Glow-in-the-Dark Elephants and the Politics of Progress

I like elephants. A friend of mine even has an elephant named Stampy (not really, but for story-telling purposes as we make Elephant Toothpaste in front of groups of children). Among other things, I like that they blow water onto their backs using their trunks and that they form social bonds within their herd as well as with people and that they exhibit altruistic behavior. I’d kinda like it if elephants didn’t go extinct. And if we didn’t invade the places we’ve established as elephant sanctuaries.

I don’t even need to meet these elephants. I would just like to know they’re not one of the estimated 200 species a day going extinct.

So here’s the thing: sections of the world’s largest elephant sanctuary, located in Tanzania, are being opened to uranium mining. This could produce 60 million tons of radioactive and poisonous byproduct in the estimated 10-year lifespan of this mine. As of right now, there are no plans (or proven methods) to keep the radioactive slush out of the water system.

There’s the opportunity to rally around this point because elephants are pretty awesome animals. There’s the opportunity to rally around this point because we can conjure up images of elephants from the movies even if we’ve never seen one in real life, or because we can see them rubbing their deceased with their trunks in what we take for an act of mourning. There’s the opportunity to rally around this point because we create sanctuaries as safe places and mining uranium, is by no stretch of the imagination, a safe act.

For the environmental activists among us, this redefinition of elephant sanctuary boundaries might not be news — there’s been minimal coverage of it on a variety of environmental newsfeeds for about a year and lines on it for close to two years. There have been movements to stop the uranium mining operations and expansions in the way of petitions and NGOs issuing press releases protesting the World Heritage Committee’s approval of the boundary changes that will allow this mining.

But I suspect for many of us, there isn’t much that feels immediately pressing about this issue. Many of us don’t get to see elephants all that often, and for those of us who don’t live in Tanzania, we don’t have to worry (as much) about the environmental impacts of uranium mining — which creates radioactive dust in addition to polluting water (and food) sources. We see this as another means to get cheap power into more parts of the world, something that can be used in x-ray production and in the proliferation of WMDs (which is either good or bad depending on where you fall on the political spectrum and who has them, etc.). But this is short-sighted of us, and for Americans at least, denies a very real part of our cultural history.

Winona LaDuke wrote an article for Orion Magazine in 2009 that details the development of uranium mines on Navajo land. One particularly alarming statistic is that the mid1970s, there were 380 uranium leases on native lands, but only 4 on public/acquired lands. According to LaDuke’s article, the miners worked in shafts with little or no ventilation and went home covered with dust from uranium ore — and these workers (and their families) suffered high rates of cancer and birth defects. In other words, another systematic culling of native peoples.

This type of systemic genocide has happened in other places — notably Canada, Australia, Russia, and Namibia  — and it’s something that we all need to start talking about. We need to talk about the subjugation of our fellow people and destruction of the non-human environment for the potential of “cheap, clean” power — which is of course, only cheap and clean as long as we (the people primarily benefiting from it) don’t have to participate in full-cost accounting. We don’t have to deal with the health issues, the environmental degradation, the destruction of a landbase or the shifting of peoples off their land (again). We don’t have to weigh in these factors whenever we talk about the benefits of nuclear power (or any other type of mining-based resource). Of course it seems cheap. Of course it seems clean.

Let’s stop pretending.

Warning Sign Near Reservoir Used for Hydroelectric Power

And, here I’ll try not to sound too alarmist, we also need to pull into the conversation how we can change the way we all live so that we decrease our dependence on energy resources in the form of fossil fuels and radioactive materials. We simply cannot continue to live this way, and we cannot, responsibly, continue our willful blindness about the sources and consequences of our energy supplies and networks whether it’s nuclear, fossil fuels, or alternate energies such as hydroelectric and solar.

It’s going to take a major shift in culture for this to happen. It cannot be enough for us to just think about it and talk (though it would be nice if more of us were talking) about these things with like minded people and try to be the change we want to see in the world. It cannot be enough for us to say that we’ll just lead by example and (hope) others will follow. We need to coalesce for immediate and direct action that makes an impact. We need to step up our game.

Although on some level, it’s always about a cause people can rally around — strip mining, mountain top removal, bloodless diamonds, rivers that burn, dolphins killed by tuna, uranium refinement, salmon populations — what the discussion really needs to be about is how to get people invested enough in the world and the other people around them to take the next step, to move toward direct action. And, those of us looking at this through the environmental lens, we need to move beyond e-activism and armchair activism and petitions. We need to look to examples of direct action that have gotten the world talking. We need to weigh what we’re willing to sacrifice versus what’s already being sacrificed. We–myself included–need to stop making excuses.

We know we’re sacrificing a lot, every day. We know that our lifestyles need to change (even though it will be inconvenient, and even though a lot of people don’t want to change). We know that progress needs to be redefined. We know it’s about more than just the elephants.


A Handful Recent(ish) Examples of American Environmental Direct Action (if you’re looking for inspiration):

Tim DeChristopher’s interruption of a BLM land auction
Arrests of anti-coal activists in Montana and West Virginia
Bank of Coal banner drop in Charlotte, NC
The nun who was arrested for her participation in a major nuclear breach
Protests against tar sands pipelines all over the US & Canada, including this one in Vermont

Again, this is just a handful of examples. I could create a very long post just focused on American examples of direct action that is pro-environment in the past five years. I’d love to know though, if you have other examples you particularly favor — as well as any other feedback you want to offer.





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