The Grand Distraction

Canadians are an apologetic bunch. It’s part of our national character. Bump into us on the subway and we’re bound to apologize to you simply for the fact that we were standing in the way. So the newly released results of a national survey on environmental attitudes shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise.

Conducted by Harris-Decima, the survey (PDF) questioned some 10,000 people about environmental concerns and actions. Several interesting things stand out in the results – including 34 percent claiming things are “improving a lot” locally, while nearly the same number (39 percent) believes things are deteriorating globally – but some answers reveal what the Globe and Mail called “a profound shift in public opinion on the causes of environmental problems.”

Back in the ‘80s, public opinion generally held corporations and law-keepers responsible for environmental concerns, Bruce Anderson, president of Harris-Decima, explained to the national newspaper. But things have changed. In this poll, out of eleven answers to the question “what’s causing environmental issues?,” the leading answer to emerge was “wasteful behavior by consumers," as selected by this pocket of the population. Further down the list: inadequate regulation, weak laws and unethical business practices, among others.

This leads me to a personal gripe. It started back when I first spotted a large billboard in my town, displaying a smiling David Suzuki holding a lightbulb. Don’t get me wrong. First of all, I love David Suzuki. It is a Canadian heresy not to. And I whole-heartedly agree that promoting the switchover to more efficient lighting is a great move, as is conserving energy in all its forms -- washing your clothes in cold water, hanging then to dry, investing in geothermal or solar or straw bale (if you can afford it), driving less, reprogramming your thermostat, eating locally, growing your own food and all of that.

But at some point, we have to recognize that there is only so much we can do on our own. At some point, while things might be improving immensely in our own lives, in the dropping energy-use and increased recycling of our own households and those of our friends, out in the broader world run by government and corporate interests, the situation seems to getting a whole lot worse.

In fact, if we stick with the idea of consumption, the emissions associated with domestic products increased by only 15% between 1990 and 2003, according to a compilation of information recently published by Statistics Canada. Over the same period, energy-related emissions from oil and gas extraction activities increased by a whopping 146%, says the report Human Activity and the Environment: Annual Statistics - 2007 and 2008.

I call it the grand distraction. In the grocery stores, white and green-coloured signs proclaim 'Something Must Be Done' above a rack of cloth bags, while our politicians waste time blaming each other’s parties for rising gas prices and investors line up at the Alberta tar sands like there’s no tomorrow – literally. “Growth in investment in the oil sands has been rapid. Just a decade ago, investment by the industry was less than one-tenth that of the manufacturing sector. In 2008, producers intend to invest $19.7 billion in the oil sands, surpassing the $19.6 billion planned investment by the entire manufacturing sector,” says a Statistics Canada summary of the Human Activity and the Environment report.

Most of us simply don’t know how to face these dragons. So we stick with our own self-blame, admonishing ourselves to be better eco-citizens and doggedly doing what we can within the extremely limited and ultimately ineffective realm of action that we occupy. We follow the various campaigns – changing our light bulbs, using cold water laundry detergent, buying local, organic produce, etc. For a consumer accustomed to being sold on actions to stop climate change, the options presented in the question asking what solutions the government should take were a no-brainer. Here, the top two choices were implementing incentives to use alternative energy (55 per cent said ‘definitely’ to this) and doing the same for eco-friendly transportation (49 per cent also said ‘definitely’).

Way down at the bottom of the list -- stopping development of the tar sands -- an option that might, in the long run, actually make a difference. But I guess, in keeping with our national character, it is simply easier and less demanding to just say sorry, mind our own business and move along.

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  • Posted on May 6, 2008. Listed in:

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