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Vanity Fair's Alex Shoumatoff Discusses the Environment - Part 2

Posted by on Friday, March 26, 2010

Called "consistently the farthest flung of the New Yorker’s far flung correspondents," in 1987 by The New York Times, Alex Shoumatoff’s 40 year career has brought him around the world, from the fiery depths of the Amazon to the mucky tundra of Siberia to cover the diversity and changing environment of the Earth.

Now a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair, in an upcoming article this May, Shoumatoff investigates Canada’s oil sands. Recently, CG caught up with him to talk about how Canada is handling the environment, Siberia's melting permafrost and the green energy economy.

If you haven't already, read Part 1.

CG: How do you think Canada is handling the environment?

AS: People who’ve been studying the tar sands in Alberta have come out with reports damning how the environment is being handled there. There’s also the disgraceful treatment at the hands of the federal government of Dr. John O’Connor, a local doctor, who observed cases of a rare cancer in the people living in the Fort Chipawayan community 300 miles downstream from the sands on Lake Athabaska.

I flew in there last year and saw the toxic oil in the tailings ponds. If you’ll recall those 500 ducks that landed there and only five survived, it really puts things in perspective.

When Obama was inaugurated, he said that the U.S. wasn’t going to be taking dirty oil from Canada, and the oil companies then claimed they were going to clean up their act. But since they got off the hot seat, they’ve created all these plans to double production, and the Canadian and U.S. governments have just looked the other way.

During Obama’s State of the Union address in February, he talked about a new energy policy and proposed to build new nuclear power plants. Is it possible to create a green energy economy?

I was just driving in an obscure area in the northern Adirondacks near the Quebec border the other day and suddenly I went over this rise and here there were something like 50 windmills out in the middle of nowhere.

These things are happening, but it’s pretty complicated. There’s a real polarization in the U.S. between the reds and blues, much more than in the past, and that’s a big change. It makes it harder to actually get anything done.

Some people accept that climate change exists, but they question whether it’s man made. What’s your take on this?

I went to Russia a couple of years ago while working on a story for Vanity Fair about the scramble for the Arctic — which is happening since the ice cap is melting and the vast oil deposits in the Arctic Ocean are becoming available. There, I talked with scientists at the Russian academy, and the party line is that the Arctic is actually getting colder.

The interglacial period (known as the sweet spot, as one scientist calls it) has allowed the human race to flourish. But it’s been going on longer than previous ones and is thought to be overdue to shut down and for the next ice-age to arrive.

Who knows? But if the human contribution to climate change isn’t the dominant reason for what’s happening, our hand is still heavy on the earth and we should reign in our consumption. I’ve seen our wanton destruction with my own eyes time and again.

In that article you mention going to Siberia and seeing a lot of melting permafrost there. What exactly did you see?

The Yukagir natives there are hunting for freshly exposed mammoth bones for extra income. A pair of tusks can fetch $35,000. The permafrost is literally melting out from under the villages and all of the Yukagir hunting and fishing patterns are completely out of whack.

Travelling along the Yana River I could the bones of Pleistocene era mega-fauna being disgorged from the melting permafrost as the banks of the river collapsed.

The local people are experiencing a story that most of the climate scientists in Russia are completely denying. It’s interesting how political all this science has become.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about how we’ll fair as a species?

I’m a little pessimistic about all this. It seems that something horrible is going to have to happen, to give the world and our governments a wakeup call. But by then it may be too late.

Or maybe it will be a critical mass of events that leads people to finally realize that we have no alternative other than to fix the problem.

Are there any catastrophes on the horizon?

Unfortunately plenty. I’ve written about the dehydration of the Amazon, not just by mechanical means, but by warming events in the northern tropical pacific basin. Which is what has exacerbating the hurricane season.

When Katrina hit New Orleans there was this terrible drought in the Amazon because all the moisture has been sucked north. The Amazon is always a question.

Canada’s boreal forest is another complicated picture too. Luckily, pulp harvesting there isn’t happening so much with the demise of print media and the conversion to new technologies, like the iPad. That will cut down on paper consumption and forest destruction.

But it’s a very complicated formula to figure out what all the impacts are. Any modeling and projecting runs the risk of forgetting to take into consideration a crucial factor that someone hasn’t thought about or identified.

There must be something that we’re doing well?

There are hundreds of thousands of people who are doing great things. Many people are converting their homes to make them more energy efficient.

There are hundreds of ways each one of us can become part of the solution. So it’s a question of who’s going to get the upperhand. At the moment I’m afraid the bad guys are winning.

I’m just listening to that Woodie Guthrie song, that says “all you fascists bound to loose,” because “we’re getting organized.”

That seems to me where we need to start.

Look for Shoumatoff’s story on Canada’s tar sands in the May issue of Vanity Fair. To read more of his work, check out his website Dispatches from the Vanishing World. It's a wealth of information.

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