Saturday, 21 April 2012

Earth Day: Nobody Cares

What, me worry? I know you guys got everything under control

The origins of the environmental movement in North America can be traced back to the early 1980s, with the advent of recycling and concern over acid rain. Or they can be traced back to the early 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency was created as an American Federal Bureaucracy.

If you like, they can even be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century, when U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt insisted on the creation of "National Parks", a concept which was unheard of at that time.

The national park system was a notable accomplishment and a welcome, if incongruous, action by a man whose favourite hobby was big-game hunting. All can agree that it is a positive development for the nation when millions of hectares of parkland are saved. But what are they saved from? Is the mining, industrial fishing, intensive use of fresh water for industrial production, petroleum drilling and refinement, coal burning, factory farming, habitat destruction, and now fracking that stops at the National Park border mitigated by the existence of the National Park? Is what goes on inside the National Park protected and immune from the activities which occur outside of it?

I think we know what the answers are to those questions. And I think we can all agree that global industrial civilization's long-term chances of being compatible with the natural environment are pretty goddamned hopeless.

The environmental movement, "green" consumerism, and "taking action", things that we are all invited to congregate around on April 20th and many other occasions, fail to acknowledge the scale that human industrial activities, the economy, and agriculture now happen on (global, expanding) and the characteristics of the environment they are paired with (soiled, shrinking, limited). Why is there mercury in fish? Well, it might have something to do with those trillion or so discarded batteries littered across seven continents. Or maybe its the by-products from turning oh, say, a few million tonnes of uranium or a few trillion barrels of oil into usable energy (Notice that nuclear power plants and oil refineries are always located on the water). Notice also the air we breathe. It's under the earth's one atmosphere and one ozone layer.

The earth is accommodating about seven times more people than it did 100 years ago. All those people have access to exponentially more food choices and products than they did 100 years ago. Where are all these choices and products coming from? The earth. Our very own grocery store, department store, kitchen and toilet all in one. Except the toilet part just keeps growing and growing.

People realise now that environmentalism is a zero sum game and that North Americans' energy-saving light bulbs, picking up litter once a year, and organic spinach are having little to no effect on the peril facing earth in the grand scheme of things. I read a great comment below an article the other day about how great it was that this "eco-blogger" featured in the article was educating people on how to find toxic-free clothing and cleaning products, yet sees nothing wrong with the laptop she's "eco-blogging" on. Oh, and don't think about asking her to give up her iphone - how is she going to tweet all those eco-tweets?

Ironically, on this earth day weekend, I had to rent a car because my wife has to pick up some special supplies for her business 62 kilometres from here and I need to go see my brother who is studying 115 km from here to help him cook and stock his apartment with groceries. The only car available at the rental location this time (which, by the way, at 9.99 per day makes way more sense than owning a car) was this massive pick up truck. So instead of the little Nissan or Suzuki I usually have sitting out front of my house when I rent from these guys there's a huge, gas-guzzling pickup outside right now. And I thought, what the hell difference does it make? If I drive one of these, there's nobody who's going to stop me. There's nobody to tell me that's bad, that I should drive a Toyota Yaris instead. Nope. If that pickup out front was mine and I didn't have to give it back on Monday, I would be just one more asshole in Kitchener, Ontario asserting my right to own a totally obnoxious and inefficient vehicle despite the market already providing substantial disincentive through $1.40 a litre gas and my province's sky-high insurance rates, the highest in the whole country. And no one would bat an eye.

I thought, why stop there? Why am I watching this 23 inch TV from 1988? I could have a 52 inch flatscreen delivered from one of those lay away places tomorrow. You see, society does not provide any incentives nor does it make being "sustainable" an attractive option. Not owning a car, growing your own food and generally avoiding consumer purchases (but not laptops! sorry, I'm just like everybody else) may save some emissions or waste somewhere but it doesn't make your life any more convenient nor does it make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. And I am not justifying any of my choices or actions. I'm merely refuting this false sense of good conscience and do-goodery we experience from buying some stupid laundry soap with a leaf printed on its label. We have improved laundry soap by removing phosphates, yes. But a washer and dryer for every single household on earth is not something we should be hoping for.

The last great, majestic species on earth, from the time when we didn't appropriate the entire place for our own personal use, are dying off. Elephants, sharks, grizzly bears, and polar bears' environments are all under attack. Each species has its own scourge hunting it down (that would be ivory poachers, shark fin soup drinkers, mining and oil/gas companies and climate change) and the common denominators in all the cases are greed and stupidity. Ivory obviously fetches lots per pound. Shark fin soup is $200 a bowl. If grizzlies are admired, well, the minerals and oil/gas under the massive territories they need to sustain themselves are admired more. As for the Polar Bear, the whole system is out of whack up there, thanks to the climate change phenomenon the North American right is unanimous doesn't exist.

In short, animals dying makes us sad. But any compromises to driving, appliances, cellphones and internet/computers/tablets is a non-starter for any civilization. The Conservative government in Canada, with respect to mining/bitumen sands/pipelines has a very clear message to residents, natives and anybody concerned about the environment: Get the f--- out of the way, because we are going balls-out and digging up whatever we find. And as sad as it is, things would be no different under the other parties. Modern industrial has always needed massive amounts of resources to sustain itself. What's the point of pretending otherwise now? Besides, haven't we come such a long way now that seven year olds don't have to mine the coal? We can just blow up the entire mountain its in. And thank god there's no black people singing songs and picking cotton with chains around their ankles any more. There's just black people in Congo working in palm oil fields and brown people in Bangladesh sewing our kids' pyjamas for 25 cents a day.

The world is a mean, nasty, complicated place. And it's been pretty good to me. I could not be any luckier, compared to most people. But I get annoyed when Bono, or the Kielburger brothers, or Mr Kony 2012 try and guilt trip me into feeling bad for being born and living in North America and learn from all their first hand experience and concern about how awful Africa and parts of Asia are. These guys are not heroes. If the world is going to improve from an environmental standpoint, it would involve humans giving up things they are not inclined to give up. As long as reversal of the economy and humanity's appetite for resources in considered sacrilege, these windbags can use their internet-enabled devices and take planes more than the average joe while lecturing the average joe on his lack of virtue compared to theirs all they want. This environment is going down the tubes because of greed and convenience, and if you care, say so! Don't turn your stupid lights off for an hour and think you've "done your part".

It's great that the mainstream conversation is more "environmentally conscious" now. If only that meant anything substative.

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