Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Log 383: Concordia students mobilizing a big effort against climate change for a small likely result

English: Hall Building and McConnell Library B...
Concordia University, Hall Building and McConnell Library Building, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Dhaka (Photo credit: eGuide Travel)
The first articles I wrote having to do with the environment were in 1958, for The Montreal Star. The series was about Pollution, a subject that was so little known at the time that I was advised to assume no one knew anything about it.
It was then I discovered that the Ottawa river was a cesspool into which every small and large town along  its banks poured its raw sewage --- totally untreated.
It was exactly 30 at that time, and for the next half-century or so I kept at it, writing books, pamphlets and making films about the various ways in which human beings have worked to destroy the beautiful Earth on which we live.
Environmentalists now are a major force in almost every country in the world, but I have become more or less convinced along the way that the battle we have all been so earnestly fighting is one that we cannot expect to win. We are opposing the combined forces of the world’s wealth-owners, the corporations they own and direct, and the goverments they control.
It’s  a good fight, and it is probably worth keeping at it, simply for the minor victories we can win from time to time. Occsionally a more enlightened government has been elected here and there that passes legislation that temporarily makes things better. But eventually  that government has been replaced by a government  of the Barbarians, and they have enthusiastically begun to strip away the defences previously erected.
This is by way of introduction to a piece about a lecture I attended last night, a lecture  given by a 26-year-old student of Concordia University in Montreal, to a tiny audience of moslty grey-headed people, who, like me, have never lost that last smidgen of residual hope that a better day could be around the corner.
The lecture was part of a series running throughout the winter by a group called Citizens in Action, organized by a Concordia lecturer called Nadia Alexan, a woman with a European background, I believe. The subject of the lecture was “”Divestment from Fossil Fuel Industries”  which is thought to be essential on a broad scale throughout our society if the worst effects of the growing crisis of climate change are to be avoided.
The lecturer was Anthony Garoufalis Auger, and I have to say that his presentation was excellent, his argument crystal clear, and his facts indisputable. He spoke about the coalition formed by students to persuade the university’s governing board of the need to divest from its investment in companies dealing in dirty forms of energy, because these are contributing to the growing impact of climate change.
When it was over I had two or three thoughts which I did not bother to express duiring the question and answer period, because they were slightly irrelevant to the subject.
 First, was the small scale of the intervention that  the Coalition is demanding. Concordia University has an investment fund of about $100 million, made up of contributions from alumni and other sources. But only $11 million of this is invested in energy companies. So the huge mobilizing job that the students are confronting as they gear up for their great confrontation is all being directed towards a scale of action that, placed against the total of investment in energy, is almost laughably tiny.
Nevertheless a young woman student who was in the audience made a very eloquent case for the proposed action: it was necessary, she said, for people to accept their responsibility for their contribution to the coming climate change, and to work to change such things as are open to them to change.  I could not argue with that, but it left me wondering, all the same, whether so much energy as they were mobilizing could not have been better expended on a bigger target.
It made me think of what I wrote some weeks ago about an excellent film I saw which deplored the impersonality of the modern megalopolis and investigated ways in which to overcome that particular disadvantage of modern life. In that film they dealt with many cities, including Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where they applied the criteria they had established in other cities as they tried to work out what could best be done. In fact they had nothing positive to report from Dhaka, but what struck me forcefully was that they had not even mentioned over-population as a contributory factor in the problems of Bangladesh. Put together with last night’s concentration of immense effort for very little result, it made me wonder whether this has not, perhaps, become a mark of the environmental movement, the expenditure of immense energy to very little result.
I did not want to rain on the young man’s parade: he didn’t deserve that. And in any case, some other members of the audience contributed enough dissentient opinion to do for one evening, especially one advocate of nuclear energy, which he claimed was the best answer to the production of clean energy. How anyone with his eyes open could believe that astonishes me, in face of the by now well-known drastic and widespread damage caused when a nuclear power station does blow up.
A second thought I carried away came as a consequence of one of the older audience members quoting to the young man some of the results obtained by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute that he founded in 1982. What was striking was that the young man had never heard of Lovins, who, when I was involved in this issue forty years ago was the boy-wonder of the environmental movement. He is now 65, but he has been active ever since, and his Institute --- built according to the best environmental standards so that it needs none of the usual energy inputs  to keep it ticking over --- has recently been advising President Obama that the United States already has the technology to beat the climate change challenge. In just one of their many surprising claims, they say that more efficient use of energy alone could save 44 per cent of projected 2050 electricity needs, at lower cost. That is not so surprising to me, because I remember forty years back when the Cree of James Bay were battling the Hydro-Quebec takeover of their lands, an energy consulting company in New York produced a report for them claiming that if only Quebec would get serious about improving efficiency of the use of energy by building refits and the like, none of the James Bay power was even needed. But it did make me wonder if all the energy the Concordia students are pouring into diverting $11 million from energy investment might not be better employed in pressing for more efficient use of the energy they are presently using.
I can’t help ending this piece by quoting one of Lovins’s most pithy statements. “Economics,” he said in one speech I heard him deliver, “is a form of brain disease.”
And so say all of us.
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