Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 1, 2003
Our will to survive is killing us
Unbridled demand for selfish comfort bankrupts Mother Earth's energy bank.
By SUZANNE ELSTON
Unlike most Ontario residents, my family and I experienced little discomfort from the great blackout of 2003. When the lights went out throughout most of the northeast corner of the continent, we were vacationing on Prince Edward Island. PEI, like the rest of Maritime Canada, was unaffected by the largest power failure in North American history, so we were able to turn on the television and watch the news reports.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me. The people who were most affected by the blackout were unable to find out what was happening while my family, a thousand miles away from the darkness, was able to watch extensive coverage of the event.
When we returned home late Saturday, much of the power had been restored and even the food we'd left in the fridge had been unaffected. As we connected with friends and family and heard stories about how they had managed to cope, I felt strangely detached. We had been voyeurs of an event that had directly impacted the lives of more than 50 million people and yet I really couldn't relate to what had happened.
And then it hit me. After writing about the environment for almost 15 years, I finally began to understand why we have made so very little progress when it comes to protecting the environment. I'm sure that a cultural anthropologist could give me a more detailed scientific explanation, but our failure to relate to the catastrophic degradation of our world is itself, quite ironically, a survival mechanism.
In earlier times, when our towns and villages were burned by a neighbouring tribe, or our children died from fever or infection, we couldn't allow ourselves to be defeated by despair. When crops were destroyed by weather or fire or disease, we had to persevere at all costs.
In modern terms, this perseverance has translated into the ability to ignore the obvious and forge on, despite the costs or the obstacles. My mother has often told me that her family survived the bombing of London during the Second World War because they were able to convince themselves that they were going to survive, even though they were bombed out of three homes.
It is a paradox of our society that our incredible will to survive has brought us toward the brink of destruction.
Consider the other environmental news stories that began long before the lights went out in Ontario. In Alberta and British Columbia forest fires rage on, thanks to unusually high temperatures and dry conditions. At the same time, farmers in Nova Scotia ponder their losses as their potato crops rot in the soil from too much rain and too little heat.
In England, temperatures recently exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time in recorded history, and in Europe, the pope prayed for an end to the sweltering heat that has left thousands dead and decimated the forests of Portugal, The Netherlands and Greece.
These events have been caused by unusual weather patterns, which have been triggered by a build up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
These gases are the by-products of civilization - the burning of fossils fuels to produce energy, power industry and fuel our vehicles.
This is not news. Scientists began warning about the potential impact of climate change almost a half-a-century ago, but like our distant ancestors, we forge on, regardless of the consequences.
The difference is that our dependence on energy is really more about comfort and convenience than it is about survival.
Many of the electronic devices that were silenced by the blackout are simply unnecessary.
As the power returned to Ontario, everyone was asked to conserve energy until the grid was stabilized. In places like Toronto's Eaton's Centre, natural illumination from the glass ceiling has replaced artificial lights and the air conditioners and escalators have been shut off. Walking up and down the immobile escalators has provided visitors with some much-needed exercise and a new appreciation for those energy-sucking conveniences that we take for granted.
The immediate crisis has passed for now. What remains to be seen is if we learn from recent events and make permanent changes that will enhance conservation efforts, help avoid future power disasters and reduce our impact on the environment. In light of recent events, our survival may very well depend on it.
Recomm ended websites:Check out the Conservation Council of Ontario's Energy Conservation Action Plan at www.greenontario.org The Rocky Mountain Institute offers some of the best, practical advice on energy conservation. Visit www.rmi.org Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency is located at www.oee.nrcan.gc.ca
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