The Callous Environmentalist

My latest column – about why environmentalists just don’t care about anyone but themselves.

by Jesse Ferreras, Pique Newsmagazine

November 13, 2010

The Prosperity Mine was rejected last week. It was a gold-copper project by Taseko Mines Ltd. that was projected to bring hundreds of jobs to B.C.’s depressed Cariboo-Chilcotin region.

It came with a major cost. It would have required the draining of Fish Lake to accommodate a tailings pond. The lake was sacred to the Tsilhqot’in National Government, who worried that populations of fish could not be replicated. The feds shot down the mine over concerns detailed in an environmental assessment that the mine could irrevocably alter the area’s biodiversity.

With the news that the feds wouldn’t allow it, my Twitter feed lit up like a burning forest with environmentalists singing praise to Gaia. “We won,” some of them said. “Please RT,” they begged. The feds had done the “right thing,” said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

The reaction tells you something very clearly: environmentalists don’t care about people’s survival.

It’s easy to be an environmentalist in a place like Whistler. It’s a beautiful location surrounded by mountains and trees, where locals have escaped the hustle of city life and can get by with only part-time jobs. You’d have to be blind and very stupid not to appreciate the bounty that nature has bestowed here.

It is therefore easy to be blinded to the consequences of environmental advocacy – protests and criticisms that would like to see no impacts from mining, an end to all oil sands development and reliance on a magic fuel that produces neither emissions nor intermittent energy.

The consequence of such activity is, perhaps, a lower impact on the environment – but it’s also poverty and desperation for people who work in those industries.

Look back to Cariboo-Chilcotin for a second. The rejection of the mine could be disastrous for people who live there. Communities like Williams Lake have long struggled due to declines in the logging industry, and the Prosperity Mine could have alleviated that problem.

Families employed in forestry are no longer bringing in income for food, shelter and clothing, and now they have no new means to support themselves. Young people, having no economic activity to turn to, could get bored, turn to drugs and end up in trouble with the law in the city.

These are things that don’t occur to environmentalists. They lament images of smokestacks using the sky as a waste bin. What never occurs to them are images of shivering families standing in line at a soup kitchen. As Thomas Paine wrote, they pity the plumage and they forget the dying bird.

I see a similar callousness in opponents of Canada’s oil sands. Organizations like Greenpeace and the Dogwood Initiative make it their mission to stop development in the sands, the prime economic driver in the Province of Alberta and a contributor of hundreds upon millions of dollars in tax revenue.

It is indeed a project with heavy environmental impacts. There are tailing ponds that can be seen from outer space and stacks that burn methane to produce carbon dioxide. It’s better than letting CH4 leech into the atmosphere but there’s no denying the impact that can have.

But beyond their impacts, the oil sands are a kind of multi-limbed monster with tentacles that stretch into every orifice of Alberta’s economy. They put food on people’s tables; they put roofs over people’s heads.

A cup of coffee at Starbucks, for example, comes from a teenager whose father works at Husky. A meal at McDonald’s is perhaps bought by a university student, interning at a law firm whose clients are mostly Syncrude executives. A hammer gets bought from Home Hardware by a worker from Fort McMurray who can now afford to put shingles on his home.

And yet environmentalists want the sands shut down, completely unconscious and uncaring about the residual impacts that would have on indirect jobs. That’s perhaps because they’re not thinking about the money they could make advising these companies on sustainable initiatives.

We should feel lucky here that we all work in industries that don’t produce much environmental impact. I work at the newspaper, where our profits come from advertising by local businesses. These businesses, in turn, derive their revenue from tourists and employees of a resort company that runs on green electricity. It could well be that oil executives visit our resort too, but that’s beside the point here.

What’s important to note is that our economy depends not on a mine, or a mill, or an oil deposit. And because of that we lose sight of what it takes for other communities to keep going. Smaller communities beyond our view need to take advantage of resources because they don’t have nearly the aesthetic beauty nor the attractants that would allow it to run as a sustainable tourism economy.

And when they have nothing to keep them working, like in Williams Lake, we should perhaps not be so callous.

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About jesseferreras

Sea to Sky-based journalist. Snowboarder, cyclist, cinephile, bon vivant.
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One Response to The Callous Environmentalist

  1. Dan says:

    The ‘magic fuel’ you’re referring to is called Lithium Borohydride (or perhaps its cousin, Sodium Borohydride).

    No, really. Not to sound like some sort of wide-eyed n00b, but the fuel* you’re talking about exists, and though it’s probably quite a ways away from being adopted, it will eventually be the only real option: it can be used in a closed-loop cell without high pressure and is not substantially toxic (IIRC, it is caustic, though). Furthermore, in the meantime it can be used in an open-loop cell as a hydrogen store, in conjunction with developing hydrogen (i.e. water as the only waste emission) technologies.

    *’fuel’ and ‘energy source’ are different things. Gasoline is a fuel. Oil is an energy source. Gasoline is effectively impossible to manufacture from scratch, while LiBH4 can be made by anyone with a clean environment and the appropriate precursors (and safety gear, of course). The key point being that with LiBH4, the waste (‘exhaust’) material is roughly the same volume and weight as the fuel, and can be re-reacted back into its ‘fuel’ form using energy from renewable sources (LFTR/Molten Salt Reactors, for instance. But that is another conversation.).

    Sorry for the rant, and feel free to dispel any BS I may have let colour my comments above. I am certainly not a chemist, nor have I even taken Organic Chem, but the reason I didn’t take it was because it was the worst weeder course at UBC, not because I wasn’t interested in it.

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