Monday, April 28, 2008

Accepting our Limits: It's the Adult Thing to Do

An adult understands limits better than a child. Sometimes a little boy will eat too much candy because he doesn't know that his body can only stand so much sweets at any one time. Or he will stay up so late that he cannot function the next day. Children aren't able to anticipate limits and control their own behaviour because they have undeveloped prefrontal lobes in their brains. Adults know better, which is why they commonly impose limits on their children's behaviour.

When it comes to global limits though, it seems that economists are a lot like little children. They believe that we can keep consuming the earth's resources for as long as we like, in contradiction to the fact that the earth is a finite planet.
There is a concept called “substitution” which economists use to demonstrate this possibility. When the price of one resource goes high enough then all we have to do is substitute another that's similar enough to do the job. If we run out of cheap oil, we use ethanol, or methane, or hydrogen. If we run out of wild salmon, we raise genetically modified salmon in saltwater “farms”.

Economists can use all the fancy mathematics they want to prove their sustitution theory. The fact is, when we lose the wild salmon we will have lost something irreplacable.

Isn't it interesting that life itself has to live within certain limits else it won't survive. If you take three of the most common elements: Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen – these three elements in various combinations, determine life's basic limitations.

Not enough carbon dioxide and the earth's temperature would be too low for life and water, which is part hydrogen and part oxygen, would always be frozen. Way too much carbon dioxide and the earth would be too hot for life, while all the oceans would boil away.

We know that plants require a certain minimum amount of carbon dioxide in order to grow, while all animals require a certain minimum amount of oxygen in order to breathe. If there was too much oxygen, then all the forests in the world would burn up in a matter of weeks.

Why is there just the right amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? We don't really know the answer to that question. We may well take breathing and livable temperatures for granted but the fact is, we cannot substitute anything else for them.

That's why I say economists are like little children. You tell them that if we keep on with business as usual it will have rather negative consequences and they will tell you, in free, unregulated markets demand will always equal supply, and the movement of prices will most efficiently change behaviour without denying people free choice.

The price may be right in terms of demand meeting supply, but if the costs of our activities to the earth's ecosystems are not taken into account in the price, then allowing free markets to do their thing will run us up to those limits too fast for comfort.
Because corporations with their huge economies and budgets have much to lose if certain government action is taken, they are interested in directly influencing the political process. Their powerful influence has caused the U.S. and Canadian governments to hinder and delay the essential assessment, planning, and action that needs to be done in order for our civilization to survive this crisis.

The idea that we can keep on growing, heedless to any limits is pure wish fullfillment and a sign of an overly childish trust in free markets. As adults we know we are responsible for more than just our own wants and desires. We are also responsible to our children and to future generations. If we continue to ignore earth's physical and biological limits we will end up running into these limits at full speed. We don't allow children to drive automobiles because of the destruction they could cause. If we want human society to sustain itself we have to grow up and take responsibility for where we're going and how we're going to get there.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reaching Our Limits

It's not easy being green these days. It can be frustrating when there are just too many things to write about. Things that seem to be happening all at once.

Take the news last week. Food riots throughout the Southern Hemisphere. The global price of staples like rice doubled in a very short amount of time and doesn't appear to be coming down any time soon.

The higher price of food is probably due to a number of factors: Crop failure in Australia and other places due to drought probably caused by global warming; There are almost 1.4 billion Chinese and more of them are eating meat as China rapidly industrializes; Industrial farming of beef and hogs required more grain than the grain we grow for human consumption; All kinds of industrial farming have sharply increased costs due to the increase in the price of oil; And, misguided Bush Administration subsidies have encouraged American farmers to grow corn for ethanol instead of for food.

The process of industrialization has reached the point where we are screwing up the weather. That means that humans have reached their first global limit. We've so polluted the atmosphere that the huge climate system of the earth is responding to us. The earth is finite and the problem with limits is that once you reach one, the others are not far behind.

Industrialism , which has so far lasted about two hundred years, has always been fuelled by cheap supplies of coal and oil. Oil is getting too expensive because global demand is overtaking supply; Coal is costing too much in terms of air pollution and environmental destruction; Biofuels are crowding out food production.

There are no other cheap and easily available sources of energy that can replace fossil fuels. You cannot run an automobile or a tractor on solar or wind power. Nuclear plants take decades to build and require huge expenditures.

With the development of the Chinese and Indian economies industrialism has become a global reality and it is quickly exhausting the world of cheap resources. Sure, there is still plenty of oil, coal, iron, fresh water, etc., but the bigger the global population gets, the faster it needs to extract resources, and the more expensive it becomes to extract those needed resources. And the more expensive resources get the more expensive food gets.

What to do? If we make the world more equitable we can slow population growth, because, up to a point, people who have more income have fewer babies. And we can also slow the growth of chronic hunger the same way. To avoid collapse we could slow down and stop the growth in demand for the world's finite resources by stopping industrial growth. Then we could hook economic development onto using what we already have more intensively and efficiently.

If we recycle everything we can maintain society without the need to extract more resources from the ground. Japan was able to keep its economy in a steady state for three hundred years, during the Edo period. If we learn to conserve energy we can decrease our carbon dioxide emissions and slow down global warming before it runs away from us.

Everything is connected. The fact that we have already caused the global climate to heat up means that we will soon run out of slack with other systems of resources. Better by far, to anticipate reaching our limits before it happens, then allowing ourselves to overshoot and cause civilization to collapse permanently.

There are so many things to be aware of. Economic and environmental systems are highly complex. What I am saying here could be wrong. But when we press infinite demand on a finite world how can we not avoid coming up against limits eventually?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Meet Prince Rupert's Green Team

Last September Premier Gordon Campbell signed the BC Climate Action Charter together with the Union of BC Municipalities. The city of Prince Rupert was one of the cosigners of the Charter. The Charter recognizes that global warming is a real and growing threat to BC and as a consequence that each and every community in BC needs to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and become sustainable.

Premier Campbell and those who drew up the Charter realized that reducing GHG emissions and becoming sustainable are not things that should be done in isolation. They understand that it is vital that all levels of government work together to share best practices in this endeavor.

A year ago, the Prince Rupert municipal government convened a green advisory task force to assist in developing and implementing a GHG emission reduction plan. This task force or "Green Team" is made up of a cross-section of Rupertites, representing business, professionals, the environment, academia, and our municipal government.

One of the tasks that the green team took on was to bring the city's Official Community Plan (OCP) in line with our commitment to the BC Climate Action Charter. Changes to the OCP include: a commitment to reduce GHG emissions, making Prince Rupert more transit, pedestrian, and bicycle friendly, and the movement towards LEEDS efficiency standards for all publicly funded buildings.

The green team has advised the city in the hiring of a planning firm, Sheltair, which is currently drawing up the GHG reduction plan. The plan should be completed and presented to city council sometime in late May. But the green team's most important task, consultation with the public, has only just begun.

It is important that even before the plan is implemented we start the process of public consultation. At each stage of the planning process we need public input so that we can learn what will work and what won't. Ultimately it is public participation that will make or break the transition to a greener Prince Rupert.

BC is a beautiful place to live. In Prince Rupert we have everything that's good about BC and little of its downside. No congested freeways, no urban sprawl and no pollution. A magnificent harbour and one of the greenest container ports in the world thanks to efficient sea connections to Asia and railroad connections to eastern Canada and the continental USA.

Our region is uniquely poised to capture several forms of clean and renewable energy in the coming years - wind, hydro, and tidal power. If we the people, the city, and the province can work together to build a sustainable society we will have harnessed the far more important human energy of cooperation and mutual trust in the bargain.

The green team would like to invite the public to our first Community Engagement Workshop. This will be an informal get-together, with snacks and refreshments, where the public can meet members of the green team, take a look at the draft of the Sheltair Plan, get a brief glimpse of what other BC communities are doing, and get a chance to make verbal or written suggestions of their own. The workshop will be held on Saturday, April 19 from 11 AM to 1 PM at the Civic Center, in the Raven Room and on Tuesday, April 22 from 7PM to 9PM at the Civic Center, in the Judo room. Please come out and meet Prince Rupert's green team.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Risk Society

Under Mont Blanc in France, the European Union is building “The Large Hadron Collider”, the latest and most expensive in a series of particle accelerators designed to plumb the mysteries of physical nature. The bigger size - 27 kilometers in circumference, and bigger bucks - $8 billion, means that atoms can be smashed together at greater speeds and energy.

A legal suit was brought against this project by a group of seven people in order to stop it from going forward based on the argument that particle collisions at these previously unachieved energy levels could unleash uncontrollable chain reactions that could destroy the earth. Far fetched? Most physicists think so, but they do allow that it is, in fact, a theoretical possibility, although a very small one. One of the seven: Walter L. Wagner, had brought a similar legal suit against construction of an accelerator in Brookhaven New York nine years ago. The suit was dismissed, the accelerator was turned on, and as a Times reporter said: “ We're still here.”

Still, that fact doesn't mean it couldn't happen the next time does it? It's the scientists overseeing the creation of this monstrosity that are the ones who will try and determine what the actual risks are. In fact, because of gaps in theoretical physics, no-one really knows what the risks are. Perhaps this “experiment” will help us fill in these gaps. Do you feel better now?

Doesn't the fact that they want to see this thing built so they can smash things up and see what neat new particles are created mean that there is a conflict of interest here? Maybe their insatiable curiosity about what really happened during the “Big Bang” makes them less risk averse than your average citizen.

It reminds me a little too closely of science fiction - the recent movie - “I Am Legend” and the late Kurt Vonnegat's book “Slaughterhouse Five”. Both are stories about scientific experiments that go horribly wrong on a global scale.

About twenty years ago a German sociologist named Ulrich Beck wrote a prescient book called The Risk Society. Beck claimed that modern industrial society has undergone a fundamental change since the Second World War. We have gone from a society organized for the production of goods to one that is increasingly organized in response to its production of risks.

Of course, human society has always known natural risks such as disease, crop failure, earthquakes, floods, etc, but in the twentieth century, for the first time, our lives have come to be dominated by man-made risks. Nuclear meltdowns, nuclear winter, chemical poisons like DDT and dioxin, CFC's and the destruction of ozone, and that grandaddy of all – global warming, to name a few.

As Beck points out these man-made risks share certain characteristics: They are caused by advances in technology. The consequences of these risks are increasingly global, affecting everyone everywhere. Hence they cannot be easily escaped by having a large income or living in gated communities. The nature of these risks is often neither visible nor perceptible to the victims. This implies that they can only be understood through scientific expertise, but at the same time it is science and technology that has created the risks in the first place.

Finally, much of these risks are unknowable and incalculable. They may or may not play out in the future so we can only guess at their extent or severity. According to Beck, society has been turned into a laboratory where scientists cannot really determine the risks until they actually go ahead and perform the experiments on all the rest of us. It's no wonder then, that the priviliged status of science is under attack from many quarters.

The science of “geoengineering” has led to proposals that global warming could be counteracted by dumping mirrors into space or having jet planes spray sulfer into the atmosphere to reflect the sunlight away from the earth , and to dumping tons of iron filings into the ocean to increase ocean fertility and thus increase the global absorption of carbon dioxide. There could be catastrophic risks involved in doing these things but we won't know what they are unless we are stupid enough to try them out.

The question of the development and employment of technologies is being eclipsed by questions of the political and economic management of the risks that utilizing these technologies creates. Indeed, certain political forces are deeply involved in denying these risks because of the perceived costs of eliminating them. We see evidence of this in the Bush administration's suppression of climate science and the Harper government's decision to ramp up tar sands production in the total absence of public input.

We really have no choice but to become more involved as citizens in risk prevention since the politicians and the scientists are more than happy to use us as their guinea pigs in their quest for knowledge and power.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Get Em While They're Young

Bicycles were popular when I was a kid. I remember that the high schools in Vancouver had a lot of bicycle racks and they were nearly full to capacity every weekday. Now, what I see in highschools today is just the opposite. Even if a school does have a bike rack there are hardly any bikes there.

What happened? My guess is that over the years, more and more parents thought it was safer to drive their kids to school. So kids fell out of the habit of riding to school and then they stopped using bicycles to get from A to B.

Things are now reversed, so that more adults than kids use bicycles as a means of transportation. Sure, lots of kids have bicycles, but they use them more for tricks and dirt riding, than anything else. Riding your bicycle to school is considered uncool because it suggests that you're family is too poor to afford a car, or that your parents don't care about you enough to drive you. This is just a conjecture on my part, but the fact is, that for whatever reason, kids are not using bicycles as a means of transportation as much as they used to.

I find this unfortunate because if we want our society to become more sustainable we've got to start with our children. Many adults are lost causes when it comes to persuading them to bicycle more and drive cars less. They've gotten too used to the comfort and the convenience of automobiles. It's too late to teach an old dog new tricks. But children have open minds and they actually enjoy being outside if they're given the opportunity.

The bicycle is really an ideal means of transportation for a child. A bicycle doesn't cost a lot, it's easy to ride, it keeps a person fit, it's something they can do together or alone, it gives one a sense of independence and yet it does not require a lot of responsibility and upkeep the way a car does.

Plus, if you start em young, then they are more likely to use a bike when they grow up. And that's the key. Start em young. I'm dedicated to using a bicycle as a means of transportation, but I've been doing it all my life since I was six. I can see why other adults can't do what I do because they may be out of shape and not used to being exposed to the weather. But I enjoy it in all kinds of weather. I love the fresh air, and the burst of muscular energy that it takes to climb a steep hill. I love flying downhill with the wind whistling by me.

When I was a kid, I associated a bicycle with independence, with exploring the world, with meeting and beating every challenge. Those positive associations with childhood made it easy for me to choose biking over driving as an adult in spite of all the pressures to conform. If children associate bicycling with positive experiences than they will be more likely to bike instead of drive as adults.

Let's face it, people are not likely to use their cars less and bicycle more because of worries about global warming and carbon dioxide emissions. Switching from driving a car to riding a bicycle is not like switching to another brand of toothpaste. It's a major lifestyle change. You've gotta be really motivated, and abstractions like global warming are not that motivating.

Not all of us can make the switch from automobiles to bicycles. But if we encourage our kids to bicycle and have fun doing it, they will be in a much better position to make that choice when they become adults. As for how to make cycling for transportation more cool and attractive for teenagers, I really have no idea, but I'm sure that someone out there does. Times change and things come around again and maybe one day in the not too distant future bicycling to school will be all the rage.