America and Canada would do well to look at little closer at the history of their old owner Britain before they begin work on the pipelines and fracking this year. If they did, and managed to quell their greedy hearts enough to truly look at the stories, they would turn away from their plan and begin to find ways to be better humans.
The story of the British Empire isn’t a glorious one, it’s the story of how greed, need, and technology walk hand in hand. It also happens to be a story of how pine martens end up being homeless, moths have to change color, oh, and rather a lot of humans dies messily.
In short the British Empire, though impressive when you look on a map at the territories claimed, is nothing more than your common or garden tale of humans reduced to the things and ecological terrorism on a mammoth scale. As you strip off the cosy middle class experience of the rise of the British you find that there are an awful lot of bodies left lying around. The reason they were able to rise through the ranks so easily was because of one thing, steam. Clever men who tinkered and worked late into the night, all the time making steam their mistress allowed business men to find ways to prostitute her.
Where mills had once been powered by waterwheels they could now be powered by the new energy source. This meant that they could be built in more locations, could be bigger, could produce more stuff, and do it more quickly. All they needed was coal to heat the water and away they went.
In time this wonder power was harnessed in other ways. Getting the goods to market became a much simpler task and much more cost effective. No carters on bumpy roads to break your fine porcelain with a pothole. All you needed was to carve through God’s Own Country laying track and then use one of Mr Brunel’s nice new engines to get your plates and you to London double quick. With a bit of iron, a few lumps of coal, and some water you could become rich. The Empire’s Industrialists fully intended to, and didn’t mind if there was collateral damage.
That’s basically the story that I was told and encouraged to emulate when I was a kid in school. Clever men made the world better and we benefited from their endeavors (I can’t bring myself to insert the word “heroic” in front of “endeavor” these days but there you have it). England was able to produce more so it bought more resources, or went out and took them which was the more usual trick. But what matters kiddies is that she became Great. Hey they even use it in front of Britain so you get the message.
While all this greatness was going on other things were happening too. The steam engine became a tractor. Where whole families had made a living farming or working for the farmer they became redundant. The old hedges were ploughed up as larger and larger fields could be worked with the new machines. Wildlife lost their home and so did the humans. No longer needed there was a huge influx of people into the industrial towns. Where once they may have been poor but had the chance of poaching a pheasant they now had nothing except 10 people to a bed and the distinct chance of cholera, typhoid, or any number of industrial injuries. There was also a noticable lack of pheasants to poach.
So the industrialization of farming had little to do with the general good but rather allowed the farmer to make more money and save on the wage bill. The ones who did the work had to move on to where they could now scrape a new living.
All the coal needed to power these steam engines had to come from somewhere and Wales, with her huge seams was the obvious choice. To dig deeper, bigger mines needed a lot of timber. A large part of the ancient and once beautiful Great Caledonian Forest which covered Scotland was cleared to provide pit props amongst other things. What had once covered about 1.5 million hectares was reduced finally to 35 bits lovingly titled “remnants”. The cost to the native flora and fauna was immeasurable. The pine marten for example was driven to inhabit these remnants and only began to bounce back once it became fully protected by law.
To dig for coal means that there’s a lot of waste material from the mining and refining process. Huge areas were buried beneath the slag and whole new hills created. You can still see them if you tour round Wales. The phrase “lunar landscape” is often used to describe what you’ll see, but the real trouble with that all that slag is that it contains very unpleasant chemicals and they like to leach out. They leach into water ways, into the soil, as water washes through the slag it pulls out the nasty and spreads it about.
At this point in our tale it’s worth remembering the hymn which will forever be England’s own love song to itself. “Jerusalem” written by William Blake is now quintessentially English. It’s sung at rugby matches and at royal weddings. We like it because it makes us feel good about how great we once were. But it contains a sting in the tail. The line “And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic mills” stands as a reminder to what we ourselves created. In short the greater good came with it’s own private hell. No one at the time of the industrial revolution could have called England’s industrial areas pretty, most would have described them as deadly. Air pollution from the mills, waterways polluted with every chemical in the cupboard, earth filled with heavy metals and waste products, go take a look. I dare you. I dare you because the same thing happened in America with the “great” industrialists here. Go look at what New Jersey did to the Hudson. The copy cats.
But get back to Jerusalem. It was a time when journalists of the day reported you could stand in the west country and see only dimly with the fires of the forges and the factories turning night to day. Now call me cynical but that amount of air, water, and soil pollution can’t be good for anyone can it? Certainly if the humans were struggling then one can assume the effects on the animal and plant kingdoms were equally, if not more, dire. So enters a second creature onto the stage. The small and inauspicious Peppered Moth.
This little insect isn’t much to look at. Small and white with black flecks it likes to hide on the trunks of birch trees, which also happen to be white with black flecks. So imagine the surprise of the moth with the dawning of man’s industrial age when the air turned black and so did the trees. Where once they were hidden they now stood out like a snow flake on a lump of coal. Something had to happen (if you’re a creationist look away now) and it was natural selection just as Darwin taught us. The birds seeing the whitest would eat them and over time the remaining ones bred themselves black with white specks to hide. An interesting side note is that the same thing happened in reverse when Britain finally cleaned up its air and the moth began to revert back to white. What we can say is that an awful lot of moths died because man decided to pollute the environment.
So this Empire that bragged about owning a third of the globe spread its influence about. It’s an interesting and shameful fact that though the British are fond of pointing out we gave up slavery in 1833 we still wanted cotton and America with her slaves was the place to go. India with her tea and cotton plantations, the tropics for sugar and rubber, all of it had a cost. Not to the nice middle class lady in London, but to someone who’s life followed that of the factory workers in Manchester with the taking of their livelihood in the name of progress. Everywhere Britain and her Empire touched people died, or were made slaves of economy. Everywhere she went, she left the water tainted, the soil a little sicker, and the air filled with the fumes of progress for the indigenous people to choke on.
But what has this to do with America the Brave and Canada the Great? How can the age of steam be in anyway linked to what’s happening today? Well just as for the British coal and steam were the driving force behind the destruction in their empire, today the USA and Canada are doing the same with oil and gas.
What Britain did with slag heaps and mills the new Empire is doing with leaking pipelines and fracking. Once again waterways are being polluted, people dispossessed, soil poisoned with the spillage, and wildlife driven to extinction. This new Britain is destroying the planet faster and more efficiently than the British could have dreamed of and we the people are being spoon fed the lie that its for the greater good just as the factory workers in the 1800’s were. We have been conditioned to believe that it’s our right to have cheap and plentiful food (not food thats good for us just cheap), that we deserve the best and that should also be cheap. What has been taken away is the ability for someone to say no and choose to live on the land. And then there’s the new pine marten and the new moth.
Our desire for cheap food has allowed the chemical companies to pollute hundreds of thousands of acres with their sprays because we demand the food to be plentiful and cheap. We have allowed seed manufacturers to remove the right of farmers to save seed and replant because the seed is now patented and controlled from Wall Street. We force chickens to lay eggs and grow for 72 weeks then enjoy them deep fried or feed them to our pets as a fancy feast. We have become the new middle class which demands much and doesn’t care about the cost. Switching to an organic free range chicken isn’t much use because even the word organic has been twisted and perverted by the mad men of advertising. Who knew dry cleaning could be organic? Something to think about is that in it’s strictest sense organic means that there is a carbon molecule involved. So the gas you put in your Hummer is, technically, organic and so’s the plastic bottle your drinking water from. What the organic movement should have done is call itself the “not touched by chemicals and pesticides that are made out of oil brigade” and then it might have been a little more difficult to pervert the name.
On top of our food expectations we have been taught to be oil dependent. We want cheap flights and have to have three cars in the garage because Junior couldn’t possibly be expected to take the bus. Again, advertising has lulled us into that belief and we fell for it hook, line and sinker. So you see until we give up the car and the need for plastic. But don’t we love plastic? It’s so cheap and light, so easy to produce and our oceans and land are now full of it. Never going away. Just leaching its poisons slowly into our lives like the slag heaps of Cardiff.
So we must have the Keystone pipeline. It is the denouement of this empire’s decaying grasp at survival at the top. Canada and the USA will poison the whole continent if it means that we can have one more sip of someone else’s tap water out of a bottle we can then throw away. We will let our politicians kill other citizens of these great countries through water and air pollution from fracking and the pipeline. But it’s all right because you get to lie in bed while Junior drives himself to school. Here’s a tip for you. Look at any empire and you will see that it’s the ruling class encouraging the nationalism that the others think is so important while killing off the working man. They don’t care because the pipeline never goes anywhere near their house. After all we’re all Canadian/American here but I have to keep the country going and what’s a little methane in the tap water amongst friends? Besides you can always by a bottle of the stuff at the gas station.
But the cost to the animal kingdom (we’re mammals too remember) must also be considered. Where the British chose to try and kill off a moth America and Canada are choosing the bee as their legacy. The trouble is the bug they chose to pin to the cork memory board as their legacy to humanity is that we kind of need it. Every person who demands cheap food is telling the farmer that they want the bees dead. Why? Because it’s our demand for more that means the chemical companies can keep selling their poisons. If we all decided to go truly “not touched by chemicals and pesticides that are made out of oil brigade” then there would be no demand. If we grew our own or sourced our food locally and accepted the fact that strawberries in winter is nice but not essential to life then the bees might stand a chance. But as long as we want those strawberries as our right then bees be damned we need the pesticides.
You see what makes an empire isn’t the few who have the shiny new product but the ones who are taught to desire it. When we desire more and then turn desire into the belief that its our right then we allow the money men to destroy the environment and our own lives. Thomas Carlyle wrote:
“Everywhere the human soul stands between a hemisphere of light and another of darkness; on the confines of the two everlasting empires, necessity and free will.”
Of the first empire “necessity” we don’t need to be oil reliant or have strawberries in December to live well. We need somewhere to live, food that’s healthy to eat, and water that’s clean to drink. It’s when we see the strawberries as our right we choose through “free will” to empower the second darker empire. Instead of a pine marten we now have the polar bear and salmon that are struggling, for the moth we now have the bee and ourselves.