Are a new generation of urban chic environmentalists afraid to tackle the tough issues?
What ever happened to the environmental movement in Canada? Once upon a time they used to take on tough issues and fought the big oil companies, big polluters, whale hunters and such. I vividly recall images of them chaining themselves to hundred year old trees in the rain soaked Clayoquot Sound to help save this precious forest. They used to board rickety vessels and head out to sea in an attempt to stop the whale hunt. So just where have all these true environmentalists gone?
Today, we have the nouveaux urban chic environmentalists who are more concerned with symbolism, than tackling the big issues that can have real long-term effects on the environment. We've all seen what I dub the Symbolic Environmentalist Movement (SEM) at work in our major cities.
In Vancouver, SEM has all but abandoned the notion of taking on the NIMBYs in low density single family neighbourhoods. Surely they must realize that the single biggest thing they can do to help the environment and protect green space in urban areas is to support increased densities. Despite knowing this, SEM has been almost mute on the subject. Could the fact that supporting higher densities would be seen as an attack on the very base of financial support that helps keep SEM alive?
It doesn't matter which major city you look at in Canada, but SEM is now in the drivers seat. They have councils convinced they should spend their limited resources battling bottled water or planting vegetable gardens on boulevards. The latest venture taking hold is the imposition of a new tax on plastic bags.
In Toronto, they are about to impose a 5 cent tax on plastic bags. SEM hopes that by taxing the bags, they will be able to reduce the overall number that make there way to our landfill. You can bet this SEM project will get a lot of media attention, but whether it will have a major environmental impact is doubtful.
But that doesn't seem to matter to SEM. They argue these "symbolic" gestures will help us all better understand the impact we are having on the environment.
The following is an interesting excerpt from the official Toronto website explaining the 5 cent plastic bag tax:
Retailers are entitled to keep the money received from the plastic bag charge, the money is not remitted to the City of Toronto. While the City does not stipulate what retailers should do with this money, it does support reinvesting the funds in local environmental or community-based initiatives.
Again, if the City of Toronto were truly interested in tackling environmental issues, why have they decided not to use those funds to support a new curbside composting program? Why are they giving the revenue to retailers to help plump up their bottom line? Such is the nuttiness of the SEM.
In Metro Vancouver it is estimated that we will lose hundreds of acres of green space and farmland over the next decade due to urban sprawl. As for water bottles, they comprise less than one-fifth of one percent of the municipal waste stream. Such is the nuttiness of the SEM.
My colleague Mike Klassen wrote an excellent piece about how complicated the recycling system is in the Metro Vancouver area. Used paint goes to one depot, old computers to another. It's a real hodgepodge system that discourages citizens from disposing of their waste in an environmentally friendly manner.
Wouldn't SEM's efforts be better spent lobbying government to fix this basic problem, rather than chasing higher profile and media friendly issues like banning water bottles or plastic bags? The problem is that fixing the recycling system may have a bigger environmental impact, but it simply won't garner the same kind of headlines that help generate large donations which are essential if SEM is to remain financially sustainable.
If the "real" environmental movement were serious about working with cities to curb pollution and greenhouse gases, they would be using all of their resources educating the public about the benefits of denser cities. They would regularly be making presentations to local councils on why increased density in urban cores is a key strategy to relieving the pressure on scarce farmland and green space. But they are not.
You'll never hear me argue that water bottles are good for the environment. That's why I don't purchase them. Are plastic bags my preferred option? No, my family has chosen cloth bags instead.
What I'm trying to get across is that SEM and it's various campaigns to tax this or ban that could actually have a long-term negative impact on the environment. That's because unlike their forefathers in the environmental movement, they appear less willing to get their hands dirty on an issue that may cause major controversy, but reap massive environmental rewards.
What do you think?