Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Going Green - A Real Leap of Faith

It'll take more than a few attack ads, more than improving automobile fuel consumption. Going green will mean redefining our society from government, all the way through the private sector, to us as individuals. Redefining society will have to be both voluntary and regulated.

What's wrong with our existing society? Plenty. For more than half a century it has evolved into a complex and sophisticated social, economic and even political structure in which all has hinged on the abundant supply of cheap oil and other fossil fuels. There is no way to get around that reality.

We are going to remain dependent on fossil fuels. There are some things we can't do without them. However there are a lot of things we can do with alternate power sources and even more things we're simply going to have to abandon or severely curtail. This process of transformation will have economic, social and political dimensions and a lot of us aren't going to like some, maybe even most of them.

I have never had a home without a television but I have known some who chose to get rid of the tube. Those who did told me their lives changed and mainly for the better. They had a real but temporary period of adjustment. Then they found welcome alternatives to TV grazing. I don't have any reason to believe giving up TV would be worse for me than it has been for them. I just don't want to do it.

There are a lot of things associated with going green that I'm not going to welcome, some that I may have to be compelled to accept. That's why this will have to be both voluntary and regulated.

Take what many of us have come to regard as a staple, meat. Livestock production requires a lot of energy and consumes a lot of grain. Livestock also produce more greenhouse gas than our motor vehicles. The energy and feed used in producing livestock will inevitably become much more expensive and we're going to have to find some way of capturing or otherwise dealing with all that methane - yet another big expense. That means we'll have to eat a lot less meat and pay a lot more for what we do eat.

As Lewis Lapham points out, there was a societal shift that occured around the time Richard Nixon came to power. Wealth became equated with virtue. By perceiving wealth as virtuous we gave society's seal of approval to the manifestations of that virtue, consumption. We began demanding bigger homes, fancier cars, holidays abroad, exotic produce from distant lands and so much more - all made possible by abundant, cheap fuel.

You see two cars on the road. One is a shiny, new Lexus SUV, the other a 20-year old VW Rabbit. Which one are you going to notice? Be honest. Chances are you won't even give the VW a glance.

When you see the Lexus you see success, somebody who is somebody, somebody who's made it. A 20-year old economy car? If you notice the driver at all, you'll probably imagine him as someone who hasn't made it, down on his luck, probably a nobody. Wealth is virtue.

What if the guy with the Rabbit bought it 20-years ago because he wanted to drive an economy car, he chose that VW over a big, luxury car? What if he's driving a 20-year old car because he's diligently kept it in good repair so that he could get 20-years service out of it? Now who is virtuous? Of course if you found out he was also wealthy, you might write him off as an eccentric miser.

In a "wealth is virtue" world we expect the virtuous to consume. That is a societal value system we're going to have to give up. That doesn't mean that we have to get all Calvinist or anything. We'll just have to find other virtues to respect and other ways to appreciate, even enjoy them. Living in a 1200 sq. ft. house doesn't have to be less enjoyable, certainly not less respectable than reigning over a 5000 sq. ft. mansion. You don't have to be poor to live in a small house or drive a small car or holiday at home. You just have to be virtuous.

Our leaders are going to have to confront a huge, even daunting question. How can you ask the individual to go green unless you demand the same commitments from industry, especially Big Oil and Coal? The answer is obvious and its just as obvious to Stephen Harper as it is to David Suzuki. The difference is that one is ready to accept the answer, the other isn't.

Stephen Harper has shown no interest in shaking his own "wealth is virtue" fantasy, Canada's key to "superpower" prestige, the Tar Sands. He'll be telling you the dog ate his homework before he forces Athabasca's Big Oil to go green. Oh he'll throw out some diversions, attack ads being one of them, while mouthing all the right assurances and making hollow promises, but he has far too much of his vision of Canada invested in those Tar Sands to impose the sort of measures that, by our contemporary industrial standards, are radical.

This is one leap of faith Stephen Harper doesn't want to take.


Anonymous said...

Your fooling yourself if you actually believe that Mr Dion and Mr Harper have different points of view on this subject...one has fooled the voters, the other is trying to fool them now, both know the effects of Koyoto on our economy, both have to look green while being practical. Read Benny Peiser in the Post today, a great article about Koyoto and the rush to economic ruin by the EU. Without China, Russia and India on board, Koyoto is a farce, the US Dems wont even come on board. The US wont sign Koyoto but reduces GHG emmissions...we sign Koyoto and our emmissions increase...how many walls do you have to run into before you take another path?? How about doing the best we can do without tying one hand behind business's backs?? As Europe is finding out...Koyoto is flawed, lets take a different path.

The Mound of Sound said...

The "cost" issue has been hyped to death. The Stern Report estimates the actual cost to be around 1% GDP. Compared to what we used to spend to fight the Cold War, 1% is quite modest. As for China and India, sure we need to get them on side but the way to do that is to show real leadership. We're the GHG kings and that's why it falls to us to take the initiative. Unfortunately "practical" too often means "tomorrow". Kyoto is flawed but it's only a first step, not a solution. It's more akin to that first solo ride on a bike. It's all about learning that you can in fact do it. It's about getting you prepared to ride all the way to school.

Anonymous said...

Mound is right - we can sit on our asses and moan how one starting point is flawed,or do something and make adjustments along the way - The cost later on is far greater than the costs now. How is business going to do then without resources? We only need to look at the fisheries. Complaining about how cutting back would hurt jobs - well look what the alternative is - no more cod and dragging the bottom for hagfish - yum

The Mound of Sound said...

Actually Bill, I've thought more about your comments. Kyoto is flawed but not the way you suggest. You seem to judge Kyoto by whether it would solve global warming. That was never the intent of Kyoto. It was never more than a first step in the right direction that had to be followed by further, more certain steps so that we could respond positively to climate change and its causes. It's only by setting up Kyoto as more than it ever was supposed to be that the critics can be so dismissive of it. As for "practical", that, to me at least, encompasses anything we need to do to let our culture survive and ameliorate the effects of global warming. Your definition of the word and mine are miles apart. You're convinced me of nothing even remotely substantive you've said.