PATAGONIA – I came for the light. We see the first morning light at 5:00 a.m., and the last traces of sunset at 10 p.m.
And also for the isolation: I had an image of a Patagonia with no people, of windswept steppes with only dirt roads, of a place where there is ceaseless wind and constant cold but brilliant light, where you could drive for hours without seeing a soul, where you could walk in the wind and the light and be made alive by it, where cell phones don’t work, and where you can’t hear the distant rumble of long haul trucks, the whine of power saws or the hiss of jets leaving vapor trails on a distant horizon.
Of course, Andean Patagonia, wherer our trip brgan, is nothing like that. There is some wind, but it comes and goes. Ruta Cuarenta, Route 40, the long road in Argentina that runs up and down the nation’s spine, is paved and is traveled by long haul trucks carrying goods and heavy machinery.
While the Argentinean side roads and many of the roads in Patagonian Chile are gravel, they are mostly wide and well maintained. You can drive 40 or 50 miles an hour on them when they are straight, which they are except then you drive through the foothills of the Andes. You see cars when you drive. Mostly tourists.
Thousands of tourists
There are thousands of tourists, especially in the mountains. Germans and French. Americans and Swedes. Japanese and Belgians. Chinese and Danes.
They come in buses and cars because Patagonia has a string of national parks in both Argentina and Chile that run on both sides of a very long border, flanking the Andes.
These are beautiful mountains indeed, and together represent the third largest group of ice fields and glaciers in the world. The glaciers are white and a spectacular deep glass blue, and are always in motion, groaning and cracking, and dropping huge chunks of ice [a process called calving] into the glacial lakes at their feet.
The runoff creates beautiful deep blue-grey lakes in the mountains, surrounded by sheer black cliffs, revealing millions of years of geologic history. The glaciers themselves carve broad valleys, leaving behind mounds of glacial moraine – sand and rocks of all shapes and sizes, heaped up at what used to be the glacier’s edge, as if a valley had been swept clear by a celestial broom, and the moraine was the heaped up geological dust waiting to be swept into a dustpan. The mountains are jagged and austere, shark’s teeth of black rock laced with pure white snow biting into the sky.
Yes, the glaciers are receding. The shrinkage is less intense here, in the Patagonian Andes, than in some other parts of the world, but maps and charts show you the change.
The glaciers aren’t as thick as they used to be. They don’t come quite so far down into the mountain valleys. We stood at an outlook overlooking the Upsala Glacier near El Carafate, Argentina, at the beginning of a 14 kilometer hike, and saw that the face of the glacier is half a mile north of where it was 30 years ago.
The tourists include many trekkers, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, young people in shape who come to walk into the mountains, equipped with thousands of dollars worth of space-age, highi-tech gear – $300 backpacks, expensive tents, ultra-light telescoping trekking poles, rolled up sleeping pads, high-tech cooking stoves that seem little larger than a thimble but can boil a pot of water in 3 minutes, and yellow-, green- and orange-fitted backpack tarps, which keep the trekkers’ backpacks dry in the rain but also make them stand out on the trail, a half mile in front of you or behind you.
Diversity of brand
Their most significant diversity is the diversity of brand – The North Face, REI, Columbia, Patagonia and Marmot – the uniform of the young people who now own these mountains, which seem to exist only for those who can afford the time, the travel, the training and the gear.
The trekkers arrive in white minibuses that flow over mountain roads like ants coming back to their anthill, or arrive in ferries that disgorge them, a hundred at a time, onto the shores of glacial lakes that lay at base of mountains inaccessible by road.
They walk up the mountain trails at a good clip with a peculiar rhythm: left pole and right foot forward; then right pole and left foot forward, as if they were swimming or rowing across the land, as if the mountains were lakes on their private property, and they were out for an afternoon swim.
When people talk about environmental justice, they are often referring to the way people living in poverty can only afford to live in places that have been made toxic by the detritus of industrialization, their houses and dirt poisoned by lead paint, their water poisoned by lead, benzene, arsenic and a degreaser called trichloroethylene; the air thick with particulates and asbestos; their food laced with PCBs and heavy metals.
We don’t usually think of the flip side of the coin, which is the de facto segregation of the few places that are still free from most toxins, which are reserved [by the cost of traveling to these places] for people of means, although climate change, which is the most profound environmental degradation, impacts everyone.
What we are looking at, when we consider environmental justice, is not just the impact of toxic environments on people living in poverty. It is the impact of a two-class world, in which people living in poverty too often suffer the personal and community health consequences of profit-driven environmental degradation, while people of means live with the illusion that their lives can be made free of environmental exposures.
One world, indivisible
Climate change, of course, reminds us that we live in one world – socially, politically, economically and environmentally. Newton understood that every action in a vacuum creates an equal and equivalent reaction in the opposite direction. Climate change doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is still the equal and equivalent reaction to a rapidly growing human population that creates toxins as a byproduct of its growth.
It occurred and is occurring as a result of our political system, which allows extractive businesses and allows those businesses to poison places, an economic system that allows the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few people who then use that wealth to influence government and steer it away from holding accusers accountable.
And, of our social organization, that lets us suffer the illusion that segments of the population can ignore one another and let some of us live in poisoned places while others of us live elsewhere, and an environmental perspective that has accepted the view that what we don’t see every day somehow can’t hurt us.
Health requires community
Environmental health and environmental justice do not exist in isolation from our political, social, and economic life. We won’t protect the environment until we address income inequality. We won’t address income inequality until we see ourselves as one people.
We won’t see ourselves as one people until we understand that democracy matters, until everyone votes, and until everyone takes a turn in governing.
Health requires community. Environmental health requires democracy. Democracy matters. And again, every moment counts.
We found the isolation, the light and the unceasing wind I was seeking in Atlantic Patagonia and in Tierra del Fuego.
But there is amazing light all over Patagonia. The wind isn’t ceaseless, but when it comes it is remarkably strong.