How did it come to this?

Have you been to Beijing? I was there a year ago for a short visit. It was an amazing experience. We visited the regular tourist spots and wandered the hutongs, but my lasting impressions are the stark contrasts of wealth and poverty side by side along the streets; bicycles and carts sharing the road with BMWs; shanty town dwellings and shabby apartments next to 5 star hotels and boutique shops; and the air pollution. It was bad – really bad. The air everywhere smelled of burnt rubber.  I could taste the air and my eyes stung. We could barely see across the street and the sun was just an orange orb in the afternoon sky – and that was on a good day. It can be worse, much worse I am told. So how is this our problem and why should we care?

Well it is our problem. Recent studies show that up to 25% of the air pollution and particulates on the west coast of North America originate from China. (Pollution from China).We are breathing this stuff now. The inescapable fact is we are all connected across this planet through global meteorology, biodiversity and ecosystem functions. However, our economic system, run by old-school economists and politicians, treat these as external to the economic process and have no consequence, (not apparent to them yet).  Our economic system is predicated on exploiting and destroying the natural world. The more natural capital and resources we convert to cash the better the GDP.  So we continue to push our  trade with China (and others) by expanding our export of carbon in the form of various fossil fuels (coal, oil, bitumen, LNG) for short-term gain with long-term consequences. We are literally spitting into the wind.

They have the demand and we have the product. It is in the national interest we are told. It is  economics 101- simple isn’t it?  Not so. There will come a day – and it is actually starting to happen now – when these falsehoods  will catch up to us when runaway environmental calamities will have a direct cost to the economies of the world. Insurance companies are making calculations now to determine the increased cost due to extreme and more frequent weather events. The tiny South Pacific island nation of Kiribati has asked for refuge status in neighbouring countries as they can see their island and homes disappearing on the rising sea level. Most of us are not yet experiencing these impacts directly, but we will. As I finish this article, the Vancouver Sun reports that the acidification of our own marine waters has now led to the collapse of our shellfish industry off the east coast of Vancouver Island. (scallop die off)

The global reduction of biodiversity has been described as a train wreck in ultra slow motion. It is happening, we just can’t see it.  The interconnected ecosystems are collapsing and the chaos that is arising could overwhelm the planet and change or create new ecological niches that humans are incapable of adapting to. Many species will succumb to this rapid change. Disruption of food production, mass human displacement and migration and ecosystem collapse across the planet will ultimately impact us. For instance, ocean acidification, warming and changing ocean currents, and loss of vast forests could alter life on this planet as we know it and potentially even alter the composition of the air we breathe.  Imagine the slow dwindling of our oxygen supply as the oceans die. (Ocean acidification) (ocean quick facts)   This is not beyond the realm of possibility.  Scientists and anyone with a conscience has to be worried about the future of our great-grandchildren. 

Yet, our economic system continues unabated and oblivious to this.  It keeps chugging along as if everything is okay, pumping billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, exploiting species to extinction, spewing  pollution across the globe – and damn it aren’t we living the good life and don’t dare do anything to interfere with or challenge that.

How did it come to this? We let it happen because we are trapped in this archaic economic system with a National Energy Policy that is dependent upon and promotes the continued expansion of oil.  We have not yet experienced the consequences, but when we do and wake up to the disaster awaiting us, it may be too late.  This is not to say we don’t need the jobs and economic advancement, we do; but we must do it differently for the benefit of all and for the planet that we depend on in order to create a truly sustainable world. There is hope, however, as some progressive thinking economists are proposing a different economic system such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that recognizes human needs, values our natural capital and adds a cost to pollution.  Utopia?  Maybe – but we have to try because we are all in this hand basket together and I don’t like the destination.

More on this and related topics as I organize my thoughts.


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