Friday, March 22, 2013

Manatees and Electric Companies

Our first day in Florida promised to be full of tropical delights--a warm March sun, short sleeves after sunset, a walk on the beach. 

And an extra special treat for ten winter-worn central Pennsylvanians? A visit to the Manatee Viewing Center.

Fully packed into our twelve passenger van with Tampa's concrete in our rear view mirror and visions of lethargic sea elephants in our minds' eye we dutifully followed Googlemap's automated voice.

We whizzed past a salt mine on our left. Factories and refineries of all shapes and sizes materialized and faded from sight as we traveled on. The trash heap seen through the passenger's window threatened to claim the title of Florida's highest point. 

My longing for the pristine environment where wildlife thrives increased with each smoke coughing chimney and rusted metal pile.

"In 100 yards, turn right." The tourist-friendly road sign seconded Google's directional sense. Eager to leave these eyesores behind us, I obeyed the navigational clues and steered our automated behemoth toward the manatees. 

It soon became clear that we were closing in on the very monstrosities from which we wished to create distance. An intermingled chorus of chuckles and groans arose as the reality became impossible to ignore. These smokestacks looming in the foreground are not just close to the manatees' sanctuary, they are the sanctuary.

Ironic juxtaposition

The website for Tampa Electric Company (TECO), which funds and operates the Manatee Viewing Center, explains why the manatees are there:
"When Tampa Bay reached 68 degrees or colder, the mammals would seek out this new refuge. The Manatee Viewing Center was soon born. Today, Big Bend's discharge canal is a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary that provides critical protection from the cold for these unique, gentle animals."
So at this point multiple things are going through my head.
If this power plant accidentally provided "critical protection" for these manatees, how did they survive before 1986 when this plant was built?
Is no one at least slightly unsettled by the blatant irony of a disruptive, dirty, coal-fueled power plant doubling as an animal sanctuary?
Which ecosystems are more affected--the world of the manatees in the shadow of coal burning furnaces or the stripped hills of Kentucky whose innards feed this electricity-doling monstrosity.
But the thought I can't shake is why this contradiction which can be captured in a single picture should trouble me more than any others.
"What is important to understand is that massive ecological destruction becomes more likely when people are not in position to see the effects of their decisions. When the location of our increasingly insular and urban living shields us from the harmful effects of our consumer preference, we are more likely to destroy what we clearly depend on: clean water, healthy forests and vibrant mountain communities. How many of us, living far from the coalfields of Appalachia, know that when we turn on the electric switch we also ignite another explosion in the mountains? Do we understand how our desire for cheap consumer products exhausts our lands and waters and pumps greenhouse gases into our warming atmosphere?"
Now I am not an ecologist, biologist, chemist or engineer and so I depend on those who deeply study these subjects for information that will hopefully help me lead a life of greater integrity and interdependence. 
However, I do know that presence changes things. Seeing and knowing the effects of our decisions changes those decisions.

What coffee would we drink, chocolate would we buy, bananas would we eat, if the children of those farmers played with our children?

Would we think differently about throwing so much out if the garbage dump was in our backyards?

How many hurtful words would go unsaid if we no longer spoke behind the backs of our friends, family, coworkers and neighbors?

How would our lives change if we could see every dirty puff of smoke prompted by our actions?

What do you see?

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