Words Fail Us on the Environment

Lynn McDonald
Globe and Mail
30 August 2006

Just as the American Civil Rights Movement prompted a whole new vocabulary to match the new reality of civil rights, as former coloured, Negroes, niggers and other insulting terms became African American, so we need to stop using words that do not suit the new reality of climate change--already started, as the polar bears know.

We could start with oil “production,” for we do not produce this one-time resource, the “product” of geological time. The tar sands “development” needs a word to convey the profligate waste of already dug up fossil fuels to get at more deeply buried fossil fuels, requiring massive quantities of heretofore clean water as well. You would hardly know that this “development” causes a vast increase in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The result will be more forest fires, respiratory diseases, etc., and depleted water supplies for future Albertans. This is not just failing to meet our Kyoto targets, but going in the wrong direction.

Ralph Klein’s justification for the tar sands “project” is an apparently clear “we need the oil.” Words of one syllable, but who is “we”? Won’t future Albertans need the oil even more, to run their air conditioners, made ever more needful by global warming? In fact for most purposes we don’t need oil, but energy. For most purposes other fuel sources, even sun and wind, and more efficient use, would do. The only activity that needs oil, and for which there is no substitute (at least at present) is air travel. (Blimps use less fuel.) If we really need the oil, perhaps we should be rationing it for essential purposes.

The names of our political parties need revision. The Conservatives, sadly, oppose conservation in favour of fast, greedy and wasteful use (the Consumption Party?) The Liberals are very liberal with resources that future generations might need, not quite so virtuous as being liberal with one’s own goods. The New Democrats could use a Tommy Douglas, who thought health care so important everyone should have it. What is democratic about squandering the last of an almost entirely depleted resource, causing climate change in the course that will make it desperately more difficult for future generations to live well?

Proverbs need to be reconfigured, too. “Give a man a fish” (excuse the sexism) “and he can feed his family for a day. Teach him how to fish and he can feed his family all year round.” But subsidize him to overfish, and others like him, and you can destroy not only the whole industry but fish stocks for all time.

Anglicans could fix up old hymns. For all those “in peril on the sea” there are many more in peril living in low lying lands by the sea. As the ice caps melt, the seas will rise--and a bit late to tell God to keep the oceans within “their appointed bounds,” as another hymn mindlessly suggests.

Is it not missing the point to thank God for the bountiful harvests, when crops, in Canadian-style agriculture, require such a massive input of fossil fuels to produce? (It’s sometimes, realistically, called “mining” the soil.) Should God be blamed when the fossil fuels are gone, the soil unproductive and the crops fail?

Florence Nightingale wondered why we “prayed to be delivered from plague, pestilence and famine,” when all the sewers of London emptied into the Thames. We get the point on sewers, and we generally avoid cholera and E-coli and the like in Canada, or at least we know how to. But we seem to be oblivious to the harm we are doing by our grossly inefficient methods of production, overuse of resources and failure to think of future needs.

Economics used to be jokingly referred to as the “dismal science” for its understanding of scarcity. Would that our economists and business experts take scarcity seriously! Forests can be a renewable resource, if properly managed. So can fisheries (although not with current practices). But fossil fuels can never be. And that is the reality we need to address. We have to find renewable sources and use energy more efficiently. We should start now, before we have caused more global warming. The challenge is daunting, but the alternative of carrying on as usual, believing that the tar sands “will give us the oil we need” (for how long? and with what consequences?) is surely as immoral as it is foolish.

Lynn McDonald is professor emerita at the University of Guelph and a former MP.