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Another oil spill, who’s at fault? March 13, 2009

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Ecology.
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The price of oil can be measured in more than dollars per barrel, with another oil spill in Queensland, Australia wrecking the habitat for marine life. While its easy to point to the captains and crew of the vessels involved in the collision that led to the spill, our insatiable demand for foreign oil is also at fault.

People who think that politicians need to do something about it should look in the mirror. I spoke to a fairly senior civil servant recently who told me that politicians are reluctant to do anything because governments which have attempted to enact environmental legislation, and especially carbon taxation, have not lasted long in office. If the most recent Canadian election, with the massacre of Stephane Dion over his call for Canada to enact a carbon tax, is anything to go by, his words ring true – and demonstrate how the average citizen sets his or her priorities. Mr. Dion certainly dug a hole from himself by the way he presented his message to the public.

Businesses should not be expected to change their ways significantly without this kind of prompting. To be sure, many businesses are cleaning up their acts. Most managers, all else being reasonably equal, will not wilfully damage to the environment. But being in business means managing the bottom line – and so it should. That’s what creates our standard of living. So a business will support environment sustainability because its good for its image (which helps sell its product and provides other benefits), saves money (by saving energy and so on), or pleases its own employees (for better productivity, employee engagement and lower turnover). All these things affect the bottom line – but is it enough?

Anything that has zero cost, like release of CO2 into the environment has today, will be used with abandon, and so the status quo will result in irreversible climate change. Years ago I remember hearing that bread was so heavily subsidized in the Soviet Union that children used loaves as footballs. Unless there is a true economic cost to releasing carbon into the atmosphere we’ll never solve the problem, the world will warm up, the oceans will rise, and many species will become extinct. Carbon dioxide, like persistent organic pollutants (e.g. PCBs, DDT, etc.), is a global pollutant, and getting the entire world to act collectively and enact appropriate controls has never been easy. The successful curbing of chloroflourocarbons in the early nineties (which were affecting the ozone layer) is a ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy outlook.

In the meantime there are lots of things that individuals can do to lower their carbon footprint. Better driving habits rate very high on my list. Although the 55mph legislation brought in by Jimmy Carter in the late seventies was highly unpopular, cars use dramatically less fuel (and thus emit less carbon) at that speed than say 70mph. When I used to have a VW Jetta, I was driving back from Florida and decided to just set my cruise control on 90km/h, which is about 55mph. My trip odometer showed 1002 km when I stopped for gas in Georgia, which was about 250 km more than I’d usually get from the 53 litres of usable fuel that I could carry in my tank. So if you’re going somewhere, you can at least drive at a speed appropriate for the time you need to be at your destination, rather than just going as fast you can all the time.

Eventually the human race is going to have to consider sustainability in all of its activities – treating them as closed systems. The sooner we do it the better of the natural world, including the lakes and oceans, will be. If the citizens want change, the politicians will follow their lead.

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