Sunday, July 26, 2009

CONSUMING OUR WAY TO SUSTAINABILITY--Who do Greens Think They are Fooling?

Like mushrooms in a moist dark forest, the apostles of “Green Living” continue to sprout up all over the Canadian landscape. Green guides, green tips, green “solutions”, green home builders, green businesses---the menu is replete with advice on how we can save the planet by effecting “lifestyle changes” that allow us to carry on with hyper-consumerism and feel good about it.

Yet another classic example of this kind of green delusion was afforded by a program called “At Issue” on the “I” Channel on July 22/09. It presented “Canada’s Clean Air Crew” as another of its “Heroes of the Environment”---the “Clean Air Foundation”. Moderator Arlene Bynon interviewed the CAF’s Acting Executive Director, Fatima Dharsee and its “Mercury Program Manager”, Krista Friesen, but did so not exactly in the probing style of a Barbara Frum but rather like the president of their fan club.

Ms. Fatima explained that the Clean Air Foundation is providing “solutions” by promoting “information”, “awareness”, more investment in renewable energy, more innovation, better technology, and a change in mentality. Its interest is making people feel “positive” and good about the seven programs the CAF is offering.

“Car Heaven”, for example, encourages Canadians to give up their clunkers for a charitable tax receipt, discounts on bicycles, transit passes and $300. The old cars are towed free of charge to one of some 200 auto-recyclers across the country. Fatima pointed out that cars built before 1995 generate 20 times the smog that new cars do---“which are pollution-free”. The program was touted as a success because, after all, in just eight years 88,000 Canadians have taken up the offer. This matches the achievement of the CBC’s “Million Acts of Green” campaign, which boasted that its green living participants took the equivalent of 10,000 cars off the road in one year in terms of reducing green house gas emissions. Problem is, it would take 13 days of reclaiming old cars at the CAF rate of 30 a day, to wipe out the number of cars added to the national fleet by one typical day of immigration to Canada, assuming that the rate of car ownership among immigrants is the same as other citizens. Together with the CBC “success”, these efforts would counter-balance only about 15% of the extra vehicular use by New Canadians. And if old cars are exchanged for new ones, what of the environmental costs of constructing the most efficient replacements? Other ‘green’ programs prompt similar questions and comparisons.

The CAF’s “Keep Cool” campaign may have collected over 8,000 old air conditioning units from Ontario locations in 2007, saving almost 6 MW---enough to power 1,500 homes. But how many new homes did population growth add in Ontario that year? Legal permanent immigration alone to that province, using Canadian averages of 2.6 people per house, would demand the construction of 48,000 extra housing units per year. And another 20,000 homes would be needed each year to accommodate Canadian-born residents in that province. So while HMCS Titanic is taking on water by thousands of gallons per minute, the Clean Air Crew is bailing it out one cup at a time. Valiant effort, but quite futile. Much like the Californian achievement of tripling the efficiency of refrigerators since 1948 but seeing its population quadruple in the same period. And green technological euphoria continues to ignore efficiency paradoxes. Cheaper and more efficient appliances provoke more consumption. When air conditioners became 17% more cost efficient, their number doubled.

The same critique can be applied to other CAF programs. Ms. Fatima alerted viewers to the fact that operating a two-stroke lawn mower for just one hour was as damaging to the atmosphere as driving a car for 500 km., a frightening statistic considering that 3 million Canadians mow lawns (9%). But the 2009 projected cohort of 265,000 legal permanent immigrants will expand the national housing stock by over 100,000 units, and therefore, applying the same ratio of lawn mowing to homes for the country, over one in four, or approximately 25,000 more lawn-mowers, would be added to the country that year. 390,000 of the 3 million lawn-mower operators Fatima cites are foreign-born. It is in that context that the retirement of 5,700 gas lawnmowers in 2007 must be seen. 18,000 lawn mowers have been surrendered since the program’s inception, removing 406 tonnes of GHG. But one year of immigration generates ten million tonnes of GHG, or 25% of the emissions from the whole Alberta Tar Sands development. The CAF is also focused on intercepting the mercury found in old thermostats and 10 million mercury car switches before they find their way to the landfill. But there is not even a hint that the number of land-fillers should be reduced as well.

Nevertheless, Arlene Bynon was effusive in her laudatory summation of the CAF’s approach. “By making the right decisions we can drastically reduce our footprint”. Essentially it is the soft green Gospel according to Gore, preached at the conclusion of his famed documentary on global warming, that each of us can, as smart and conscientious consumers, make a difference, for the sum total of our choices will add up to decisive change. Unfortunately, one of those small individual choices apparently does not include the mere writing of a letter to a Member of Parliament urging that our governments do not increase the number of national consumers by open immigration, child benefits and birth incentives, and global consumers through foreign aid not made conditional on family planning. As 200,000 new consumers are born in the world each day, our “decisions” are apparently going to have to get smarter every day ad infinitum. Eventually, one might suppose, we’ll have to become “breatharians” living only on a diet of oxygen. With the highest population growth rate in the G8, Canadians may become the first guinea pigs in this latest New Age “lifestyle” option. If that sounds fantastic, it is no less so that the belief of contemporary environmentalists that there is no necessary connection between population growth and environmental degradation.

Ms. Fatima, who is described as having “an avid, entrepreneurial spirit” on the CAF website, defined the CAF approach as “marketing on a mission.” It attempts to shift production to environmentally benign products by educating consumers to create an irresistible demand for eco-friendly products, an objective which encouraged interviewer Bynon to declare that “business is not the enemy of the environment.”
That is an interesting concept considering that each and every construction, even of the smartest car, the most energy efficient air conditioner or refrigerator, or the greenest building, requires more non-renewable resources for its construction and operation. And the people who engage in that production are paid dollars to do so, and consume more products with that money. Greens are apt to maintain that one can reduce “throughput” but grow the economy at the same time. Nonsense. We cannot support a growing population on an “economy” of musicians, poets and professors. Any service sector requires secondary and primary industry to feed it. If not in its own country, but through the “appropriated capacity” of countries which supply those needs through imports. We can’t live without someone somewhere getting their hands dirty on our behalf.

In other words, the CAF strategy firmly vested in the growth economy, as reflected by the fact that among the six directors on the board of the CAF are the retired Vice President of External Relations at the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, a managing partner of an investment management firm, and a director of business development with the Canadian Diabetes Association. But one must ask, can there really be “Green Growth”? Can there be an authentically “green stimulus package”—other than a lethal injection into the heart of growthism? Can we consume our way to sustainability?

In “Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Economy”, Ted Trainer argues compellingly that we cannot. We cannot shift our use from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources while maintaining our high energy use at the same time. Renewables could never meet our present demands, never mind our projected future “needs”. “Few people seem to recognize,” Trainer observes, “the absurdly impossible consequences of unlimited economic growth. If we have a 3% per annum increase in output, by 2070 our economy will be producing eight times as much every year.” If the consumers of the developing world were to match our consumption, the global economic output would need to be 60 times greater than it is now. “Yet the present level is unsustainable”, he adds. And only a delusional Canadian, of whom there are many, could believe that we could double our economy in the next 25 years and have an environment left over. Or can more “prosperity” buy us a new one?

The only “solution” is one not offered by the Clean Air Foundation or any of its numerous clones. It is a zero-growth economy. One as Trainer defines it, that is “geared to the needs of people and ecosystems and is therefore not driven (primarily) by market forces or the profit motive…an economy operating with the minimal levels of production and consumption necessary for a high quality of life, with a much lower GDP than the present economy, and without any growth.” In actuality, the greenest building, the greenest car or the greenest appliance, is one never built, while the greenest choice is the one not to conceive another consumer. The condom remains the most cost-effective weapon against climate change and air pollution yet designed.

The steady-state economy is not a technological nostrum or a new consumerism, but a rebuke of consumption, a paradigm shift that does not require the more efficient production of greener goodies but fewer goodies, green or otherwise. It is about ecological sustainability, not the sustainability of the bottom line. And a steady state economy must involve a sustainable population level. We don’t need green consumers so much as fewer consumers who will consume less. That is the kind of “awareness” the CAF needs to promote. And it is the kind of perspective that the media, as in the “I” channel, needs to permit at the discussion table.

Tim Murray
July 26/09.

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