share the rest with the local community. Start something meaningful away from the detached type lifestyles of Western culture. But, as a curious, conscious, engaged citizen of world, I realize that the more I look, the more I see…there is no away. I could go to Mexico, Argentina, Nepal, Indonesia, Ghana, Namibia, Seychelles….but I can’t turn a blind eye. I have a feeling I am not alone either.
It is hard to deny what you have already seen, it is hard to forget what is troubling to your soul. There is a need to protect humanity and steward the environment so there are no more areas of sacrifice and away, and there is no more marginalization of communities to be sacrificed at the front zone of these destructive behaviors. We are all connected, and these social and environmental injustices, no matter where they happen, are an affront to our collective humanity. We can and must be stronger on these issues together.