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A failure of the (environmental) imagination

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The Solar Tunnel, an array of solar panels covering a railroad track.  Now that's imagination

The Solar Tunnel, an array of solar panels covering a railroad track in Belgium. Now that’s imagination

Today (July 11) Margaret Wente penned an opinion piece about the horrible Lac-Mégantic derailment in the Globe and Mail.  And, true to herself, she manages to combine leaps of logic with factual errors.  Sigh.

(Before anyone slags her employer, I’d like to point out that the same issue of the Globe included two excellent guest pieces by Equiterre’s Stefan Guilbeault and University of Waterloo’s Thomas Homer-Dixon.  Well worth reading.)

Wente deplores the accident, of course, and also deplores the unseemly renewed push by pipeline promoters.  But then she continues with

Environmentalists are also using this disaster to argue that the sooner we wean ourselves from killer oil, the better…Renewables such as wind, solar and biofuel can’t possibly provide more than a tiny fraction of our energy needs, and their costs are prohibitive. After many years of heavy investment in renewable technologies, governments and industries everywhere are in retreat. For all the billions they’ve invested, they have next to nothing to show. Even if we achieve much better energy efficiency, the world’s energy needs – and its need for fossil fuels – will be soaring for decades. Anyone who tells you that sun and wind can replace our need for oil and gas any time soon is wrong.

There are important mistakes in this short paragraph.  To say that wind, solar and biofuel can’t provide more than a tiny fraction of our energy needs is factually wrong.  Not only can they – but they already do.  In Germany, for instance, a quarter of the electricity is produced by renewables; in May and June, the solar fraction itself can account for the majority of the electricity generated.  That’s a full quarter – hardly a “tiny fraction.”  To say that costs are prohibitive is also wrong; in the right location, a new wind farm is cheaper than a new coal fuelled plant of the same capacity.  To say that they have next to nothing to say, one has to be wilfully blind as a Toronto-based writer.  The largest Canadian solar farm, (for a while, the world’s largest) is in Ontario, as are several wind farms; it is in part thanks to their contribution that that Etobicoke coal plant has been shuttered, and that Ms Wente can breathe air that is cleaner than a few years ago.  Some governments may be in retreat – but that’s because of the economic crisis, not because they lost faith in these systems; they are still expanding world-wide.  Britain, for instance, will be building the world’s largest off-shore wind farm.

What I find sad about the whole exercise is not so much the misinformation but the failure of imagination.  It is easy to believe naysayers and industry shills when one cannot possibly imagine anything other than the status-quo.  Just because the twentieth-century was built on cheap hydrocarbons doesn’t imply that this is the only possible way to go.  An analytical mind knows that this is unsustainable, both from a supply and from a climate stand-point.  But this isn’t what fires the imagination.  What an imaginative mind conjures is another way, a better life that doesn’t pollute and is sustainable.  It is easy to imagine apocalyptic catastrophes (and, given the recent astounding deluge that befell Toronto,  one wonder what it will take to spur Wente’s own imagination), but it isn’t such a stretch to imagine a better life.  From Germany to Australia, and throughout the world, there are countless examples of different ways of doing things that would have been dismissed as science-fiction just a few years ago.  To say that anyone who says solar and wind can replace fossil fuels is wrong, is guilty of mental laziness.  Tzeporah Berman’s grandmother had this bit of wisdom that we should all heed:

 I don’t want to hear any more about how hard it is, how big it is, and that you don’t know if it can work…you need to hold on to fact that the world can entirely change in your lifetime.


One thing that It has been bugging in the coverage of the derailment tragedy in Lac-Mégantic  is the free pass that pipelines have gotten when it comes to safety.  Pipelines have produced their share of human tragedy, as a simple Google search will show:  thousands have been killed in pipeline explosions in hundreds of sad tragedies including those in Carlsbad, New Mexico,  Jesse, Nigeria, or Ufa in Russia.  The Ufa 1989 disaster managed to be both the worse pipeline and the worse train accident in Russia; sparks from a passenger train ignited a leak from a nearby gas pipeline, causing upwards of 500 fatalities.


Written by enviropaul

July 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm

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