National Geographic : 2009 Mar
EDITOR'S NOTE PHOTO: PETER ESSICK "There is no feast which does not come to an end," a Chinese proverb warns, and this month's story on Canadian oil sands is a cautionary tale about the consequences of large appetites. With the decline of conventional oil reserves and the rising price of oil extraction, sources like oil sands---layers of tarlike bitumen mixed with clay, sand, and water---are increasingly attractive as a way to satisfy the world's craving for hydrocarbons. The catch: Extracting them is messy and costly to the environment. All the more reason to be mindful of the choices we make. Nearly 20 years ago my wife, Elizabeth, and I chose to live in the country, which makes us highly dependent on a car. We could move to the city and use mass transit, but we want to raise our family in the country. In compensation for our choices, Elizabeth drives a small, high-mileage car, while I commute to Washington once a week, park, take the subway, walk, and stay with a relative. Much in life revolves around balance. Public policy strives to balance individual needs and freedoms with community welfare. Canadian oil sands, says author Robert Kunzig, are about balancing the needs of today and tomorrow. In my own personal quest for balance, it occurs to me that I could compensate for my rural lifestyle by purchasing carbon offsets, but, really, the best strategy is to live an environmentally responsible life to begin with. An orange-clad scarecrow deters birds from landing on a tailings pond in Alberta, Canada.