All things environmental

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

Archive for March 2018

What can a poor student do?

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What to do about climate change?

“But me, as a student, renting, poor, what can I do?  Is there anything someone like me can do?”

The question was about climate change, and it was the question that stumped Federico Rosei.  The celebrated physicist, expert in energy and nanotechnology, had just concluded his presentation, a guest of the KPU Physics department and the Canadian Association of Physicists.  As expected, the talk reserved a large place to climate change and energy topics – and a description of how, as a society, we seem to be rushing headlong towards a cliff.  Dr Rosei answered the question of “what can someone do” as if it came from a general member of the public, with the usual recommendations for saving energy, from getting better house insulation to replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs.

The questioner would have none of it, though.  He was a student in the physics program.  As with most students, there is little money, and few possessions: so no car, no home of his own. A renter can’t be asked to replace his landlord’s drafty windows with energy efficient ones, even if he had the money to do so.

Part of the problem is with the question itself.  We are so accustomed to think in terms of individual, as opposed to collective, action. We use a morality filter to gauge actions into good or bad, and then turn back that lens on ourselves, hoping for a feel-good glow if not bragging rights.  In that context, answering that the problem will only be solved through collective action seems a bit of a cop-out when faced with that question.

I, too, have been stumped by that question.  It seems to come up in my intro class every year, whenever we discuss climate change.  I had to mull over it, and here’s the answer I use.  It comes in three parts.

The first part is to become politically active.  This is an activity that costs no money, just a bit of time.  This doesn’t mean running for office – just being vocal.  Politicians are the ones who can implement policies that can make a lot of difference.  We tend to have a cynical view of politicians; but politicians mostly just respond to their constituents.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease; if you don’t squeak, expect to be ignored.  And so, expect that politicians will implement programs similar to those found in Europe that make it worthwhile for landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings.

So, speaking up is the first step of becoming politically active; getting organised is the next.  It is always surprising what a phone call to a local counsellor or an MP can accomplish, because so few of us bother to do it.  So imagine what organising hundreds of people to call about, say, poor transit can accomplish.

Indeed, collective action is always required to effect a big change.  As Martin Lukacs writes, neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals:

Would you advise someone to flap towels in a burning house? To bring a flyswatter to a gunfight? Yet the counsel we hear on climate change could scarcely be more out of sync with the nature of the crisis.

Collective action is needed, clearly.  But the wish to do something as an individual is quite primal, it is an urge to fix a problem once the problem has been seen.  That urge can be counter-productive, though; as Annie Leonard describes, satisfying it often serves to scratch an itch, to produce a feel-good, even smug feeling; but recycling cans is not going to address climate change on its own.  In fact, there aren’t any individual actions that can, on their own, even if practiced by many.

But yet, even a poor student can do things that make a difference.  This is the second part of the answer.  The good part is that it is simple, and can even save money: it’s about better food choices.  Curbing food waste should be the first reflex.  North Americans waste about one third of the food they purchase, according to some estimates.  Cutting down that waste by half, say, also reduces by the same proportion the amount of energy spent, and greenhouse gases emitted, to produce that food.

Not all foods are equivalent. In general, producing a kilo of beef causes much larger emissions of greenhouse gases than a kilo of pork, which itself produces more emissions than a kilo of chicken. A kilo of prawns raised in a pond in South-East Asia is said to be responsible for emissions similar to that of a family car driving from Vancouver to Toronto. And of course, by that measure, a vegetable-based diet has the least emissions.  Reducing food waste and eating a plant-based diet, collectively, has more of a positive impact than rooftop and solar farms.  And, of course, there is organic food.  In this case, its importance is not so much that fewer toxic pesticides are sprayed; rather, it is that organic farming produces fewer emissions than industrial farming, and also removes carbon dioxide from the air and segregates it away in the form of increased soil organic matter.

And there is a third point that may be just as important.  You’re a student, so keep studying, learn more about the issues, focus a bit of your research on that.  You’re smart; you may be the one who discovers a breakthrough, invents a new system that addresses the issue.  You may be the one who invents the new supercapacitor that makes energy storage a problem of the past.  You may be the one who formulates a policy that enables oil patch workers to recycle themselves into geothermal system installers.  Or you may fail and not invent any of that, but become the inspiration that will make another succeed.  Don’t ever give up.

Not convinced?  Then take a look at these articles, linked below.  You’ll feel better.

Written by enviropaul

March 12, 2018 at 5:01 pm

International Women’s Day 2018

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In the pages of the Globe, today (March 8, print edition), there is a special section for International Women’s Day.  Nine women were featured in a banner spread over three pages.

All are remarkable, but I had never heard of many of them, so I thought I should do a bit of research.  I was surprised by how prominent environment and social justice were as issues of concern for these women.

Elena Bennett

Elena Bennett is an ecological economist from McGill.  She addressed last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos with a keynote talk on hope and sustainability (more details here and here; I learned, among other things, that McGill is trying to become carbon neutral, yeah McGill!).

Frances Edmonds is Head of Sustainability at HP Canada.  The company has partnered with WWF on a remarkable project.  It plans to enroll 500 companies to raise money for conservation projects.  The companies, small and medium-sized businesses, can then benefit from HP’s expertise in responsible IT purchasing, sustainability reporting, and employee engagement.

Emma Gilchrist needs no introduction; with her website, she is a one-woman wrecking ball of the hypocrisy of the corporate sector in the energy industry. Her site is one of my favourite source of environmental information for Western Canada (see here on Site C, for instance) and she also writes for DeSmog’s US and UK counterparts.

The rest of the list is heady company, too, even if there is less direct environmental focus.  Vicky Kaspi is an astrophysicist and Joëlle Pineau a leader in artificial intelligence, both from my alma mater McGill University.  Jessica Chastain is the well-known actress, producer, and feminist activist (PETA calls her the sexiest vegetarian; I’m not sure what I think of that).

Kate Coffey is recognized for her role in helping communities in Sri Lanka; she won the Volunteer of the Year Award in 2017 from Vega Alliance.  Cindy Blackstock is a child welfare advocate from the Gitska Nation; among other remarkable deeds she forced the feds to back down and was awarded $20,000 compensation when it was ruled that the government had retaliated against her for her outspoken activism.

Finally, there is Hannah Alper.  The sixteen-year old activist hosts a remarkable blog about activism on issues of social justice, health, and education, as well as environmental issues.

For all the woes of the planet, there are reasons for optimism.

Written by enviropaul

March 8, 2018 at 9:53 am