Burn Pit Conversations

Burn Pit Conversations

Andrew Hollyday, Middlebury College

8/6/2015

“We need someone to burn trash,” Annika announced during our daily post-breakfast work detail assignments.  I raised my hand to volunteer.  I figured it would be good to get the full picture of where my trash was going.  Later in the day, I met Annika at the burn pit, a metal grate on the side of the nunatak, where we burn the trash.  She explained the procedure, which involved first emptying the bags of used wrappers, toilet paper, food scraps, and plastic bags.  Then, she proceeded to pour gasoline over the trash (an essential step in this rainy climate).  Then she poured a bit more gas into a tin can, lit it then tossed it into the mound of garbage.  The pit ignited, and she instructed me to poke the pile with a long stick to give the flames oxygen. 

I told her burning the trash reminded me of my time in Chile where the gauchos (cowboys) would also burn their waste, even the plastic that is known to be carcinogenic.  This spiraled into a discussion of how best we could deal with our waste on JIRP.  We both seemed to agree that given our remoteness, burning seemed most suitable and low-impact.  We also talked about more general things such as how hyper-consumption is dangerous and how it is important to expose people to nature in order for them to care about it. 

A few days before getting to know the burn pit, Cathy Conner, a faculty on JIRP and Professor Emeritus at the University of Alaska Southeast, led a walk on the nunatak at Camp 18.  Her field lecture examined different geologic features like the peculiar dark blobs and Xenoliths (rock that is surrounded by compositionally-different igneous rock) that are contained in the bedrock around camp.  We followed her around and eventually came to an interesting outcropping of seemingly iron-rich rock.  She told us there were pyrite (fools gold), molybdenum (useful for steel making), galena (a metallic mineral), and even a bit of copper ore.  She talked about how deposits like this are critical for manufacturing iphones and other gadgets, but she also said that people tend not to want the mines in their own neighborhoods, so they tend to end up in the poor countries.  “Us first worlders must get a grip,” she suggested.  

 The burn pit at Camp 17. Photo by Deb Gregoire.

The burn pit at Camp 17. Photo by Deb Gregoire.

Later in the day, Matt Beedle, the current faculty lead on JIRP, led an exercise that challenged us to role-play a fictitious town down valley of the Gilkey Glacier.  The preconditions were that the glacier was quickly receding and melting, and we were tasked with considering the economic and social implications of that change and ultimately shaping policy in reaction to it.  We divided into groups: policy advisors, community members, town government, and science advisors; eventually the town officials voted, and the whole group discussed the exercise.  As a member of the science advisory, we suggested continued glacial study, while the town members shared they were skeptical of continuing studies that didn’t produce tangible benefits for the town.  Following the exercise, Matt led us in a discussion about the intersection of the scientific community, the public, and policymakers. 

The exercise spurred conversation about the fundamental causes of melting ice and climate change that spilled into the evening.  As I sat in the cook shack grating cheese for dinner, Jolon, Anna, Olivia, and I settled on capitalism as the true culprit.  We talked about feudalism and Jolon convinced us that the relationships between serfs and landlords followed the same sort of exploitative framework as that of the big oil companies that are melting the world’s glaciers.  Later in the evening, Adrian called capitalism a religion and said that he has simply chosen not to believe in it anymore.    

 Olivia tends the burn pit at Camp 18. Photo by Sydney LeCras.

Olivia tends the burn pit at Camp 18. Photo by Sydney LeCras.

As I stood by the pit, gray smoke rushing through the air, I thought of how I’ll miss these conversations when JIRP ends.  JIRP seems the perfect place, given its physical isolation, for fascinated students, faculty, and staff to grapple with the important questions we should be acting on when we return.  This mixing of ideas and perspective is exciting to me.  As I prepare to leave this giant Alaskan glacier, I’m thankful for the slower parts of the days—the parts when I get to circle around a fire with a long stick poking melting plastic.