When I stepped outside at nine this morning, my nose immediately picked up the scent of burning wood. As I looked out at a usually vibrant green pine tree stand down the road, I noticed that the tree tops looked hazy, as if out of focus. Since it is Memorial Day, I assumed that the smell and the haze were from neighbors firing up their grills to get an early start on the traditional Barbequing. It was only an hour later, when most of our city of Amesbury, MA was gathered in a stadium listening to Memorial Day addresses, that our Mayor alerted us to the fact the smoke and the haze were actually a result of wildfires devastating our neighbors to the North.
According to the San Francisco Gate, the smoke from forest fires in Quebec currently reaches as far south as Boston (fifty minutes south of Amesbury). The Gate continues that approximately 2,000 people have been evacuated from the paths of 47 fires which are mostly the result of lightning strikes and have now scorched over 352 square miles. To put this in perspective, that figure represents approximately one fifth of the overall size of the state of Rhode Island.
A gasp went through the crowd as Mayor Thatcher Kezer finished explaining the source of the haze, and several things raced through my mind. The first was disbelief. Quebec seems so far away, physically and culturally; could the smoke in the air really be from there? Once I accepted this explanation as truth, however, I began to look at the smoky path to Canada as yet another example of our global interconnectedness. How fitting it was that we were sitting in a stadium named for a soldier killed at Pearl Harbor in the last great global struggle. Perhaps environmental issues are today's largest field of global combat.
There has been criticism by some over the years that the United States only entered World War II when our national interest was at stake, that we let the enemy get too entrenched over much of Europe while the US pursued isolationist policies and appeasement. Perhaps, but when the U.S. engaged the Allies were victorious because of the efforts of a collection of nations working aggressively and in concert for mutual security and liberty.
The smoke over the stadium was a reminder to me that, like WWII, environmental problems and disasters do not confine themselves to national or continental borders. The BP oil spill won't discriminate against Canadian shores, if the loop current carries it all the way up the eastern seaboard. Degrading air quality and pollution won't confine themselves to the air space of offending countries. Just as in WWII, we are seeing a global struggle in which we must act quickly. There is no national interest when it comes to the environment, there is only global interest.
I am happy to see that American firefighters have been dispatched to help in Canada, just as I was happy to see all the offers of help the US received after Katrina, and that Haiti received after the recent quake. In his speech this morning, Mayor Kezer talked about how the smog and the smoke evoked battlefield scenes for him- images of soldiers and civilians dying in the literal fog of war. For me, those images mingled with thoughts of the smoke and scars of the environmental battle currently raging in which all inhabitants of this planet have been drafted. It is true that the fires in Quebec are a natural disaster of the type that has existed since there were things on this planet for lightning to set ablaze. However, it is the way we as global citizens choose to combat environmental devastation, natural or man-made, as well as the conditions which exacerbate them which will define our failure or success both as sovereign nations and as a global community. As I gave thanks for the soldiers and veterans on this Memorial Day, I thought too about how we as citizen soldiers in the fight against environmental catastrophe should try to emulate their valor and commitment.
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