The Last Shades of Green

by Ray Grigg

This Shades of Green column is special in two regards. First, I am writing it in the first person singular — my 544 previous columns avoided the “I” to give its contents a scholarly and impersonal character and, therefore, to invite scrutiny, disagreement and debate in the respectful tradition of academia. And second, this column will no longer be appearing in a its usual place in the North Islander as an insert in the Campbell River Courier-Islander and the Comox Valley Echo. The senior editor of the Vancouver Island Newspaper Group, the parent body that now publishes the newspapers in which Shades of Green has appeared weekly since November 23, 2002, has decided that the column no longer fits its publishing objectives. So this is a time for perspectives and goodbyes.

I have always been aware that published writers have the rare privilege of being allowed into the minds of readers. This comes with responsibilities of duty and care, particularly since I was granted total editorial freedom during the past 11 years and 7 months of the column’s lifetime. My objective was never to be offensive or radical, but to be fresh, stimulating, informative, exploratory and challenging, to share with fellow thinkers the same excitement that I felt when I encountered interesting discoveries, studies, ideas or insights. Indeed, we are living in an incredible time that is literally exploding with new information and knowledge. Anyone with a sense of history will recognize that the current moments and decades are pivotal for the future humanity and our planet, with implications that are nothing less than staggering to contemplate.

Environmentalism is a portal into almost everything significant that is happening in our civilization. While the unprecedented physical degradation of our planet’s ecosystems is being measured by the sophistication of our many sciences, the root cause is traceable to ourselves and the psychologies, sociologies, philosophies, religions and economic systems that shape our behaviour. Perhaps I sensed this when I called my column Shades of Green — a hue of environmentalism exists in innumerable places of intellectual interest.

Consequently, I quickly found that I didn’t have enough weeks to write about all the subjects that were opening for exploration. When my last column was published on May 27, I had two others ready and waiting. One was Farley, a review of the life of Farley Mowat, Canada’s first environmentalist who had some poignant comments to make about the frustrations of finding ecological justice. The second one was called Choices, in which an American climatologist took the most current information from the IPCC on climate change, projected it for 2100, and gave us the four scenarios we could choose depending on the amount of carbon dioxide we decide to emit. (These two did not appear in the North Islander but were sent to my e-mail list.) And then I was contemplating another column on the Ecology of Wealth that would explore the ideas of Thomas Piketty, a impressive young French economist who is providing an extremely credible explanation for the inequitable distribution of wealth in capitalist economies, warning of the social dangers, and suggesting how the system can be tuned. So, mostly I feel sad that I won’t be able to share with my readers any more of the thinking that stimulates me.

Momentous local events are on the horizon that warrant everyone’s close attention. The federal cabinet has approved the Northern Gateway pipeline project — a letter by 300 world scholars to the Prime Minister has described the joint review process as so fundamentally flawed as to make its recommendations useless. This decision is a watershed moment for BC and Canada and will, among its many effects, convert the province into an environmental battlefield. The sustained anxiety of having supertankers plying the treacherous coast of one of Earth’s last “Edens” will certainly erode BC’s soul of easiness and innocence, that West Coast quality so rare in a world that is being systematically deconstructed by our collective indiscretions. Other pipelines, refineries and coal shipping terminals are all part of the same changes that seem like folly when considered in the larger environmental perspective.

Meanwhile, BC is also embarking on a extensive project to develop an economy based on LNG. Climatologists have defined natural gas as a “transitional” fuel, an ameliorating energy but not an energy solution. Unfortunately, this gas loses half its efficiency advantage over other fossil fuels when it is compressed to LNG. How BC will meet its own legally binding carbon targets by tripling emissions from this industry will require a computational feat that nature won’t understand.

I have personally eschewed all political affiliations to avoid being partisan. However, environmentalism is inherently linked to government policy so is inevitably political, and the ruling parties in Canada and BC have been in power for the lifetime of Shades of Green. But we must be ever mindful of global warming, the “mother” of all environmental events. It is now abundantly clear that the thrust of all government policies must be cognizant of this warming and facilitate a shift away from fossil fuels because the eventual consequences of continued carbon dioxide emissions will be ecological suicide — the unfolding moral dimensions of this issue are reflected in Desmond Tutu’s recent description of Alberta’s tars sands as “filth” and “greed”. As I discovered, almost every shade of green has political implications, frustration is building, tension is rising, and subtleties are transitioning into polarities.

In the 1970’s, global warming was barely on the horizon of concern for most environmentalists. The worry then was based on the metaphor of pulling bricks out of an ecological wall until, eventually, the entire structure would “collapse”. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the foundation itself was also under threat from greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming changes everything — absolutely everything. It even casts doubt on the viability of modern civilization as we understand it.

For someone like me who cares deeply about culture and history, who loves art and thought and nature, who has been enthralled by the beauty and ingenuity of humanity’s many accomplishments, this threat is chilling. The feeling that has inspired countless hours of reading, research, thinking and writing has been fear. Each Shades of Green column has been a plea for perspective, foresight, sanity and wisdom, a remote expectation that I could incrementally shift understanding and attitudes in the direction of awareness, change and optimism.

Thinking about humans and our collective behaviour in the context of environmentalism has been a sobering experience. Writing Shades of Green required an intense and honest examination of who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Our ingenuity and sophistication are admirable; our ineptitude and stupidity are exasperating. So I’ve been trying to understand why we have been so slow and done so little to correct the environmental crisis into which we are inexorably moving. I’m updating a selection of the 544 previous columns for a book that will, perhaps, provide some useful insights. That will be the direction of my writing in the immediate future. As for later, I seem to have become a writer so I’ll find something to write. As for Shades of Green, thanks for being a reader.