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    Archive for April, 2024

    Earth Day brings together what matters

    “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
    There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
    There is society where none intrudes,
    By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
    I love not Man the less, but Nature more”

    Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage 

    “We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features . . . the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” 

     —Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

    When, years ago, I visited the surrounding land and swam in Walden Pond, not far from Concord, Massachusetts and made famous by Henry David Thoreau, who went to live there in a small cabin in 1845, I had already read Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which describes his stay there over a period of two years. I had time to reflect on where I was going as I cycled there from Boston, and felt that I was approaching a sacred place. Oddly, there was no one else there, and I was pleased to find the water clean and inviting.

    I had known since the age of 15, when I had first read Walden and Thoreau’s other writings, including On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, that I could trust his deep connection to Nature. He had built his cabin from repurposed and found materials, all for the grand sum of $28.12½ (equivalent to $938 today). I have tried to emulate his handiness and quest for living a simple life. I have never felt happier than when being with people in the tropics who do not have a door to their dwelling.

    Walden Pond hasn’t changed since Thoreau was there, though the trees are broader and higher. I’m not alone in my praise or in taking a pilgrimage to Walden Pond, as thousands have come too. His sojourn there was an inspiration for the world to cherish Earth. 

    The renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote a letter to Thoreau more than a century later. He imagined the two of them a-sauntering through the woods and spoke of his gratitude for Thoreau’s presence in a prologue to his book The Future of Life. He even invited Thoreau to join him and a hundred others at Walden Pond on July 4, 1998 for the first Biodiversity Day (sometimes called a BioBlitz, in which local people and scientists try to find and document all the forms of life in a small area of land and water).

    He also sang Thoreau’s praises as the “founding saint of the conservation movement,” and wrote, “a lake is the eye of the world through which—your metaphor—we can measure our own souls.”

    Wilson believed that giving young people an interactive set of discussions on biology would foster a deeper love for Nature. His free 7-unit, 41-chapter multimedia work E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, written for high school students, is remarkable. You can download the series from the iBooks Store. As an example, the description of cells is astonishing, and to see one magnified 10,000 times took my breath away. Such beauty. We are taken into the multi-faceted interlocking parts of the cell. We see how a cell lives. This series certainly helps us celebrate Nature’s wonders.

    All of this brings me to the celebrations, protests, concerts, lectures, films and poetry gatherings that started in 1970 for Earth Day—a grassroots initiative that has become the world’s largest secular holiday, and that for many of us has expanded into Earth Week. Earth Day itself falls on April 22, but many times it’s scheduled to take place on the weekend before or after a mid-week April 22 to enable more people to attend. The official theme for 2024 is Planet vs. Plastics.

    The deadly effect of plastics for humans and other animals is well known, so highlighting the UN negotiations on substantially curbing plastics on such a recognized global event as Earth Day makes sense. The UN negotiators are at last moving ahead with a global plastics treaty. Their fourth session starts in Ottawa this coming week.

    This weekend the Center for Biological Diversity and others in the Break Free From Plastic movement will rally to remind the negotiators what’s at stake: human rights, public health, the climate, and the environment.

    “We need to ensure that we use, reuse, and recycle resources more efficiently. And dispose safely of what is left over. And use these negotiations to hone a sharp and incisive instrument to carve out a better future, free from plastic pollution,” said Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme Inger Andersen.

    You can learn more about Earth Day at

    Having a day or a week to meditate on appreciating as well as protecting our wonderful planet is clearly not enough. There are many internationally designated theme days that should also be contemplated, including, to name a few that many have taken part in, World Water Day, World Wetlands Day, World Environment Day, World Population Day, International Day of Forests, Amphibian Week, World Oceans Day, World Frog Day, World Rainforest Day, and International Day for Biological Diversity. These events are meant to educate us into becoming activists for protecting our Earth, and the global north needs to take particular notice.

    Earth Day celebrates our enfolding commitment to Earth. Is Earth Day, then, the binding of all the above celebratory days, and the centre of our love for life on Earth? Many say that Earth Day is every day. Let’s make it so. 

    Global North off the charts and tone-deaf to Nature’s plea for help

    “High-income countries use six times more materials per capita and are responsible for ten times more climate impacts per capita than low-income countries.”

    Global Resources Outlook 2024

    Besides the usual musical definition of “tone-deaf” there is this one: “Having or showing an obtuse insensitivity or lack of perception particularly in matters of public sentiment, opinion, or taste.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary

    Jubilation followed the news that a biodiverse and fecund cold-water coral reef off the coast of British Columbia had been discovered by Indigenous people and that another reef had been discovered near the Galápagos Islands. Calls to immediately protect the areas received support. At a time when warming oceans are harbingers of coral bleaching, any good news gets its rightful share of publicity, but is it enough?

    A concatenation of ongoing Earth crises is upon us, but not because the warnings haven’t been voiced. Governments have been swayed by corporate money instead of being clarion voices for their own peoples’ wellbeing.

    More than a century after Eunice Newton Foote recognized and articulated the greenhouse effect in 1856 (something that has often wrongly been attributed to John Tyndall), the oil companies’ scientists realized that there is long-term danger from burning fossil fuels, which increases the temperature not only in the atmosphere but also in the ocean. They kept this knowledge from the public because they wanted to maximize profits.

    In 1985 the astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan laid out before the US government the coming existential crisis that humanity would face if greenhouse gases were not urgently curtailed in the coming decades.

    Sagan called for all nations to act together on a plan to combat the rise of emissions so that future generations could flourish. The eminent climate scientist James Hanson, testifying in 1988 in front of Congress, basically said the same thing.

    In 1989, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first popular book on the perils of increasing climate warming. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit helped to cement the relationship between Earth systems, economics and political engagement, and the resulting Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed by most countries, including the United States, and the landmark accord was the first global treaty to explicitly address climate change.

    In 1992 some 1,700 leading scientists signed a letter of warning asking for immediate action “if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” More than 15,000 scientists endorsed a second warning 27 years later, declaring a climate emergency and detailing the need to limit the human population and reduce the per capita consumption of meat and, amongst other resources, fossil fuels. The 2006 climate documentary based on Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth reached millions of people and helped launch the climate movement. 

    Even though humanity has witnessed the multifaceted catastrophes brought on by rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, there is no enforceable treaty in sight to reduce these emissions. Take methane, for example. Although it is a much shorter-lived gas than carbon dioxide, its potency to heat up the planet is many times greater. Aggressively reducing its emissions can give us some drastically needed time to focus on carbon dioxide.

    However, although nations have pledged to reduce methane, the vast majority do not accurately report their emissions statistics to the UN. What emerges is a potpourri of estimates and downright lies. “Satellite data analysed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows methane emissions from oil and gas fields globally are around 70 percent higher than governments claim, mainly because of unreported leaks and flaring.” From Turkmenistan to the US and Canada, there is a great deal of cheating.

    How can the UN finally call out the industries that have not curtailed emissions? Enter the MethaneSAT satellite, which can pinpoint where all the methane is coming from and hold governments and corporations accountable by “ushering in a new era of climate transparency and accountability.”

    We also need to have an intelligent and perhaps intense discussion regarding the methane produced by belching cows, which is the greatest agricultural source of the gas and is impacting climate change. Through diet and breeding, concerned farmers are working on reducing the methane produced by cows, but more emphasis needs to be placed on eliminating meat from our diet altogether, as this would also make room for a resplendent biodiversity turnaround.

    After seemingly large public climate education gains in the last 6 years, beginning with Extinction Rebellion’s 2018 creative civil disobedience strategies and, inspired by Greta Thunberg, Fridays For a Future climate actions across the globe, governments and corporations are now backtracking on their commitments to make large dents in their greenhouse gas emissions, to the dismay of climate/biodiversity scientists, social justice advocates and concerned citizens everywhere. Though some investment companies are implementing positive changes to their climate/biodiversity policies and the advice they give their clients, many of the world’s largest are erasing from their literature their resolve to do so.

    A new word has emerged that describes these reactionary decisions: “greenhushing” is when these corporations no longer publicly express pro-climate business advice or frame their financial planning around knowledge based on climate science. What they say behind closed doors might lend credibility for green policies, but it’s hush-hush now. From mighty banks to corporations, mum’s the word.

    Suddenly, governments are afraid to affront the fossil fuel industry and their cronies and are retracting promises to spend billions on climate/biodiversity action. Even the new rules approved by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, detailing how public companies disclose to investors climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions they produce, have been watered down. 

    Right-wing threats to sue or haul these institutions in front of hostile government committees, suppress new pro-Earth strategies and have pressured the largest banks and investment corporations to mute their new found enthusiasm for the transition away from fossil fuels. This spells a disaster for future generations. Why would we be surprised? It has never been easy to get past the corporate self-imposed barriers that artificially separate business decisions from a more holistic planetary approach, even if that approach will ultimately distribute greater financial benefits over the long term. 

    It’s not only business models that don’t accurately reflect the required impetus towards the greener technologies, ecological responsibilities and ethical obligations that many investors are now clamouring for. The highly complex scientific climate models that have been used for 40 years to guide society haven’t by a long way kept up with the on-the-ground realities of the climate crisis. Those same models that inform, amongst others, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must reflect the rapidly unfolding climate emergency. We simply haven’t internalized what is around us. By burrowing our heads in the sand we aren’t even attuned to the crises. Yes, our bodies and minds in the west are tone-deaf to visceral reaction by Nature to the onslaught. Climate models haven’t responded to the severity of what is swiftly challenging those models, so a huge chasm has appeared. Models are no longer adequately advising humanity of future planetary upheavals. Erica Thompson’s book Escape from Model Land: How Mathematical Models Can Lead Us Astray and What We Can Do About It details the growing concern with these models.

    Let us be inspired by the five women Amnesty International recently highlighted for their fervent voices for climate justice.

    “Local and Indigenous communities should be at the center of conversations around climate justice, and have a key role to play in seeking solutions. Their voices must be heard, including those from the youth and women, and the solutions they propose should be considered and implemented.”

    Astrid Puentes, environmental lawyer, Colombia-Mexico.

    Are electric vehicles truly a panacea for our fossil fuel ills?

    “The long lifetime of fossil fuel CO, creates a sense of fleeting folly about the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. Our fossil fuel deposits, 100 million years old, could be gone in a few centuries, leaving climate impacts that will last for hundreds of millennia. The lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere is a few centuries, plus 25% that lasts essentially forever. The next time you fill your tank, reflect upon this.”

    The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate by David Archer, geophysicist 

    Monday’s eclipse experience viscerally includes all of us as beings of the universe who do not control the heavenly orbs. Most of the time we forget this at our ultimate peril. A few dozen private jets came to Sherbrooke for the occasion, spewing pollution and causing more haze.

    The history of our use of fossil fuels is one of utter devastation. Wars, expropriation of lands, biodiversity loss, climate breakdown, glacial melting, vast areas of contamination affecting land, oceans, rivers and aquifers, massive human rights violations, huge health impacts and even constant small spillages of gas or oil in our streets and neighbourhoods, are leading to untold suffering that is already beginning to unfold. As oil companies in 2024 increase their obscene profits so does their legacy of pillaging Nature expand.

    Four years ago I bought a small electric car, and these days I have many conversations about electric vehicles (EVs). Most people’s negative reactions to them range from passionate opposition to being worried about whether there are sufficient rapid charging stations along the roads. 

    Frankly, I’m perplexed why those same educated people seem to forget that their lives have been spent travelling by plane, buying carbon-intensive products (including cars, electric or not) and generally being in the top 10% of the world’s population that is ripping apart the natural world through biodiversity loss, fossil fuel pollution and climate heating. Canada is one of the top five elite and notorious countries for overconsumption. As people accelerate their use of flights—Montreal’s Trudeau airport is getting a C$4 billion facelift to tempt them to do so—the simplest research shows that there is a lot going for electric vehicles, if only to massively lower pollution levels, as well as getting rid of the chemical stench from fossil cars’ exhaust which is not often spoken of. 

    But the details make the arguments in favour of EVs appear less clear-cut and merit examination.

    The majority of new cars will probably be electric by 2040. Some of the very valid questions that come up all the time concern the vast amounts on energy and water needed to produce them, as well as the difficult recycling process, on which only now is any progress being made.

    Like all road vehicles, EVs use tires, which through particle abrasion are a major contributor to air and water pollution, with humans and wildlife equally affected. (Fishers are suing tire companies for polluting rivers.) In fact, because of the weight of the batteries EVs carry, their tires wear out faster those of fossil-fueled (ICE) vehicles, causing greater pollution.

    And if you are considering buying an electric SUV or, worse, an electric pickup truck, think again: the fossil energy required to build those monsters outweighs any climate benefits for a very long time–and they use larger tires.

    Québec’s hydro-electricity source can be counted as one good reason to drive an EV. In Québec we like to think that our hydro production is the cleanest source of electricity, but there are serious problems associated with it. Does it cause less climate heating than coal, gas or oil generation? Of course, but it releases considerable quantities of dissolved methane from the breakdown of vegetation through disturbing the water. Fortunately there is research going ahead to capture this potent greenhouse gas from the dams.

    We also need to remember that Québec’s hydro dams come with ethical issues relating to the large areas of land that are flooded and the displacement of Indigenous communities in order to build them.

    Another contentious issue relating to EVs is the mining for lithium, nickel and cobalt for the batteries, as well as the production of the batteries themselves, both of which have a vast impact on local people’s lives and the surrounding Nature. Many new mines violate the rights of Indigenous communities, and most of the time there has been little or no consultation between communities, mining companies and governments. Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Nevada is one such devastating mining extravaganza approved by government, and it will operate on federal lands, no less. A court recently refused to rescind the mining permit despite the acknowledged harm accruing to the land and the people living there. 

    Closer to home, the Québec government allowed electric battery producer Northvolt to obtain permits for EV battery production close to Montreal without going through a thorough assessment process. Considering that a different development was refused building permits on the same precious wetland area, I do wonder what twisted machinations came to pass… There have been many protests, but Northvolt is still pushing ahead.

    Conversely, a proposal by Rio Tinto to develop one of Europe’s largest lithium mines, in Serbia, was also strongly opposed, and in 2022 the permits to proceed were rescinded, although the corporation is still trying to find a way forward. 

    The devastation continues: Indonesia finds itself in the midst of huge criticism for allowing nickel mining to proceed on an island where an Indigenous uncontacted tribe lives. Adlun Fikri, a Sawai activist from Sagea, summed up the situation: “In the upstream area where they mine, it’s destructive, degrading forest, destroying forest, and causing human rights violations. The local residents here bear the cost for global ambition [net zero]. Western people enjoy the electric vehicle, and meanwhile we get the negative impact.” 

    The introduction of a coal-fired nickel-smelting complex in the area is also causing considerable damage and distress.

    “It is an unacceptable, false climate solution to build new captive coal plants to power nickel processing operations and to deforest such large areas for nickel mining,” said Krista Shennum, a researcher at Climate Rights International. “Electric vehicle companies should ensure their critical mineral supply chains are fossil fuel free, and foreign governments—including the U.S. and E.U. member states—should provide financial support to Indonesia’s energy transition, including to decommission these coal plants.” 

    If the global north is to break from its colonial mindset, it must stop expecting that there have to be sacrificial zones for its ill-begotten extractive technologies. A new social paradigm must ensure that social justice is the norm and basis for all actions, and ecologically driven policies must underscore it, turning away at last from the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. 

    What, then, is there to celebrate about EVs? In my opinion, they are undoubtedly the lesser of two evils. In fact, I have never read a peer-reviewed study that concluded otherwise. Over their lifetime, electric cars do not pose the heightened climate risks that fossil-burning (ICE) cars do. True, it takes a couple of years to pay back all the fossil fuel emissions embodied in their manufacture, but over the lifetime of the vehicle the pollution is less than that of a typical ICE car. Every small reduction is significant. If possible, getting rid of a car is always the best solution.

    EVs, no matter their size, cut down drastically the obnoxious odours, air and noise pollution where that is needed most: the city. And whereas EV reliance on fossil energy for charging their batteries slowly diminishes with the increasing use of renewables, fossil-fueled vehicles will emit harmful pollution every second of their existence.

    Electric vehicles will not save us from ourselves and will definitely not stop by themselves the slide towards climate/biodiversity collapse, but they are one part of the endeavour to turn a final page on fossil fuels.

    It is definitely not to our governments and certainly not to the corporations that voraciously encircle society that I look for glimpses of humanity’s better self. A week ago I visited Sherbrooke’s Café 440 on Wellington South. The café hosts many events, including traditional dancing and discussions. Possibly eighty people under the age of 40 were there to listen to Caroline Desruisseaux, who is obtaining her masters degree from Université de Sherbrooke, speak about Québec’s Indigenous people, biodiversity and climate heating. Apart from the occasional move of a chess piece, everyone was in rapt silence. All of those bright, vigilant people are the reason why there is cause to believe that we can transform our growing ecological tragedy into a celebration for Earth justice and peace.