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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Comforting myths

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Dan Gardner, Canwest News Service
Published: Monday, April 07, 2008

This editorial seems designed to throw down a gauntlet to environmentalists. It is aggressive, argumentative and mostly wrong headed. It also tries to have it that only people of the left have any emotional attachment to their preferred approach. Which is, of course, also twaddle. The right is as emotionally attached to its positions as the left. And is based on their world view.

What they want instead [of carbon capture and more nuclear power] is a big campaign for energy conservation coupled with promotion of green energy sources such as wind, solar, and biomass.

Not too difficult, not too expensive, and it can be done in time to prevent the end of the world as we know it.

And best of all, this foolproof program consists entirely of policies environmentalists have been pushing for decades.

Isn’t that something? The solution to climate change consists exclusively of changes environmentalists were demanding back when climate change was nothing more than a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. What an amazing and delightful coincidence.

But the reason this program has not worked is that is has not been implemented in any serious fashion. First of all he misstates the program that has been advanced. Governments have generally gone for the easy options – education and a few subsidies. The big issues which required significant “sticks” as well as “carrots” were generally ignored. And in this country, the necessary investment in infrastructure too. BC hits the headlines when it introduces a tiny, first step in the right direction – carbon tax – and the reaction from business has been “the sky is falling”.

Governments in general, and ours in particular, instead of pursuing strategies that would promote energy conservation have continued to build freeways and expand runways, and stressed the need for free trade and economic growth – and even now are telling people to get out and shop to rescue the American economy despite a very real credit crunch that is impacting everyone’s budget. Instead of conservation we have looked for ways to generate more power. As the oil price rises, so more carbon intensive processes are brought on stream to extract liquid motor spirit from oil sands and shales.

From anti-tar sands action held in Calgary on January 17, 2008.
Photo by Steve Loo.

Alternatives to fossil fuel include cutting down forests and promoting chemical dependent monoculture plantations – or taking food crops from the poorest to turn into fuel for SUVs. In BC we even abolished the luxury car tax we had had for years so single occupant commuters could increasingly buy gas guzzlers for their travel. Transit investments and Smart Growth were derided, ignoring the fact that they worked where they had been used. And the PR industry continued its campaign of obfuscation even as the polar ice melting accelerated. There are very good reasons “the solution” so far has failed and by and large that had nothing to do with its advocates or its virtues. Mostly, we have not adopted it seriously, we have cherry picked out the easy bits and preferred business as usual. We knew what we had to do, but mostly didn’t.

it’s no mystery why many environmentalists are so obstinate. They are strapped into “an ideological straitjacket,” they wrote — immobilized by “a deep suspicion of big business and big industry that’s a residue of the leftism of the original environmental movement.”

Well now, I wonder why that could be? Do the following names have any resonance with you?

Exxon Valdez, Bhopal, Enron, Arthur Andersen, Pacific Gas and Electric, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl

There are, it seems to me, very good reasons for having a cynical attitude about big business. I distrust people who think they can act with impunity – and then hide behind their lawyers to try and avoid the consequences. And the two nuclear disasters I have included are there because that is what we remember. I would have added Pickering to that list but no-one will know here what I am talking about. That was the nuclear power plant in Ontario that I used to live next to. It leaked, all the time. Pipes were corroded but power production continued. This plant is located in a heavily populated area on the shore of Lake Ontario east of Toronto. We were told that that the radiation produced byt his plant,and its lackadaisical attitudes to maintenance and waste disposal were “safe”. It has, like most other Canadian nuclear reactors since been shut down and for good reason. There are people who think you should restart reactors that are not safe – and who override nuclear safety experts to do so – because it seems to meet a popular demand. It does not seem to me to be an especially responsible attitude.

There is another reason to distrust nuclear power – and it is one the right wing has been using for its own political advantage a lot recently. Fissile material and technology can easily get into the “wrong hands” – whether you regard terrorists or rogue states as the highest probability matters not at all. The potential results are equally disastrous. And the cost of protecting all this new nuclear capability is far more than most of us are prepared to pay – because it is not our taxes that are most at risk but our liberty.

Please Take Your Nuclear Waste Home
… this planet is home to many people, animals and plants.

Dungeness, Kent, England

Photo by John Wigham

And he then gets into the emotional stuff. But the preference for business as usual is emotional too. Our attachment to our cars, our huge houses, our enormous flat screen tvs, our preference for wearing tee shirts and shorts indoors at the depth of winter – none of that is based on reason. The people who buy massive trucks are convinced they are safer in them – all evidence to the contrary. We like to drive fast – and talk on the phone and have a couple of drinks first too if we feel like it. We resent effective enforcement, and government courts easy popularity by getting rid of speed control devices – or refusing to require those that are known to be effective. The arguments in favour of the Sea to Sky Highway and Port Mann Bridge are all emotional – there is not a scrap of rationality about them. Mostly what government and big business gives us, the public, is spin. They hate to tell the truth and redact it whenever they can.

The hexavalent chromium in the drinking water did not get there by accident. It was known to be a carcinogen. Yet a company more concerned with the bottom line than human lives behaved badly and then lied about it and tried to hide the evidence. Bhopal was not an “accident”, it resulted from a corporate culture that did not value human life.

We may have no choice but to increase carbon capture in future now. But one of the reasons that it was opposed is that the solution has to incorporate a major change in the way we live. The reason the world has problems is that our planet’s climate is not going to absorb all that people are throwing at it – and as long as the populations of China and India seek to emulate us that problem is going to get worse. Cutting consumption is the part of the solution that Dan Gardner does not mention – I suspect because he is as emotionally attached to his consumer goods and services as the rest of us. Air travel – and cheap air travel at that – is still part of what we want to do. Canadians cannot be denied their mandatory two weeks of sun and fun in the dead of winter. Sure they could enjoy winterlude in Ottawa, or skiing on Seymour, but most still see Cabo san Lucas as the place to be in January. The idea that GDP might decline is still seen as unspeakable. It is regarded as a disaster. Carbon capture is promoted by those who think GDP can continue to increase in the west. It is the same mind set that saw energy efficiency programs produce much bigger fridges ( and new products like wine coolers) – that has been used by the car makers not to reduce fuel consumption but to promote bigger and more powerful vehicles, even though they will spend most of their time on the road stuck in traffic with the Smart cars and hybrids.

I will confess I have an emotional attachment to clean air and clean water. I would much prefer, emotionally, to stay where I am instead of heading for higher ground as the sea level rises. I do feel quite attached to parks and old growth forests. One of the reasons I like my workplace is that I share it with seals, herons and bald eagles. They are not much use to me. They wouldn’t lend me a dollar if I needed it. They are indifferent to me, mostly. So I suppose my attachment to them must be emotional too. And you know what, I am not going to apologise for that. And I also happen to think that seal is worth more swimming free than having it’s head bashed in so someone can have a key ring ornament, and if that means the GDP does not grow as fast and a former sealer claims EI that’s ok with me too.

And as an economist I am going to call that part of my value system. And yes, I think my value system is more comprehensive that that of the average accountant. So sue me.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 7, 2008 at 8:01 am

6 Responses

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  1. Nuclear power generation seems to be an awfully expensive and complex way to boil water.

    NP and petroleum have existed side-by-side for six decades, but the latter has prevailed and produced the largest energy wave in history. It’s obvious that is because petroleum has been priced artificially low, and therefore we are rife with the waste of “necessary conveniences” like 1,500 kg steel boxes carrying one or two 75 kg humans, and lettuce shipped 3,000 km to market. And now we have to live with the consequences of the failure of this economic model on a planetary scale.

    If the Dan Gardners out there think that NP will seamlessly transition to displace petroleum, they are sadly mistaken. Why can’t they perform basic research? The nuclear industry has not in its generations-long history dealt with its two most basic problems: its massive cost, and mitigating the production of highly toxic waste which is piling up in deep water tanks, glowing with an eerie blue light. Yet NP has the support of politicians, and therein garners endless public subsidy and generates bottomless public debt.

    Then, as you pointed out, there are the factors perfectly within the control of the industry: design quality, and operations / maintenance practices. Too many have failed and led to large and small Three Mile Island’s and Chernobyl’s all over the world. Best Management Practices and Codes must be made into law internationally if we are to see a huge expansion in this industry.

    Perhaps the problem lies in how the issue is perceived. Doubling NP in Ontario will generate big power. So will a million solar roofs, but in a dispersed, micro-scale way. Conservation is by far the least expensive way to avoid building huge centralized power plants, unless you want to export the power. And that’s perhaps the motive behind the political support of NP in areas where hydro isn’t as prevalent.

    When considering only the macro scale, then there are alternatives to NP. Concentrated solar power is seriously being considered in some European quarters, with hundreds of generating plants built in North Africa and the Middle East connected to Europe with high-voltage DC cables. Political stability would be a major concern in that project (see ). But it’s also an opportunity to promote international co-operation.

    Desertec is a little pie-in-the-sky, but a couple of things stand out: the technology has already been proven (see ), and that a CSP array covering 1,000 km x 1,000 km in the Sahara would generate enough power for the entire world based on the output of the Solar Two experiment in California. They also calculated that an array of CSP plants covering a 100 mile x 100 mile area of the Nevada desert would supply the entire energy needs of the continental US. The most remarkable feature of CSP is the ability to store solar heat in vacuum tanks of molten salts, therein allowing the plants to run on stored heat overnight and on cloudy days. Compared to a NP plant, that is incredibly simple but as effective.

    It’s obvious that if we don’t change our Western lifestyles voluntarily, they will be changed for us once petroleum is well into decline in the near future, and the inevitable legal measures to deal with climate change kick in internationally. Why not get a head start and vote for conservation ethics and make appropriate adjustments to our personal lives, as well as look into promoting more research into alternatives that are far more benign than NP and petroleum?


    April 7, 2008 at 11:59 am

  2. One comment alone sums up the soundness of your entire article. Your statement about “…a very real credit crunch…” is a prime example of the if-you-repeat-it-often-enough-it-must-be-true way of thinking. If there is such a massive credit crunch why is my mailbox crammed full of solicitations from banks, mortgage lenders and credit card companies? Each and every one of them invite me in to borrow more. Some credit crunch!

    Powell Lucas

    April 7, 2008 at 3:28 pm

  3. Oh sorry, Powell. I must be dreaming. I really thought I had read somewhere about major banks being bailed out and parallels with 1931, and major Canadian financial institutions being saddled with worthless mortgage backed securities. So that news story about the US fed actually conceding that the US may have already entered a recession was just a blip. The contents of your mailbox being so much more convincing than Reuters. What a relief to know that I imagined all that and all is well.

    Stephen Rees

    April 7, 2008 at 3:45 pm

  4. Powell, getting a solicitation doesn’t mean there isn’t a credit crunch. Tell that to the the tens of thousands of Americans who can’t refinance a balloon mortgage.

    Or better, tell that to the builders of coal-fired power plants who will have to pay more to fund construction.

    Banks for the first time are pricing in the risk of climate change. This is one step toward a real turnaround. They aren’t waiting for legislation, but acting in anticipation of it.

    We can rail against corporate greed and their apparent impunity in their actions, but look harder and there’s a noticeable movement afoot in the board rooms of North America to get behind climate change legislation. Of course, the first step is to get the governments to stop picking favored industries. By putting price on carbon, we could let corporations do much of the work of fighting global warming.


    April 8, 2008 at 6:13 am

  5. And just in case anyone was in any doubt about the credit crunch affecting Canadians

    OTTAWA (Reuters) – Disgruntled retail investors in Canada’s frozen asset-backed commercial paper market will have a chance to air their concerns to politicians at special hearings set to begin this week, legislators said on Tuesday


    “asset-backed commercial paper” means those dodgy mortgages

    And there is also an IMF report on the international implications of the $1trillion problem

    Stephen Rees

    April 8, 2008 at 9:16 am

  6. This editorial was utterly inane and patronizing. They can’t win on the science, so hit them with psychology! It is the typical rubbish you get from the carbon establishment trying to protect their growth for greed creed:

    “Oh those emotional environmentalists! They want us to go back to the Stone Age. Worry not, though. We have clean nuclear energy to power the exhaustion of the rest of the world’s resources without your having to stop shopping.

    Radioactive waste? Don’t worry your poor head about that. We’ll just dig a big hole somewhere out of sight to bury it. In the meantime, we’re working on special rockets to eventually fire it at the sun. This future is fissile.”


    April 9, 2008 at 10:52 pm

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