Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Reflections on Earth Day and longboards

The average life expectancy of a Canadian is presently about 80 years, give or take a year. That makes me – having recently turned 47 – firmly middle aged. There is a certain emotional turmoil which goes with being middle aged. The vibrancy of youth is still recent enough to reflect upon with fondness, leading you to think there’s still some left in you. This in turn leads you to consider with some seriousness buying a Landyachtz to commute to the office (if you do not know what a Landyachtz is, you are definitely middle aged or older). At the same time, you’ve accumulated sufficient years of common sense (aka fuddy-duddy-ness) that you hesitate to buy one for fear of falling off.  After all, you might seriously injure yourself. Worse yet, how would you explain it to your employer/coworkers/family, etc? So you put off making a decision, until one day your aging body makes the decision for you.

Today is the 45th Earth Day, so it, too, is squarely middle aged, and when I reflect on it, I feel a similar emotional turmoil. When the first Earth Day was celebrated in the US in 1970, North Americans were a filthy bunch of pigs. Factories could legally belch toxins into air and water pretty much at will, and they did. With the exception of refillable glass bottles and scrap metal, recycling was rare. Garbage was simply trucked to the nearest landfill – which was usually no more than an unlined hollow in the ground – and dumped. Unless you lived in a coastal city, in which case your trash may well have been barged and dumped offshore. When most North Americans flushed their toilets, their untreated waste was discharged directly to the nearest stream or river. The typical automobile could travel no more than fifteen miles on a gallon of gasoline containing poisonous lead, and the typical bus and truck burned low quality, high-sulphur diesel fuel that turned rain acidic. Cans of hairspray, shaving cream, and deodorant used cheap chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a propellant, and it was silently eating away at the ozone layer. DDT was sprayed indiscriminately. I could go on, but you get the picture: the first Earth Day was held in a time of gross consumption, terrible waste, atrocious pollution, and widespread ignorance and apathy about the environmental consequences of the North American lifestyle.

Great progress was made by the environmental movement during Earth Day’s youth here in North America. Many of the problems I listed above have been tackled with some success. We have an international accord to eliminate ozone depleting substances, and it’s working. Lead was taken out of gasoline, diesel fuel is low-sulphur, and vehicles are generally becoming more fuel efficient. Most cities now do some treatment of municipal wastewater, curbside recycling programs have become more commonplace, and coastal cities no longer dump their trash at sea. As a result, many North American waterways are now considerably cleaner, and urban air quality is generally better than 43 years ago. For a more detailed chronicling of the progress made in Earth Day’s youth, I recommend Gregg Easterbrook’s book A Moment on Earth which, though now nearly twenty years old, is still standing the test of time.

If local or Canadian media attention is any indication of interest in it, Earth Day has become little more remarkable than the international day celebrating the metric system (May 20th, if you’re wondering). The message of the Earth Day movement has long been to make every day an “Earth Day”, so in one respect, that goal seems to have been achieved – it’s less distinguishable from any other day.

A more important question is whether the widespread environmental awareness and action that Earth Day was supposed to catalyze (and which it in many instances did) still enjoys the vitality of youth. Frankly, it’s hard to tell. Much of the terrible pollution we used to inflict upon the North American environment we simply exported. On a per capita basis North Americans consume far more stuff and generate far more waste today than we ever did in 1970. That cheap plastic junk we buy at big box stores and dollar stores is made in less developed countries at tremendous environmental cost. Degradation of agricultural lands and soils is severe in developed and developing countries alike. Deforestation rates in the tropics are higher than ever. Our desire to burn oil and coal seems insatiable. Scientists have demonstrated to us very clearly the likely consequences of runaway fossil fuel use, and the need to deal with them as we did with ozone depleting substances – but we prefer to talk about the problem than to act. It seems that, having taken advantage of all the low-hanging fruit (e.g. unleaded gasoline, low-sulphur fuels, wastewater treatment, etc) we’re now unwilling to take on tougher challenges.

Some would argue that I’m wrong, and that the movement to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline between Alberta and Texas is evidence of people willing to take on the tougher challenges. There seems to be a belief that if this pipeline can be prevented, it will slow or halt the development of the Alberta tar sands. I am skeptical; I think it will simply lead to more shipments by rail, which present more problematic ecological and human health risks. The tar sands are an obvious desecration of the Earth and a significant point source of greenhouse gas emissions, and its right that we do something about them. But if we truly want to shut the tar sands down, the best (perhaps only) way is to reduce our consumption of petroleum. If we don't buy it, they won't make it. Curtailing the pipeline distribution network for petroleum treats only the symptoms of the problem, it doesn’t provide a cure. Tar sands development will continue, with or without Keystone. The challenge will persist so long as we refuse to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

Making meaningful progress on the big environmental challenges of our present day requires a cultural shift of the depth and breadth of the late 1960s, out of which the first Earth Day was born. It needs us to ditch the trappings of middle age success – the fancy car, the big house with closets full of stuff, the vacation cruises, etc – and to shake off the apathy and self-centeredness that goes with them. The best thing those of us in our middle age could do to celebrate Earth Day is to embrace that inner youth who thought she or he could change the world, and ignore the fuddy-duddy voices whispering we should worry about our own mortality. The fuddy-duddy is not going to change anything, and will only make things worse. I think I’ll check kijiji and see if I can get a used Landyachtz. 

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