Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 14, 2001
The ecological enemy is us
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
In an astonishing address to the annual meeting of the Associated Press held in Toronto April 30, U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, asserted that American consumers have no need to apologize for their prodigious energy consumption habits, nor should they be forced to "do more with less."
"Our strategy will recognize that the present crisis does not represent a failing of the American people," contended Cheney, a former oil company executive.
Well, some of us think this continent's record of energy greed and environmental destruction - the effects of which extend far beyond our borders, do represent a serious moral failure on the part of individuals, especially political leaders.
The U.S. constitutes less than five per cent of the planet's population, however, it uses roughly 26 per cent of the world's oil, and produces some 22 per cent of global carbon emissions and 26 per cent of nitrogen emissions.
Americans discard enough aluminum to rebuild the entire U.S. commercial airline fleet every three months (aluminum is highly recyclable, and very energy intensive to produce). Japan recycles over 50 per cent of its garbage, and Western Europe about 30 per cent. Americans recycle about 10 per cent of their trash.
Americans dispose of 290 million tons of toxic waste each year. Additionally, much of the environmental degradation going on in the Third World today results from supplying North America's insatiable demand for raw materials and cheap finished products.
Nor should Canadians feel smug. Canada, on a per-capita basis, uses energy at a rate nearly 50 times higher than India does. According to International Energy Agency projections, by 2020, Canada and the U.S., with roughly 350 million people, will still be burning more oil than China and India combined - representing 2.7 billion people.
It is always tempting to load responsibility and blame for pollution and environmental degradation onto impersonal entities like governments and corporations, but in fact the consumption habits of individuals are the root problem - that is, the ecological enemy is us.
We use the paper (and waste most of it) for which forests are destroyed and pulp mills foul the air and water.
We demand (and also waste) cheap and unlimited energy produced by polluting coal, oil and nuclear plants.
We have patterned our lifestyles and social-economic infrastructures almost exclusively around automobiles - private and commercial - and stubbornly resist their use being rationalized or restricted.
We demand the speed and convenience of air travel, even for relatively short trips, compromising the economic viability of passenger trains, and have killed off transoceanic steamship travel, both the latter modes of transportation being much more energy efficient than aircraft.
We demand the convenience and "cleanliness" afforded by sundry household and industrial chemical cleaning products that pollute the water and indoor air space.
We demand that our indoor environment be August-warm in January, and January-cool in August.
We demand an astonishing polyglot of consumer goods, most of them frivolous, production of which wastes raw materials and pollutes the environment. Industrial production is more than 50 times what it was 100 years ago.
We demand more material gratification and creature comfort than any society ever, by a vast margin - the par-excellence spoiled brats of history.
We have been on a century-long debauch that may already have sealed the doom of life as we know it on this planet, but Cheney contends that "the present crisis does not represent a failure of the American people." Horse hockey!
It's time to admit that we, Canadians as well as Americans, have become selfish, addicted, energy junkies, fouling our own environmental clothing and that of others. We need detox badly, and the Cheney-Bush prescription of more cheap energy is not going to help.
Necessity is the mother of invention. There are energy technologies under development, and doubtless more as yet undiscovered, that would be much less polluting than oil, coal, and nuclear.
However, their widespread adoption will be slow as long as there is a cheap supply of conventional energy, and they will likely at first involve significant compromises in both cost and convenience.
However, if we are not prepared to make the relatively modest sacrifices that will be required to wean ourselves off our addiction to cheap, fossil fuel energy, we no doubt collectively deserve the consequences of our prodigality.
But do future generations, who will be the most profoundly affected, deserve them as well?
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