The enemy within
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – A lot of ink and bandwidth is wasted on the fringe elements who argue that global warming or human-caused climate change is a myth. The fact is that we live in a post-environment-debate world. The Earth’s climate is changing. Every genuine climatologist acknowledges that, just as every respected and legitimate scientist agrees that the root cause of the change is human impact. Those conspiracy theorists who deny this scientific reality are buffoons who fly their ignorance like a team banner and revel in the role of village idiot; they don’t really expect to be taken seriously and they enjoy pushing the buttons of the rational people who are profoundly concerned about the condition of this planet. It’s time we stopped taking their inane claims seriously just as wise parents learn to ignore children who are being deliberately annoying in a bid for attention.
Here in the west, to a greater or lesser extent, everyone is an environmentalist. Some of the things we do as a matter of day-to-day habit were unheard of in my parents lifetimes, and, if seen through the eyes of someone 40 years ago, would have been considered crackpot environmental extremism. Composting of kitchen waste, which is a service provided for those who don’t have backyard composters in the town where I live, was something only farmers did, and then only because they already had tons of livestock manure composting for fertiliser. When I was a child we had two garbage pickups a week and each family in our suburban Montreal neighbourhood had two or three metal garbage cans at the curb each Tuesday and Friday. Today, in my suburban Vancouver Island neighbourhood, we have one fortnightly garbage pickup and we don’t always have a full can for them. We also have a fortnightly recycling pickup for which we usually have a full blue box, and a weekly compost pickup which we use if our backyard composter is full or it’s too miserable outside to use.
Pretty much everyone recycles jars, paper, aluminum cans, cardboard, plastic, and nearly everything that isn’t compostable or used to end up in landfills. Most people diligently make a weekly trip to a recycling depot to return bottles and other containers for the deposit, and it’s not entirely for the money; our depot has a box where one can contribute their deposit refund to a local food bank, and at least half the people seem to leave their refund money there. This all seems second nature to us now, but in my childhood, those kinds of behaviours were unheard of.
It’s not just in our manner of dealing with waste that our standards have evolved.
We don’t burn leaves in our backyard as we did in years past; we actively seek out ways to reduce the amount of energy we use; we don’t litter; we reuse wherever possible and reduce our use of non-recyclables like plastics; we insulate our homes more efficiently. Smoking isn’t permitted in buses, bars, restaurants, offices, or any enclosed public space – I can remember flying across the Atlantic on a plane in which virtually every adult lit up as soon as the seatbelt/no smoking lights shut off. Today, you’d be arrested and charged with air piracy for doing that. In all of these ways, the world is much better than it used to be and getting better still every day.
I go into my little boy’s playroom and I can’t help but note that half the toys he has in there need batteries; cars, trains, his Buzz Lightyear language computer, talking Barney, even the clock on the wall. Certainly each of these things is vastly more energy efficient than comparable toys were when I was his age, but in aggregate, they use much more battery power than all of my toys did. But that’s only the beginning. I bought a pack of “AA” batteries today and was once again struck by how much packaging was necessary to enclose a few items, each smaller than my little finger; paper labels and cardboard packaging that come from trees that no longer live to scrub our atmosphere, and stiff plastic packaging that will still be somewhere, entirely unchanged when my son’s great grandchildren’ grandchildren visit him on his 200th birthday.
I was in a Boeing 777 recently and I was aware as we gained altitude that the plane I was in burned more fossil fuel and belched out more ozone-destroying emissions on takeoff than do both of my cars in an entire year. That’s right…this environmentally conscious commentator owns two cars. To be sure, both are far more fuel efficient than any family car my father had when I was a child – one is a Smart Car that runs on diesel and gets about 75 miles to the gallon – but, still, that’s two cars along with all the various fluids and replacement parts needed to maintain them. My father’s father never had a car; he travelled primarily by electric streetcar in Quebec City until he died in the 1980s. Certainly I use the more efficient fluorescent coils rather than bulbs, but I probably have ten times as many light sources in my house as my grandparents did, even when electricity replaced their kerosene lamps. Fridge, stove, freezer, two microwaves, smoke detectors, dishwasher, five light sources, and a radio all draw power in only one room of the house; some of those draw power twenty four hours a day. That’s not even mentioning the heat pump, water heater, WiFi, and night lights that perpetually draw small amounts of electricity from the grid and contribute to light and heat pollution.
And I am firmly on the conservationist side of the bell curve.
Clearly, worrying about it and doing the politically correct things – separating recyclables, going on a family bike ride in place of a Sunday drive, turning the thermostat down at night, choosing low-wattage Christmas lights – isn’t enough. The problems caused by our human footprint on Planet Earth are getting worse and they’re getting worse at an increasing rate. So where do we go from here?
Obviously we have to step up our efforts to minimise our energy consumption. Nevertheless our energy requirements will continue to grow; no matter how assiduously we try to reduce the amount of energy we use daily, the demand will continue to increase with technological advances and population growth. And this is happening at the same time as we are beginning to see the end of the oil supply coming at us with increasing velocity.
So while, as Pogo so clearly saw it, the enemy is most certainly us, there are other villains at whom we need to keep a vigilant eye squinted. The enemy is us, because we just cannot seem to wean ourselves off dependence on fossil fuels. But lurking behind our addiction is the greatest enabler of them all…our suppliers. Like all suppliers of powerfully addictive substances, oil companies have a vested interest in ensuring that we remain reliant on their product as long as they have some to sell. And bewilderingly, despite the fact that these same companies are more profitable now than they have ever been, the right wing insists on providing them with billions and billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies each year. They scoff at any attempt to address environmental issues and regard any investment in alternative energy sources to be an indulgent waste of money.
What is absolutely, unquestionably, crystal clear is that we will run out of oil. If our civilisation is to survive we must have alternative sources of clean, renewable energy; our society will collapse when the oil runs out if there is nothing to replace it, and the earth will undergo catastrophic climate disruptions if we were to continue to use a fuel as damaging to the planet as fossil fuels.
This first in a series of pieces on environmental issues will leave the topic for now with just one recommendation. Since our oil companies are as addicted to public largesse as we are to its oil, it is unlikely that the enormous grants and subsidies will end any time soon. With that in mind, what ought to happen is that those subsidies need to come with a very simple string attached: 50% of the corporate welfare must be dedicated to R & D of alternative energy sources. The oil companies could even keep all patents and profits from the results of such research and development. How could big oil object? They would create a new revenue stream to replace the old obsolescent one; they would ensure their own survival for the ages.
An alternative, and frankly one I would prefer, would be to take those same billions of dollars and fund individuals and small research groups and companies engaged in alternative energy development. With that kind of funding and the native ingenuity of the human race in the face of a crisis, I have no doubt that the race might survive. Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen.