News of the recent death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, was a release mechanism for a lot of pent-up memories. Like me, Neil was born in the decade leading up to the Second World War. The “Silent Generation” was one label applied to people born in that era, and was apparently coined by Time magazine, who described us as ”grave and fatalistic, conventional, possessing confused morals, and expecting disappointment but desiring faith”. Hardly an accurate description of Neil Armstrong. I too would certainly not want to lay claim to any of it, except maybe for the “fatalistic” and “expecting disappointment” bits.
I can recall exactly where I was at 17 minutes and 39 seconds past 1 p.m. PST on Sunday 20 July 1969 when the Eagle touched down on the moon – 25 kilometres south of Hebo, Oregon. I was an impoverished grad student in a clapped-out Ford making my first-ever visit to the Pacific Northwest. National Public Radio was broadcasting the landing live, and I decided on safety first for my long-suffering wife and two small kids, rather than trying to listen to the radio and simultaneously negotiate the tight curves on the forest highway. The kids lost interest and wandered off to watch the chipmunks, and I was left marvelling at the historic moment and somewhat in awe of American prowess in science and space technology.
I still am. Looking at the latest imagery coming from Curiosity on Mars, one has to marvel at the intellectual power that can design and send an unmanned craft 560 million kilometers from earth to Mars and land it safely while retaining full operational capability. And then I wonder why the same intellectual power gets shelved when my American friends turn their attention to other things, like building automobiles, managing their vast wealth, managing their own environment, or winning wars.
During my grad days in the U.S. of A., that country was in the process of losing a war in Vietnam. They subsequently went on to lose one in Iraq, and are now pretty busy losing yet another in Afghanistan. It was a naturalized American – Albert Einstein – who famously said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I don’t think Einstein was thinking of war in that context, but it’s obvious the Americans aren’t very good at it.
Not that there wasn’t great protest to the Vietnam War in the decade when Neil Armstrong made his historic flight to the moon. University campuses were humming with marches, speeches and placard carriers. Except in Utah where I was – trust me to wind up in the most conservative state of the union. But we did get the benefit of the musical spin-offs from the protest movement. There will never be another Pete Seeger or another Joan Baez.
In my tiny cubicle in the grad student room I had a poster pinned to the wall “The Effluent Society”. It showed a huge factory spewing out huge quantities of luridly coloured smoke and murky fluids. The title was a take-off on the famous 1958 book by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. All the grad students had similar posters on their walls, except for Smith who had a Playboy bunny.
Which reminds me (the effluents that is, not the bunny) that the sixties was when environmental impact assessment first became policy in the U.S. The man who signed the National Environmental Policy Act was, of all people, President Richard Nixon, one of the most conservative of latter day presidents. At the signing ceremony he said “A major goal for the next 10 years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air and the water, and that means moving also on the broader problems of population congestion, transport and the like. Congress has acted very commendably in setting up the Environmental Council by this bill, and we already have an environmental council within the administration. A great deal more needs to be done There are many areas where you can work, maybe this year or 5 years or 10 years from now. But this is an area where we have to do it now. We may never have a chance later. That is the way I feel.” I can only conclude that the definition of conservative has changed radically since then!
We thought we were living in exciting times back in the Armstrong years. We had no idea. We had never contemplated the possibility of climate change, we had no inkling of the coming internet, laptop computers were at least two decades down the road. When Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was released we were awed by the concepts and the story, but credibility? I was carrying my thesis data around in boxes containing hundreds and hundreds of Hollerith cards, and here was Kubrick depicting a master computer which spoke, reasoned and listened (although not too well). Phooey.
And there is precisely the problem we elders have today. Most of what Kubrick showed us back then was to become factual down the road, but we would never have believed it. The best I can do in the prognostication business is to state that technologically, the sky is indeed the limit. We will explore the universe, one way or another. We will employ technology to achieve amazing things in medicine, science, energy and computing. But we will continue to founder within our own societies, our own communities, and with one another. As far as social science is concerned, we’ll just have to take it one day at a time, and deal with it the best we can.
(I invite all elders to contribute to this theme. I’m told you all have stories to tell).
Naramata Centre – a green, leafy place on the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake, British Columbia. For more than 60 years it has been a haven for learning, spiritual nurture and renewal. Over the course of a July week, with the outdoor temperature easily leaping over 30oC, a group of us sought out a quiet, shady spot and gathered in a circle to have a conversation about the world and our place in it. We were mainly elders hailing from B.C. and Alberta, some from Saskatchewan and Ontario and one all the way from California.
Earlier in the day a small group of dedicated organizers had spoken to us, sung to us and exhorted us to take on the task of healing our afflicted planet. They regaled us with images and headlines of global climate change, vanishing species and troubled times. In grand biblical fashion they marched us around a hall where 12 gates had been set up, these made not from ancient stone but from board and paper on which we could scribble our concerns, thoughts and intentions. The gates were labelled Education, Politics, Alternative Economy, Waste, Energy, Neighbourhood, Earthly Kinship, Travel, Spirituality, Food, Water and Stuff.
And then we were sent off to form the conversation circle to express our own views and thoughts on the global crisis. No debates, no critiques, no defences needed against opposing views. We could say whatever we wanted. The outflowing comments were every bit as diverse as the underlying issues and concerns, but gradually some patterns started to emerge. With a little sifting, grouping and clarification we started coming up with some core thoughts and concerns which I share here.
Our view of the global scene:
- it’s not a black and white world, and we often seem paralyzed by the complexity of the gray distinctions;
- what’s happening in our familiar little piece of the globe keeps us from seeing the big picture clearly;
- sometimes what’s happening nationally and globally is so big it paralyzes us.
The global crisis is leading to personal conflict:
- growing awareness of the issues produces a sense of inner conflict;
- we feel conflicted by our lifestyles and the footprint of our well-intentioned activities, e.g. the carbon footprint of travel to reach transforming places;
- and yet, inner conflict can be good when it leads to growth and action;
- we will have to be willing to risk being in conflict about things that matter deeply to us.
- it takes courage to be distressed;
- there is spirituality in all peoples and in Creation.
- we are developing an encouraging level of consciousness;
- when the knowing/awareness moves from our heads to our hearts, it transforms us;
- we benefit from stopping and witnessing ourselves.
We noted that:
- change is inevitable;
- little things make a difference (one starling in a murmuration?);
- we live in a society that encourages polarization of views and attitudes;
- we tend to hold individual positions rather than search for common interests.
We enquired amongst ourselves as to what skills would be good in dealing with the situation?
- the skill to understand how the issue affects all parties;
- the skill to develop consensus (getting to that place where everyone involved can say, “I can live with that”);
- the skill to move the discussion from something based on individual position to one of common interest;
- the skill to deepen our spiritual practices
- the skill to understand what it means that everything is connected (a gentle spider-web?)
- the skill to hold an awareness of hope, energy, and spirit.
There was nothing particularly unique about our conversation under the green canopies of Naramata this past summer day. Thousands of discussions and conversations just like it go on every day across the land. But that’s the point. If more and more elders sit and talk the situation over with intention and spirit, then more and more will contribute to the great pool of realization as to where we are, where we’re going, and what we need to do personally to move to something better.
[with thanks to Tim Scorer for keeping the notes on which this report is based]
Four days. Four events. Each brings engagement with determined, passionate and thoughtful folks acting for the environment.
Note to self: Balance is needed! Walking and talking with others beats the gloomy environmental news of the day.
Event One: I see the future and it is now. To whit – on March 27, in an SFU hall filled with the energy of several hundred young people, the One Earth Initiative-sponsored We Canada group ended their 16 city cross-Canada “engaging civil society” marathon. We Canada’s purpose? To dialogue with elementary, high school and university students about the how and what of a Canadian strategy proposal for the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development ( Rio 20+). From Corner Brook to Victoria – 8,000 young people reached in eight weeks. Results? Consensus on three big “policy asks” for these young Canadians to champion at Rio on our behalf :
- Measuring What Matters – Beyond GDP
- Getting the Prices Right (eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and putting a price on carbon
- Making Trade Fair (public procurement policies).
This old organizing pro observed inclusive process, informed content and brilliant use of high tech and social media. Of course – they are under 30!
The well pitched presentation included Severn Cullis-Suzuki then – at age 12, delivering her famously moving 1992 Rio speech, and Severn now – a veteran international environmental campaigner and mother of two, now inspiring young(er) people to believe that We Can have an impact. There was acknowledgement of Canada’s past role in progressive international environmental work, an obvious deep desire to occupy that place again, and clear commitment to make it happen. For the We Canada background policy documents, and ways to support this fine work by young Canadians who have taken up the torch, (do check out their sample letter to Canada’s Environment Minister!) go to http://earthsummit.ca/
Note to self: Remember when I was 29 and everything was possible? It still is.
Event Two: The timing was perfect. Inside the Art Gallery, as evidenced by the dramatic banner hanging over its Georgia Street steps – an exhibit entitled “Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture.” Outside the Art Gallery, a formidable line up of elder Chiefs and young leaders from our coastal First Nations lay down an eloquent defense of the lands and waters we all live on and by against the incursion across them of pipelines and oil tankers carrying tar sands bitumen.
It is noon Monday, March 26. In the chilly rain 1200 people, including a clutch of Suzuki Elders, listen to these proud, respectful and articulate “radicals:” Actor Tantoo Cardinal; SFU professor Mark Jaccard; Wilderness Committee’s Ben West; 11 year old Sliammon singer Ta’Kaiya Blaney; 350.org’s founder Bill McKibben – visiting from America; Forest Ethic’s Nikki Skuce; Jim Britton from the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union; Kids for Climate Action’s Sophie Harrison; Greenpeace Tar Sands Campaigner Melina Laboucan-Massimo; Heiltsuk Chief Edwin Newman; Union of BC Indian Chiefs’ Stewart Phillips; Ruben George, Sundance Chief from the Tsleil-Waututh people of Burrard Inlet; and Art Sterritt , Executive Director of the Coastal First Nations group. Organizers ensured a range of perspectives were presented – from no tankers, no pipelines, no tar sands development, to the rights of Aboriginal people, to the spiritual value of our shared lands and waters, the future of our grandchildren, all carefully overlaid with words about the necessary coming shift to alternate energies and a no/low carbon future. Hear all the speeches at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2sA0OFpWgU
Note to self: Be a witness to the voices. Always show up. It matters.
Event Three: What do some retired North Shore folks do on a Tuesday morning? Well, 25 of them arrive at Capilano University’s Eldercollege to listen and engage with Suzuki Elders presenting a six part environmental series “Transition to the Future.” Over many planning meetings, Elders pull together our own expertise, find the best resource material, and design discussion strategies. On these March and April Tuesday mornings we present on approaching the limits, energy in transition, technological solutions, re-thinking our relationship with earth, telling a better story, and how we will get there – - from here. Attendees respond warmly, are open to learning, and are supported by us to share outwards amongst friends, family and community.
Note to self: This too is good work. We are still in the game.
Event Four: On the first warm spring day, a Saturday afternoon to boot, you’d think attending an annual general meeting would be last on anyone’s do list. But on March 24, Suzuki Elders and friends show up to our AGM to hear about constitutions, strategic plans, and vote in Elder Council members (check out the Suzuki Elder website (https://sites.google.com/site/eldersdsf). Then, as invited, our retiring (and eldest) Suzuki Elder Phillip Hewett stretches his lanky 87 year old frame out of a chair to tell us the 16 year story of the Council of Elders at the David Suzuki Foundation. He’s been with us since the beginning, and now, as the Elders are reinvigorated with new members and infrastructure, he’s letting go. Something about needing time to write his memoirs and climb the local mountains more often! The last enviro rally I attended with Phillip was on a hot August afternoon at pipeline giant Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby refinery and docks. After the speeches, as we trudged back up the hill, I wondered out loud – you know – the “we are so small – they are so big” lament. Without missing a beat, Phillip called up words (as is his forte, being a retired Unitarian Minister), these from Vaclav Havel, and said, “We do it …..because it is the right thing to do.”
Note to self: Yes. And thank-you Phillip for your years of doing it.
by Jim Park
There has been much concern voiced lately over the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (ENGP) which, if built, would traverse northern British Columbia and deliver bitumen to a deepwater tanker terminal at Kitimat, B.C.
Loudest amongst the voices heard are those who oppose the pipeline for a variety of reasons, and make use of the media and public meetings to make their objections known, often in emotion-coloured messages. One message, currently circulating online, shows a video of 10-year old Ta‘Kaiya Blaney from the Sliammon First Nation band in North Vancouver singing a song of protest against ENGP.
The displays of public emotion have drawn some criticism from observers. They note that the people making the emotional responses have no technical knowledge of the issues involved in pipeline projects and cannot provide any useful expertise in reaching a decision as to whether the project should be built or not. In their view, these folks are simply repeating the anxiety that others have put into their minds. The use of a child as a tool to communicate objections to the project is seen as reprehensible and a form of child abuse.
However, for me, when reading or listening to these arguments, what comes to mind is the age-old struggle between the logical mind and the illogical emotions.
People with a scientific background have spent lifetimes approaching challenges and achieving goals using the scientific method: detailed observation, comprehensive and structured data collection, and objective analysis of the facts to reach repeatable conclusions. This is a good thing; it is the tool that helped us to achieve the scientific breakthroughs that created the high standard of living that we enjoy today.
However, those without a scientific background have never gained this tool or learned the discipline required to approach the physical universe from a non-anthropocentric perspective. They approach life from an instinctual, threat/reward-oriented, highly personal level. Some few have managed to harmonize the mental and emotional aspects of themselves, and have gained an inner peace with themselves and the world, in which they try and live a lifestyle of creative harmony with the natural and artificial worlds around them. To me, these are the wise ones.
As we all know, facts can be twisted into any shape that is desirable depending on the viewpoint of those paying our wages. Studies can be conducted and facts collected and analyzed about a given topic ad infinitum. This is how and why those interests opposed to the anthropogenic causes of climate change can keep delaying concrete action; introduce some doubt and uncertainty, whether factual or not, and science dictates that further analysis is required in order to “prove” the hypothesis one way or another, and nothing changes.
The danger of always approaching the complexities of life through scientific eyes is that we cut ourselves off from that which is being studied. We have to disconnect – that is what the objectivity of the scientific method is all about. The observer and the observed. The more distant we can be from that which is being studied, the better. And it is here where the underlying problem resides. When we try and use logic to explain everything, we don’t feel an emotional connection to anything.
Many of those who oppose the ENGP have experienced a strong emotional connection with the natural world, it’s beauty and complexity. They are the ones who can truly say “Mother Nature is hurting!” because they FEEL that hurt, whether it be the destruction of biomes, pollution of the earth, air and water, or the extinction of species. For many scientists, economic interests and politicians, to “feel” is anathema. As such, they tend to denigrate the weight and value of the opinions of those who “feel”.
Is it reprehensible to use children as tools to “communicate one’s objection to a project”? I find it reprehensible to use children as sexual objects as in the TV show “Tiaras and Toddlers“. I find it reprehensible to use animals in advertising. I find trophy hunting reprehensible. I find factory farming to be reprehensible. I find war and poverty and ignorance to be reprehensible. It is reprehensible what is being done to indigenous people downstream from the Alberta tar sands: polluted rivers with deformed, ulcer-ridden fish, a dramatic increase in cancers associated with petrochemicals. Sorry, can’t act on taking remedial action to improve living conditions for these people because the facts aren’t all in yet; there are conflicting studies. And while this endless argument goes on, people are getting sick.
In the final analysis it will be the children who inherit the world that we have created for them; they have to live in it. We’ll all be dead and buried in the not too distant future, and won’t have to worry about the “mistakes” that we have made, but they will be in their prime, and have to deal with the world that we have left them based on the decisions being made today.
To desire a natural and bounteous environment in which to grow up, have a family, and live a simpler yet fulfilling life in harmony with your surroundings is a pretty sane goal to me. To respect and love life in all its diversity, and to kill only for sustenance where that which is killed is wholesome and chemical-free is a worthy goal on my book. How much “technical knowledge” does a parent need to raise a healthy, well-adjusted child? How much “technical knowledge” is needed to simply say that I don’t want to take chances on my children’s future and don’t want potentially toxic pipelines in my backyard?
When it comes to taking action to prevent further degradation of our planet, and to nurture the recovery of the natural world for future generations, then I believe children should stand with their loved ones on the front lines. If the emotional impact of seeing and hearing the voices of children will hasten the speed of positive change in our world, then they have my blessing.
Whatever our individual beliefs as to the percentages between natural cyclical and human-induced causes for climate change, the natural world is very sick and changing rapidly and we had better start working together to heal it and identify remedial options. This can best be done by acknowledging both the logical and emotional components of the problems that we face and finding holistic solutions for each of them.
The most important thing out of Durban to understand is that we have not yet succeeded in moving the world away from a dangerous trajectory towards well above two degrees of global warming.
In Durban, the political space has been kept alive for further negotiations, but without political will leading to a big increase in mitigation action from developed countries, and investment to support such action in the larger developing countries, global temperatures will continue to rise, moving the world from increasingly frequent extreme climatic events towards tipping points and catastrophe.
The period between now and 2020 is a crucial time for action. To raise our chances of stabilising the climate (i.e. preventing a temperature rise of more than 2°C), climate science indicates that 2020 is the latest date by which emissions must have peaked and begun to decline. A legally binding agreement requiring emissions cuts from all countries before 2020 is doubtful, and thus a disaster waiting to unfold.
An increase in global temperatures of 4°C is potentially a death sentence for many countries in Africa, many Small Island States, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide.
The negotiations on adaptation were aimed at following up the agreement in Cancun last year to establish the Adaptation Framework. Agreement was reached in Durban on four elements of this:
1. Guidance on the Preparation of National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) was agreed. This is for least developed countries and other developing countries who wish. NAPs were agreed to be country driven, participatory and gender‐sensitive, and fit in with other national planning and development strategies, hence the guidance is not prescriptive. The agreement last year indicated that funding would be provided to meet the cost of plan preparation, and later, implementation. In Durban, all that was agreed was that an existing fund, the Least Developed countries Fund, may now also support National Adaptation Plans. This fund was established to support an earlier set of plans for least developed countries (National Adaptation Programmes of Action, (NAPAs)), which were actually defined as short term projects.
The main problems with this are that this fund, managed by the GEF, has been very slow to disburse funds to countries, and developed countries are requested to support NAP preparation, either in bilateral arrangements or through making contributions to the LDC Fund. Until long term finance is agreed, and flowing into the Green Climate Fund, the outlook for adequate support for adaptation is bleak.
2. Establishment of an Adaptation Committee was agreed. The Adaptation Committee will be the overall advisory body to the COP that will oversee all of the different adaptation activities under the UNFCCC. Its remit will be to ensure effective sharing of information on good practice in adaptation and coordination between the various regional and UN bodies that work on adaptation, as well as with other centres and networks. The Committee will have scope to organise workshops, commission reports, and establish expert groups, to assist in its work.
The Committee’s composition has been agreed, and will have a developing country majority, and while governments nominate the members, they are encouraged to nominate people with relevant expertise. The committee is encouraged to involve civil society and other relevant bodies in its work, and the meetings will be open to observers. The work programme for the first three years of the committee is to be drawn up during 2012 for approval by COP 18.
3. Agreement was reached on Loss and Damage due to Climate Change. This is related to the impacts of extreme weather events and slow onset events, and how to manage the risk associated with them. A work programme during 2012 will hold workshops and prepare reports for consideration at COP 18. This agreement was a stronger outcome than we expected.
4. Agreement on two further years of knowledge sharing and capacity building programme on understanding the impacts of climate change, and adaptation. There will be workshops on water, climate impacts and adaptation, and on ecosystem‐based adaptation. Support will be developed on national adaptation planning. The two year programme is to be undertaken with close involvement of partner organisations, who are invited to share their ideas for further activities within the programme, and to offer support to meet the needs of governments.
Technology & Adaptation
Decisions on technology were linked with decisions on adaptation, since access to knowledge and technologies is vital for enabling adaptation. This led to the establishment of the Technology Executive Committee, and the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN). Key roles of the CTCN include:
- Identifying currently available climate friendly technologies for mitigation and adaptation that meet their key low‐carbon and climate‐resilient development needs; and
- Facilitating adaptation and the deployment of currently available technologies to meet local needs and circumstances. An open tender process will be invited for hosting the Climate Technology Centre in 2012.
The Road Ahead
All of these fairly positive decisions have to be seen against the backdrop of postponement of strong and binding emissions targets on developed countries, and a lack of commitment on finance after the end of 2012. In this context, adaptation will become extremely difficult for many communities, and poorer countries will struggle to develop and implement programmes to help protect their people.
Rachel Berger is the Practical Action Climate Change Policy Advisor, DEW Point Development Resource Centre, United Kingdom. The news item has been reproduced with the kind permission of DEW Point.
It’s a funny old world. The simplest things can turn out to be complicated once you start examining and questioning. Which is often why most people avoid talking about issues and ideas and instead concentrate on simpler things. Like themselves.
Just such a question arose earlier this past year, prior to the Canadian federal elections. The Suzuki Elders drafted a memo to federal politicians urging them to consider the long-term effects of reckless resource exploitation on our grandchildren’s future. We were thinking specifically of climate change and actions which lead up to it, e.g. massive additions of carbon to the global atmosphere from Canadian sources such as the tar-sands. But, someone observed, most elected politicians also have children, and grandchildren too in some cases. Why aren’t they equally concerned about these issues and the future?
I actually tried to find out the answer to that. I wrote a letter to my MP (a Progressive Conservative) who has two children in high school and asked him that very question. The response was somewhat underwhelming. He thanked me for my continued support and urged me to contribute to the party coffers.
So let me try an analytical approach. I know two individuals who typify very different environmental attitudes. I am going to examine their stories and see if I can detect any significant contributory factors.
Denzel Smith is a 36 year-old graphics designer, married with two small children, and owns a heavily-mortgaged house in Dunbar, Vancouver. He also owns a 10-year-old Toyota, two mountain bikes and a 52-inch television set. He has hiked the West Coast Trail a dozen times, and in summer hauls his wife and kids around the province on camping trips. He is a member of one racquet-ball club and three organizations which promote environmental conservation and green living. Denzel has attended numerous protest meetings and demonstrations against hot topics like the tar sands, oil pipelines and tanker traffic along the B.C. coast. He identifies with the underlying driving forces behind the current Occupy Movement, but considers the implementation as hopelessly misguided and ineffectual.
Just 1350km to the east, in Rosedale, Calgary, lives Justin Smith, aged 33. He is a part-owner of an electronics supply store. He too is married, and has two small children. He has a mountain bike and lots of other toys as well, including a Toyota FJ Cruiser, a Kawasaki Ninja 1000 which his wife detests, and a spanking new powerboat which spends eight months of the year behind his garage swathed in a blue tarpaulin. Justin is a member of a winter health club. In summer he rides, boats and jogs, sometimes with his family, sometimes alone. Justin supports oil and gas development in his home province, including the pipelines being proposed to carry tar-sands oil to the U.S. and to Asia via terminals on the B.C. coast. Although he doesn’t do business with the oil industry, he is disdainful of west coast environmental groups who oppose energy developments in Alberta, referring to them as wackos, parasites and socialistic job destroyers.
These two Smiths typify two different attitudes to the environment. Justin regards the natural world as an opportunity to test his mettle – a muddy track to be conquered by four-wheel drive, a lake to be crossed at full throttle, a prairie highway to be covered at the fastest speed possible on two wheels. He sees resource development and extraction in any form as economically imperative, necessary for progress and something which should logically be entrusted to private enterprise. He maintains that the critical bottom line will always point the way to a safe and appropriate scope of development.
Meanwhile, back in Lotus Land, Denzel thinks of his environment as a fabric, something in which he can immerse himself. He uses his bike as an exploration device. He knows every nook and cranny of the Endowment Lands that he rides through. He can identify a few hundred bird species and just about every common tree and native plant he encounters on his hikes. He is content to spend hours sitting on a rock next to a creek staring at everything or nothing in particular while the kids play in the rock pools. He is an urban dweller and a typical user of materials and resources that a modern life-style requires. He has no strong feelings about most developments, he just objects strongly to single-focussed massive exploitation with huge impacts and huge implications for other users and for long-term sustainability.
One thing I forgot to mention about these two Smiths. They are brothers. Both born, raised and schooled in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where their parents still live. Both brothers attended the University of Regina, from where Denzel made his way across the Rockies to B.C., while Justin chose the shorter hop to Calgary. The Smith boys see each other once or twice a year, usually at Thanksgiving and usually at their parents’ home. Still one big happy family, although things can get heated if someone steals the last piece of pumpkin pie or mentions things like tar-sands or fracking. So the Smiths are brothers and share the same parents, same upbringing, same schools, same social backgrounds, but they differ totally in their environmental perceptions.
When you search textbooks and web pages to find a basic reason or set of reasons why individuals differ in their fundamental attitude to the environment, you usually encounter the name of the late Lynn White, a professor of history. In a much quoted 1967 essay White famously targeted Christianity as the root cause of environmental degradation because of its core beliefs that humans are fundamentally distinct from the rest of nature, and that nature is present merely to serve human ends. He contrasted this with pagan animism in which all things are deemed to possess, or be associated with, life spirits and this leads to an associated level of moral constraint. White’s often-quoted thesis understandably has caused much ecclesiastical furore and a large number of rebuttals over the years. From my perspective I think the professor may have been a little too cloistered down at UCLA. A tour through Hindu India, Muslim Indonesia or communist China might have convinced him otherwise. In any event, the religious aspect doesn’t figure in my Smithian analysis – the last time either Smith boy ventured near a church was in 1998 when Grandma was laid to rest.
Amongst the published rebutters of White, the name of Lewis Moncrieff is most often cited. His proposition is that environmental attitudes have their roots not in theology but in the kind of western culture that has developed over the past few centuries. Two key revolutionary changes laid the foundations for the evolution of modern society – (1) a trend towards more equitable distribution of power and wealth by evolving democratic political structures, and (2) dramatic increases in the production of goods and services through scientific and technological development. As a consequence of industrialization, people moved from the country into metropolitan centres, increased the demand for goods and services, and increased the density of the by-products of human consumption (e.g. pollution, habitat loss, etc.).
I can relate both Smiths to this theory, but at different levels. Denzel’s worldview exemplifies the first part, i.e. more equitable distribution of power and wealth by evolving democratic political structures, although Denzel himself would argue that the trend now seems to be the other way. Justin reflects the second part – increasing the production of goods and services through scientific and technological development.
For Justin, as with so many people today, the end point is what counts. He is focused on the outputs of the industrial process – the cars, the bikes, the cell phones, the toys, the wine, the food. The consumerist credo of the 21st century tells him that’s just great and urges him to buy a few more goodies. Or sell a few more from his business. The processes by which all these products are created and the by-products of their creation such as wastes and industrial emissions don’t generally show up on his radar, and those that do are dismissed as ‘collateral damage’. He uses cool military jargon he picked up from playing Modern Warfare 2 on his Xbox. For Justin, big energy developments such as the tar sands and long range oil pipelines are triumphs of technological innovation, drivers of employment and the economy at all levels – local, provincial, national and even international for those lucky countries queuing up to buy Canada’s oil.
Denzel’s primary focus, on the other hand, is the hugely complex system which provides all these material benefits. He is all too aware of the vast array of interconnections in the real world. All the components that go into Justin’s cars, bikes and electronics, and all the ingredients needed to make the food and drink he consumes come from somewhere and are themselves part of complex production and extraction processes. The materials all have to go somewhere after they’ve been used, consumed, excreted, trashed or crashed into a tree. The modern industrial world is running out of absorption capacity for all this stuff – the garbage dumps are full, the oceans can’t take any more plastic and effluents, the atmosphere’s carbon load is starting to show up as bad news for the climate. Denzel sees the signs and evidence all around him – he notices such things.
Denzel doesn’t dispute the value of resources or the jobs their extraction and transportation generate. He just doesn’t think the material benefits are worth the massive environmental and social costs. He thinks the whole concept of exporting tar sands oil is illogical anyway. While Canada spends billions in energy conservation and other programmes to try and keep carbon emissions as low as possible, it sells huge quantities of high-carbon oil to countries who burn it and dump more carbon back into the global climate than Canada saves though conservation programmes in the first place.
So when the inevitable question comes from across the Thanksgiving dinner table “What else you got in mind, dude? You got another way of converting lots of oil, which we have, into dollars and jobs which we want?” Denzel quietly helps himself to the last pour of wine in the bottle and replies “Leave the damned stuff where it is. It’s been lying there for a hundred million years. It will keep until we have better technology, of which you’re so fond, to make more intelligent use of it”.
While neuroscientists are pushing the boundaries of their science and uncovering the highly complicated relationship between neural pathways and behavioural patterns, geneticists and molecular biologists have developed equally spectacular technologies and methods for linking human behaviour to specific genes and genetic patterns. Mark my words –its only a matter of time before scientists uncover a Green Gene. Denzel has it and Justin doesn’t. Probably as simple as that.
by Bob Worcester
Whisper out loud the name of someone you know that could be affected by catastrophic climate change. Making it personal is hard to do but necessary. Climate change is potentially the single most critical issue humanity will face in the 21st century. If it does not affect some of us directly now, it will affect those we love and care about. Why, in the 40 or so years that we have known that catastrophic climate change is possible, have we, as individuals, a nation or a species, not taken effective action to avert this possibility? We can focus primarily on the psychological dimension of this problem but political, economic and cultural factors also constrain affective action on climate change.
The people who engage seriously in genuine climate research are saying that burning fossil fuels is contributing to dramatic changes in the climate that lie outside the range of previous human experience and possibly beyond the limits of human ingenuity to intervene. Some concerned scientists indicated in the 1990s that there was a 10-20 year window of opportunity to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHG) to safe levels before the worst effects of climate change became inevitable. It has been over 20 years now and very little has been done to curb GHG emissions and there is nothing on the public policy horizon for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, public interest in the issue has been declining recently as massive PR campaigns and powerful lobbies promote “ethical oil” from the tar sands, “clean coal” and cynical “scepticism” to obscure the issues and to polarize and paralyze the political process. They have been quite successful at doing that.
Like many people I find this deeply discouraging, particularly because my children and grandchildren will likely suffer the consequences. So the question is “why have efforts to address climate change failed and what, if anything, can be learned from that failure?” The issue is complicated and can be examined at the personal, political and cultural levels of analysis.
Psychologists focus their attention on individuals and it is not hard to see why many individuals find it difficult to get their heads around the idea of catastrophic climate change. The consequences of climate change can be literally “unthinkable.” An inability to acknowledge something that is very stressful has been called “denial” and is seen as a highly ineffective coping strategy. “Denial” is, however, a strong word that suggests a powerful motivation to ignore reality to a pathological degree. Here is a list of more commonly available cognitive strategies with examples that psychologists have identified.
- “Cognitive dissonance reduction” refers to the general human tendency to maintain the perception of “consistency” between what we think and what we do. When there is an inconsistency we will either change our thoughts or our actions. For example – “I am a good person who would not knowingly endanger the safety of my children, yet when I am driving them to hockey I might use my cell phone. I might slightly exceed the speed limit. I might skip doing up their seat belt if it’s just a short trip. I might even have a drink or two or three for the road.” How would I deal with the “dissonance” if these inconsistencies were pointed out to me? I can change my behaviour or I can change my perception of what is an acceptable risk.If I can see the odds of an accident as a reasonably acceptable “one in a million” then I am still a good person.If driving my car has an “unlikely” relationship to the droughts in Africa then I am still OK. Since the actual risk is “uncertain” my perceptions can be flexible and easier to change than my actual behaviour.
- People generally find it difficult to relate to low probabilities, to distant events and to long time frames. What are the odds that we will have a Fukushima-scale quake by next Friday? Next year? It happened “way over there” and it may not happen here for decades. This is not a “denial” that there an earthquake problem, it may simply be a limitation on our cognitive abilities.
- Most people have a localized “hierarchy of needs.” Immediate needs often trump more important ones. We feed our dogs but not the homeless. We would take the bus if we only had more time. We tend to prioritize our family first, our neighbours second and the rest of the world if we can get around to it later.
- Rationalizations are like mental offsets. A token effort relieves us of the obligation to do more. “I drove my car today but I rode my bike last week and I bought a local $2 garlic at the farmers’ market.”
- Psychological reactance is the reaction to imposed restrictions. We tend to find that the things we can’t have become more attractive. “Don’t tell me to have a nice day! – I WANT shark fin soup and a HUMMER!”
- Reduced self-efficacy is the feeling that “I can’t do everything, I might as well do nothing besides there is really nothing I can do.”
- The “rose-coloured glass effect” is a common psychological defence against negative outcomes. “Things will work out somehow, someday”. “Technology will save us.” “We always muddle through.”
- Cynicism relieves us of the need to take something seriously. `”76% of all statistics are made up”. “I don’t trust government, the media, grant hungry scientists or scruffy environmentalists.”
- Social identity protection helps us maintain our sense of ourselves despite negative feedback. “I am not a latte-sucking Kitsilano yuppie who can afford a Prius – I like trucks – BIG trucks!”
- Social norm conformity — we all have a strong desire to appear “normal” to our peers. “Everyone around here commutes by car and no one here recycles except those tree huggers.”
- Uncertainty /complexity paralysis can occur when there are strong conflicting possibilities. “Let’s just wait and see.” “Its better to do nothing than the wrong thing.” “I don’t know where to begin.”
- Selective attention and confirmation bias filters information to fit the way we see the world. “It’s cold today – what does that say about global warming?”
- The “Cassandra effect” is our habituation to repeated alarms – terror attacks, pandemics, asteroids, earthquakes, ozone depletion, floods, forest fires, famines, tsunamis and radioactive fallout.
- The “commons effect” is the feeling that my contribution to a problem is so small, how could it matter? “If I idle my car for 5 minutes it produces 100 grams of CO2. When a jumbo jet takes off it produces a tonne. It would take thousands of idling cars to match that!”
- Habitual behaviour is hard to change and the familiar is usually preferred. “I like my old gas guzzler and I think incandescent light is nicer than fluorescent lighting.”
- Apathy can help cope with the unthinkable. “We are here for a good time not a long time – it’s not really my concern.”
This is not an exhaustive list of mental strategies. The key is recognizing ineffective coping strategies and taking steps toward dealing effectively with a real problem. It may also be necessary to take these strategies into account when developing messages and proposing actions to deal with these difficult issues. People respond differently to the same information and “doom and gloom” scenarios are understandably hard to deal with. Psychology focuses on individual reactions but group dynamics are also important. The sociology of climate change denial, however, is a topic for another day. These cognitive factors suggest ways of approaching individuals who are attempting to deal with their role in climate change. Here are some suggestions.
- Deal with information, motivation and behaviour related to climate change holistically.
- Acknowledge the emotions created by the prospects for catastrophic change particularly fear, grief and anger (Joanna Macy).
- Moderate “alarm reactions” with specific suggestions to avoid the danger.
- Recognize or reframe the issues as national defence, public health, religious-ethical as well as “environmental” issues.
- Stress success and possibilities over “doom and gloom”. There are LOTS of good examples in books and on TV!
- Recognize diverse personal interests and social constituencies and work within their unique narratives: urban – rural, male – female, young – old, liberal – conservative, knowledgeable – naive.
- Connect people’s immediate needs and interests to the long term goals of “sustainability.”
- Build community “interdependence.” Caring and consideration for “seven generations” got our species through the last million years of evolution and is probably our best shot for the next million years.
In an ideal world, inexpensive, reliable, and safe sources of green energy would abound, and we could avoid using energy derived from either nuclear fission or coal burning. But we’re not there yet, and with climate change already affecting life on our planet, most of us believe that we need to move quickly to using clean energy sources to limit the rise in global temperature caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
In a talk on energy and climate entitled, “Innovating to Zero”, Microsoft’s Bill Gates gives a compelling argument for why we need nuclear power in an age of increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 . Using a simple equation, he argues that CO2 is a product of the number of people on the planet, the services delivered per person, the energy needed per service, and the amount of CO2 produced by each unit of energy. The first two are heading up and are unlikely to be stopped. The cost of energy is decreasing, but not enough. So that leaves the fourth factor. We must use energy that does not produce greenhouse gases, but we need reliable energy – energy that’s available when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Gates believes that nuclear power offers this promise and should be part of the mix, especially if improved (safer) technology is employed. Energy conservation should be a viable way to transition from dirty to clean energy, but increases in services delivered per person along with a growing population would quickly eat up conservation savings.
Like coal power, nuclear power is economical and does not fluctuate as much as wind or solar power. Unlike coal, it is considered clean in terms of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the power plant itself, although uranium mining and processing are not without risks and environmental impact. But the public is overly fearful of nuclear power, seeing it as an accident waiting to happen and, when it does, likely to adversely affect millions. Of equal concern, radioactive wastes from power plants accumulate and represent a threat by terrorists willing to handle the material, but this has not yet occurred. Accidents at nuclear power plants have the potential to be dangerous to the local population and environment as we’ve recently appreciated with the Fukushima disaster, and once long-lived radioactive elements like cesium-137 and strontium-90 are released, they can contaminate the surrounding land for decades. A case in point, the a 30 km exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl remains empty of people twenty-five years after that disaster.
Fortunately, nuclear power plant “accidents” that spread deadly isotopes are rare, and the planet has suffered only two (avoidable) serious events that rank at the top of the International Nuclear Event Scale. As serious as these events were, there were few immediate deaths. At Chernobyl, the nuclear core of a poorly designed and operated reactor exploded and was cast outside the facility. Thirty-two radiation workers died shortly after radiation exposure at Chernobyl. At Fukushima Daiichi, in spite of IAEA concerns, an older reactor was operating without adequate safety precautions to ensure reactor coolant in the event of an earthquake and tsunami. No one has died from acute radiation poisoning at Fukushima. Other than thyroid cancers (which are mitigated by potassium iodide tablets and easily treated) increases in the incidence of other types of cancer have not been conclusively linked to radiation from the Chernobyl accident . Cardis and colleagues  estimated that “of all the cancer cases expected to occur in Europe between 1986 and 2065, around 0.01% may be related to radiation from the Chernobyl accident”. Although a tiny percentage, this still represents a large number of excess cancer cases, more than 5000 to date. However, air pollution is estimated to end life prematurely in at least 17,000 US citizens per year  and up to 850,000 globally . A 2002 analysis by the International Energy Association concluded that nuclear power ranked much lower than coal in terms of impact on biodiversity, accidents, and health risks, and only ranked higher on risk perception .
When seen in comparison to the risks of deriving energy from burning coal, the evidence that deriving energy from nuclear power is dangerous remains relatively weak. It is the perceived threat that is strong, and this threat recently caused Germany to close eight of their nuclear power plants and to begin to phase out the remaining nine by 2022. Although the intent is to generate energy cleanly, almost half of the energy in Germany currently comes from coal, and it is difficult to believe that this percentage will not rise in the next few decades, thus contributing further to global warming.
Coal-derived power, in addition to being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and acid rain, is hardly safe. Thousands of coal miners die in accidents each year, and the public is susceptible to lung and heart effects from air-borne pollutants. In 2000, the Ontario Medical Association declared air pollution “a public health crisis”  and coal-fired power plants as the single largest industrial contributors to this crisis, producing carbon dioxide, fine particulates, and cancerous heavy metals including mercury. In 2005, the Ontario Medical Association estimated that air pollution costs the province more than six hundred million dollars per year in health care costs, as well as causing the premature deaths of thousands of Ontarians each year . Although of little health consequence, it is worth noting that burning coal produces fly ash that concentrates natural radioactive isotopes in excess of levels produced by nuclear power plants under normal operating conditions . Disposal of toxic coal combustion wastes, orders of magnitude larger in volume than nuclear wastes, has also come under scrutiny .
We constantly accept risks in our lives without giving it much thought. A person who smokes twenty cigarettes a day over their lifetime would shorten their life, on average, by six years. A person currently living 50 km from Fukushima who is exposed to an extra 3 mSv per year over their lifetime (the average background exposure is now greater than 3 mSv per year thanks to medical imaging) would shorten their life by 15 days . What cannot be easily evaluated, and is therefore ignored in these risk assessments, is the psychological trauma to evacuees and to those who fear the consequences of minimal radiation exposure because they do not comprehend the risks. Wild animals, ignorant of continuing radioactive decay, are now thriving in the Chernobyl exclusion zone .
Economic arguments favour the use of coal over nuclear power when waste management and decommissioning are taken into account. Nuclear plants are very expensive to build (and dismantle) although estimated capital costs for advanced coal plants with carbon control and sequestration appear to be on par with costs to build nuclear power plants . The cost to run and maintain coal plants can be higher than nuclear power plants, in part because of the transportation costs of coal. A major concern with both nuclear and coal power plants is that once the plants are built, they are likely to be around for a long time because the infrastructure is so costly to develop. Public pressure will be needed to ensure that these plants are closed as soon as clean energy sources become available.
In summary, although recent events at Fukushima warn us that safety standards and compliance must be improved, nuclear power plants operating normally produce less greenhouse gas and toxic emissions, less global environmental damage, and fewer health issues than coal-burning power plants. Neither represents a safe, sustainable, energy choice, but given a choice between these two, nuclear power comes out on top. According to Walter Keyes, a proponent of nuclear power who has worked as an energy consultant for the Saskatchewan and Federal governments, “If climate change really is the serious global issue that most scientists believe it is, there is a very limited amount of time to fix the problem and we should not be wasting valuable time debating which non GHG (green house gas) generation source is the best – we need them all, desperately!” .
1. Bill Gates on Energy: Innovating to Zero! TED talks, February, 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html
2. UN Summary of the Chernobyl Forum, Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts, IAEA, 2006. http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf
3. Cardis E, Krewski D, Boniol M, Drozdovitch V, Darby SC, Gilbert ES, et al. 2006. Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident Inter. J Cancer 119, 1224–1235 (2006).
4. US Environmental Protection Agency, Power plant, mercury and air toxics standards, March, 2011. http://www.epa.gov/airquality/powerplanttoxics/pdfs/overviewfactsheet.pdf
5. World Health Organization. Estimated deaths and DALYs linked to environmental risk factors. http://www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/countryprofilesebd.xls
6. International Energy Agency, Environmental and health impacts of electricity generation, June 2002 (Table 9.9) http://www.ieahydro.org/reports/ST3-020613b.pdf
7. Canadian Medical Association, June 27, 2000. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/201/300/cdn_medical_association/cmaj/cmaj_today/2000/06_27.htm
8. Ontario Medical Association Illness Costs of Air Pollution (ICAP) – Regional Data for 2005. https://www.oma.org/Resources/Documents/d2005IllnessCostsOfAirPollution.pdf
9. McBride JP, Moore RE, Witherspoon JP, Blanco, RE. Radiological impact of airborne effluents of coal and nuclear plants. Science, 202: 1045-1050, 1978.
11. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Instruction concerning risks from occupational radiation exposure. Regulatory Guide 8.29, Feb. 1996. http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/reg-guides/occupational-health/rg/8-29/08-029.pdf
12. Hinton TG, Alexakhim R, Balonov, M., Gentner N, Hendry J, Prister B, Strand P, Woodhead D. Radiation-induced effects on plants and animals: Finds of the United Nations Chernobyl Forum. Health Physics 93: 427-440, 2007.
13. US Department of Energy/Energy Information Administration, Levelized cost of new generation resources in the annual energy outlook 2011. http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/aeo/electricity_generation.html
14. Howell, G and Keyes W, Green (renewable) energy versus nuclear energy. Part five of an eight part written debate regarding nuclear power generation. Mile Zero News and Banner Post, March 17, 2010. http://www.computare.org/Support%20documents/Guests/MZN%20Nuclear%20Debate/5%20of%208%20Green%20Energy%20Howell-Keyes.pdf
The German sociologist and philosopher Habermas claims that individuals engage in discourse only when both participants have agreed that their information might be fallible. Otherwise, individuals judge the “other” and are not open to hear their arguments or to learn from them.
Consider the current climate change debate for example. How should one approach an audience that has a multitude of interests in climate change, such as employment, the welfare of their children, their recreation proclivities, and so forth? Their interests alone will lead to cognitive dissonance about this issue. Put another way, it is unreasonable for an environmentalist to engage with people about global warming if they approach the audience from the perspective that the science is settled and we know all the answers (sub-context: and you are wrong!).
Another approach might be to engage the public from the perspectives of critical[i] analysis and transformative learning methodologies. The following[ii] are suggested as key elements of critical analysis practice:
* consider multiple perspectives
* maintain an open perspective
* be active and conscious of “processing of one’s thoughts”
* examine, amongst other things, beliefs, goals, practices and social structures
* the goal of this reflective practice is to gain deeper insights that lead to action.
It should be noted that it is important we authentically hold the perspectives outlined above.
Reflection: when you last engaged with someone who doubted the truth of human-caused global warming, what were you thinking about the person with whom you were engaged? Were you prepared to hear (generous listening) their concerns and doubts? How did your beliefs and goals affect your communications with the other person?
Although linked to critical practice, transformative learning[iii] is a very different concern. Without going into a discussion of how the human mind makes meaning of reality, we do know that once meaning has been created it diminishes our awareness of how things really are in order to avoid anxiety, creating a zone of blocked attention and self-deception. Transformative learning means becoming critically aware of one’s own tacit assumptions and expectations of those of others and assessing their relevance for making an interpretation. Transformative learning is the application in an educational environment of critical reflection leading to perspective transformation. Transformative learning has as a goal unblocking blocked attention and self-deception.
In summary, to work with others to transform their understanding of the environment we must engage in transformative learning processes using the principles of critical analysis to support them in transforming their understanding of reality. At the same time we must be prepared to accept that we may be wrong. Science is premised on an understanding that current knowledge and theory is tentative or fallible (i.e. the best explanation we have, given the current information) and that theories must always be open to change.
If we try to engage with potential elders in any other way we will run into their blocked attention and self-deception. They will not join us.
[i] Critical in this context does not mean right or wrong rather it is an approach to how we think about issues akin to the “Socratic Method”
[ii] Meriam, Sharan B. Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide San Francisco Jossey-Bass, 2007
[iii] Mezirow, Jack Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning San Francisco Jossey-Bass, 1991
by Stan Hirst
Just one month ago the federal general elections in Canada put the Conservative Party firmly in power. Responses to the election outcome amongst environmental groups and environmentally-concerned individuals across the country ranged from disappointment to dismay to a number of other reactions, most of them negative.
The reason is not hard to discern. Conservatives in Canada are perceived as having an awful environmental track record. For the recent election, the Conservative Party‘s election platform contained not one word about environment. By contrast, the opposition Liberal Party promised to create clean energy jobs, invest in clean energy and energy efficiency, create a cap-and-trade system for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and to protect Canada’s air, oceans, waterways, forests and Arctic resources. The New Democratic Party’s platform proposed a shift away from fossil-fuel dependence, underlined the compatibility of environmental health and economic growth, and promised to develop green energy industries.
The future doesn’t seem to bode much better. The background documents for the June 2011 Conservative National Convention, at which future policy was set, contained just one short statement on an environmental topic, i.e. “we believe that an effective international emissions reduction regime on climate change must be truly global and must include binding targets for all the world’s major emitters, including China and the United States”.
Is this disconnect between conservatism and environmental consciousness in Canada typical of all conservatives or conservative governments? Consider the following statements from south of the 49th parallel.
- I do not intend that our natural resources should be exploited by the few against the interests of the many.
- The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists – they are too damn greedy.
- As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.
- The basic causes of our environmental troubles are complex and deeply embedded. They include: our past tendency to emphasize quantitative growth at the expense of qualitative growth; the failure of our economy to provide full accounting for the social costs of environmental pollution; the failure to take environmental factors into account as a normal and necessary part of our planning and decision making; the inadequacy of our institutions for dealing with problems that cut across traditional political boundaries; our dependence on conveniences, without regard for their impact on the environment; and more fundamentally, our failure to perceive the environment as a totality and to understand and to recognize the fundamental interdependence of all its parts, including man himself.
- We are now facing hard choices in our energy policy. Future generations — my children and grandchildren, along with yours — will have to live with the decisions we make today. And so it is time for us to make some tough and — hopefully — smart choices regarding our energy use and production before it is too late.
All penned and uttered by democrats and green-tinged radicals, right? Wrong. All spoken by hard-core Republican conservatives – Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and John McCain.
Or maybe the disconnect between conservatism and environmental consciousness in Canada now typifies the attitudes of mainstem right-wing parties struggling to deal with 21st century environments? A quick check around the globe suggests that this isn’t true either.
The British Tories, the party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher, are today in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative 2011 programme declares that Britain needs to protect the environment for future generations, make the economy more environmentally sustainable, and that much more needs to be done to support the farming industry, protect biodiversity and encourage sustainable food production.
The governing German party, the Christian Democratic Union, declares in its manifesto that its policies are based on the Christian view of Man and his responsibility before God, and then goes on to state that the objective of an ecological and social market economy, as they see it, is to achieve a synthesis of economy, social justice and ecology. Amongst a host of economic and policy actions cited as a basis for this synthesis, the CDU include the need for ecological elements in tax legislation, environmental levies, compensation schemes, certification and liability regulations, and the cutting edge concept, at least by current Canadian standards, of rewarding environmentally sensitive actions by using market incentives and linking costs to environmental damage to establish ecologically realistic prices.
Flipping to the other side of the globe, we find the most conservative party in Australia, the rural-based National Party of Australia, outlining its 2011 environmental platform by supporting targets for greenhouse gas emissions, proposing direct action plans to reduce emissions through soil carbon sequestration and use of bio-char, revegetation of marginal land, clean coal technology, carbon capture and the use of algae, and encouraging public participation in voluntary carbon markets involving individuals, communities, agriculture and business, and strong state support to non-petroleum based fuels. Pretty radical stuff all around.
So why are Canadian conservatives not up there with the rest of the conservative world in addressing urgent environmental issues?
Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional values and a strong national defence. Thus, conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems. By contrast, those of more liberal persuasion believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity, equality for all, alleviation of social ills and the protection of civil liberties and individual and human rights. So liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems.
Looking at energy through this type of filter, we might see that Canadian conservatives consider fossil fuels to be good sources of energy (which they are of course in Canada) and, since they are abundant, their exploitation should be promoted and increased both on land and at sea. Increased domestic production by large corporations would lead to lower domestic prices plus huge incomes from the two biggest gulpers of energy on the planet – the U.S. to our south and the ever-burgeoning Chinese economy just across the Pacific. Canadian conservatives might feel that wind, solar and biomass will never provide comparable levels of plentiful, affordable and, above all, profitable sources of power. The opposing liberal view points, i.e. that oil is a diminishing resource, that other sources of energy must be explored, that government must produce a national plan for all energy resources, and must subsidize alternative energy research and production don’t play well in Canada because fossil fuels generally are not diminishing resources. They may be getting more difficult and expensive to recover, but that is just part of the ongoing and traditional challenge for private enterprise.
Looking at climate change through the same filter would surely lead a market-conscious conservative to conclude that since global warming is caused primarily by an increased production of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels, which Canada produces, and burns, in prolific quantities, the combating of climate change needs to involve realistic pricing of fossil fuel extraction and use through carbon taxation and firm regulation, through reduction in fossil fuel use by a plethora of measures to increase energy supply from renewable sources, and by a shift in consciousness towards regarding earth as an ecosystem, and not as a supply depot. All of this is missing from the current conservative platform, who sees it all as just raising taxes, increasing prices, losing jobs and impacting on individual freedoms. A prevalent conservative approach to dealing with climate change is to deny that it is happening at all.
Climate change presents a very difficult problem for Canadian conservatives. The root cause of the problem is burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use around the globe. Once upon a time the major contributors of greenhouse gases to the global climate were North America and western Europe. Now they’re increasingly being put out by the Asian industrial powers, and Canada contributes to their impacts by selling them oil and coal. And while the causes of climate change are global, the impacts – storms, droughts, rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, changing weather patterns – will be felt globally as well. The items in the classic conservative toolkit – personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional values and empowerment of the individual to solve problems – have not thus far dealt well with the root causes of climate change. Maybe they’ll deal better with the consequences.