Earth Day highlights challenges for green movement

Matt Gardner
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The first Earth Day in 1970 came at a high point for the fledgling environmental movement, which at the time could point to contemporary successes such as the passage of the Clean Air Act.

A tree overlooks the North Saskatchewan River.

More than four decades later, the day has become an opportunity for reflection among environmentalists facing a wide range of challenges -- most prominently, the looming spectre of climate change.

“One of the problems of just focusing on the one day is it lets people off the hook a little bit,” Renewable Power – The Intelligent Choice (RPIC) member Murdine McCreath said.

“I think the problem where we live is that we’re too safe or too comfortable -- we’re too complacent -- and so we live in an environment here that’s pretty secure compared to most places in the world, and so somehow the environmental agenda just doesn’t make it to the top of anybody’s list,” she added.

“I think -- because I have grandchildren and I think about the future -- I just don’t know how we go about getting people to pay attention, because I think if I’m honest, I don’t think people are paying enough attention to the urgency … We shouldn’t still be having the debates about ‘Is there climate change?’ We should be way past that.”

As a member of RPIC, McCreath has been at the forefront of local efforts to educate Prince Albert residents on the importance of sustainable energy.

Examining possible factors behind the difficulty of such efforts in a Canadian setting, she pointed to a resource-based economy that has discouraged the country from pursuing a truly green economy.

“Other countries are moving way ahead of us like Germany, Denmark, Holland, because they sense that if they don’t diversify and take advantage of some technology in a green economy that they’re not going to be able to survive in terms of their energy needs,” McCreath said.

“So here we are in Canada and in Saskatchewan living next to the tar sands, and we just don’t get it -- that if we don’t diversify and embrace a green economy, we’re going to be buying the technology from other places that are way further ahead.

“I think embracing a green economy would be an exciting way to have more technology and development, more innovation, more research, more creative-type jobs.”

But while McCreath noted inaction in the public sphere on climate change, others point to improving attitudes in the private sector.

Sustainability marketing consultant and Green Briefs blogger Lorne Craig described an increasing concern among businesses with environmental issues.

“The landscape changes and all we can do is keep the agenda moving forward -- with DDT, with acid rain, now it’s greenhouse gases -- and while it seems like things aren’t happening in many ways, at a greater corporate level, sustainability is hitting the radar in ways it never has before,” Craig said.

“I think companies at the highest levels are recognizing that the systems that give us all livelihood and success are at risk -- and their business risk is ramped up in that as well.”

As a firm proponent of the idea that “every time you open your wallet, you’re voting with it,” Craig encouraged consumers to make sustainable purchase decisions by looking at energy ratings for appliances and finding out more about the companies they buy from.

“If you can go on a company website, find out what their sustainability policies are, find out a bit more about the supply chain if they’re transparent enough,” he said.

“If it’s anything that goes in you, on you or around you and you can find all the ingredients listed on the website, that’s a really good sign that the company’s being transparent.”

One of the problems of just focusing on the one day is it lets people off the hook a little bit. Murdine McCreath

Craig offered a range of other tips for green-conscious consumers.

Aside from recycling materials they may not have before and properly disposing of hazardous items such as fluorescent lights and drugs, he suggesting looking into hybrid vehicles by calculating the potential money saved in fuel costs.

Taking public transportation to work one day a week, Craig added, would equate to a 20 per cent reduction in one’s carbon emissions for a five-day work week.

He also noted the importance of turning off electronic devices such as chargers, printers and TVs that leave a small light on.

“Those things added up can use, according to some studies, half as much power as your refrigerator over a year, and that starts to actually cost money,” Craig said.

“So putting those things in a power bar and turning them off when you can, there’s a thing that you can do that will help energy consumption, and also maybe even help your bottom line at the end of the year.”

While “every little bit helps” has long been a favourite expression for many environmentalists, McCreath described daily efforts by individuals to reduce their own impact as “a drop in the bucket.”

“Maybe it gets people in a better mindset,” she said. “But if it lets them off the hook or if it makes them think that they’re doing enough … of course conservation is important, but it’s just part of a larger intention to make big changes. I mean, we still have pretty dirty fuel sources through coal.”

The question of how to make major changes in a global economy that largely runs on fossil fuels is a perplexing issue for environmentalists -- one that has provoked a variety of responses.

“I think probably some people would say we have to work through electoral politics … For some people that’s maybe a possibility,” McCreath said. “For some people, there’s the possibility of civil disobedience to call attention to issues.

“I’m not recommending that,” she added. “I’m just saying that there are some people who have made big changes by drawing attention,” offering the success of anti-logging protests in Clayoquot Sound, B.C. during the 1990s as an example.

Aside from promoting “sustainability literacy,” Craig argued that while online petitions and emails may make an impact, handwritten letters to MPs, MLAs and local government officials will generally receive a reply.

“The main message I want to get out is just keep moving forward,” he said. “Keep asking questions, because the landscape’s going need to change and it’s going to be frustrating. It’s going to feel like we’re not getting anywhere, but we just have to keep pushing it uphill. That’s all we can do.”

McCreath noted that the time available to combat climate change is not limitless.

“Part of this is that the longer we take to do anything, the more expensive the solutions are going to be … I mean, that’s an economic argument, too,” she said.

“We have to be making the changes now -- not waiting for the big crisis to happen.”

Organizations: Renewable Power, Prince Albert

Geographic location: Germany, Denmark, Holland Canada Saskatchewan Clayoquot Sound

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