On apathy and obstinate anti environmentalism

Apathy about the state of the environment is a serious problem in our country.

Apathy about the state of the environment is a serious problem in our country. Canadians may agree in a very general sense that the environment should be protected for future generations, but vast numbers of us seem stubbornly unwilling to spend a cent or lift a finger to do so.

Pollsters have found that the environment ranks low in the hierarchy of political priorities of Canadians. A poll conducted by Abacus Data back in August found that only 23 per cent of Canadians listed the environment as one of their top three concerns, below health care (51 per cent), job creation (34 per cent), taxes (32 per cent), debt/deficit (29 per cent) and accountability and trust (25 per cent).

Canadians have eschewed bold ideas to make our lives more sustainable.

Stephane Dion and the Liberal Party’s purportedly revenue neutral “green shift” – that sought to tax carbon dioxide emissions while reducing taxes elsewhere – was a political dud. Dion’s opponents dubbed it a “tax on everything” and his successor did everything he could to distance himself from it.

The green shift was probably the most politically toxic policy proposal of the last decade. No doubt this was, in part, a result of Dion’s poor salesmanship and a lingering distrust of his party, but these factors alone cannot explain the failure of the policy.

On a smaller scale, the debate over recycling in the Yukon these past months is another example.

While there was a backlash against the decision of Raven Recycling to refuse non-refundable recyclables, it was of insufficient magnitude to get the government to act quickly to prevent that from happening. Moreover, if Internet comments are a gauge of anything, a surprising number of Yukoners were content to see Raven Recycling shut its door. After all, as they see it, recycling is a “choice,” a “service” that users should pay for, rather than an obligation to one another and the planet. Recycling depots, so the argument goes, should sink or swim on the basis of market principles.

The debate then shifted to the City of Whitehorse’s proposed curbside pickup.

There can certainly be legitimate debate about the city “crowding out” the Blue Bin Recycling Society, and the imposition of an additional fee on those who already happily bring in their own recycling. There are also questions about why a city with a full time “sustainability manager” still needs to hire an Outside consultant at a cost of $100,000 to “design” a curbside recycling program.

But it seems likely that curbside recycling would increase the number of people who recycle. There are many Yukoners who simply can’t be bothered to recycle if it means loading up their recyclables and driving downtown.

Speaking anecdotally there have been number of times I have intervened and taken on other people’s recycling – even people my own age – before it ended up in the garbage because they “can’t be bothered.” But perhaps, if it were as easy as putting a bin out on the curb, more would participate, diverting more garbage from the landfill and negating the need to extract more raw materials from the planet.

But the reaction to the proposal has been hostile. Many Yukoners simply do not want to see any further expansion of government, even on an issue where coordinated social action is required. One online commenter went so far as to promise that his/her recycling would “continue to go into the gray garbage cans every other week.”

What end could possibly be served by this type of obstinate anti-environmentalism? And why are young adults – with children of their own – who have a stake in the health of our planet for the better part of the 21st century so indifferent to this issue?

It is well known by social scientists that humans as a species are horrible at evaluating risk. This is why we’re terrified about our children being abducted by strangers (a statistically unlikely occurrence) but feed our children too much high fructose corn syrup and trans fats, thereby setting them on a path to obesity and diabetes. Dramatic, highly visible dangers that manifest themselves suddenly have our attention, but we have a tendency to ignore detrimental phenomena that occur slowly as a result of cumulative actions.

Environmental damage is an interesting mix of the two.

Environmental activists have had some success motivating people when they focus on the supply side of the equation. The highly visible and immediate consequences of resource extraction – such as a new clearcut or a tailings pond near someone’s back yard – do often spark successful resistance. This is why a number of pipeline projects – the Northern Gateway, Trans Mountain, and Keystone XL – are encountering difficulties.

Where environmentalists have had less success is on the demand side: in getting people as individuals to recognize the long-term consequences of our patterns of consumption. In a way, throwing a can in the garbage today is like eating a donut or drinking a cola. The action seems so far removed from the consequences that we often don’t even appreciate the connection and, even if we do, continually defer changing our behaviour to tomorrow. The link between the throwing a tin can in the garbage and the necessity of a new mine, like the link between eating a donut and developing diabetes, is so remote that we scarcely see it.

We can only hope that we recognize environmental degradation for the long term danger that it is before it is too late.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.