Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

This crazy time

I have to admit I’m a failed environmentalist.  I have a long history of desiring to live a sustainable life, but when faced with the hard choices I inevitably choose the easy path.  For instance, on my way into the talk titled Living our Environmental Challenge, I proceeded to drive in from Stittsville, buy fast food for dinner and throw out the packaging that was perfectly compostable, and then purchase a hot beverage in a disposable cup.  I was well on my way to seeing what a challenge it is to live in an environmentally friendly way.  


William Marsden was the first author to speak.  I saw him a few years ago here at the festival, when he was on the same bill as Thomas Homer Dixon.  At the time, I noticed there was a lot of cynicism in his voice as he was promoting his book Stupid to the Last Drop.  It’s hard not to be cynical when you’re writing about an issue that seems so obvious, yet so many people seem to intentionally ignore it.  This time, Marsden was talking about his soon to be published book Fools Rule.  Once again, his book seems to be an elegy to those that will never listen.  


Part of his new book explores how our brains are unable to fully consider long-term costs when we are making decisions regarding today.  I’ve read numerous articles and books about how people struggle when making present-worth versus future-worth comparisons but one that I know best is the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

.  In this study, the scientists would put a marshmallow in front of a four year old child telling them that they can eat this marshmallow now, or if they wait they can have a second.  The scientist would then walk out the room, and they would then observe how the children handled this hot stimulus of a yummy marshmallow in front of them that they wanted, when at the same time they wanted that second marshmallow.  Every child wanted two, but many weren’t able to wait very long.  It’s much the same as adults – if asked, I’d be willing to bet that most Canadians would say that they want to live in a sustainable world, but it’s so hard to fight against the hot stimuli in front of us.  So, are those that should be listening actively not listening, or are they just unable to consider the alternatives?


Tzeporah Berman followed Marsden, and was a very engaging speaker.  I heard her about a week ago on CBC radio, and I was interested to hear how much would be repeated.  I intentionally listened to that interview twice, so I had a pretty good idea of what she would say, but she still made the material fresh and engaging.  Her message of compromise through knowledge of the other really hooked me.  Her stories of Greenpeace working deals with industry to save Clayoquot Sound from clear-cutting, but that enabled the Forestry sector to continue as a profitable business fascinated me.  Hearing about that makes me hopeful that there may be a way to somehow find a healthy compromise with the Alberta oil sands.  She explained that for this to happen though, we need enough people demanding change – both from our businesses and our government.  


One of my favourite stories Berman shared was an interaction with the chief forester for MacBlo.   He told Berman in conversation that “He doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking ‘How can I destroy more forests?’, but that he got into the forestry business because he loves the forests”.  The idea that this man wasn’t evil was quite a surprise for Berman at the time.  Through their conversations, they worked out a model for MacBlo to continue to work as a business, but were able to protect important ecological areas, and change the way that industry logged.  In a sense, their compromise gave the forester new tools to do his job that gave better options to everyone that had not previously existed.   Berman in her talk, reiterated that businesses have the tools and skills needed to try and address the problems of climate change, if only we could give the businesses the right incentives to change their business models.


The final author of the night was Chris Turner. Turner was using this night to launch his new book The Leap, a book about how as a society we can make the jump from our current unsustainable model of society to a more sustainable one

.  He shared examples of work being done all over the world, from Bitterfeld, Germany to Toledo, Ohio.  Most of the statistics and examples he shared were very encouraging, showing that there are solutions to our current environmental issues if we are willing to engage them.  What I think Turner is also trying to make clear is that these solutions are not a compromise, or even more costly, but are truly better solutions regardless of our current environment.  I was blown away by the example he shared of a town home complex that was built in Southern Germany that had solar panels installed on the roofs, and the homes themselves were designed to be as energy efficient as possible.  What they managed to create was a community that doesn’t consume power, but are net-producers of power to the point that people are making money off their homes.  I live in a small town-home, and wonder what it would be like if Domicile or Richcraft in Ottawa were willing to try some of these creative solutions that actually won’t cost any more than what they currently build?    


One other example Turner shared was a study done in Germany showing that they could run their modern industrial economy entirely on renewable energy sources, with the combination of wind, solar, biomass, and small scale hydro – note that Germany is a fairly northern country, where Munich, one of the most southern cities in the country is at a higher latitude than Quebec City.  Germany has managed to make itself a leader in renewable energy, and in doing so has made significant improvements in unemployment in areas of the country that only a few years ago would have made Detroit look good.  They’ve made this change with a conservative government in power, not only because the constituents demanded this, but because it’s good policy.  In making the shift from our current economy that is based on the consumption of fossil fuels, to one that is based around renewable energies, we can continue to move our society forward in the direction we want (jobs, prosperity, quality of life improvements), and at the same time do it better than we are now.  


I came into the night with some cynicism, and feeling that given our current Canadian political climate, there isn’t much chance of improvement in how we deal with the issue of climate change as a society.  As an individual, I try where I can, but so often it feels like I’m only one of a few willing to make sacrifices to try and make a difference.  And when I’m feeling like that, I start giving in more to the car, the disposable cups,  and start dreaming of a large home with a back yard.  It’s more and more clear that our environment can’t be saved by a few people taking the bus to work, buying local food, and living in a small house.  It’s only if together we agree that we want a better world that we can make the changes necessary.


I ended the night with asking Berman and Turner a question – Is the Environment and Climate Change fundamentally an issue that needs government to change its policies, or is it people who need to change?  Turner responded that this isn’t about the government changing at all, and that we may not even need them to drive the change toward a sustainable economy.  He cited an example of a company in Calgary, GreenGate - a renewable energy company.  They are taking positive action before the government has any interest in renewable energy, using all the tools available to them to make a profitable business.  Berman responded to the question, with the point that “[environmentalists] need to stop selling the plane ride, and start selling the vacation” – an analogy she used during her talk.  Far too often environmentalists focus on the need to reduce green house gases, which only focuses on the negative.  As environmentalists, they need to start sharing more success stories, where people are getting to live better lives, and have a more sustainable environment and economy.  In the end, if enough people want this change, they will demand it both from companies they buy from, and from their government.  People don’t go to the car lot looking for a vehicle that will destroy the environment.  If alternatives exist that will provide them with an equal quality of life, I’m sure that would sell.  In the present, these options exist, the technology exists, but somehow there is still a fight from businesses to prevent change.  If we as individuals were to engage to the level of demanding change from the businesses we work for and patronize, perhaps in the same way Victoria’s Secret changed the way they sourced paper for their catalogue; we could see a revolution in our modern economy and actually live better lives for it.


As a final note, my wife and I attended with our seven-month old child, and the volunteers and writers were incredibly gracious to us and our child, which was truly appreciated.  It’s nice to know that as parents of young children, we are welcome at events like this.   


1 , or if you want a great review of this and the other factors that come into how we make decisions, check out Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide.  


Turner gave a quick review of how modern western society is unsustainable, focusing on the three big issues of our time – the financial collapse, energy scarcity, and climate change.  He actually drew a direct link between all three, showing that our current market structure is all based on cheap energy which is quickly disappearing, our demand for cheap energy is increasing the amount of CO 2 in the atmosphere among other environmental impacts, and if climate change is ignored until it reaches the catastrophic level it will forever change how we run an economy.