So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, “We are all environmentalists.” I know it’s become uncool to identify as an “environmentalist,” but isn’t it true? Let me explain.
“Primitive” societies have, without exception, recognized the importance of their environments for survival. They needed to know when berries would ripen, they needed to know where to find fresh water, and they needed to know how to clothe themselves against the cold. They were, generally, much more aware of the living organisms that shared their homes and the relationships between themselves and those organisms than the majority of us are today. To survive they needed to have an intimate knowledge of their ecology — or as we call it “science. But “primitive” societies learned about ecology through experience and oral traditions. Their knowledge was reinforced by daily experience and dependence. And necessity often breeds inherent respect. It’s natural to respect and revere what we need.
In the 21 century, the majority of Canadians live in manufactured environments. We may still, and often do, complain about the weather or the mosquitos, but very few people, even in Canada, die of the weather and even fewer die from mosquitos. For the vast majority, these are irritations and nothing more. When we think of the non-manufactured environment we are more likely to think of it in terms of recreation rather than anything relevant to our survival. When do we leave our urban conclaves it is to go camping on the May long weekend, to go snowboarding at Marmot or to go quadding in the bush. Enjoyable but trivial pursuits — hardly necessary for our survival.
Now that we have technology to depend upon, we are able to live in comfort without any knowledge of or respect for the ecosystems that support us, and yes, they do support us. Without air, we suffocate. Without food, we starve. Without water, we die of thirst. Yet we take these basic necessities for granted; we’re disconnected from our basic needs. The air is just there. If we turn on the tap, water comes out. If we go to the store, there is always food. We have nothing to worry about.
But air, water and food do not appear magically. They do come from somewhere. They come from our environment.
Our environment is made up of interconnected ecosystems — put together, they make up the biosphere.
To think of a system, think of the heating system in your house. During the winter, the furnace supplies heat to your house: that’s the input. But your furnace needs to work continually throughout the cold months of the year because of the heat loss through through walls, door frames, and window sashes. This escaped hot air is output. As long as your furnace continues to work, you don’t need to worry because the cold air will always be replaced by warm. But what happens if your furnace stops working? Well, maybe you are fortunate and own a wood stove. This can replace the heat that you are no longer getting from your furnace. Your woodstove is a redundancy that is built into the system. It makes your system more stable and less likely to collapse. Ecosystems are the same, only more complex. An ecosystem will often have many built in redundancies. We call these redundancies biodiversity.
What’s really cool about most ecosystems is that they have a lot of redundancies, so they can sustain many traumas and keep working. But these redundancies are not limitless, and we still don’t know the effects of the mass extinctions that our planet is currently facing due to habitat loss, pollution and global warming. In his book The Diversity of Life, E. O. Wilson writes this:
“There might be an answer to the question I am asked most frequently about the diversity of life: if enough species are extinguished, will the ecosystems collapse, and will the extinction of most other species follow soon afterward? The only answer anyone can give is: possibly. By the time we find out, however, it might be too late. One planet, one experiment” (1999, p. 182).
What I find so fascinating is our cavalier attitude toward the destruction of vast numbers of species. When you think about it, it’s a bit bizarre. Perhaps our attitude comes from egocentrism or narcissism or hubris, but it seems the root of our attitude comes from a our lack of knowledge. There is also the sheer magnitude of the problem. Here, let me give you an example.
E. O. Wilson (1999) writes about keystone species. Keystone species are specific species that, when removed from their ecosystems, causes a chain reaction of disasters within that ecosystem. It’s often difficult for scientists to predict which species are in fact, “key” to their ecosystems. When a keystone species is removed, “a substantial part of the community [changes] drastically. Many other species decline to near or total extinction or else rise to unprecedented abundance” (p. 164).
Wilson supplied a compelling example, which I’m going to quote in its entirety:
“The most potent keystone species known in the world may be the sea otter. This wonderful animal…once thrived among the kelp beds close to shore from Alaska to southern California. It was hunted by European explorers and settlers for it fur, so that by the end of the nineteenth century it was close to extinction. In places where sea otters disappeared completely, an unexpected sequence of events unfolded. Sea urchins, normally among the major prey of the otters, exploded in numbers and proceeded to consume large portion o the kelp and other inshore seaweeds. In otter times, the heavy kelp growth, anchored on the sea bottom and reaching to the surface, was a veritable forest. Now it was mostly gone, literally eaten away. Large stretches of the shallow ocean floor were reduced to a dest-like terrain, called sea-urchin barrens. With strong public support, conservationists were able to restore the sea otter and with it the original habitat and biodiversity. A small number of the animals had managed to survive at far opposite ends of the range, in the outer Aleutian Islands to the north and a few localities along the southern California coast. Some of these were now transported to scattered intermediate sites in the United States and Canada, and strict measures were taken to protect the species through its range. The otters waxed and the sea urchins waned. The kelp forests grew back to their original luxuriance. A host of lesser algal species moved in, along with crustaceans, squid, fishers and other organisms. Gray whales migrated closer to shore to park their young in breaks along the kelp edge while feed on the dense concentrations of animal plankton” (p. 164–165).
Now, lest we assume we can, given the determination, fix our mistakes, here’s an example in which we have been unable to turn back time: the Atlantic cod stocks. Canada placed a moratorium on cod fishing off the east coast in 1992. I remember it well. Fishers were outraged. Many lost their livelihoods. The Department of Fisheries said it would be a short-term ban: five years. After five years, the ban was increased to ten years. It’s been over twenty years since the ban was put in place, and the stocks still have not recovered. We can never entirely predict the outcome of our actions, but that outcome can be very severe indeed. And with less of biodiversity comes weakening ecosystems — the ecosystems that sustain all life, even ours.
The fact is that whether we drive an SUV or take public transit, whether we love nothing more than a double-quarter pounder with extra cheese or eat a strict vegan diet, whether we are a Wall Street stock broker or a Kumbaya-singing hippee, we are all environmentalists. We all depend upon our environment. We all starve if we don’t eat. We all die of thirst without water, and we all suffocate without air. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all depend upon our environment and its ecosystems. We are all environmentalists.
In the hours leading up to the Greenpeace action, I knew that some of my closest friends would be going into harms way — where they could be injured or arrested. I knew they were going into a situation where their future prospects could be compromised. Granted, it was a low risk action: they weren’t delivering their message from an industry site, nor were they singling out a political figure. They were delivering a feel-good message from a public landmark. Still — I was worried. I was also experiencing an unsettling sense of cognitive dissonance that I knew came from this: My friends were willing to stand up and do something that could affect their futures for a cause that they believe in deeply, a cause that I believe in deeply. But they were willing to stand up for that cause in a way that I was not.
I believe the province of Alberta must move to sustainable energy solutions, yet we’ve already missed enormous opportunities. When the price of oil was high, we should have been investing in renewable energy, but we weren’t. When excitement for new oil sands projects was intoxicating, we should have increased royalty rates, but we didn’t. When we learned that Climate Change was/is a thing, we should have insisted on subsidies so homeowners could retrofit their homes, but we haven’t. When we look back on the Alberta legacy twenty or fifty years from now, I’m afraid we will see a litany of missed opportunities — but I hope we don’t.
It is never too late to make positive change, and that is what Mike Hudema, Katrina Armstrong, Tavis Ford and Mary Lovell aimed to demonstrate when they climbed the Leduc #1 oil derrick this week. Mike Hudema is the Climate and Energy campaigner for Greenpeace. He is also a close friend. He explained the inspiration for the action: “We thought it’s appropriate to bring our message to where western Canada’s oil industry really began to say now is the time to transition again. For the future of our planet and the health of our communities, we need to get off dirty energy and usher in the age of renewables.”
Later that day Katrina Armstrong talked to me about the action:
Alberta’s economy has depended upon fossil fuel for far too long. In the good times, people are employed at high-paying jobs; they buy expensive vehicles and renovate their homes. But during the busts, the vehicles are repossessed and the homes are foreclosed. I know because I’m old enough to remember purchasing my first house when banks were virtually giving them away in the ‘80’s. Then a brief boom and a decade later, my marriage was limping through the Klein cuts. Now I see a new challenge in the distance — the near distance.
Even if Alberta and Canadian governments are willing to risk the catastrophic effects of climate change, much of the rest of the world is not. After initial enthusiasm, China is pulling away from investment in the sands. The Rockefeller Fund — that right-wing bastion of tradition — is divesting from oil sands and coal investments. The Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipelines have both faced sizable grassroots opposition and it seems unlikely that either will see construction. The question remains: Will Alberta become a leader of the future or will it remain stuck in the past? Melina Laboucan-Massimo is also a Climate and Energy campaigner. She explained her vision for the future: “Alberta has among the best solar potential in the country but we use less than 1% of our renewable potential. Every home, farm and First Nation can be part of the solar solution.”
There were others involved in the action too. At the foot of the derrick, Jade held a banner that read, “Go Solar; 100% Spill Proof.” She spoke about her belief in solar energy:
The action went well. The sun leant its support and shone brilliantly. No one was injured. No one was arrested. A rope on the large banner broke but not before pictures had been snapped. The Go Solar message was delivered to the media and hence to the people. I was able to relax in relief.
I sense the change in attitude and expectation here in Alberta. More and more Albertans want to see our province invest in solar, and I am one of them. So I am grateful to those who were willing to step forward and work to get this message out. Thank you to all of you.
Large banner photo courtesy of Greenpeace: http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/
Autumn is upon us.
I spent this past weekend in the mountains hiking through the fallen leaves, making the most of my last kayak adventure of the year, and cutting wood for the winter. Winter is coming, but before I settle into the chill of the months ahead, I wish to recall one of the days that made this summer so memorable.
On June 28 I attended the fifth and final Healing Walk. The 16 km hike was spearheaded by the Friends of the Athabasca and took us past the Syncrude and Suncor sites, sites that rest on Fort McMurray First Nations traditional territories.
It has been many years since I was last in Fort McMurray, when I first saw the vast open-pit mines. That was in more amiable days when a friend took us proudly and without difficulty onto his worksite to show my family and me the massiveness of the operation. The site was so vast that even though we drove our cars onto the service road that ran alongside the pit, we still felt like we were miles from the giant CATs and power haulers. That was nearly twenty years ago, but I never forgot.
This was my first Healing Walk, so I didn’t know what to expect. I had come off yet another hectic teaching term, and when I headed north with a car full of Greenpeace activists, I was distracted and unprepared. The term was over. I’d given my last final exam the evening before, but I still had papers and exams to mark. I arrived at Anzac First Nation without expectation or preparation. Being there was enough.
We set up our tents along the shore of Gregoire Lake, and that night as I fell asleep, I dozed to the rhythmic beat of the Dene drummers and the call of loons.
The summer heat chased me out of my tent early the next morning. It seemed as though night had not come, just a dwindling of light followed by intense morning sunshine.
The early part of the day ambled along. I took a few pictures of the lake. I grabbed a donut for breakfast. I brushed my teeth. I waited for the buses.
The Anishinaabe, Dene, Athabasca Fort Chipewyan, Beaver Lake Cree — First Nations from all over North America — were there to speak, pray, sing and walk. Volunteers and representatives from the Friends of the Athabasca, the Council of Canadians, and Greenpeace were there to show solidarity. A large contingent of activists had travelled from BC: people who had spent the past few years fighting the Northern Gateway Pipeline and now wanted to learn more about the origin of their woes. There were reporters and freelancers, like me, who were working on a plethora of book, multimedia, and film projects. There was a large contingent from Texas that had driven up en masse to see what all the fuss was about. But I wasn’t attending the walk with a group. I knew a few people, but not many. I was alone, and I have difficulty introducing myself to strangers, so I felt awkward and out of place. I waited alone for the buses that would take us to site of the Healing Walk.
The buses were lost. But there were updates: “They are on their way now.” “They’ll be here soon.”
We were all waiting, and finally I was able to push myself to mingle. I met some of the BC contingent: Sarah recognized the Thich Nhat Hanh calligraphy tattooed on my calf. She belongs to a Buddhist sangha in Vancouver. Stephen is a poet and teaches writing at SFU. Jan is also a poet and has just had her latest book of poetry released. Writers, poets, Buddhists — no wonder we all found our way to this place. We are all searching for answers.
Eventually a tired, bumping formation of yellow school buses plodded around the corner. They pulled up next to us and with military precision we found our seats. The yellow convoy reached the Crane Lake Nature Trail forty minutes later, and we were deposited next to our police escort. The sky above our heads was clear and blue, but on the Northwestern horizon a funnel of smog emerged from a distant smokestack. It rose to form a cloud that settled and stretched out along the curve of the Earth. This is what I had come to see.
When you are walking with a group of several hundred people, there is an ebb and flow to the experience — some push ahead, others lag behind. At times I found myself with one group, then another, but mostly I walked alone. We began our march in a place of peace and beauty. This was not a protest or a demonstration; it was a pilgrimage. It was a way to connect with oneself, with others and with the land. There was a sense of purpose but there was also a sense of exploration. I think each of us brought our own unique questions and complex motivations to the walk. For me it represented one small step in a journey to uncover meaning and create understanding.
Our walk began on a typical highway: hot asphalt and a steep shoulder leading to grasses and trees. As we walked the trees thinned, opening onto desert: hot white hillocks and dunes appearing through the green. Soon the trees were gone, and the desert seemed immeasurable. On the horizon rose that mushroom of smoke. It was surreal in an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world sort of way.
We stopped for prayers and the First Nations women gave water offerings to the land. Now that the Anishinaabe drums were silent, I heard the distant thunder of the air cannons meant to frighten the birds from landing in the tailings. In that moment, I knew this was a terrible place, and I recognized I was witness to a monstrous horror. Tears seeped from my eyes and I thought, “I don’t want to be the one weeping at the side of the road.” So I closed my heart…because that, I’ve learned, is the way to endure.
The problem with closing oneself off to tragedy is that it becomes habit. The thing that appears abhorrent and protest worthy one day becomes banal and commonplace the next. And I don’t want my heart to be wary, hard and cautious of hurt. I want it to be open and passionate.
But I did choose to shut away the sadness that day. Instead of allowing myself to be overcome with sorrow, I focused on my work. I was at the walk to do a job. I was there to observe, record, understand. To do that, my own emotions needed to be stored away — at least for now.
There is more to the story of the Healing Walk, but as I unpack the events of that weekend, this moment stands out. It seems to typify the enormity of my task. How can I ever reconcile my own dependence on fossil fuels with the profound sadness I feel when I’m confronted by their capacity for destruction? And more importantly, how can I encourage empathy and understanding between people who hold such vastly different worldviews and perspectives? How can I encourage dialogue between those who oppose oil sands development and those who depend on it for a living? It seems impossible.
Yet I belong to both of these groups: I belong to the group who depends upon the oil sands and I belong to the group who opposes their long-term development. I’m not blind to the dichotomy of my existence: I drive a car. My shoes are made from oil, and although my shorts are made of cotton, I know they didn’t teleport to MEC. As much as anyone, I depend on the oilsands for survival. These are truths that I acknowledge. But I also recognize that in spite of the convenience and plenty the oil sands bring to my life at this moment, there are other strategies to live and other ways to thrive.
Ultimately we must strive for a sustainable future. Climate change is no longer up for debate; we must negotiate a movement to renewables. I think this is at the crux of the problem: it’s still difficult to see how we will get there. People fear job loss. They fear loss of their homes and their lifestyles. Yet in spite of our fears, it’s a move we must make, and I think we all know it. But up until now, the people of this province have been voiceless onlookers in the push to draw bitumen from the Earth. We have not been consulted in any meaningful way. We have given our land and our resources to a select few to do with as they see fit. This is not the way forward. This does not serve Albertans in the long run.
As I prepare for the long winter to come, I reflect on the cognitive dissonance I experience with each choice I make throughout the day: each time I start my car, each time I turn up the thermostat and hear the furnace come to life. I depend upon the oil and gas industry, but I’m not content in this relationship. With its wealth, Alberta should be leading R&D in sustainable energy solutions. Our province has the potential to be a leader in the production of sustainable energy, but it isn’t. Instead we’re pouring money and effort into a tired resource that exists on borrowed time. We have the ingenuity, the intellect and the opportunity to be leaders in sustainable energy. All we lack are the will and foresight to do so.
UN Climate Summit 2014 is scheduled to start tomorrow in New York City. The Summit is intended as “a public platform for leaders at the highest level – all UN Member States, as well as finance, business, civil society and local leaders from public and private sectors – to catalyze ambitious action on the ground to reduce emissions and strengthen climate resilience and mobilize political will for an ambitious global agreement by 2015 that limits the world to a less than 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature.” Hmm… We’ll see how that goes.
I honour and applaud the intent of these summits, but so far they have let us down. Copenhagen recognized the 2-degree imperative, but did nothing to implement policy change reflecting that imperative. Subsequent conferences and summits have yielded tepid results. Last year’s UN Climate Conference, held in Warsaw, was most-noteworthy for its walkouts, first by the G77 and China, then by a number of NGOs: WWF, Oxfam, ActionAid, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the International Trade Union Confederation. There will be no agreements made at this week’s summit. That’s not its purpose, and with Russia’s, China’s, India’s and — yes — Canada’s leaders not even making the effort to show, what can be accomplished? More awareness, more discussion, more exposure of the problem — I suppose — but, I remain skeptical. I hope this summit will galvanize change, but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t.
There is something different about this summit though, and that’s the march that led up to it. The People’s Climate March was held around the world on Sunday. At least 310,000 people marched through the streets of New York City. They held banners: “Communities for Just Transition,” “National Black Environmental Justice Network,” and “Climate Change Is a Healthcare Crisis!” They filled block after block of Midtown Manhattan, and they made headlines. It was the largest Climate March in history. I was thrilled — and surprised — at the number of people who took part in the NYC march and the others across the globe, but I was far more surprised at the turnout in Edmonton.
I’ve become accustomed to seeing the same faces at these events. They are like old friends. Their numbers expand for events that champion politically comfortable issues, like the March Against Monsanto this spring, but come to a rally protesting an oil sand expansion, and there are crickets — and the outliers. But yesterday was different.
The usual suspects were all hanging out in Churchill Square by 2:30, but with them were hundreds of others. People I had never seen at any march. People concerned for the future of their home — our planet.
I don’t know how many people attended Edmonton’s march. I heard estimates ranging from 500–1000. We marched from Churchill Square to the Alberta Legislature. We held signs and banners too: “Ecology Rules,” “Westwood Unitarians for Social Justice,” and “Defend our Climate, Defend our Communities.” There was chanting and speeches, but people also waded in the pool outside the legislature. People played with their dogs and their children ran on the grass. People felt the seriousness of the message, but it was embraced in the spirit of community. I left the legislature grounds feeling a sense that the world was changing. The people at the protest weren’t just the outliers, the early adopters. These were regular folks. These were people who recognized that we must make changes to how we live our lives, how we elect our officials and how we see the world. If we wish to leave a world that is habitable and rich in life for future generations, we must embrace change.
On Sunday there were 2700 People’s Climate events in 161 countries throughout the world. People know that we must act against Climate Change. Without the help of most of the world’s leaders, people are making their voices heard. They are shouting in a single voice: We must stop Climate Change — NOW. This was truly a global event — a march heard round the world.
I’m a bit of a hippy. Not a pot-smoking, free-love sort of hippy, but the tree-hugging, we-are-all-connected sort. I believe strongly in the values of responsibility and compassion, not just social responsibility and compassion for my fellow humans but responsibility and compassion toward all living beings.
Living in Edmonton has been rewarding at times and challenging at others. I’m part of a vibrant and growing writing community, and I live five minutes away from a system of river valley trails that allows me access to a world of green leaves and bird song. While it’s true that in the winter, Edmonton rolls up its streets and becomes a world of mall shopping and mega cinemas, in the summer, the city comes alive with farmers’ markets, community gardens, festivals and patio dining . . . but then there are the “truck nuts,” the jacked up 4x4s, and the ostentatious lifestyles. These aspects of Alberta culture, I’m not so comfortable with.
At the gym the other day, my friend, Connie, said she had the perfect tagline for the new Alberta license plate: Alberta, we all come to work here. That seems about right.
Alberta is a province of jobs — jobs fueled by the oil and gas industry. In one way or another we Albertans all rely on the oil and gas industry for survival. It employs us directly and indirectly, both through the mercurial Fort Mac job market and our province’s infrastructure — whether public or private. If we closed down the oil sands overnight, we’d be left with a bunch of trees, a few ski resorts and a lot of farmland. Nothing to sneeze at, but is it enough to fuel a provincial economy? Maybe not.
And this fact alone should give pause. As the economic powerhouse of Canada, why have we allowed ourselves to become utterly dependent upon a single industry? Shouldn’t we be using the largesse of this opportunity to diversify? To search for sustainable energy solutions? To become world leaders in sustainable energy solutions? This is one of the questions I will ask in my book, Touching This Storied Land: Exploring the Narratives and Debate that Surround the Alberta Oil Sands.
The politics of oil are complex. Historically, living on top of rich oil beds comes at a cost to independence, stability and long-term economic security. This may seem counterintuitive, but one does not need to look far to see examples of the terrible cost of oil: Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea are just two in a long list of countries that have been romanced by the lure of easy riches yet soon come to loath their destructive power. “But wait,” you might say. “Canada isn’t a developing country ruled by some third rate despot. We’re different, aren’t we?” The answer to that is “mostly yes” but also “no.” When it comes to fossil fuels, there is the potential for immense profit. Partner mythical riches with a slavering, near bottomless demand and you have a resource that, like the djinni in the bottle, can wreck unintended havoc on its “beneficiary.”
In Alberta I’ve lived the benefits and the downsides of the oil industry. In the good times we are a booming province whose coffers seem to have no limit, but when the price of oil drops, we are just another people looking for work and struggling to adjust to cutbacks. Even in the good times, economic boom comes at a cost. And what is the cost of this intense monetary prosperity: a turned eye, an entrenched government, marginalized communities, a questionable future? At one time I did turn away, but I can’t any longer. I can’t simply reap the temporary benefits of our oil economy without questioning what will become of us, what will become of this beautiful province I call home.
Three years ago I embarked on a quest to attain a master’s degree. I didn’t know where the degree would take me, but I was pretty sure it would be an adventure. I was not disappointed.
I’m a communicator; I’m a reader; I’m a writer. I believe in the power of words and their ability to persuade, coerce and cajole, so ultimately I chose to write my thesis on the framing of “ethical oil.” I learned a lot about rhetoric, propaganda, world views and values during this time. This was more than a mechanical exercise in analysis. This was a gateway into another reality. At times I felt as though I was living inside someone else’s head — someone who appeared to share none of the values or beliefs that are at the core of my being. It was not a pleasant experience.
Yet I took away an important “knowing” from this experience. As disparate as we may appear, we are all human. We are all, more or less, motivated by the same needs and desires. We wish for a way to support our families. We hope to breathe clean air. We need clean water to survive. We want a house, a home. And we hope our children will grow up in a place free from conflict so they will be able to live out their lives in relative happiness. These ideals and ambitions are not extraordinary. They are common to all of us, so why are we so polarized over an issue such as the oil sands? Are the oil sands good or bad for Alberta? Canada? The Earth? Do we know? Do we care?
In Alberta there are those who believe the oil sands are good for the province and those who believe they are not (or at least not given the way they are being managed at this time). There are those who believe we are giving our resources away to multinational corporations and those who don’t care who extracts the oil as long as jobs are abundant and prosperity continues. This analysis is simplistic, but it seems like a good place to start.
If we are to move forward on the issue of sustainable energy and resource stewardship, I believe we must create understanding and respect between those who oppose oil sands development and those who support it. To this end, I am setting out on a journey of inquiry. I hope to learn how people’s lives are affected by the oil and gas industry here in Alberta. I want to grasp the personal reasons why people oppose or condone the oil sands. In an effort to encourage understanding and cooperation among Albertans and Canadians, I will collect the stories of those people most touched by the oil sands: the oil sands workers, the geologists, the politicians, the business owners, the activists, the oil and gas industry, the civil servants, the scientists, the families, the First Nations, the environmentalists, the spiritual leaders, the average Albertan — the people fighting to keep the oil sands open and those fighting to shut it down.
I believe the best way to promote dialogue, discussion and understanding is through the telling of stories. So that’s where I’m headed with my writing. I hope you’ll join me on my journey.
For their paper, “Beyond individual behaviour change: the role of power, knowledge and strategy in tackling climate change,” Kenis and Mathijs interviewed twelve “young environmentally concerned citizens” in an attempt to learn the knowledge, motivation and frustrations that informed their strategies for addressing climate change. I was intrigued by their findings.
Many respondents expressed a sense of powerlessness. They felt that individual action seemed negligible when compared to the magnitude of the problem. They also pointed to a lack of both “strategic vision” and “credible vision.” “Strategy scepticism” was also labeled as a common theme.
Although all the respondents were engaged in individual action, none of them thought it was an effective strategy. Their reasons were of an ethical nature. They felt they were “doing the right thing.” “Maybe I do it in order to have a positive conscience or to earn my place in heaven. I would feel badly if I were to carry on as I used to, but that doesn’t mean that I think that I am making a real contribution” (p. 51).
Many respondents were critical toward people who tried to convince others to change their behaviour. There was also a lack of coherence between the responses of many respondents. For example, respondents would identify the structural organisation of society as the underlying cause of climate change, but then identify individual behaviour change as the primary solution to the problem. Some of the responses were even contradictory. For example, the respondent might explain that he or she didn’t think it was wise to adopt an “us against them” mentality, when referring to corporations, but later the respondent would be highly critical of the practices of a particular corporation.
I’ve outlined these findings, so that anyone reading my blog has a broad perspective of the article I’m citing, but I wish to focus on one area that I found particularly compelling: the role of individual behaviour change and the respondents’ perception of its effectiveness.
Most of the respondents didn’t believe their individual action had any positive impact on the problem; rather they felt an inability to “exert power.” In essence they felt their individual efforts were ineffective, yet they were all involved in individual behaviour change. While not all respondents were engaged in collective action, the common consensus was that collective action was more effective. In fact, it seemed to me that the article displayed an implicit bias toward “collective action.”
Embedded within the text seemed the underlying message, we need to move beyond individual action. And I’m not disagreeing. I believe we should be using a combined approach. I believe we NEED a combined approach. So I’m concerned with the negative connotations surrounding individual action.
When stating their reasons for individual action, the respondents’ responses had an almost apologetic undertone: “It sounds maybe very pathetic, but I also want to be able to say at the end of my life, look, I have done my bit for this world, and I didn’t only talk, I also tried to reduce my ecological footprint” (p. 56). This attitude seems to reflect a very Western perspective.
Instead of framing our individual actions with contrition and our reasons for those actions with shame, why can’t we — as a society and a species — begin to frame our actions in terms of community, responsibility and obligation? There is another term that I would like to list here, but I don’t think it exists. The term I wish to use refers to a larger community: the community of the Earth.
We are all part of this larger community, this larger ecosystem, yet we lack the terminology that reflects this. And this in itself may be part of a larger issue, a larger issue that we must resolve if we wish to shift paradigms and come to see ourselves as not only part of the “problem,” but also as part of the “solution.” How can we deepen our connection to the Earth when our language — at least the English language — doesn’t even recognize that the connection exists?
TO BE CONTINUED
If you’ve never heard of solastalgia, you’re not alone. The term, solastalgia, was first recorded in 2003 at the Ecohealth Conference in Montreal. Glenn Albrecht (2007) created the term to define “the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment” (p. 95).
Solastalgia was derived from “solace” and “desolation,” as well as alga, meaning suffering and sickness. It draws reference from the word, “nostalgia,” a term first used to describe “the desire to return home while one is away from home” (Albrecht, 2005, p. 43). Nostalgia itself has been diluted with time, but up until up until 1946, it was still accorded the seriousness of “a possibly fatal ‘psycho-physiological” complaint by an eminent social scientist” (p. 43).
Solastalgia is a word whose time has come. While environmental crisis after environmental crisis induces physical pathology to our bodies’ systems, those same environmental crises often induce psychological injury to the mind.
Albrecht is an Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle in Australia, so his work deals with the effects of drought, mining and other threats to the environment on the people of that continent. But what applies for Australians certainly applies for all citizens of planet Earth.
On several occasions, I’ve thought to myself, “I’m glad my grandfather is no longer living.” My grandfather is one of the people I have loved the most in my lifetime, so I don’t make that statement flippantly. My grandfather had a deep connection to the natural world. Throughout his lifetime, he was disturbed by the use of pesticides and herbicides. He refused to use either in his garden, and he only used well-rotted manure, compost or fish fertilizer to enrich the soil. By recent standards, his belief in caring for the soil may seem banal, but that was not the case during the 50s, 60s and 70s. By the standards of his time, his ideas were radical.
My grandfather died in 1984, not long after I moved away from home. I was hardly an adult yet, and it pains me that I couldn’t have sat with him as I grew older to discuss politics, the environment and all the passions that we shared. I suspect there would have been plenty a good verbal scrap between the two of us. I am, however, comforted that he was not present to witness the last 30 years of destruction visited upon the world he loved. It would have broken his spirit, and sharing his pain would have broken my heart.
For those who do not have a deep connection with natural spaces, it might be difficult to imagine the pain that many feel for our natural world, but it is real nonetheless. It isn’t some phantom foolishness that a person can turn off and get over. No, it’s as real a cut to the flesh. But it cuts much deeper.
It isn’t a coincidence that “solastalgia” was coined at the turn to the 21 century. It is a word for our times and one that we’ll all be talking about in the years to come.
Albrecht, G. (2005). “‘Solastalgia’: A new concept in health and identity.” PAN, vol. 3. pp 41–55.
Albrecht, G. et al. (2007). “Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change.” Australasian Psychiatry. Vol 15. pp. 95–98.
“Our purpose is simple – to love, to love each other, to love all life, and to love our earth.” — Anthony Douglas Williams, Inside the Divine Pattern
I came across this quote on Facebook. It spoke to me, so I reposted it to my Timeline. Shortly afterwards, Liz, a dear friend of mine, commented on my post by writing, “You can love ‘all life’ in the abstract, but not in reality, in practice.”
This got me thinking…
I’ve been teaching Classical Rhetoric this term, and consequently I’ve begun to reflect upon the importance of defining terms during a debate or discussion. When individuals approach an issue with differing frames and definitions, they can easily talk at cross-purposes even when they fundamentally agree on an issue.
In this case, what do we mean by “abstract”?
If one thinks of the Earth as a living organism of which we are a part, one can then recognize that all beings are integral to that organism — we are all interconnected. On a superficial level, I prioritize: I like most dogs, yet I dislike most spiders. But this is trivial, meaningless. A belief in interconnectedness serves the deeper purpose.
“In practice” — if we implement a sense of mindfulness — we can love all beings. I’m reminded of the words of Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh: “A flower is made of many non-flower elements. The entire universe can be seen in a flower. If we look deeply into the flower, we can see the sun, the soil, the rain, and the gardener.” It’s easy to forget that every tree, flower, human, dog, water droplet, blade of grass has been recycled, reused, reconfigured a million, million times. We are all stardust.
Why not return to spiders?
I have an irrational phobia of spiders. I don’t like them because I fear them, but when I reflect upon their presence, I also love them. Along with me and my fellow humans, they exist as part of this incredible Earth. When I die, my molecules will be reformed and ultimately some of those particles will help to make spiders. Indeed I come from a long line of spiders. This does not seem like an abstract concept to me. It seems very real and very important if we are to alleviate the destruction that our species is wrecking upon the global ecosystem(s).
It may also be important to define “love.”
For me, love used within this context is about respecting, cherishing and “seeing.” I also recognize that for me, this is a spiritual concept, so I see it as something imperfect that I aspire to.
Liz and I are closely aligned in our environmental world views and values, so it was fascinating to me that we were having a philosophical debate about a quotation that we both — in essence — agreed upon. Later in our discussion, Liz pointed this out: “We are basically having a mild intellectual debate over semantics when in principle we agree about “loving the earth” as a good and necessary thing.”
It seems to me that our disagreement represents the enormous difficulty that we face when communicating about the environment. We are each invested in a system of paradigms, beliefs, values and epistemologies that are deeply personal and at the same time reflective of our culture, our upbringing, our nationality, our ethnicity and our past. Yet here we are, all breathing the same air, all drinking from the same water supply, all dependent upon the health and well-being of this remarkable planet. We all walk upon the same Earth.
I often turn to Thich Nhat Hanh when I stumble for words to express the human condition: “[The Earth] brings us to life and she welcomes us back to her when we die. If you look deeply and feel this connection to the Earth, you will also begin to feel admiration, love and respect. When you realize the Earth is so much more than simply ‘the environment,’ you will be moved to protect her as you would yourself.” In fact, we are one and the same. We cannot separate ourselves from the Earth. What greater purpose can we serve than “to love, to love each other, to love all life, and to love our Earth”?
When I was a little girl, my grandfather took me to see Bunny Lake. I couldn’t have been more than three years old, so he carried me most of the distance. On the way, I fell asleep in his arms. I remember his voice: “Wake up, Bertie. We’re here.” He set me down on the forest floor and stooped next to me. We had paused at the top of a steep incline thick with boreal spruce and lodgepole pine. With a single finger, my grandfather pointed through the trees to a tiny log cabin below — a miniature house crouched beside a clear, still lake within the sheltering woods.
The cabin appeared magical, perhaps like the candy-covered cottage in Hansel and Gretel. I squealed with delight and ran down the hill. Grandpa called after me. “Wait, Bertie. Slow down.” For once I didn’t listen. I ran toward the cabin as fast as my small legs would take me. This was the first time I saw Bunny Lake.
My grandparents moved to the Rockies after my grandfather bid on and received the position of operator for CN in a small mountain community not far from Jasper. This was right after the war. Their family was still young. My oldest uncles — Phil and Brent — were boys, just twelve and eleven years old. Not long after the move, the two built the cabin we call Bunny Lake. They hammered every nail, and they sawed every log. They hauled the shiplap flooring and linoleum to the cabin on their backs. Phil carried the wood stove, which remains there to this day, up the mountain. He was only fourteen years old.
When hikers stumble across Bunny Lake, they assume it’s an old trapper’s cabin, but it isn’t. It was built by two boys — Phil, who was born with a cleft pallet and always felt awkward around girls, and Brent, who became a surveyor, raised a family and on this trip, today, is eighty years old. They built the cabin.
Before he died, Uncle Phil could run up the mountain, and often did, with a fifty-pound pack on his back. Even now, I’ll watch Uncle Brent haul load after load of cut wood from the forest. His face will redden and sweat will stream from his forehead, but he won’t quit, and there’s no point trying to stop him because he won’t listen.
Phil has been gone for many years, but Brent is on the hike with us today along with his wife, Marge, and two of their three children: David, who I used to give noogies to when we played together as kids and Kathryn, who is now articling at a major law firm in Edmonton. My aunt, Anita, and her partner, Tom, are also with us, as is my daughter, Nastassja. I’m happy we’re together on this trip. It feels right. My daughter will record the coordinates of the cabin on her GPS, and we will find our way back again. But Anita and Marge have both said this will be their last trip to the cabin, and although it saddens me, I know they are probably right. Nothing remains forever.
When I was a little girl I didn’t know about death or loss. I thought the people I loved would always be with me. I thought the cabin would remain in its spot beside the lake in the woods. I thought my grandfather would forever hold my hand and lead me through the forest. But since the day he pointed to the little cabin in the woods, I’ve come to understand impermanence. All we have is what we have right now. It may be cliché to say so, but we can never know what tomorrow will bring. All we can safely say is that it will be different than today. If we can’t treasure what we have in this moment, we are lost.
Our band of hikers reach the hog back, and we rest for a time. I can still hear the far off hum of trucks on the highway, but as we move deeper into the forest, the distant sounds of human activity muffle. We continue our walk along the ridge, and even our footsteps are quieted by the thick cushion of moss under our feet. We’re far ahead of the rest — Tom, David and me — but I hold back. I want to remember this moment.
When I am alone in the forest. I am never alone. I hear the thrum of the trees, and I feel a part of something larger than myself, something more important, something more precious. The wind moves through the trees now. “Husha, husha, husha,” it says. It is the breath of the forest. I watch the swaying branches. Framed above me is that polarized, heavy blue sky that only comes with autumn. It is a warm day today, but the cold and dark will soon be here. I breathe with the forest, and in this moment, there is nowhere I’d rather be.
I hear the others catching up now, and we walk the rest of the way together. As the ridge narrows, I look down. There is the cabin below. I’m standing on the spot my grandfather placed my little feet forty-five years ago. My heart is filled with joy and a terrible sadness. My chest tightens, and I’m nearly suffocated with the moment. I wait for my mind to calm and my body to become my own once more. Then I run down the hill to join my family.