As alluded to previously, the tendency of ours to accept lip-service on climate change (or its more robust cousin, the collective fantasy of a utopic green state) has roots in our collective allergy to sacrifice. Sacrifice is what previous generations did. Grandparents who survived the Great Depression, did so at great cost to themselves. Immigrants worked like hell so their kids and grand-kids could have it good. During WWII, sacrifice was the order of the day in so many respects – a great many made the “ultimate sacrifice”. But since then, sacrifice has been shunned from the dominant narrative of progress that we have enjoyed in the West.
You could argue this was done in good faith, and with good reason, to the extent that we didn’t know any better. The sheer abundance achieved by post-war industrial production is astounding to be sure. [So much more so it would have been, had humans worked a little harder at spreading the wealth about more equitably – but that’s another discussion.] However, as loud as the warning bells are today, they only echo early warnings that go back almost fifty years, when the alternative economic scene was pointing out that there are necessarily limits to industrial growth on a finite planet. The main limit coming into play these days is that of the biosphere’s ability to absorb the waste we spew into the air as though it were an open sewer. And while the health of our oceans is failing – signalling an unacceptable level of saturation, it is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere that is proving to be the primary limiting factor moving forward.
Forty years ago environmentalism enjoyed its first heyday, but instead of pushing for a transition to a nascent alternative energy economy (while we still had lots of time and plenty of fossil fuels to build the necessary infrastructure), we doubled down on the oil and gas project – despite (or because of) new supply issues that emerged after the United States’ continental supply of conventional crude peaked in the early seventies. The results? Reaganomics opened up the Alaskan wilderness to oil production, the Thatcherites approved North Sea operations, and we in the West were able to pretend there were no limits for another two decades. Gradually this cheap oil culture spawned the infamous SUVs of the nineties and early 2000s. “Global Warming” was only just gaining traction in the collective consciousness.
More recently, “peak oil” (for a time, at least) came into common parlance as well. In the early 2000s it became apparent to anyone paying attention (including the Pentagon, btw) that the cheap and easy conventional oil supply was starting to wane world wide. Prices climbed and even spiked, and although few people in the political sphere broached the subject of peak oil (never mind the MSM), the economics of peak oil allowed for new, more expensive oil production to come on line. This is why Canada’s tar sands can now pretend to make economic sense, and similarly, south of the border, it’s the reason that the US has been able to double-down once again and frack their way forward: shale oil production in the last seven years has literally doubled their otherwise dwindling output, even breaking new records in annual output. Some critics try to claim this disproves the “peak oil” forecast, but in fact it only confirms it: “peak oil theory” was only ever about conventional oil – besides, new forecasts for fracked oil are not immune to the simple premise that ultimately, finite supplies of any oil will always peak and deplete – but that too is another story.
From a Climate change perspective, the additional supply of some 8 million barrels of fracked oil per day is a disaster – especially when you consider the fracking process releases copious amounts of methane directly into the atmosphere. Similarly, the tar sands operations contribute enormously to Canadians’ world leading GHG per-capita emissions. So, while “running out” of conventional oil might have seemed to promise a reduction in pollution, it turns out that we have plenty of the even dirtier stuff to tear through before supply becomes an issue. So now it becomes a matter of will. Can we choose to not burn it? To leave it in the ground…
Maybe that’s too much sacrifice for most?
On the other hand, if the huge numbers of protesters we’ve seen in the streets across the country (and around the world) represent a truly determined population of environmentally motivated activists, then perhaps we can start talking about sacrifice.
I contend that the results of this next federal election here in Canada will be a good indicator as to just how sincere, and how deep the current environmental movement actually is. Only if a majority of Canadians turn their back on the two front-runners, can we start to take ourselves seriously as a country that wants to make an ecological difference and lead by example. Any other choice means we are asking to have our cake and eat it too.