Earth is not too big to fail

Our planet is critically ill, and government and industry can’t cure it alone. We have to step up.


Like a scene out of Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel, On the Beach, we’re chewing up the planet’s resources as if there’s literally not going to be a tomorrow. In Paris, world leaders are getting together to agree on greenhouse-gas reduction targets that were branded wildly impractical just two decades ago, but which are now clearly much too little, much too late.

While politicians are timidly striving to initiate policies they hope will keep average world temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C, more and more climate scientists are arguing that our target should be zero. No, not a zero increase in temperature, but the virtual elimination of all carbon emissions as quickly as possible; a halt to the burning of carbon fuels and severe reductions in agricultural processes that produce greenhouse gases. This means we have to stop talking about mildly mitigating initiatives such as improved fuel efficiency or greater use of bio-fuels, natural gas or Prius hybrids. We need to put down the lighters, spark plugs, chip bags and steak knives and develop an economy that runs on clean and renewable energy sources and minimizes the massive amounts of carbon emissions that come from modern agricultural and food practices.

Even something as simple as the palm oil in your bag of Doritos is contributing to massive deforestation in places like Indonesia, where huge swaths of land are being cleared for palm oil plantations. To do so cheaply, landowners are setting fire to tropical rainforests, which has not only created emissions that currently exceed daily greenhouse gas production for all of the United States, but simultaneously destroys vegetation such as trees and peat that help the planet absorb and trap carbon gases.


It’s hard to hold out hope when we are faced with a constantly growing inventory of the damage we are causing the planet. Whether it’s unprecedented levels of species extinction caused by human intervention (1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the natural rate) or the cascading effects of planetary warming (rising oceans, massive releases of carbon from melting ice and tundra, etc.), we are forced to acknowledge that humans have not exactly had a benign influence on Mother Earth and that the only way to mitigate that harm and protect our future is to take some very radical, even revolutionary steps.

First, we have to recognize that economic disruption is inevitable no matter what path we choose. Those oil patch jobs that Albertans want to save will be gone within a generation as both demand and supply dry up. We can sustain them at great cost to both the environment and the economy through government subsidies, or we can instead invest our collective resources in developing clean energy industries that create long-term, durable employment. The people who predict economic collapse if we don’t protect fossil fuel jobs are the modern-day equivalent of the doomsdayers who opposed an end to child labour or slavery, which were considerably more integral to the economies of abolitionist states than oil industry workers are to ours.

Second, we need to walk the walk. It’s not enough to insist that politicians set ambitious targets and adopt laws that penalize emitters and polluters. Canada could have the most comprehensive carbon policies in the world, but the quickest way to stop the wildfires that are destroying Sumatran forests and peatlands is to stop buying the products of companies who reward those destructive practices. It doesn’t take a Pulitzer Prize-winning economist to understand that the main cause of worldwide overconsumption is, well, consumption. Whether it’s fossil fuels, fast food, fish fries or fashionable footwear, in the capitalist system our choices as consumers can have a much greater effect than whatever watered-down laws or voluntary targets our governments set for their corporate buddies for 10, 15 or 50 years down the road.

Third, we have to accept the notion that continuous growth is not a sign of our health but of the disease that is eating away at us from the core. We are obsessed with creating more and more things to produce and buy and sell when we should be looking at ways to reduce and reuse and repurpose. Growth cannot continue indefinitely. Until we accept the idea of a future where we need and we use less, where progress is measured by “how little” rather than “how much,” we will continue to make the same mistakes that got us here.

Fourth, we have to stop wasting so much food. Western meat industries dedicate enormous volumes of water and food to create much smaller volumes of food, yet we have increased our own consumption to historic levels and suffered consequences in the form of obesity and disease, not to mention the untold health effects of eating animal protein that has been marinated in a petrie dish of hormones and antibiotics. Meanwhile, we are decimating fish stocks and allowing a handful of multinational agro-businesses to lead us to a dangerous dependence on a narrow and biologically vulnerable variety of key crops like corn, soy and canola. Canadians then throw out an astounding 47 per cent of all of the food we produced using the wasteful systems described above.

Radical change cannot happen without us. And it has to start happening soon if we want to avoid finding the next generation of post-apocalyptic books in the history section.


Speaking of Pulitzer-Prize winners, Truthdig journalist Chris Hedges, who won one of those in 2002 as part of a team of New York Times reporters covering global terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, will be speaking tonight (Wednesday, Dec. 9) at Concordia University on the need for revolution in the face of the many crises facing the planet. Whether it’s climate change, personal privacy, native rights or minority rights, Hedges argues that social forces are massing for change and that we are on the cusp of a popular revolt, especially as the rights of citizens are being sold away in favour of the rights of corporations in pacts such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

It’s a fundraising event for Canadian Dimension magazine (full disclosure: I’m a volunteer member of their editorial collective) and tickets cost $33.15 or $22.30 for students. You can buy them online here or take a chance on getting them at Concordia’s Hall building (H-110) when doors open at 6:30 p.m.. For those who can’t afford a ticket, student radio station CKUT will be taping a broadcast of the event and Canadian Dimension will post it online. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.