Too Little, Too Late?

By Max Fawcett | November 22, 2007


It wasn't too long ago that the only people concerned with
footprints were police officers, Bigfoot believers, or those with a
particularly stubborn foot fetish. But because we've been bombarded by so many
inconvenient truths about the environment and our impact on it over the past
few years, interest in the footprint has expanded beyond that core
constituency. Almost overnight, an individual's carbon footprint – the mark
that they leave on the environment both through what they consume and how they
consume them – has become an important social and cultural marker. To be
uninterested in reducing the size of your carbon footprint these days is sort
of like driving around with a bumper sticker that professes your affinity for
eating babies with ivory utensils.

This is mostly to the good, of course. It's certainly better
than the way things were just a few years ago, when global warming was
considered a disputable theory and you could fit every serious environmentalist
in the country into one of the tank-like SUVs that sat in seemingly everyone's
driveway. Environmentalism's on such a roll it even managed to make Al Gore
popular, transforming him from a political footnote with a beard to a Nobel
Prize winner and cultural hero in six years. More amazing still is the fact
that much of the environmental movement's recent success is rooted in a movie
that features long stretches of Al Gore using Powerpoint, a combination that
should have put any human being who watched it to sleep.

The thousands of people who watched "An Inconvenient Truth"
and the millions who merely said they did now dutifully sort their garbage
into the various categories mandated by their local recycling authorities. Some
have traded in their SUVs, sports cars, or other environmentally-offensive
vehicles for hybrid equivalents. The most zealous of converts to this new faith
have replaced their inefficient appliances, traded their dryer for a
clothesline, and covered their roofs with solar panels. Unfortunately, these
modest changes are not going to be nearly enough to stop, or even significantly
slow, the advance of global warming and all the nasty consequences it portends.
They are good and necessary first steps, to be sure, but they're like someone crawling
out of a burning building when they really should be running for their lives.
And while crawling might get that person closer to the door, it's still a
losing strategy.

Thankfully, the earth is not taking our abuse silently. Even the dimmest of
idiots have, by now, noticed the changes in our climate that have raised
temperatures globally, flooding certain parts of the world and drying others
out completely, but that deadly mixture of hubris and ignorance that is unique
to our species has tempted some – Republicans, mostly – into believing that we
can overcome these inconveniences. But a closer and more honest inspection of
our natural environment reveals a distressingly diverse range of indicators
that express the urgency of the impending environmental disaster that we've
created for ourselves.

One such indicator is the retreat of the Athabasca Glacier, one of the many
glaciers around the world that provides fresh water to the rivers, lakes, and
streams that are used to satisfy the demands of industry, agriculture, and
personal consumption. The Athabasca Glacier quenches the thirst of millions of
people in Alberta, the Prairie
Provinces, and states in the Western
United States, but it may not be able to do that for much longer.
It has retreated 1.5 kilometres since 1843, and the pace of that retreat
quickens annually. "The Athabasca Glacier," says Bob Sandford, author of The Columbia Icefield and the chair of
the United Nations International Year of Fresh Water and Wonder of Water
initiative in Canada, "is the single best accessible example in what we are
seeing happening in the world because of climate change today." The discovery
of car exhaust, DDT, and other pollutants in its layers of compressed snow
dating to 1932 leaves very little doubt that we are responsible for its
disappearing act. There are other such indicators throughout the world, from
the disappearance of healthy coral in the Southern Hemisphere to the collapse
of massive and ancient ice shelves in the Antarctic to the disappearance of
fisheries throughout the world. They are all living – for now, anyways –
testimonies to our impact on the world, and consequences of any further
inaction, or under-action, on our part.

Our newfound commitment to recycling as a society is representative of this
under-action. There is no doubt that recycling is an environmentally helpful
activity, albeit one that consumes a great deal of energy. But while recycling
makes people feel as though they're making a positive contribution to the
environment, there's evidence that it isn't helping nearly as much as they'd
like to think. Worse still, recycling those cans and bottles encourages us to
be wasteful in other aspects of our lives because we've already made our
"contribution". The same is true of low-flow toilets, fluorescent light bulbs,
and carbon credits on air travel, which do far more to boost our environmental
self-esteem than the environment itself. A cottage industry has popped up
around this kind of feel-good environmentalism, and authors like NOW Magazine's Adria Vasil have been
quick to capitalize on it with books instructing readers on how to bring their
daily lives into harmony with the environment. An optimist might argue that
these expressions of environmental responsibility are, if not the full and
proper steps we need to take, still "better than nothing." But are they?
Finishing second in the race against global warming isn't going to do us any
good, after all, and the Athabasca Glacier and other phenomena like it aren't
going to wait for us to get our act together.

What we need is second-wave environmentalism. Second-wave environmentalism
would take our heightening awareness of environmental concerns and marry them
with real solutions, ones that might actually make a difference in fifty years
time. It would disabuse us of the notion that we have some sort of divine right
to our current standard of living, and encourage us to make real and meaningful
sacrifices. As Yadowsun Boodhoo, President of the World Meteorological
Organization Commission for Climatology said in 2003, "we must, imperatively,
change our attitudes and agree to live modestly and realistically – all for the
sake of the future – which is not ours but which we have borrowed from future

Living modestly and realistically might mean that we'd have to pay the full,
unsubsidized price for gasoline, which would make owning a gas-guzzling SUV or
sports car a truly punitive purchase. It might mean that we'd have to pay the
true cost for our domestic energy consumption, which would get even the laziest
person to turn off a few lights and drop the thermostat a few degrees. And
surely, it would mean forcing our politicians to embrace political agreements
like the Kyoto Protocol that aim to make a real impact on our collective carbon

This second-wave environmentalism would have its enemies, and they'd be the
same ones who fought so hard against the first wave. After all, environmentalism's
opponents, who waged well-funded campaigns of disinformation against first-wave
environmentalists, haven't conceded the battle. They've merely retreated to
higher ground where they're better able to defend their territory. Industry
lobbyists, corporate spokespeople, and the majority of politicians may have
abandoned the idea that the science behind environmentalism is "debatable", but
they didn't do it out of a sense of altruism or remorse. Instead, they've
discovered an even better argument with which to rebuff calls for higher
emission standards, alternative sources of energy, and a reduction in our
domestic energy consumption.

Worse still, it may be more effective than their previous tactic, which was
vulnerable to the persistent intrusion of, you know, the facts. Today, that
grand coalition of interests opposed to seriously dealing with environmental
concerns is deploying a strategy straight out of their dog-eared copies of Ayn
Rand's "Atlas Shrugged", the appeal to self-interest. Tackling environmental
concerns, they argue, will cost us thousands of jobs, billions of dollars, and
that standard of life to which we've become accustomed. It's a choice, in other
words, between protecting what's left of our environment and that new Range
Rover in the driveway. It's a cunning strategy because many people, in the face
of an ever-growing body of evidence that their cars and the lifestyle they
represent are destroying the earth, will still opt for what's sitting in their

It's not yet clear how that argument will be defeated, if it will at all. It
may take a major environmental disaster – the shifting of the Atlantic jet-stream,
perhaps – or an unlikely epiphany on the part of our political leaders. But at
some point soon, we need to come to terms with the fact that fixing what we've
broken isn't going to come cheap, and it certainly isn't going to be free. The
cost of doing nothing, after all, will be a hell of lot higher.

Toronto, November 22 – 1,498 w.



  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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