Scitech  A climate of apathy

How we allow – and encourage – political inaction

When Sandy stormed through the East Coast, it almost seemed to be in retaliation against the current political climate. For the first time since 1988, environmental issues were not mentioned in any of the American presidential debates. As New York metamorphosed into Venice, water flooded the metro systems, and homes and livelihoods were utterly destroyed, reactions were somewhat predictable. We tweet, we look at pictures of roller coasters floating in the ocean, we post articles from angry columnists urging more discussion of the environment. But after a couple of days, unless you have been physically affected by the hurricane, no one discusses anything. We’ve moved on to the next problem.

And I don’t blame you. The ongoing destruction of the environment by humans remains one of the most undecided, wishy-washy areas of contention. When I say contention, I’m not talking about the debate over its actual existence. At this point, that debate isn’t even worth having. Nor am I talking about whether it is human-induced or the natural cycle of the earth – it’s both. The area of contention is: what to do about it? You can of course turn the tap off when you brush your teeth, turn the light off when you leave the room, take public transport rather than your car, or recycle. But all these are pretty miniscule compared to the big picture, and the crippling free-rider problem: those who reap the benefits of others’ sacrifice.

Though I know these are all actions I should take, the reality is I don’t want to compost because it only takes one banana peel for my kitchen to undergo a fruit fly version of Hurricane Sandy. I don’t drive, but there is a chance I will reach a point in my life when I might actually need a car, and I can’t say the environment will necessarily stop me from doing so. And even if we mass market electric cars, we are still paving roads and still living in a car-centric culture. And I really want to give up meat. But the fact that it will still be produced whether or not I consume it refrains me from running the risk of further exacerbating my anemia.

Harriet Kim, co-president of McGill’s Environment Student’s Society (MESS), believes that all these little steps (such as wearing hand me down clothes, re-using containers and having a vegetarian diet) are important. She explains: “I do think it’s silly when people choose not to pursue any of these things. There are big environmental problems out there.” Even though we need leaders to get passionate about environmental policy, Kim stressed “that doesn’t mean you don’t do anything at all.”

Meanwhile, Aaron Eger, a U2 Water Environments and Ecosystems student, and co-president of MESS, paints the deeper problem perfectly: “Through our studies we contribute to our consumptive society. We do research on our laptops, we go to class in heated and air conditioned buildings, Burnside is kept alight all night for the sake of the five weary science students in its basement studying, we fly home for Christmas.” He concluded, “Our very existence in the system helps fuel the very problem many of us are working to solve.”

So there we have it. My livelihood is destroying the earth.

Worst of all, ‘taking action’ is not only pretty abstract, it’s also deceiving. I walk into my hot yoga studio and there is a massive placard on the wall: “GREEN BUSINESS OF THE YEAR AWARD.” Green Business of the year? Hot yoga? You mean to tell me that selling organic products and glass bottles is meant to make up for the fact that you heat up two massive studios at forty degrees between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.? Asked who is doing the assessing of ‘greenness,’ McGill Management professor Dror Etzion explained: “Anybody can say whatever they want. There are no legal requirements, no oversight or consensus within the community or any other stakeholder group as to what this means.”

Commentators have coined the term ‘greenwashing’ to describe this tactic.  For consumers, it is very difficult to assess who is genuinely environmentally friendly, or who is simply marketing themselves that way. There is usually very little difference between them. “Most major companies and corporations aren’t manufacturing at home anyway,” explained Etzion. “If you look at Nike or even HP computers, how much of their environmental footprint actually occurs within their organizational boundary? It’s miniscule,” he said. So you might be using an “environmentally friendly” product that is actually only environmentally friendly based on 4 or 5 per cent of the entire supply chain.

But how is it that the American presidential debates – arguably the biggest political event of the year – did not even discuss environmental issues?  The two candidates, who are supposed to address their country’s most pertinent issues, managed to campaign throughout the hottest month in U.S. history, last July, and across the heartland during an epic drought, without even bringing up the subject. As they spoke, the Arctic was melting at a speed that astonished even the most pessimistic climatologists. Yet, it was almost predictable. Congress would have to go through some kind of psychotic episode if it were to break its twenty-year bipartisan record of accomplishing absolutely nothing on the topic.

Canada isn’t much better. Stephen Harper doesn’t believe in carbon taxes, because he doesn’t really believe in taxes. The government pulled out of the Kyoto agreement – in fact, in 2002, Stephen Harper referred to Kyoto as a “socialist scheme” in a fundraising newsletter to the now-defunct Canadian Alliance party – and is instead focusing on the creation of one of the world’s biggest oil pipelines. Furthermore, the newly appointed Deputy Minister of Environment Canada, Bob Hamilton, when asked what causes climate change in October, was incapable of answering the question. It’s a truly pathetic performance. In July, scientists marched through Ottawa in retaliation against Stephen Harper’s cuts toward research labs, accusing the government of pushing through policies that are weakening or even abolishing environmental protections and monitoring.

On Monday, November 6, the Midnight Kitchen Collective at McGill formed a workshop aimed at highlighting how capitalism is destroying the planet. These kinds of conversations deserve attention, particularly because for politicians, the economy always comes first. One clear example of this is Quebec’s Plan Nord, introduced under the Liberal government of Jean Charest. Plan Nord is an economic development initiative aimed at increasing Quebec’s natural resource exports that will ostensibly create 200,000 jobs. The environmental issues came at the bottom of the agenda. The Quebec government claims it will create a “50 per cent protection area” by 2035, but such vague assertions have little substance, especially in the context of such environmentally destructive actions as mining, foresting, and constructing hydroelectric dams.

I originally began this article with the assumption that the solution had to be top-down; we in our everyday lives cannot make the dramatic changes necessary to help the environment. I retain that view. However, the lack of environmental issues on the political agenda is not solely the fault of the government; we are also to blame. Politicians cater to what the people want. Today, people want jobs, security, and a good lifestyle. A spokeswoman for the federal government’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, highlighted this desire in her statement, issued in response to the protest held by Canadian scientists in July: “The government has made historic investments in science, technology, and research, to create jobs, grow our economy, and improve the quality of life for Canadians.” Yet Canada already has one the highest standards of living in the world! What more do we actually need?

This is where the shift must occur. Instead of whining about politicians’ lack of action over the subject, we need to use the political system, rather than simply radically try and overturn it. Politicians cater to our needs, and the priorities we present to them have to change. I know there are millions of practical problems that get in the way, like the fact that Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein had no chance on earth of winning the presidential election. But let’s stop being realists. Realists are a waste of time; realists explain things, they don’t improve things. If your priorities change, the government’s priorities will change with you. Global warming isn’t the future, it’s now.