Choosing to Value a Sustainable Life
February 11, 2009 by
Filed under Alberta, Blog, Books, British Columbia, Canada, Carbon, Climate Change, Economy, Environment, Front Page, Greenhouse Gases, Natural Resources, Oil, Rainforest, Slideshow, Sustainability, Writers
Yesterday we introduced you to author James Glave, a very down-to-earth, environmentalist who is working to reduce his family’s carbon footprint. He is also active in his community, helping to not only spread the environmental message, but also to make the island he lives on more sustainable. In today’s post, Glave talks about pressing environmental issues that confront both his own community and Canada at large.
BPGL: Let’s talk a bit about Bowen Island. Have most of the families been on the island for generations?
GLAVE: There are certainly a core of what we call “old Bowen.” They’ve been here for a few decades at least. The population in the early 1970s was probably just a few hundred people. It would be hard, now that we’re 3,500, to find a lot of those original folks around still. In the past few years, it’s become kind of a jewel for young families like mine. There’s a pretty good elementary school here on the island. Both my kids go there.
There’s just a very, very strong sense of community and connectedness here. That’s one of our real strengths in terms of what we offer. The downside is, you have to take that ferry. But that’s the upside as well, because it’s allowed us to form these very tight community ties. There’s a very strong volunteer base. Everybody knows each other and helps each other out when they need help.
It’s a mixed blessing as well, though. I’ve written about that in Vancouver magazine. In that we are “rural,” that means our carbon footprint is much higher, because we’re so much farther apart from each other. And also the ferry as well has to be factored in. Compared to an exurb or an outlying community of the Vancouver area, we are many times larger a footprint than those.
So we have to make some hard choices about what aspects of the quality and the character we want to preserve, and how we can, at the same time, live more responsibly and start to densify a little bit more around our village, so that we’re not quite dependent on our pickups and SUVs.
BPGL: It seems that you have been an impetus for people on Bowen Island to make environmentally sound choices.
GLAVE: I would hope so. There’s the thought that when you do something inspiring, it has a domino effect. I’m starting to see more excitement around the issues, and more of an engagement, more of a connectedness with — “Okay, we’ve got to buckle down and get to work here.” So it’s really exciting to see the pockets of that starting to come out.
It’s all in how you approach it. I really struggled with some of the “environmental” NGOs and nonprofits that have, for so many years, spoken to us in a way that it’s so easy to turn off or tune out. It’s such a fine line between getting people excited and coming on too strong, or with the wrong voice or the wrong tone. I call it “tone fail.” It’s like standing on a box and yelling. People just don’t respond to it. That whole chapter [in Almost Green: How I Saved 1/6th of a Billionth of the Planet] about me trying to figure out how to talk to my neighbors kind of comes off of that.
BPGL: We echo that at Blue Planet Green Living. We try to inspire, rather than beat people up. It’s not that you can’t ever say anything negative, but people do turn off.
GLAVE: You just can’t force it on people. You have to let them come to it. And you have to be there, when they’re ready to start making some changes, with support and encouragement. It’s kind of frustrating, being a Type A, driven guy like me, who’s just all about making it happen. It’s very hard for me to step back and say, “Okay. I have to recognize that it’s just not going to work if I try to shove it down people’s throats.”
BPGL: What’s your next big project?
GLAVE: I’ve got a few things that are still fermenting, but nothing that’s ready to be announced yet. It would involve taking my audience and this platform up a notch. I need to do something that feels big. That was the purpose of doing the Eco-Shed. The time for incrementalism is past. We need bold moves and fearless thinking. And that is where I am right now, and what I’m cooking up at this point — something along those lines.
BPGL: We all need to be more bold in what we’re doing to help the environment.
GLAVE: It’s really about a values shift. I think, with the new president in place, that we’re in a better position now than we have been in a decade or more, to start to create a culture around different values, and a culture around science. These are things that have been down in the dumps. As a civilization, we’ve become obsessed with distraction. Millions of us have taken our eye off the ball.
I’m quite optimistic now. I feel like we’re entering a renaissance age where we’re going to see some pretty amazing transformational change start to happen. Maybe it does start with my kids’ lunchbox and doing just what I can on a daily level. I feel like we’re on the brink of this complete transformation of how we do things — how we shop, how we eat. It’s quite encouraging. Let’s just hope that it all unspools in time.
BPGL: You mentioned to me earlier that you have some environmental concerns about Canada.
GLAVE: I wish I was encouraged. Canada is a risk-averse society. It’s a very conservative culture in terms of not wanting to take gambles or make bold moves. I hate to make sweeping generalizations about my whole nation, but since I’ve lived in both [the U.S. and Canada], it’s kind of a sharp distinction for me. At the moment, [Canada] has not descended as deeply into recession as the United States has. And the reason for that is the Athabasca Oil Sands.
In Northern Alberta, they’re strip mining the top surface of the Taiga Forest to extract the oil that’s locked up in the sand. And the process of doing that is enormously emissions intensive. It’s the single largest greenhouse gas source in the whole country. The Oil Sands are the economic engine that’s keeping Canada above that line. At what cost, though?
There’s a feeling that, whenever times start to get hard and recession’s coming, there isn’t the sort of the belief that “Green is the answer.” It’s “We’re going to get a stimulus package as well. It’s going to bail out the automakers, as well.” But I don’t see the same kind of leadership that I’m seeing out of the States right now. I’m hopeful, but we haven’t seen how it’s going to unfold yet.
There’s a tremendous conservatism and there’s a feeling, “The environment is something we can worry about when times are good. If times are going to be hard now, we’ve got to pull back from all that stuff and focus on what really matters.” So, I have some reservations, and I would have to see how it’s going to unspool.
BPGL: Does the pollution from the Oil Sands affect you directly?
GLAVE: It affects all of us. It’s not pollution in the sense of billowing clouds of black smoke. The process is, they take this goop out of the ground, and they cook it under a natural gas flame. They extract the oil from it. So, before the oil even gets to your gas tank to be burned in your car, it’s already, in its creation, created many, many times the carbon emissions of conventional oil that’s drilled and pumped out of the ground.
It’s an extremely destructive process that creates an enormous amount of tailings of waste, of water that’s unusable. It’s destroying an area of the province of Alberta that is literally the size of some U.S. states. It’s a scale that’s hard to get your head around. I don’t personally see it, and not many people do. It’s in a very out-of-the-way place. But I know that there’s gigatons of greenhouse gases going up from those operations. Every time I get in my car, I’m part of the problem.
It’s a real head scratcher. It’s a real puzzle about how we’re going to get that operation shut down. It may be that the Obama administration starts to put restrictions on oil that’s produced with such intensive means. And that may lessen demand for the project.
BPGL: Is the U.S. market the biggest demand for oil from that project?
GLAVE: The vast majority of the United States’ oil is now coming from Canada. Saudi Arabia is now a distant second behind Canada in terms of oil imports. Obama’s first state visit out of the country will be to Canada, and I think that’s why. It’s an extremely important part of the energy and security strategy for the foreseeable future. We’ve got to come up with a plan B — and fast.
BPGL: How well is Vancouver coming up to speed on environmental issues overall?
GLAVE: We have a very active environmental community here. The David Suzuki Foundation is here, which is an extremely active national organization. Greenpeace was founded here in Vancouver as an organization and is still very active. There’s a lot of great work being done in protecting rainforest here in British Columbia coast. The Great Bear Rainforest is an absolutely massive, massive tract of rainforest that’s being protected. Likewise the Boreal Forest across the Northern Shield and the bottom edge of the Arctic.
We have a great history here of taking care of things. But at the same time, I think we’re easily distracted by the almighty dollar. And right now, Alberta is a black stain on an otherwise pretty decent reputation. It’s driving our failure to create any kind of climate change policy. Things need to turn around, but there’s a good history there for them to do that.
BPGL: With your power in your pen — or your computer— you could possibly have an effect on all that. You may have one of your biggest challenges right next door.
GLAVE: I certainly feel that. I feel it acutely. I’ve been working on it a little bit. There’s a really funny website called DeSmogBlog, which was set up to debunk climate change denial. It’s really taken on the Oil Sands project full force. I’ve done some writing for them around that. They have a pretty tongue-in-cheek campaign called the Arctic Front, where they get people in polar bear suits to show up at political events and hold signs about the Oil Sands and such. It’s starting to get a reputation outside of Canada. People are starting to figure out what’s going on up there. We really need that international pressure, so I’m going to hopefully be a part of that.
BPGL: I saw on your blog where the community has been engaged in discussion over a proposed artificial-turf athletic field. It sounds like there’s quite a battle going on in Bowen.
GLAVE: It’s such a convoluted and contentious issue. It’s splintered friendships here. Husbands and wives have been arguing about it pretty fiercely. It’s a deeply emotional issue, because it cuts across the grain of our identity, our sense of self.
People came here to escape things like artificial-turf soccer fields. They deliberately tried to unplug from some things that might be considered suburban infrastructure. But the fact is that our island is growing, and there’s new people arriving. And those new people love the island the way it is and want to keep it that way; but they also want some new things to do as well.
BPGL: Your rationale for supporting the field, which you explained in your article “Turf War,” is that trekking to the mainland for sports has a much greater carbon footprint than installing a single artificial turf field.
GLAVE: My position on it is that we have to reduce our carbon emissions. It’s non negotiable. The more things that we can provide for our community here within walking distance of our village, where we don’t have to keep rushing around all over the place, the smaller our footprint is going to be. It’s as simple as that.
So, when you look at the pieces of what I call a complete community — Are there opportunities for people to live and work here? Are there lots of service businesses? Do we have, basically, all of the pieces that we need to become more self sufficient? — to me, the tradeoff is worth it on that front.
And it’s ironic, because here’s the guy who wants to get the plastic out of his kids’ lunchbox. But when I do the math, and I look at the positives and negatives — with the savings of minivans’ worth of families going back and forth every Saturday from October to March — to me, it just makes sense. It’s kind of a no-brainer. There are places where plastic is a reasonable choice, and this, for me, is one of them.
GLAVE: Often, I get asked the question, “How can I make a difference? I’m just one person — or just one family. Every action I do is canceled out by something going on in China…”
I think what’s happening, or needs to happen is a values shift. I spoke about the values shift earlier. I think, what we’re seeing in that sense is not necessarily just about, “I value time with my family more,” or “I value cleaner air,” or “I value purer water.” These things are all kind of the baseline.
But what needs to happen is, we need as Americans and Canadians to take our lives off autopilot. We’ve been living this existence of our daily routine where we get locked into it. Our lives are busy, maybe we have kids, or maybe we have other obligations, parents to take care of, and we’re exhausted and feel stretched too thin. These are all symptoms to me of a sort of a life in imbalance.
And if there is one message I hope people take away from my book, it’s just to get engaged with your life. Think deliberately. Figure out how you can change some things in a small way that makes you feel good, makes you feel like you’re making a difference. Then just see if you can build on that.
Part 2: Choosing to Value a Sustainable Life (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)