Saturday, May 9, 2015

On being a modern PELE: a Pragmatic Environmentalist, Lukewarmer, Ecomodernist

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to my 30th high school reunion. The reason my reunion is being mentioned in my blog is that part of a 30th reunion is the inevitable question: “so what are you doing with yourself”? After talking about my wife and kids (the important things in my life) I would simply say that I worked as an environmental chemist. For some that was all the details they needed: I had ended up in science (not a big surprise to the people who knew me then) and was happily employed with a young family and a happy life. Many wanted more details and over the course of the weekend my spiel got more polished:

I am an environmental chemist. I am employed in the field of contaminated sites where I work to clean up old industrial and commercial facilities so that they can be made safe for further uses. I design and execute investigation plans and then develop and implement remediation plans. I also do occupational health and safety testing to help ensure that people have safe and healthy places in which to work.
As a spiel it was relatively short but gave a flavour of what I am up to. What it also caused me to do was to ponder what I am in a more general sense. Outside of my identity to my friends and neighbours as a family man and coach (with three kids I have coached many teams of children’s sports) I also have my more “meta” identify. As regular readers of my blog know I am a “Pragmatic Environmentalist” and a “Lukewarmer”. As I have discovered through recent reading, I apparently fit into the mold of an “Ecomodernist”. As a fan of soccer, I was amused to realize that this makes me a modern day PELE:

Pragmatic Environmentalism:
In my mind I am first and foremost an environmentalist. I have worked in the environmental field for the better part of twenty years in activities ranging from ecosystem restoration to ecological and human health risk assessments. In doing this work I have come to understand that the vast majority of the population (including environmental activists) are for the most part “science-blind”. Most have little more than high-school science backgrounds with a very small number having any science at a university level. As for chemistry, most viewed the topic with suspicion in school and outright fear as adults. How else to explain a “food babe” who warns that: “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.” As such most Canadians are unaware of the marvels of science that keep their daily lives moving forward and are essentially unaware of the chemistry that helps them live the lives they love. This is how environmentalists can see no irony in complaining about the export of fossil fuels while wearing the fruits of those fossil fuel exports on their backs and feet. The do not understand how the petrochemical industry underpins their every daily activity from the cell phone in their hand, to the gortex jacket on their backs to the polypropylene socks that keep their feet dry, to the medicines they take to get better when sick. The environmentalists talk about moving towards a “fossil-fuel free future” oblivious to the fact that not only are we not close to such a future, but such a future is simply not possible given the state of our civilization. As I pointed out in a previous post (Starting a Dialogue - Can we really get to a "fossil fuel-free BC"?) at best we can approach a point where our home province (British Columbia) no longer relies on fossil fuels for electricity generation, but even then fossil fuels will still make up the lion’s share of our energy mix. Given the absence of alternatives for fossil fuels in the transportation and industrial sectors we need to look at how we handle fossil fuels for at least the next 50 years as we move towards alternatives.
Given the foregoing, a pragmatist asks a simple question: given we cannot do without a product, what can we do to make the transport of this product safer? In North America the majority of our raw petroleum supplies are located in the interior of the continent and thus cannot be shipped around by double-hulled tanker. Instead the choices are in order of environmental concern: tanker truck, rail or pipeline; that is it, period, there are no other options. Given the choices at hand, the obvious answer therefore is: invest in the safest, most environmentally benign of the transportation methodologies currently available. Thus as a pragmatic environmentalist I push towards improving our pipeline technologies and capacity. My acquaintances on the deep green end of the environmental spectrum, meanwhile, fight these pipelines tooth and nail, and in doing so they appear oblivious to the fact that the fuel has to move somehow. They talk of trying to “strangle” the oil sands not recognizing the economic folly of such an attempt . What is more, they do not even recognize the irony when at the same time they weep and wail about the dangers of transporting fuel by rail. They are the ones who have made oil-by-rail an economic reality, no one else but them.
Being a pragmatic environmentalist also means walking the walk. I would put my carbon footprint up against any of the people who call me a “sell-out” or a “shill”. My wife and I made a conscious choice, almost a decade ago, to live what is now called a “low carbon lifestyle”. At the time it wasn’t chic (and didn’t even have a label) but simply seemed socially responsible. We took the time, to find, and spent a bit more money, to get, a house close enough to my work (and our local grade school) so that I could get rid of my car and we could commute by foot. My wife, meanwhile, arranged to move schools so her commute to work is less than 3 km. This has allowed us to live a suburban lifestyle but only to own a single vehicle. We pay a bit more to shop locally and our kids do their sporting activities in local clubs so that even on the weekend we almost never get more than 10 km from our home (we do travel to the aquarium etc..).  We have not travelled by air in over 15 years and have limited our vacations to our home province. I can’t guarantee that this state of affairs will last forever, but for the last decade we have lived the “act locally” credo.  I am not saying all this to get any acclaim, but rather because being a pragmatic environmentalist means making personal choices and making what little differences we can, however small they may be. In a personal sense it means working to reduce our personal emissions. In a provincial sense it means British Columbia imposing its own carbon tax even though it had the potential to cost us in competitiveness (which in the end it did not) and only made a minor dent on national CO2 emissions. In a national sense it means fighting for a national program to reduce Canadian emissions even when Canadian emissions only represent a fraction of world emissions. The old adage goes that the trip of a thousand miles starts with a single step and so we must all take that first step individually.

Lukewarmer and Ecomodernist:
As I wrote in my last post, I am also a Lukewarmer. But as I also wrote, I am of the variety that believes that action is necessary to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels with a goal of stabilizing global CO2 concentrations.  My last post pretty much sums up my position on the topic so I won’t say more on that topic except to point out that we share our planet with countless other species and any attempt to stabilize global CO2 concentrations must acknowledge the importance of protecting our shared ecological heritage. This brings me to my final label: an ecomodernist. I would direct anyone interested in the topic to An Ecomodernist Manifesto and leave it at that for the moment as this post is already getting long. My next post will go further into the idea of ecomodernism and compare and contrast it with the concept of “degrowth” of which I only recently became acquainted.

1 comment:

  1. CO2 concentration will stabilize because fossil fuels will be too expensive, this will allow other energy sources to compete. The transition will be chaotic and world population will drop due to war, famine, and too few children being born. The current efforts to cut emissions are fairly dumb. For example, the biggest bang for the buck is a giant hydropower plant in Congo, but such an investment isn't even close to being considered by the pinheads in Washington, Brussels, or the Vatican.