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The Earth seen from Apollo 17.

Photo by NASA. From the Wikimedia Commons.

I have been writing in the past several months about various different environmental issues and posing various practical and philosophical solutions. And while that is all fine and dandy as they say, today I had a realization.

What about the big picture?

I mean, great. All these ideas are fine. But what exactly are we supposed to do? And not just a few things. But the whole enchilada, as they say.

After all, we have been working since, quite arguably, the 1970s with the advent of Earth Day to bring about environmental change. And look where it has got us. We now have the BP oil spill, the threat of drilling in the Arctic, an ever increasing problem with global climate change, and more. Our efforts to use reusable mugs, programmable thermostats, and the odd carpool simply have not cut the mustard, so to speak.

In two words, I feel that what we need is extreme cooperation. I mean, seeing people seriously come together in new and innovative ways to solve these problems.

What form would this cooperation take? Well, to draw on planning theory (which I can’t help but do, given my background in urban planning), I think we need to take a long hard look at feminist planning theory. This facet of planning theory advocates the creation of things like

1) common play areas, gardens, and dining halls,
2) communal kitchens, and
3) cooperative garages.

Now my crunchy granola friends (yes, believe it or not, there are some who are even “greener” than me), inform me that this type of arrangement is called an “intentional community” (with other terms, like “cohousing” and “ecovillages” falling under this umbrella.)

When you think about it a little, this sort of thing really makes a lot of sense. By using communal kitchens for instance, food could be cooked more efficiently in larger batches (which is important given that home food preparation, according to Just Food by James E. McWilliams, uses 25% of the total energy required to produce food). Additionally, fewer rooms would need heating since not so many rooms would be in use.

By working together more, other efficiencies could be gained. For instance, people could make trips together to places like stores. What is more, we could implement these changes quickly, using existing infrastructure. For instance, a street in a typical suburb could designate one house to be the “hub” where people do things cooperatively.

Now you might think this idea sounds a bit idealistic and unrealistic. After all, people are notorious for not getting along with their neighbours. Which is why so many have taken to cocooning in their homes (with their home movie-theatres and work-out rooms no less). But I say, if getting along is all that’s required to get us out of this environmental quagmire that we’re in, it’s worth a try. Is it not?

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Photo by User Minesweeper From the Wikimedia Commons

I’m going to put myself on the line here. Today, I’m going to say something that strikes at the heart of many of the issues I’ve been talking about up until now (i.e. energy/offshore oil drilling, global climate change). What is that ‘something’ you may ask? Well, it is…the car is evil. There, I’ve said it. To repeat with even greater emphasis and for more cathartic effect: The Car Is Evil, THE CAR IS EVIL.

Why do I choose to bring the subject up now, after so many months of blogging? Well, let’s just say I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion recently about cars. The conversation, before I joined in (or you could say, before I decided to ‘rant’), focused mainly on the technical aspects of cars. That is, how we could make them better, such as by making them electrically-powered and so on.

Now I know that the individuals participating in this conversation had the best of intentions. They were concerned about the problems of global climate change and air pollution that accompany the use of the internal combustion engine. As you likely can guess, I do not disagree with either of these issues. In fact, I am very worried about the effects that a burgeoning demand for the automobile in places like China will have on the world’s climate and air quality.

However, solving the technical issues with the automobile will not be a sufficient antidote. The automobile is at the root of many additional woes that techno fixes to its build alone will not address. Some of you may be aware of what these are. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, I will lay them out here.

To begin and of perhaps greatest concern, the automobile eats at the hearts of our communities. How does it do this? Well, by providing, or at least giving the impression of providing, a swift getaway from our neighbourhoods/ workplaces/etc. and by insulating drivers and passengers from those who pass them on the course of their travels. In doing so, the automobile effectively facilitates the creation of ‘islands of nowhere’. I say islands of nowhere, for what else could these places be, if we are so eager to get away from them?

There is a second point, closely related to the first one. Thanks to the automobile that enables long-distance travel, we have seen the proliferation of centralized, mega “Super” centres, schools, community centres, industrial parks, and such. This is concerning because they are, for the most part, not easily accessible except by automobile. I say not easily accessible because in some situations mass transit can be taken, albeit not without a considerable investment of time and effort.

What happens in the process? Well, customers are diverted away from local businesses (which add greatly to the soul of communities), children must travel miles away for their education (rather than take the far more healthy option of walking and cycling), parents (i.e. ‘soccer moms’) are forced to spend hours in the car to transport their children to activities, and workers often must travel great distances to their places of employment (with a resultant loss in productivity, due to fewer hours potentially worked and the toll that traveling places on worker health).

There are other problems as well. Consider the dangers of navigating, often at high speeds, busy streets and roads, with often equally frustrated and impatient drivers. There is also the sense of boredom and isolation that can occur for those that cannot drive the automobile, like children and certain portions of the elderly and the disabled.

Last but not least, many harmful environmental impacts are associated with the logistics of  making automobile travel feasible. This includes 1) the pollution from mining and processing of materials that go into the creation of the car (even if most of the material is reclaimed, there is still some that is typically not); 2) how the roads must be constructed with materials largely gathered from oil and aggregate (i.e. gravel) extraction, both of which being activities fraught with environmental problems; and 3) the detrimental effects to wildlife, as expressways cut through precious natural areas, parking lots cover more greenspace, and hazardous roadways prevent the safe crossing of many creatures.

There. Now, I’ve said my piece. And feel much the better for it. Now I know that I along with many who are like-minded will undoubtedly continue needing to use the automobile on occasion, until the proper infrastructure and support network is built up. However, as we are now in a situation when our addiction to oil and its use by the automobile is coming under increasing fire, the time for a thorough dialogue on these matters has come. Let us hope we make the right choices.

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As most of you probably know, a tragic oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico following an explosion on a BP oil rig on April 20. I am slightly embarrassed that as a writer of an environmental blog, I have not commented on this extremely disturbing and concerning tragedy earlier. However, perhaps now more than during the first initial shock of the disaster, it is a useful time to reflect on how events over the past few weeks have been unfolding.

À Priori the “Spill”

To start, let’s go back and consider what was happening before the spill occurred. Just days before the spill, The Globe and Mail (G&M) produced an article entitled, “Why no offshore drilling on the U.S. shelf?” (April 19) The article boldly states with regards to Hurricane Katrina that “Although the storm destroyed oil and gas platforms, it produced no significant oil spills and broke no submerged pipelines.”

Viewed in retrospect, the foolishness of this statement is starkly apparent. While the reasons for the spill are still being determined, clearly a massive weather event as associated with Katrina was not required to cause it.

Early Days

In the initial days after the disaster, reporting focused mainly on the facts of the disaster. Thus, for instance, in an article focusing mainly on the environmental fallout of the spill, G&M readers are informed on April 23rd of what could happen to the oil. While some of the light crude oil is expected to evaporate, readers are horrifyingly told much of it will turn “into a pasty mess called a ‘chocolate mousse’ that ultimately breaks apart into ‘tar balls,’ small chunks of oily residue that can wash ashore.”

Is not that lovely? With such talk, one can assume that even the most hardened anti-environmentalists would be bound to reconsider their views.

Tough Talk

Speed forward a week or so following the disaster. To a certain degree, readers are still learning the environmental horrors of the spill. As evidence, consider the headlines, “Disaster looms as worst oil spill in decades reaches shoreline” and “Surface area of oil slick has tripled, experts say”, of articles run on May 1 (the latter article accompanied by a heart-wrenching picture of a bird being rescued).

However, reports on the extent of the disaster start to be replaced with assurances that the situation is being taken seriously and that something will be done to prevent events of a similar nature in the future. Thus, on April 26 and April 29, readers learn that the spill could affect energy regulations in the Canadian Arctic. As though readers have not been reassured enough, a few days later another G&M article states, “Ottawa will take tough stand on offshore drilling” (May 4).

Business as per Usual

Interestingly, soon after that, the tide begins to turn again. By May 6, the same paper informs readers that Environment Minister Jim Prentice says there is no need for a moratorium on future offshore drilling in Canadian waters.

Then, in what could be construed as an attempt not to miss an opportunity to feed on the public’s emotions, readers are greeted with an article on May 7 entitled, “Oil sands less risky than offshore drilling, Prentice says”.

Finally, yesterday, as though to add fuel to the fire, an article is run in the G&M entitled, “Africa: The new crude frontier“, claiming that Africa could be a new source for oil.

Challenging the “Orthodoxy”

With regards to a lack of a moratorium on offshore drilling, yes, undoubtedly the lack of a relief well is partly to blame for the disaster in the Gulf. However, the Chevron well, which just started in the past few weeks to be drilled off the coast of Newfoundland, faces similar problems. One is forced to ask then, why there is no need for a moratorium.

In terms of finding other sources of oil, as the G&M itself reports, the oil sands by no means offer an “environmentally-friendly” alternative. Rather, significantly higher carbon dioxide emissions and water contamination will prove to be the legacy of such activity if we choose that path.

Of course, assuming ideal conditions (i.e. political cooperation) Africa may prove to offer an alternative source of oil. However, this overlooks the fact that the United States and China also have their eye on these reserves. Which means the supply of any oil taken from there will be more quickly depleted. That is not to mention that much of this oil is located offshore, meaning that oil drilling would place the nations and peoples of Africa also at increased risks of oil spills.

In addition to the above mentioned problems, there is still the often overlooked issue of global climate change. I do not wish to go into great detail about this problem here. However, suffice it to say that there is widespread scientific agreement that the combustion of fossil fuels is a major factor that will, if not already has, negatively influence(d) our climate.

At a Crossroads

In considering these matters as a whole, it would seem we are at a crossroads. They are as follows:

  1. Path one involves following down the “same old, same old” pattern of drilling for oil and the associated environmental devastation and assumedly acceptance thereof.
  2. Path two would take the more innovative route of increasingly adopting conservation as well as renewable energy. In this way, we could better avoid having to deal with the problems associated with reliance on oil.

(Although nuclear power could offer a third path, this is not presented here as an option given associated safety issues).

If we were to learn from recent events, ideally we would take the softer and more benign second path. After all, the BP spill occurred only two days prior to the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day. And Earth Day was an event which was largely triggered by another oil spill, that one by Union Oil, off the coast of California.

To the superstitious amongst us (of which, I will once again admit with embarrassment, includes myself), I cannot help but viewing recent events as a final wake-up call. Whether we will actually choose to respond appropriately is another story. I myself am hopeful, but know there are many cynics out there. Let’s hope they’re wrong!

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Let me begin by posing you a few questions. Is it almost as a forgone conclusion that the oil sands and other fossil fuels, as well as nuclear power, offer the solution to our energy woes? Should we ignore the environmental problems posed by these energy sources? Is there no hope for successfully pursuing a path of renewable energy?

To give a cursory read the Globe and Mail on April 29, one is tempted to say the conclusion is a resounding, and frightening, ‘yes’. As I hope to reveal, though, a more careful read suggests otherwise.

Oil Sands and Other Fossil Fuels: A Slick Answer?

To begin my case, consider an article in the Globe and Mail‘s Business section today about how Shell put its oil sands expansion plans temporarily on hold. Then, as though to underscore the seriousness of the “problem”, a special information feature for the World Energy Congress has been also posted in the Business section questioning the future viability of our energy reserves.

The intimations of the first story in this feature, titled “Energy: Availability” are very concerning. Rather than beginning with a discussion of the entire mix of energy (including renewable) sources that could help us address energy availability concerns, the first sentence in this article claims, “Ever-advancing oil recovery technologies are helping address immediate concerns over the depletion of the world’s oil and gas reserves…”

So that is the set-up. By making this statement first-off, the insinuation is made that oil recovery technologies offer our primary solution to a looming energy crises.

As to what these advances would entail, the answer is buried further down in the feature in an article entitled, “Technology a lynchpin in oil’s environmental and economic outlook”. The article talks about how “alternative sources such as the oilsands, deep offshore oilfields and natural gas that can be converted into liquid fuel…” may offer the solution to peak oil (Note here the use of the term “alternative sources” as a subtle counter to the more environmentally palatable “renewable” sources).

However, for the most part (with the exception of new technology for obtaining natural gas), the article makes little mention that technology is the stumbling block to retrieving these energy reserves. Rather, as discussed at the very beginning of this same article, “new technology may help make oil and natural gas more acceptable to environmentally conscious consumers [emph. added].”

By its positioning at the beginning of this article, the impression is given that this is the sticky point. The environmentally conscious consumer. Imagine (tongue in cheek). The horror, the horror. If only the consumer could be convinced that using fossil fuels, like oil and gas, is environmentally responsible. Then the “economic outlook”, which the article’s title mentions, could be assumedly brighter.

Unfortunately, we do not seem to have actually managed to develop this technology. Instead, the article states that only “significant progress” is being made to reduce ecological impacts.

As to what environmental impacts there are, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers gives a general and brief mention (without a discussion of its seriousness) in the article to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. However, one must look elsewhere to learn of a more obvious effect caused by mining the oil sands. Only deep in the Main section on the same day, a separate article mentions as to how 1,600 ducks died in oil sands giant Syncrude’s refinery tailings ponds two years previous.

Nuclear Energy: Another Obvious Alternative?

Of course, the special information feature discusses other energy matters besides fossil fuel sources like the oil sands. For instance, the second article in the feature kindly informs the reader that “A nuclear renaissance unfolds despite some concerns.” The suggestion seems to be that building more nuclear power plants is an inevitable outcome of our energy problems. What is more, it could be a veritable cultural rebirth, as though providing us nuclear energy could be the solution to all of our social, cultural and other woes.

Indeed, as suggested by an employee of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., without nuclear power we could be held “hostage” by fuel price fluctuations. Who could argue (tongue once again in cheek) that this is not a good thing, given that operating costs are much lower than electricity from coal- and natural gas-fired power plants? Just forget the meager, as we are told, $5 billion US price tag associated with the building of a plant.

After all, as the reader is informed, nearly a quarter of a century has passed without “major” incidents? One is to assume it seems that minor incidents are not of concern.

The Downplaying of Renewable Energy

It should be admitted that some mention is given to renewable energy, but only with the lack-luster title, “Canadian renewable rising, but fast enough?” Interestingly, the same concern about rapid progression is not raised for the advancement of technologies to make fossil fuels more environmentally-sound. This is despite the fact that, as (unfortunately) buried deep in the article, a senior employee of Siemen’s Canada is quoted as saying, “…the harvestable renewable energy in Canada…is enormous…”

Rather we are informed repeatedly both in this, and another article partially entitled “Transmission the linchpin in renewable power’s potential”, that renewable energy is “variable” and thus must be supplemented with other energy sources.

Funny. No one mentioned how at least nuclear power can also be unreliable. Nor is any comment made as to how at least the production of solar photovoltaic power has the potential to be highest during times of peak demand.

Lessons Learned

Bottom line. Pay attention to how information is presented. Particularly when packaged neatly in and alongside special “information” features. Remember the interests behind the facts and opinions being presented, and make sure you come to your own conclusions. Considering the big players at stake, this without a doubt applies to matters relating to energy, if not other environmental issues. But then I’ll let you make up your own mind…

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