The planet is in peril. Society’s mass production and consumption have created a multitude of environmental crises: global warming, mass species extinction, ecosystem failure. The list goes on. The response to this societal crisis — specifically, the degradation of the natural environment — has been timid. Where global warming has not been met without outright denial, the solutions have been mixed. Many seem to think that a carbon tax will be a cure-all, when in reality we’ll need something much more ambitious (perhaps the Green New Deal). Solving our environmental crises is an urgent task, and it will require a collaborative effort.
If I may, the response to our looming environmental crises suggests that many people have yet to grasp the scale of our problems, for if they did, I think that most would be outraged. The typical British Columbian pays around $1.30 per litre of gasoline. However, each litre of gasoline costs society around $5.25¹. This is known as the social cost of carbon, and it is basically the cost of environmental and health impacts measured monetarily. Although no specific fire can be attributed to global warming, excess wildfires can be, and they are a social cost of carbon emissions. So are excess floods, hurricanes, and even dormant diseases thawing out due to melting permafrost. Now, imagine that the next time you go to the pump, instead of paying $1.30 for a litre of gasoline, you pay $6.55 ($18.70 USD per gallon). This, of course, would be outrageous: few drivers would be able to afford such a price, and it would easily be considered our most pressing issue. People wouldn’t stand for it.
Honestly, when I was a kid, we had wildfire season, but I don’t ever remember the smoke making it to my town. Then around 2015, BC had a terrible wildfire season, with my region being drenched in impenetrable smoke. This year BC has been fortunate so far, with relatively few wildfires compared to the last few years. However, as I write this my town is drenched in smoke from western United States wildfires, in what seems to be a sight out of Apocalypse Now. I realize that this is nothing more than the anecdotal observations of a layman, but I am convinced that the fires plaguing us in the past years have been aided, if not caused by global warming.
Despite the enormous scale of man-made environmental destruction, global warming and carbon emissions have yet to be treated as the most important issues facing society. Even with horrific wildfires ravaging California, Oregon, and Washington, many major news sites lack a headline story about global warming. When there isn’t a natural disaster taking place, our environmental crises seem to capture only the public’s most fleeting attention. Instead, the public should be incredibly concerned. Should we be unable to reign in our carbon emissions, we are surely on a path towards ecosystem collapse. Here’s what I’m asking you to do: take the righteous anger you would feel towards a $6.55 litre of gasoline, and redirect it at our environmental woes. Because we, and that includes you, will pay for the consequences of our environmental devastation, if we don’t do something today.
Now, I honestly do not mean to come across as all doom and gloom. While it is easy to become frustrated with inaction on environmental issues, I believe that we still have time to avert the worst of our environmental crisis, so long as we act immediately. We are not a decade away from crisis — we have, in many ways, been in crisis for decades. Once we accept that we are already in dangerous territory, it becomes apparent that immediate action is necessary. Keeping the planet to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of preindustrial temperatures needs to be our goal — an extra half of a degree would cause a third of the world to experience extreme heat waves every five years, hundreds of millions of people to become impoverished, and arctic sea ice to completely melt during the summer. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is certainly possible, as long as we act now. Acting now will cost less than inaction.
How we go about doing the work is up for debate. Some will prefer economic solutions, such as a carbon tax, while others, myself included, would prefer regulatory solutions. Pragmatism, coupled with the urgency of our environmental woes, would suggest that since we already have carbon pricing framework in effect across Canada, we should utilize it more extensively (that is, raise the carbon tax significantly), while also designing new and better ways to end our crisis. While it makes for a good complementary policy, the problem with a carbon tax, in my mind, is that it treats our environmental problems as if they were the result of a market failure, and nothing more. A carbon tax tries to reduce carbon emissions within the framework of capitalism, when it is our pursuit of capitalism that has done so much harm to the environment. Capitalism allows for a short-term greed of profits to be prioritized over long-term environmental conservation and sustainability. A capitalist wants the economy to grow in perpetuity, but growth based on the ever increasing depletion of resources cannot last. The best interests of the economy are often painted as being in opposition to those of the environment, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth. The idea that the economy can be separated from the environment is fallacious, and it allows us to perceive the economy to be in good health while the environment suffers. The economy is a man-made subset of the environment — should the economy destroy the environment, it paradoxically destroys itself.
A society that places excessive value on capitalism and private property ends up measuring wellbeing as the amount of possessions a person has. However, possessions usually come at the expense of the environment. That is not to say that we cannot own things, but it is to say that there comes a point when protecting the environment becomes more important to our comfort than our things, and we are at that point. Finding democratic solutions will be key to mitigating and adapting to our ecological crisis. We will require a grassroots movement, both social and political in nature, to secure our continued survival. We will not be able to protect the environment without the will of the people being on board.
While putting a price on carbon emissions is a useful tool for policy makers, more often than not, attempting to monetarily value ecological processes is absurd. It suggests we can buy our way out of problems that may prove irreversible. Should we lose the coral reefs for good (something that will happen with 2 degrees of warming), there is no amount of money in the world that could buy them back. Nor could we buy back the marine biological pump, with is put in jeopardy by global warming. The biological pump consists of phytoplankton sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere in order to make their shells, and dispersing it on the ocean floor when they die and sink. As carbon concentrates in the atmosphere, the ocean surface becomes too acidic for phytoplankton to live and create shells. Without the biological pump working, carbon will continue to build up in the atmosphere, further accelerating global warming. Many systems regulate the climate — even if global warming only slightly compromises one such system (such as the biological pump), it is doing the same to many other ecological processes integral to a stable climate. As compromised ecosystems accumulate, their growing inability to stabilize the climate will only enable further global warming. We will need legislation to protect the earth’s ecosystems, and to end the causes of their destruction — causes which run a lot deeper than carbon emissions. Global warming is not a market failure, it is a moral failure. A healthy environment is paramount to our well being — allowing it to be sacrificed for profit and greed is anti-human.
Healthy ecosystems, formed from the interactions of living and nonliving components, are vital to the health of society. This should be a truism, since society arises from a human collective, and humans owe their existence to the environment, yet efforts to pit the economy against the environment take this truth for granted. We have potentially triggered the sixth mass extinction, with species globally going extinct at up to a thousand times the normal rate. Perhaps even more alarming is the rapid decline in species populations. The Living Planet Index, created by the United Nations Environment Programme, showed that the populations of monitored species decreased by 52% between 1970 and 2014. One study suggested that 40% of insect species are in decline — a rate eight times faster than that of other animals. This is particularly concerning, since bugs feed many, many birds and mammals higher up the food chain, which in turn often feed humans. With species in such rapid decline, ecosystem collapse becomes a serious threat. Should we not undertake massive conservation efforts, all of the life necessary for human life is at risk. When environmental degradation leads to a planet inhospitable to humankind (because make no mistake, unless we act, it is not an “if” but a “when”), we humans will be facing our own wrath, since it was we who could have prevented its consequences.
Given the dire situation we are in, I think it is fair to characterize ecological destruction as a crime against humanity. We have been lulled into a false sense of security. We are only scarcely aware, or at least unwilling to admit, that large scale human suffering could be around the corner. Voices of denial seem to loom large, in spite of a clear scientific consensus. Perhaps this denial is a coping method, with global warming being a situation too distressing to face. Companies like Exxon, Shell, and Mobil were all too willing to stoke this denial, while preparing their new oil rigs and infrastructure for rising sea levels. But I am not here to throw blame at the typical individual — frankly, almost none of us seem capable of mustering a proportionate response to our environmental crisis, even when we don’t doubt the science. While it is uncomfortable to think a crime against humanity could be happening right before us, it could possibly be this introspection that prevents us from allowing the worst of the worst to occur. Indeed, the Black Lives Matter protests have brought to the forefront of public discussion the oppression that Black people face. America was built using the stolen labor of enslaved Black people, and to this day racism seeks to deprive Black people of their humanity. One of the ways this racism manifests is known as environmental racism, with People of Color in America being subjected to a disproportionate amount of pollution. Neither America nor Canada were just at the time of their founding, and both still have a ways to go. Both committed unspeakable atrocities in the past. Injustices are committed in the present. Assuming that our countries couldn’t again perpetuate societal injustices only blinds us to the warning signs.
Unity, both with each other and the environment, will be our saving grace. It is hard to appreciate the scale of our environmental crises, but you don’t have to be an expert to bring about important environmental changes. Most people, regardless of who they are and so long as they have the courage to make use of them, have great mental faculties at their disposal — which could go a long way towards solving our crises. If we could just get people to seriously mobilize around environmentalism, we would have a real shot at reconciling with the earth. Let’s end the causes of global warming, of biodiversity loss, of ecosystem destruction, and build a sustainable future — one rooted in conservation. In his brilliant 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called for a “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” stating that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” I may not be a scientist (and my account of science, shaky), but I am a human, and as a human, I can see that our thing-oriented society has caused our environmental woes. However, I refuse to believe that our situation has become so dire that there is yet no return. Humans lived more or less in harmony with the environment for hundreds of thousands of years, and we can do so again: we can undo our man-made emergencies. It will take a dedication to humanitarian values, but it is something that each and every one of us can take part in, together. Concern for humanity and concern for the environment go hand in hand — unity around the two is our way forward. Make peace with humanity. Make peace with the planet.
¹ To yield $5.25 as the social cost of a liter of gasoline, I took the social cost of $15USD cost per gallon and divided it by 3.79 (the amount of liters in a gallon). This resulted in a cost of $3.96USD per liter, which exchanges to approximately $5.25CAD.