May 3, 2012
By Matt Palmer
While watching the news last night I saw a cool story about a Pastor in Welland, Ontario who is spearheading an effort to create a completely off-grid community for disadvantaged, low-income and homeless people, by building low-cost environmentally sustainable homes. One of the main ingredients in the homes – straw. The homes cost about $70,000 each to build, far less than the average, and the town where they are building the pilot project has donated the land.
The city of Toronto has recently instituted a mandatory green roof bylaw for industrial, commercial and some residential new builds. The impacts of this type of legislation could are significant. Making more space for urban gardens on vacant land or roof tops makes a lot of sense.
I could write for days about solutions being discovered and implemented all over the world, a global movement to use less, consume less, and become more environmentally responsible. Despite this, we all know that there is much we can do to be better stewards of the planet and its resources. But, it feels good to know how much effort is going into solving complex problems that affect us all.
Yet, over the last few days, I have seen a few different articles by environmentalists, including this one from the Huffington Post, coinciding with the Conservatives first year in power as a majority government, calling for all-out war against government and corporate interests. I know it has become an over-used quote from a great song but one has to ask “War, what is it good for?”. What are the costs of engaging in a war?
First of all, it is clear that environmental groups are under serious attack. Some may feel the attack is justified. Over the past many months the Federal Government has put in place a strategy seemingly with the intent of marginalizing certain environmental groups, and their ability to intervene in the approval process of industrial projects like pipelines. With the changes to terrorism guidelines and definitions, environmental review panels, and now investigations into charitable tax code violations – are environmental NGO’s spending more than 10% of resources on political advocacy – the Government is streamlining industrial approval processes, and limiting who can intervene.
The stated intent of these government measures is to keep radical environmentalists from impeding needed projects from moving forward in a timely fashion. Is it really necessary to have 4,000 plus interveners in the Northern Gateway Pipeline hearings, when many people will be arguing the same point? Would reducing the number of interveners, but still ensuring that experts and community leaders have time to state their case, limit the ability of environmental groups and First Nations to have their legitimate concerns heard with the potential of stopping approval?
But is there in fact a darker strategy at play? What if part of the strategy of these moves by the Government is to increase the anger among environmentalists, provoking them to speak out more vehemently, passionately, thereby making them seem even more radical and scary?
This is not a defence of any side, rather to ask, is this way forward, to call for war, to increase the conflict, and the rhetoric? How we produce, distribute and consume energy is a serious issue. We can and must be better than where we are at in this debate and where it is heading. Pipelines are not perfect, but neither are wind turbines, solar panels, bio-fuels, nuclear etc. Any choice we make will have impacts on the environment. Our depth of understanding of those impacts is greater with some fuel sources, than with other sources. It is prudent to figure out the impacts of newer technologies so we can work on lessening them.
Man has an impact on the environment. We need resources to live. Harnessing resources comes with costs. If we launch into a “war” over the environment all of us will lose. Arguing for certain energy sources based purely on economic issues (jobs) is short-sighted, just as arguing against oil and pipelines, or wind and nuclear based on environmental impacts misses the bigger picture of how our global system works.
We cannot switch away from oil and fossil fuels overnight, most people understand this, yet the myth persists that we can, and that there is a conspiracy holding us back. Talk to any scientist working on long-term battery technology, an essential component that would lead to greater success and implementation of intermittent energy sources like wind and solar, and ask if some conspiracy has held them from making advances? It might just be the laws of physics that is holding them back.
I was watching a video the other day by a prominent environmentalist, and one of his pitches for the future was lighter electric automobiles made from carbon fibre technology. Absolutely a great idea, but in his pitch of how we “get off our addiction to oil” he fails to point out where “carbon” comes from. Oil. Is this a conspiracy?
Environmentalists, as well as corporations and governments, need to continue to push, to ensure that oversight of industrial projects is rigorous and that consequences for mistakes that cause environmental damage are serious. That includes major alternative energy projects. How this push happens is important, because here is a possible unpleasant unintended consequence that is already playing out all over the world: as communities discover that all energy projects come with trade-offs, forces within those communities rise up to protest and to work to stop them. Oil pipelines, natural gas drilling, coal mining, large-scale wind and solar projects, nuclear plants, and hydro-electric projects around the world have run into issues with protests by community and environmental groups. If these types of energy infrastructure projects start getting denied, and it is already happening, where does that leave us for the future and meeting the energy needs of the planet?
Most oil and gas companies have come a long way in their environmental practices, some are exceptional in their efforts and successes. All these companies must be even better in their environmental performance, and as shareholders in these companies – either directly through stock ownership or mutual funds – we have a responsibility to ensure that environmental stewardship does not take a backseat to profits. Greener more sustainable practices have been proven time and again to increase the bottom line.
As voters, and citizens we are responsible for holding our elected officials accountable, and not just at election time.
So does this have to be a war? I have a sense that some people reading this will say absolutely yes, it does have to be war. What does that say about our society, and about us as individuals if that is the case? Is war in line with the morals and values we say we want to live by?
As we move to become systems thinkers, perhaps options other than all-out war become visible, and feasible.