Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
June 4, 2001
Abuse of the environment
The editorial cartoon from the Ottawa Citizen said it all. It showed a behemoth human being carrying a gas can and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned "North America." The massive man says, "My philosophy of life is simple: If I can afford it, I consume it."
The U.S. Bush administration has just released its National Energy Policy premised on that philosophy. More nuclear power plants will be built, the coal industry will receive a shot in the arm and petroleum drilling will be encouraged, even in an Alaska wilderness preserve.
This highly questionable approach to meeting the energy needs of the U.S. has led to the predictable Canadian response: "What's in it for us?" Alberta's politicians drool over the possibility that we too can gain economic benefits from this greater exploitation of non-renewable, highly pollutant forms of energy. This, at a time when much of the province is suffering from a serious drought that some say may be a result of global warming, itself due to greenhouse gas emissions.
No one in the U.S. government seems to be asking the obvious question - whether the U.S., with five per cent of the world's population and 25 per cent of the world's energy consumption, has a moral right to help itself to an even larger portion of the world energy supply. Some in the U.S. government should be asking questions about energy equity, about the environmental effects of increased consumption, and about the rights of future generations to energy and to a clean environment.
The Western world is apparently incapable of comprehending that its obsession with economic growth may well have unfortunate long-term consequences.
U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, the champion of the energy guzzlers, says, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
On one hand, Cheney is simply wrong. Conservation - in the form of better insulation and better efficiency - has kept U.S. energy consumption from increasing at a rate anywhere near that of the growth in the gross domestic product. Conservation is the main factor that will allow economic growth to occur without greater environmental damage. Further conservation efforts, such as greater fuel efficiency and less pollution in cars and trucks, are achievable goals if governments would make them a priority.
On the other hand, Cheney is right. The "personal virtue" approach - such as asking people to switch off lights, ride bikes or public transit, or keep the house cooler in the winter - will have minimal benefits. Few North American cities, for example, are structured in a way that would facilitate more widespread use of public transit.
If Western nations were forward thinking, they would husband their non-renewable energy resources for the long-term future. They would develop alternate energy sources as much as possible. And they would emphasize conservation and eliminating automobile pollution. They would take seriously the Kyoto Accord on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and they would try to provide an environmental model for the rest of the world.
Some estimates conclude that energy savings can be reduced by three times as much per day through conservation as can be obtained through increased oil production in Alaska.
When government deficits and debts were skyrocketing some elements of society noted that we were mortgaging our future for high living in the present. That point applies even more so to our current scandalous overuse of the earth's resources and our willingness to exploit wilderness preserves for a quick buck.
If we want to leave a positive legacy for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we need to act now to tame the abuse of the natural environment. We need to become stewards, rather than exploiters, of the natural world around us.
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