A Palliative Approach to the End of the World

What if we accept that we’ll never solve climate change?

Slag

I grew up on the lip of a crater. Sudbury is a mining city, but it is at the same time a place of rugged beauty. It is a place where the Canadian shield reveals itself, protruding to the surface like a leviathan’s rocky spine, cold and prehistoric.

Ten million years ago, one of the largest meteors ever to strike Earth made contact here. It thrust veins of underground ore to the surface, and only very recently — in the last 150 years — have humans tapped these veins. Their rich deposits of nickel and copper have helped feed global demand in times of peace and of war.

The towns that established themselves on the crater’s periphery were not so much places to live as shelters for miners who needed to access the ore. Settlers gave these towns jagged, alien names: Falconbridge, Coniston. The names sound as if they were cut from diamond drills. Levack. Skead.

I grew up in one of these towns. It’s where I learned to name the world and to begin to find my place within it. My high school sat on one end of the crater and my house sat on the opposite end. The commute involved an hour-long trip across the valley, skirting along a stretch of black hills where, for decades, rail cars would tip the byproduct of smelting: a river of molten rock known as slag.

When rail cars poured the slag at night, the hills glowed a phosphorescent orange. Crowds would gather in anticipation as for a fireworks display. For some reason, it took years for me to realize that slag is effectively garbage. Mining executives prefer the term “tailings.”

Tailings are the dirty secret of the mining industry. They are the back end, the bathroom, the stuff we don’t want to see. We hide our waste to forget it exists.

Notably, Sudbury has made little attempt to hide its slag hills. In fact, quite the opposite: Slag has become a symbol of the area, a source of local pride. There’s even a music festival named after it. A postcard from Sudbury will typically feature one of three images, all related to mining: the Superstack, the Big Nickel, or the slag hills. Molten ore is a sign of a robust economy. Slag is jobs; slag is Sudbury.

In the last two decades, the pours have slipped from sight — but they have not stopped. Mining executives have simply relocated them. They have disappeared, hidden from public view. Mining executives seem to appreciate that while the phosphorescent show delights the eye, it might also appall the conscience.

Appall

When we drape cloth over a dining table we call it a tablecloth; on a mattress, a sheet. Drape a cloth over a coffin, however, and it becomes a pall. It is a curious object, the pall, its purpose being to hide what we feel should not be seen. To make us forget what is beneath it.

Namely, death.

When we call something “appalling,” we say that something would be best covered up, tucked away where it is less likely to disturb our thoughts. (Notably, to call something appalling says less about the thing itself than it does about the person saying it.)

The word “pall” may have fallen out of popular use in the last few decades, but we have not stopped using palls themselves. Rather, the concept of a pall remains as ubiquitous and essential as ever. Palls grant peace of mind; they allow us to carry on with our lives. We depend on palls.

Yet, rarely are they pieces of cloth. Palls take all kinds of forms. They can look like a helpful euphemism, words carefully chosen to mask an abhorrent truth. A death becomes a “passing,” a funeral labeled a “celebration of life.”

In Western culture, hospice care is still often seen as a sort of acquiescing, an act of giving up.

The way we structure our lives — our waking hours filled with business and busyness — is another sort of pall. Our schedules allow us to defer any serious meditation on the certainty that we and everything we know will certainly perish.

How adept we are at this trickery, this tucking away of the unpalatable. We like our palls. Though we may recognize them as a full to-do list or a trip to Cancún, these palls are everywhere. We depend on them to help us carry on with a semblance of stability and purpose.

But, at what expense? At its most innocuous, the pall is the little white lie, the rug which hides dirt.

In the Anthropocene era, literally defined by humanity’s impact on Earth’s ecosystems, the pall is the hand that guides our gaze away from cold, black hills and glowing orange rivers. Away from a century’s worth of mining waste.

Concrete

When my mother-in-law was working as a nurse in the ‘80s, she treated a number of patients facing uncomfortable deaths. Too many doctors, she found, were giving these patients acute care. Regardless of a bleak prognosis, doctors treated these patients as if they could, and would, get better. These doctors were trained to remedy and to cure. Many of them made healing their perennial objective, even when the likelihood of recovery was slim. They feared patients and families would interpret any alternative approach as failure.

My mother-in-law had an idea to start a hospice, but her superiors shot it down. The healthcare system was not yet ready for what patients and families considered an unconventional approach to end-of-life care: acceptance. Hospice was a white flag in a field where most preferred to fight.

For some, the idea of resorting to palliative care remains, ironically, appalling. (“Appall” and “palliate” are linguistic cousins, but have evolved to take almost opposite meanings.)

In Western culture, hospice care is still often seen as an act of giving up. No one likes a quitter, and palliative care sure feels like quitting. (In the ‘80s, when my mother was a nurse, that popular “Hang In There, Baby poster with the cat dangling from a clothesline was only a decade old.)

Though it is difficult to say what precisely we are quitting with a palliative approach. Not life, to be sure. Hospice Toronto advocates “adding life to days,” rather than days to life. This simple inversion captures a profound shift in end-of-life care, not to mention in how we might approach our own intervals of health.

Palliative care is not about quitting. It is about committing to improving the quality of this life, right now, in small, concrete ways.

A palliative approach just might serve as a hopeful new mantra for the weary, modern environmentalist.

I-4 Phosphor

So much of what environmentalists fight against falls within the category of “appalling”: the plastic island in the Pacific, the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, the melting of arctic glaciers. Mine tailings.

Photographer Edward Burtynsky captures images of a planet in need of palliative care. His photographs reveal hidden landscapes — the open scar of a quartz mine, the clear-cut rain forests of Brazil or British Columbia. We prefer to keep these scenes out of sight. We prefer to forget about them.

In Phosphor Tailings #5, a silver line protrudes into the frame, spewing a pewter blob onto a muddy surface. The image strikes the viewer as an abstraction: It could be a Petri dish under a microscope, or a distant planet’s lifeless surface.

But it belongs to this world. It is not far, in fact, from Disney World — just a short drive down the I-4 outside the town of Lakeland, Florida. There, thousands of liters of phosphor spill out into freshwater. All of this goes unseen, a 45-minute drive from The Most Magical Place on Earth™.

We do it well: We take that which is toxic and place it in a hidden part of our geographies, of ourselves. We do it with the certainty that we will die. We reserve a compartment of our psyche for this terrible truth, placing it there to revisit later.

But that moment is not yet, never now.

Palliate

The palliative approach, conversely, hides nothing. It does not believe in magic. When we remove the pall from a hard truth — like the certainty of death — we are asked to weigh and negotiate that truth. And perhaps, in time, accept it.

In my work as a hospice volunteer, I encounter two types of families. The first relegates the notion of death to the furthest corner of the home, stuffed in the darkness somewhere between the winter coats and board games.

The second lays death out for guests to see and hold. Maybe it’s not a centerpiece of the home, but it’s there in the room for your consideration. Death is in the room. There it is. And it is okay.

There is death, too, in Burtynsky’s images. If his subjects — an aquaculture farm in Spain, a landfill in Kenya — strike us as otherworldly, it is because we have chosen not to be familiar with them. Where else, aside from an exhibit or an obscure coffee table book, are we asked to look directly at the face of our dying planet?

“It’s important to acknowledge,” Jonathan Franzen writes in his recent essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth, “that drastic planetary overheating is a done deal. […] The Earth as we know it resembles a patient with a bad cancer. We can choose to treat it with disfiguring aggression […] or we can adopt a course of treatment that permits a higher quality of life.”

Liberal democracy and global conventions come at the problem acutely — that is, with a goal of remedying it. We have passed the window of time where the appropriate response to climate change is an effort to cure.

The threats we should fear most are those which escape our view.

I distrust solutions that claim to benefit future generations because I am not convinced it is always possible to act in the interest of an unseen, intangible future generation. I will choose not to direct my energy at solutions that seek to steer the ship of global industry from its irrevocable course. Fracking, industrial farming, rampant capitalism: These are untreatable cancers.

So, I will embrace a palliative approach to living in the Anthropocene: one which aims small, which focuses on comforting my immediate world, my school, my street, the ravine behind my house. The palliative environmentalist, concerned with the planet’s health but honest about its prognosis, performs acts which focus on the short-term, the local, the concrete. On protecting one species of bird, or omitting red meat from her diet.

Adopting such a narrow approach may come off as futile, given the magnitude of the problem before us. But then, global summits and accords like the Paris Agreement have turned out to be no more effective in staving off the world-altering effects of climate change.

The palliative approach is not resignation, nor should it be mistaken for giving up. The Earth deserves hospice care. Are we prepared to provide it?

Tail end

Sudbury had it right: Don’t hide your fearsome secret in the night. Get close to it and let its terrible beauty cast a dangerous glow on your body. We can name only what the senses can know. Only then might an honest discussion begin.

Not to celebrate, but to bear witness. The threats we should fear most are those which escape our view. We must stare at the tailings, the terrible fire, name it, and remember that we caused it. It is ours, our burden to bear and to bear witness to.

To hide a thing is a kind of lie. It would be more honest to acknowledge the real possibility of our destruction. To accept environmental degradation, like death itself, as an inevitability, as the fate of humankind, of being in and of this world. To walk up to the terrible glow and let it warm our faces.

To then turn to our neighbor and ask, “Isn’t it sublime?”

Eric is a student and a teacher. A descendant of settlers, he calls Toronto home. He writes about education, art, nature, death, and birds.

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