The Sanguine Environmentalist

April 21, 2002

By Michael Jessen

The past year has been a hard one for environmentalists so it was heartening to savour an important victory on the eve of the 32nd Earth Day.

When the U.S. Senate voted April 18 to kill George Bush's crude dream to let oil companies drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it marked a major defeat for the President's revamped national energy plan. Drilling in Alaska's ANWR was a centrepiece of his proposed policy that encourages more U.S. production of oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power. It was a showdown in the more than two-decade-long struggle over drilling in the refuge.

Environmental advocates Defenders of Wildlife (www.defenders.org) and Environmental Defense (www.environmentaldefense.org) were two among many groups whose members peppered Senators with phone calls, e-mails and faxes urging them to protect the wildest place left in America -- often called the "American Serengeti". The refuge is home to caribou, polar bears, muskoxen, arctic foxes, wolves, bears, snow geese -- a myriad number of creatures, all of which depend on this fragile, unique land for survival.

What is too bad is that drilling opponents chose to fight this battle almost exclusively on environmental grounds when any clear thinking person -- if given the appropriate information -- could quickly conclude this project didn't have an economic leg to stand on. All anyone needed to know was that ANWR oil would take 10 years to come on stream, cost at least $20 billion to develop, create about 70,000 temporary jobs, and in the end only provide about six months supply to satisfy America's rapacious oil appetite.

A proposal to raise mileage standards that these same Senators voted down in March would have saved about three times as much oil per year as ANWR would deliver even in its brief period of peak production. The United States consumes 26 percent of the world's petroleum resources, about 19 million barrels per day. Considering that by the most optimistic figures, the Arctic Refuge would yield only 0.4 percent of the world's known oil reserves, Arctic oil would not significantly decrease American dependence on foreign oil. A recent U.S. government analysis showed drilling in ANWR would peak at 800,000 barrels per day in 2020. The report said this would reduce the imports needed at the time to meet U.S. petroleum demand from 62 percent to 60 percent of supplies and shave about 1 cent off the cost of a gallon of gasoline.

In fact oil companies were not behind the push for drilling in ANWR, they are more interested in the rest of Bush's energy plan which would give them about $35 billion in tax breaks and subsidies.

Columnist Paul Krugman has an interesting view of the issue. "The real reason conservatives want to drill in ANWR is the same reason they want to keep snowmobiles roaring through Yellowstone: sheer symbolism," Krugman wrote in a New York Times opinion piece March 15. "Forcing rangers to wear respirators won't make much difference to snowmobile sales — but it makes the tree-huggers furious, and that's what's appealing about it. The same is true about Arctic drilling; as one very moderate environmentalist told me, the reason the Bush administration pursues high-profile anti-environmental policies is not that they please special interests but that they are red meat for the right."

So there you have it. Crucial decisions driven by petty concerns, like children taunting one another in the schoolyard. If you don't believe it, "you do not know with how little wisdom the world is governed," Krugman concludes.

The same type of taunting took place last summer and fall when Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg's book "The Skeptical Environmentalist" became cannon fodder for conservative book reviewers and editorial writers. Lomborg's rosy "real state of the world" was gobbled up by those who insist the environment is only a subset of the economy.

Improving the economy will eliminate poverty and pollution was Lomborg's mantra and any utterances to the contrary by environmentalists are damned lies. Scientists and environmentalists spent considerable time and energy to defend themselves against Lomborg, including an 11-page spread entitled "Misleading Math about the Earth" in the January issue of Scientific American (available at www.ps.au.dk/vip/lomborg/SALomborg.pdf).

Lomborg (www.lomborg.com) visited Vancouver in March to speak to the Vancouver Board of Trade as part of a year-long sabbatical to promote his book. Having only sold about 62,000 copies since its publication -- more than half in North America -- the book is hardly a best-seller. Even other professors at Lomborg's own university have criticized the anti-environmentalist poster boy. Go to www.anti-Lomborg.com, founded by a group of Oxford University scholars and journalists that puts forward criticism of everything he propounds.

Lomborg's book was pretty thoroughly trashed by Globe and Mail reviewer Andrew Nikiforuk. It was surprising then that this same newspaper chose reviewers who trash the latest books by two sanguine scientists, E.O. Wilson and David Suzuki. Their penalty -- they dare to express hope that humans seem to be coming around to the view that the economy is a part of the environment and the two must be considered in tandem.

Wilson's "The Future of Life" (published by Knopf) is an impassioned call for quick and decisive action to save Earth's biological heritage, and a plan to achieve that rescue. (You can find a chapter on the Scientific American web site at www.sciam.com). Wilson is an expert on biodiversity and is widely regarded as one of the world's greatest living scientists. A Harvard professor for more than four decades, he has received many of the world's top prizes in science and conservation.

For Wilson, the choice for humanity is clear: the juggernaut of technology-based capitalism "will very soon either chew up what remains of the living world, or it will be redirected to save it." Wilson writes we need to see the planet as astronauts see it "a little sphere with a razor-thin coat of life too fragile to bear careless tampering." Wilson is heartened that "a growing cadre of leaders in business, government, and religion now think in this foresighted manner. They understand that humanity is in a bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption. They agree, at least in principle, that we will have to manoeuvre carefully in order to pass through the bottleneck safely." Reviewed by Richard Lubbock, Wilson's book is described as "sombre" and "grim" even though Wilson concludes that humans will develop a new human ethic based on a wiser, more careful stewardship of our vanishing natural world. Lubbock is described at the end of his review as a "seasoned observer of science and philosophy who has watched many scenarios of disaster come and go." It is not surprising that he authored a review lauding Lomborg's book for the National Post last year.

Suzuki, who has done more than anyone else to elevate the environmental consciousness of ordinary Canadians, fares no better at the hands of reviewer Alanna Mitchell. His latest book "Good News for a Change: Hope for a Troubled Planet" is co-authored by Holly Dressel and published by Stoddart. Headlined "Rose-coloured eco-lenses," Mitchell's review accuses the authors of "an alphabet-soup approach to writing a book" and "a Coles Notes version of the ills of the planet." Mitchell condemns the authors for writing about success stories like Collins Pine (www.collinswood.com) -- a forestry company that has found a way to sustainably harvest its wood, saying they are the exception rather than the rule.

In a recent interview with Australia's Radio National (www.abc.net.au/rn/science/earth/stories/s500060.htm), Suzuki is chided for getting soft in his old age. "You know, if you’re suggesting there’s a kind of gentler David Suzuki, I guess you’re right," he replies. "I still like the old image of a warrior, you know, going to battle. But in my older age, what I’ve realised is the minute you say to someone ‘Listen, you so-and-so, you’re a bad person, you’re doing the wrong thing’, you immediately prevent any kind of dialogue. The minute you confront people that you’re trying to get to change, and attack them, you make sure that they’re going to fight back. So in my old age I’ve realised Listen, we’re all on the same planet. The people that we’ve been fighting to change are mothers and fathers, they care about their children and the future for their children, and if we can come to some kind of common understanding of what we as human beings need, then maybe we can work together and try to begin to change."

Suzuki's new book provides ample evidence that companies are changing the way they do business. Even McDonald's has begun market-testing a McVeggie burger and has just issued its first world-wide Social Responsibility Report (www.csrwire.com/article.cgi/1042.html). Suzuki and Dressel give us hope that the horserace mentality of victors and losers is on its way out and that individuals, through one little dream at a time, can change the world.

Knowledge is a prerequisite for love, wrote Chet Raymo in his book "Natural Prayers." If we want to relearn how to love our planet, Wilson's and Suzuki's books give us the knowledge. They have presented us with inspiring gifts for this 32nd Earth Day. Give copies to everyone you love.

RESOURCES - To protect our home, the Earth, we must know how we affect it. Each of us has an impact on our planet. The Ecological Footprint helps us understand how much land and water is needed to produce the resources that we consume, and to get rid of the waste that we produce. In partnership with Redefining Progress, the Earth Day Network has developed the Ecological Footprint test -- an internationalized, web-based calculator to measure your personal ecological impact on the planet, in a simple 5-minute quiz. Take the quiz at www.myfootprint.org. Today, humanity's collective Ecological Footprint is 30 percent larger than what the world can offer. This means we are overusing the planet and liquidating its ecological assets. Examples of our overuse include deforestation, collapsing fisheries, and the build-up of heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere. At the same time, a significant percentage of the world's people do not have enough resources to meet basic survival needs. By more carefully tracking human impacts on the Earth's resources, we can learn what needs to be done in order to protect our natural assets. We can all be part of the solution. Together, we can reshape the global economy in a way that will allow all people to meet their essential needs without destroying the limited capacity of our planet.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based consultant who advises businesses and communities how to minimize their negative environmental and social impacts and maximize their positive impacts. He can be reached at toenail@netidea.com.


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