Is Earth Day bad for the environment?

Why is it that our efforts to reduce energy use are profoundly increasing our carbon footprint? Watch the video below.

The latest edition of the Vancouver Courier arrived landed on our front yard on Friday afternoon, tightly bound by an elastic. Peeling the rubber band off, I dutifully shook the usual assortment of pizza shop and grocery store flyers into our kitchen recycling receptacle. One 8-page insert caught my attention for a moment, because of its exhalations toward sustainability. This little piece of newsprint urged me to Live Green and to honour Mother Earth. Inside was the obligatory snapshot of St. David Suzuki, and an advertisement for a sale on eco-friendly paint products.

The Live Green insert earnestly advised me on the benefits of electric cars, in the same fashion as Suzuki has extolled green living through his media empire. By changing the water heater we use at home, or by installing triple pane windows, me and my fellow city dwellers can somehow atone for our sins of consumption. It's been referred to as The Prius Fallacy: a belief that switching to an ostensibly more benign form of consumption turns consumption itself into a boon for the environment.

More likely what we're experiencing is the Jevons Paradox, a theory which argues that by increasing the energy efficiency of anything, we only end up consuming more of it. We just keep plugging things into the wall expecting that they'll be recharged, or that they'll serve us, while we don't realize that turbines whir even harder in BC's hinterlands to keep up with our demands.

One person has made a name for himself lately for pointing out that lowering our environmental footprint involves more symbolism than fact. David Owen is a writer for the New Yorker who recently visited Vancouver in support of Green Metropolis, a celebrated book that argued that the planet's ecology is most easily preserved by those who dwell in dense urban centres like Manhattan. He's got a new book titled The Conundrum  also receiving raves – which is accompanied by an excellent promotional video that summarizes the problem we face by trying to be green. I highly recommend that you watch the following video in its entirety:

Owen in person does not preach green living, nor does he have much time for the 100-Mile Diet. He's a confessed former New York City apartment dweller who's moved to the exurbs of Connecticut, into a big house that's a 20-minute drive from the nearest shopping centre. He admits that there are rooms in his house that he only sees when it's time to vacuum them. He takes pains to explain that his family's carbon footprint is exponentially larger than when he and his wife lived in a two-bedroom flat in Manhattan.

On the subject of locavorism, or eating local, he's merciless. He argues that global food production is more fuel-efficient and therefore more sustainable. Owen thinks that organic farming is no more healthy than most conventional agriculture using best practices. He would also argue that farmed salmon are inherently better for our oceans and for the people who eat them.

David Owen is a debunker, and a smart one at that. Publisher's Weekly describes The Conundrum in the following blurb:

"New Yorker staff writer Owen (Green Metropolis) takes a penetrating look at the earth’s shrinking and misappropriated resources and the delusion underlying our solutions to these problems. In the process, he persuades us that the serious environmental problems that humanity faces won’t be fixed by scientists and engineers, but by our behavioural changes, namely consuming less. Owen’s latest becomes a declaration against the massive greenwashing campaigns of the past decade and the presentation of scientific data that lets us ignore questions we already know the answers to and don’t like."

The Conundrum earned many positive comments from readers, including from a woman who describes herself as a "concerned consumer":

A very sobering, not to say depressing, book. Turns out my sacred cows in that department had hooves of clay… Humbling as it all is, I prefer to see the issues as clearly as possible and his argument makes a lot of sense. Apparently the more efficiently we use limited energy resources the more we use them altogether – and the faster their use spreads.

While it remains well-meaning, Earth Day has devolved into an occasion to buy more stuff to make us feel good about ourselves. As a result, Earth Day itself might not be that good for our environment. What would be good for the planet is a candid conversation about real ways to consume less energy that go beyond switching your lightbulbs.

So what will you do, if anything at all, to acknowledge Earth Day?


See previous City Caucus related posts, including several on the "symbolism" of environmental marketing by Daniel Fontaine:

– post by Mike

If the centre-right doesn't unite, they'll fail BC
The Iron Lady's dementia and the signal to cities

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  • Pete

    What do you mean to say, Mike? My recent family trip to Maui was on a new plane using “Mother Nature’s Jet Engine”. And I paid extra for carbon offset credits. Overall, I’m certain that my vacation must have been a net positive for the environment. If only more of us would follow my example, we’d fix the environment in no time.
    I’d write more, but I’m off in my Prius to drive to the gardening store. Buying seeds and fertilizer and manure so I can grow my own sustainable vegetables in order to feed my family maybe 4 or 5 times this summer. And then off to Starbucks for my free Earth-Day coffee (I guess I’ll have to buy a reusable mug to qualify). Feelin’ green!

    • Pete, I’m sure Mother Nature appreciates your efforts.

    • Higgins

      “And I paid extra for carbon offset credits. ”
      Boy, oh boy, the hypocrisy and 100% pure BS is coming out with a vengeance. A very arrogant… statement, you dare to say that you are covering your tracks by paying a bit more of cash, which apparently, you have, so that your whole “green conscientious” family can sleep good at night knowing that some , underpaid, overworked, tree planter will plant a few trees on your behalf. Typical for Hollyhockers, but you Pete? 🙂
      Joking too!

  • gman

    I’m going to party down with these guys cuz they look like their having a great time.

  • Birdy

    I’m acknowledging Earth Day by not starting any preemptive wars. I hope the government can follow my example. I came up with this crazy counter-intuitive idea after I read a new peer-reviewed study that shows tanks and missiles are actually worse for the environment than taking a long shower.

  • Stephen

    Don’t forget to mention that those pimping a sustainable lifestyle are also attacking the poor and lower income individuals.

    If you go to the grocery store you will notice that organic food is priced anywhere from 20 to 30% higher than non organic.

    So while wealthy white men like Peter Ladner and Gregor Robertson encourage us all to pay a premium for “organic” food (aka Happy Planet juice served in single serve plastic bottles) – the rest of us poor sobs are trying to scrape pennies together.

    It’s no coincidence that most people pimping sustainability are wealthy enough to pay for it.

    • Ms Jones

      I absolutely identify with what you said Stephen, the likes of Robertson and his millionaire sponsors like Solomon, Newell, all from that select grou0p of universal leeches, are advising the commoner to pay more for their own good… from what they are selling! Crooks!

  • Bill

    It was revealing that when asked how much energy is saved during Earth Hour, the local rep for the WWF ducked the question saying the event was about raising awareness rather than reducing energy consumption. The Green movement is big business that knows the money is in the process, not the outcome, because people would outright reject the reduction in their standard of living necessary to meet goals like reducing CO2 emissions to Kyoto targeted levels.

  • gman

    Last night while preparing for Lennins birthday today I thought I would iron my hair shirt, well when I picked up the iron off the woodstove It burned my hand and I dropped it on my hair shirt and set it on fire,the flames came up and caught my dreadlocks on fire and that started my lama hair hat on fire when I knocked my hat off it fell right on mt stash and it began to burn ,the neighbor smelled it and called the Feds so they came over and kicked in my door.Well when they let me out I rushed home this morning only to find that I forgot to plug in my electric scooter and the old yellow schoolbus was out of biodiesel.I guess Ill just stay home have a sprout sandwich and knit a new hat…Peace.