April 2007: Action Needed, Not Rhetoric

April 1, 2007

George Perkins Marsh, in his 1864 book Man and Nature, warned a world even then dominated by business that “We are breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling, for fuel to seethe our pottage.” Presciently, he observed that, “Joint stock companies have no souls; their managers, in general, no conscience.” He saw the proper role of humankind as co-workers with Nature, re-developing an equilibrium that would sustain life in modest abundance.

One of his most sagacious statements should be carved in stone over the entrances of legislatures around the world: “Man has too long forgotten that the Earth was lent to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.” (Usufruct is the right to enjoy property belonging to another, without diminishing its substance.)

We are still reeling from the shock of realizing, belatedly, that a society built on the shaky pillars of self-indulgence is now facing ecological catastrophes so devastating that they could even bring about our extinction as a species. England’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change warns that a 90% cut in greenhouse gas emissions—no less--is needed by 2050. Such a drastic reduction calls for firm and decisive political leadership to wean us away from our no-longer supportable pleasures.

The dilemma we face is an ecological one: the ecosphere has been and is being continually savaged by economic gangsters who think of themselves as an élite. The solution is at the grassroots level and is reminiscent of an observation made by Albert Schweitzer. He noted that, when you see a field turn green in spring, it happens only because the individual blades of grass become green. When enough of them have turned colour, the entire field appears green.

Here is where politicians in general miss the boat. The resources that might make things happen are the millions and billions of people who have lost so much trust in government.

If there is a politician capable of realizing the power of the public, that person should speak candidly, without arrogance, and be honest about the problems we face. Such a politician would have finally realized that the economy’s relationship to planetary ecology is strictly subordinate and has always been that way. If we keep denying this basic truth, the result will be lethal.

Such an enlightened politician would make us aware that ecosystems are quite resilient, but may also collapse with astounding rapidity. Our carbon output must drop by three-fourths in the next 15 years

The same brave politician would tell the truth—clearly and bluntly enough to let us know that our lives are on the line. He or she would urge people to put away their toys, their ATVs, ski-doos, snowmobiles, outboard motors, and other fossil-fuel burners; to walk more, use mass transportation, take a holiday from flying. A program might be instituted to help people break their machine addiction and join in a collective effort to reduce carbon dioxide production as much as possible. This would give us time to talk, think, study, realize that our very survival as a species depends on drastically reducing our damage to the planet’s ecosystems.

The corrective steps could be incremental, but have to be widely embraced and implemented. A good start—and a good test--would be for all owners of motor vehicles to commit to a 10% reduction in the annual mileage they drive, and then keep that promise.

Of course, individual politicians, no matter how outspoken, cannot fill the decisive policy-and-law-making role of governments. Many government leaders are at last conceding the need for action on climate change, but most still shrink from the drastic measures the crisis demands. They have yet to heed the dire warnings that have come from climatologists and other scientists in recent years. As the Worldwatch Institute has pointed out, governments could cut global carbon output by 21% simply by terminating all the billions in subsidies they now lavish every year on the oil and gas companies and the major industrial polluters. The continuation of such handouts makes governments complicit in the increase of global warming, makes them part of the problem instead of part of the solution. In Canada alone, government subsidies to the fossil fuel industries amount to nearly $6 billion a year—handouts that make a mockery of political promises to get serious about global warming.

If action were to really replace rhetoric, many corrective steps could be taken. Airline flights could be progressively cut by 10% a year; taxes on gasoline could be doubled, or gasoline could be tightly rationed, as it was in many countries during World War II. The dumping of sewage into rivers and the ocean by large Canadian cities, including Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver and Victoria, should be stopped, as should the clear-cutting of forests and the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Wars should finally be recognized as ecologically suicidal. The massive troop and armament buildups, the bombing and killing and maiming of millions, and all the environmental destruction of warfare are inexcusable at any time, but in a world threatened by disastrous man-made climate change, surely we should be united in fighting the common ecological threat, not one another.

Maybe what we need is not so much leaders who are brave and decisive, but leaders who are certifiably sane.

(Bob Harrington lives in British Columbia. His most recent book is The Soul Solution.)