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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for May 2012

Environmental music

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Rachelle Van Zenten has been making the internet rounds lately with her wonderful song My Country.  It’s a reminder of how powerful music can be in stirring emotions – and, in this case, environmental awareness about northern BC.  It doesn’t hurt that in her video, her song is framed by very powerful, moving images.

Van Zenten’s music got me reminiscing about what could loosely be called environmental songs.  What is it about music that can touch us so deeply – and make impressions that last decades?

Take the archetypal enviro song of the sixties, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.  Forget for a moment that spots on apples have nothing to do with DDT (that would be fungicides, or ALAR – also banned).  She’s got the “leave me the birds and the bees” right.  But ultimately, the facts really don’t matter.  The song may have a cheerful melody, it is lines like

Don’t it always seem to go / You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone

that create a profound, melancholy impact.  A lot of the environmental thinking, ultimately, is summarized in these lines: preserve nature, its habitats, its animals – you have no idea how much you will miss them if they’re gone.  This has been the thinking behind creating national parks in the 1900s, all the way to contemporary efforts aimed at preserving clean air, clean water – or genetic integrity, for that matter.


Neil Young is another who penned a number of brilliant songs, rich in nostalgia.  After the Gold Rush was seen by many as a paean to the environmental movement, dressed in apocalyptic, sci-fi imagery.

Look at Mother Nature on the run / in the nineteen seventies

I was thinking about what a friend had said / I was hoping it was a lie

That last line, in particular, is suitably vague and ambiguous to carry just about any meaning – but hoping for a lie can never be good, in love or in life.  Bizarrely, it makes me think of climate deniers, painting them in a sympathetic light: an insight into the dread that seems to motivate denial of unpleasant realities (in convenient truth, as it were).


And speaking of Mother Nature on the run, who can forget Natalie Merchant’s Motherland:

Where in hell can you go / Far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete / That keeps crawling its way / About 1,000 miles a day?


There are of course, many more instances, and David Roberts’ Friday music blogging in Grist as well as numerous articles in Treehugger (for instance, this one on the musical influence of the environmental movement) serve as excellent sources.

But if I were to pick one artist that stays me with, I’d go with Mary Chapin Carpenter.  Her lyrics sometimes touch on environmental issues, as in the devastation following Katrina, or the social disruption that go with climate change, as in The Age of Miracles:

Greenland is melting, the west is on fire / But don’t ever stop praying for rain
It’s a curious place between hope and desire / Different gods, but the prayer is the same
And thousand-year storms seem to form on a breeze / Drowning all living things in their paths
And when a small southern town finds a rope in a tree / We’re all once again trapped in the past


But this isn’t why she has a soft spot for me.  Rather, it is because her songs are always so aware of her immediate surroundings, her environment in the most natural sense, like the magic of Twilight:

The sun’s going down past the pines / Shadows grow long down the hill
Follow the path known by heart / Down to the wide open fields
Now that it’s twilight / magical twilight


When Halley came to Jackson holds a special magic for me.  A comet may seem a mundane thing – just another streak in the sky – but there is something very special about a comet, especially in an age before media.

As its tail stretched out like a stardust streak / The papers wrote about it every day for a week
They wondered where it’s going and where it’s been / When Halley came to Jackson in 1910
Now Daddy told the baby sleeping in his arms / To dream a little dream of a comet’s charms
And he made a little wish as she slept so sound / In nineteen eighty-six that wish came ’round

Halley’s comet, however peculiar, is not a single event; it comes back every seventy two years, a long amount of time, yet just short enough to be accessible to most once in a lifetime – or twice, if long life is given, like to the baby in the song.  It speaks of continuity, of events beyond human intervention – yet, somehow, it seems magical, endowed with the ability to grant a wish.

Maybe this song means more to me because I discovered it near the time when my father died.  There’s a photo of him in his last year, on a country road, with his great-grandchild.  Maybe it’s the simple country setting, maybe the span of generations, but this photo, and this song, makes me think about things that continue across generations.  Maybe that’s why we are attached to our environment; it is what binds us to something larger than ourselves.  A little bit of believable magic.

across the generations: Dad and great-grandson Victor

Environmental news dominated by the budget

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clouds in the enviro forecast

What a week in the news this was!  Here’s my attempt to wrap my brain around the events.

Of course, the news have been dominated by the budget, dubbed the declared war on the environment (it is unusual for a country to declare war on itself, but there you have it).

There is a nice summary of the environmental impacts of the budget in the Ottawa Citizen, and Elizabeth May wrote a more detailed account of the situation in her blog.  The key aspects include scraping the Environmental Assessment Act and stripping the National Energy Board of any power;  stripping the Fisheries Act of any habitat protection measures; weakening the (already weak) Species at Risk act; and, of course, doing away with the Kyoto Accord.  Pipelines will be exempted from the Navigational Waters Act.  The funding of our environmental monitoring agencies will be curtailed (if a pipeline leaks in the woods, and nobody sees it, is it still pollution?).  And, of course, a new budget item of $8 million is devoted to harassing environmental organizations.

The reaction from the environmental community has been remarkably swift; groups like Forest Ethics responded by launching sub-groups like ForestEthics Advocacy, to clearly distinguish between the educational and activist functions of such groups.  Sierra Club, Greenpeace, WWF, the David Suzuki Foundation and many other have organised a campaign called BlackOutSpeakOut.

Gerald McEachern, in a nice summary of the situation, wrote that

THE GAME is over. It’s now all-out war.  This week, David Suzuki and his foundation came under attack by the ironically named Ethical Oil group, a new American anti-environmental video has been making the rounds online, and the $500,000 Koch brothers contribution to Canada’s right-wing Fraser Institute made the news.

At the political level, the conservatives can expect a rough ride, despite their majority.  Opposition parties, led by the NDP,  have pledged to use every possible procedural means to delay the budget; Elizabeth May, in particular, since her status is equivalent to that of an independent MP, can be expected to filibuster the reading of the bill.  To understand where a single person can have so much single-minded energy, I recommend the highly readable article on May in this month’s Walrus.  Says May:

You can’t deal with an issue like climate change if you basically abandon a healthy democracy and allow a corporatist culture to make the decisions. So you need engaged citizens, and you need Occupy.  You need people who have never seen themselves as political to become political. We need maybe 15 to 20 percent of Canadians to become really engaged and demand better. And then we’ll get it.

There is also fear that Canada will lose its scientific expertise, charitable organisations will lose their effectiveness, and even that such measures are stoking the fires of separation in Quebec.

Of course, the budget is also attacking several other key Canadian institutions such as the CBC and the national Archives.  One article making the rounds on the web at a viral pace (from one battlefield to another) sums up the mood well: in it, Capt. (retired) Trevor Greene, a veteran of the Afghan war, reflects that

Every generation updates and renews the values that make us who we are. I once found it hard to truly understand what those in my grandfather’s generation meant when they spoke of making the ultimate sacrifice in wartime to allow their loved ones back home to live in a democracy…[But, upon my return from Afghanistan] when I read about ministers of the Crown attacking and smearing heroes like David Suzuki, … I wonder what’s happened to Canada. I fear for the kind of world my daughter and son stand to inherit should we cave in to this oil-driven agenda. Not a good one, I am certain.

On the international scene, the fact that Canada is now an environmental pariah, an obstructionist bully, is no longer news.  This situation is nicely stated in this April article in the British New Scientist:

Under Harper, the government has moved from apathy to outright hostility. At the 2007 Bali climate conference, Canada and Russia stood alone in opposing science-based emissions targets. Canada’s foot-dragging at the 2009 Copenhagen conference earned it a “Fossil of the Year” award from environmental groups. As host nation of the G8 and G20 summits in 2010, Canada resisted making emissions a priority issue.

The government is also considering backtracking on other environmental matters. Last week, a former fisheries official leaked documents suggesting that the government wants to reword its Fisheries Act so that it no longer prohibits activity that harms fish habitat. The change would make it easier to gain approval for industrial developments such as pipelines…Meanwhile, the government has been cutting back sharply on its funding of environmental science.

Canada’s anti-science policies reach beyond the environment. Last year, the government did away with its compulsory long-form census. By making this census voluntary instead of mandatory, the government effectively destroyed its value as an unbiased baseline of information on Canadian society and the economy.

Coincidentally, the very next issue of the New Scientist featured an article about orcas appearing in Hudson Bay.  While this isn’t the first time, the number of sightings is unprecedented and appears to track the warming of the area very closely.  (There were no sightings before 1900, and only a handful until 1960; there was a small gradual increase afterwards, but the 40 sightings in the last five years is unprecedented.)

“We’re wondering what’s going on; it’s exciting to see them, but why are they here and what are they eating?” says Noah Nakookak, an Inuit hunter from Coral Harbour…[DFO biologist Steve] Ferguson is convinced that climate change explains the whales’ presence in the bay.  Orcas, with their tall dorsal fins, generally avoid ice, which can trap or injure them as they swim beneath it.  But recent declines in the extent of summer sea ice in Hudson Strait are opening up the route to Hudson Bay.

The fear, naturally, is that the orcas will be “eating the Inuit’s lunch” – and that cuts to DFO and other agencies will make it difficult to understand what is going on.

But it’s not all bleak; Iceland will suspend its fin whale hunt indefinitely, and Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, has announced a $100 billion solar energy development.  Other governments are proactive.  We’ll get there.

Marc Jaccard on the protest line.

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Something quite remarkable happened today, even though it didn’t garner much media attention.

Dr Marc Jaccard at a conference

Mark Jaccard, the distinguished energy expert and SFU professor, was arrested today.  He was a participant in a civil disobedience action, blocking coal trains on the BNSF tracks in White Rock.

This was organized by British Columbians for Climate Action.  Six coal trains were stopped.

coal train protesters

This is particularly newsworthy because of Jaccard’s presence.  Jaccard is no radical; rather, he has a lot at stake, both in academia at SFU and for his consulting work.  Jaccard was in the news a few years back, famous – some would say infamous – for his role advising the Campbell government on the carbon tax.

“That’s how I’d rather live my life,” he said. “But I feel I am in a world now where there isn’t any place for sane analysis.”

Asked how his actions might reflect on his academic career, Jaccard said: “I don’t know. That’s partly what I’m worried about.”

Why does this matter?  To me, it represents a sort of tipping point – where high profile experts leave the comfortable confines of academia and join the protest lines.  You know something big is at stake.  James Hansen, possibly the world’s foremost expert on climate change, did the same last summer, getting arrested for protesting the Keystone pipeline.

Rafe Mair – a former minister of the environment himself – is now calling for widespread civil disobedience as the only means left to protect our environment.

But I believe that this is about more than protesting government inertia.  Our government is no longer inert, distracted or indifferent; it is now actively hostile towards the environment and environmentalists, labelling us extremists, radicals, terrorists and criminals.  This is a rebirth of McCarthyism.

The most recent is the accusation by Peter Kent that environmental groups are laundering money.  This is a blatant lie, and is a dishonorable conduct from what should be the honorable minister of the environment.

Sierra Club Canada president John Bennett has denounced Kent for what he is – a liar – and has challenged him to produce evidence.  But I think further action is warranted.  I would like to see Kent taken to court for slander.  After all, money laundering is a criminal act; and accusing someone of money laundering is not a simple matter of opinion or interpretation.

Sierra Club, along with several other environmental NGOs (David Suzuki, Equiterre, CPAWS, many others) is calling for a day of protest June 4th, called BlackOutSpeak Out (a good campaign, please spread the word!)

I don’t know whether one can sue a sitting member of parliament for speaking out of turn. But this is demonstrable slander.  And whether now or when he eventually steps down, Kent has now made himself open to such an action.  And I hope it happens.  Think of it as similar to the war criminals court: at some point, people in power have to be made accountable for their actions.  I’m not talking about boneheaded government decisions; God knows, most politicians would end up in court id f so.  No, I mean when someone clearly commits an illegal action, like taking bribes.  Or committing electoral fraud.  Or slander.

There has to be a belief in the rule of law, fairly applied, for society to function properly.  Ironically, it is the party that bills itself as the defender of law and order that now gives all indications of breaking the law without a second thought.  This is the very thing that is pushing ordinary law-abiding citizens to the civil disobedience barricades.  And making extraordinary citizens like Marc Jaccard and Rafe Mair join them.  A pretty remarkable development.

Green energy works, despite criticisms leveled at it

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Every now and again our media runs articles excoriating governments for pursuing green energy.  A few days ago, for instance, the Globe and Mail feature a piece by Gwyn Morgan (The sorry lessons of green subsidies, here).   Morgan claims that

By the end of 2013, Ontario household power rates will be the second-highest in North America (after PEI), and they will continue to accelerate while they level off in most other jurisdictions. Even more alarming for Ontario’s economic competitiveness, businesses and industrial customers will be hit by almost $12-billion in additional costs over the same period.

And Ontario isn’t alone.  In Europe, following Morgan

Germany has given away $130-billion, mostly to solar-power companies. Yet solar power makes up a minuscule 0.3 per cent of German power supply, while doing almost nothing toward the original objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Spain also poured cash into solar- and wind-power subsidies with little to show for it except a $25-billion increase in its national debt.

Pretty depressing, huh?  Except that Morgan doesn’t quite tell the whole story.  In Ontario, as in Germany, the biggest portion of the fee increase is due to the huge debt servicing costs of nuclear electricity – feebates and other subsidies are not the main driver of the fee increases.   (And Morgan conveniently omits to mention that the percentage of electricity in Germany and Spain generated by wind reaches the double digits, but that’s details.)

Don’t take my word for it (knowledgeable as I may appear…).   Robert Hornung, the president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association, replied that

Gwyn Morgan makes the basic error of comparing the cost of new wind energy with the cost of existing power generation instead of comparing the cost with alternative forms of electricity generation that could be built today. Wind energy is cost-competitive with almost all forms of new electricity generation (nuclear, hydro, coal with carbon capture).

And Adam Scott of the NDRC, in a well documented article, chimed in that

If you live in Ontario, you know there’s an all-out assault on renewable energy like windmills and solar power. What you might not know is that despite all the nay-saying, clean energy is actually responsible for emissions going down, not for prices going up.

What gives?  Morgan has years of experience in the oil industry, notably as former CEO of EnCana, while Scott and Hornung are experts in green energy.  Both can’t be right.

Your head goes for a bit of a spin when, in the same business pages, you go from Morgan’s article to Jerry Rubin’s on the risks of unaffordable oil.  Rubin talks about the globalization of the economy grinding to halt because of the high cost of oil.  If nothing else, it would appear that putting all our energy eggs in the oil basket is risky – and exploring green energy should provide a bit of resilience against these risks.   Rubin, a former economist, asks

With national economies around the world once again forced to pay more than $100 (U.S.) for every barrel of oil consumed, …what happens when the world’s most important source of energy becomes unaffordable?

When the price of oil goes up, something has to give. Right now, the European Monetary Union looks to be the most imminent casualty. How much longer will Greece slavishly heed the demands of its creditors and impose punishing austerity measures with the only result being the continuing implosion of its economy?

Talk about whiplash.  Then flip open today’s business pages and read that a Canadian company has found a way to export wind energy systems to Greece.  Yes, to Greece.  Is that an aberration?

I don’t think so.  I’d rather listen to a visiting Spanish energy scholar, Laura Fernandez.  Baffled by the attitude of Canadians towards green energy, she states in her article that

The Spanish renewable energy sector is actually one of the few sectors that is helping employment during the EU economic crisis.

Please, all media and pundits, stop demonizing the green energy sector.  It’s one of the rays of hope in our current predicament.  Let’s not self-sabotage.

Written by enviropaul

May 3, 2012 at 12:10 pm