What Does It Mean to Go Green?

UBC dialogues convened a panel last night in Coquitlam BC, asking "What does it mean to go green?"  Below I share a summary of my remarks as one of the four panelists.


Going green means taking responsibility:  personal, national, and generational responsibility.


Personal responsibility


By emphasizing recycling and transit, the environmental movement has shown how citizens’ private decisions directly influence public outcomes.



  • Amid cool Canadian winters, we can all choose to turn the furnace up higher; or turn it down, and put on a sweater.

  • Thirsty for caffeine, we can throw away a cup or two every day, along with all the material and energy used to produce it; or we can sip from the same cup, over, and over, and over again, provided we pack it in our bags.

  • Hungry, we can select imported foods, out of season that travel thousands of kilometers using harmful fossil fuels; or we can eat locally in season, dramatically reducing our carbon footprints.

Put bluntly, going green requires a tenacious state of mind by which we routinely anticipate the public harm we impose on others through our private, every day decisions; and accept personal responsibility to minimize that harm.


National responsibility


But going green is not simply an individual endeavour.  It is a political endeavour too, one which requires us to take responsibility as Canadians provincially and nationally.


Regrettably, Canadians are now widely recognized in the international arena as fossil fuel dinosaurs, with per capita carbon emissions that rank among the three worst OECD polluters.  In response, going green requires that all Canadians get animated and agitated politically, lending our voices in support of policy change that would privilege transit infrastructure and a shift away from fossil fuels.  And we must stand firm prioritizing such changes even when faced with difficult trade-offs regarding tax cuts, medical care, pensions, jets, jails, etc.


I suspect Canadians are weak at going green in part because we are content for other countries to take environmental action if it appears to give us an economic advantage. It may not make us good global citizens, but if others are sacrificing while we’re not, what’s not to like?


Generational responsibility


But this “realpolitik" sentiment misses the mark, because going green is deeply implicated in generational justice here at home.  Failure to act domestically harms Canadians – especially our kids and grandkids who follow in our footsteps.


Let me conclude with a generational synopsis.  We all know that Baby Boomers represent the largest part of the Canadian population today.  The peak in the Boom saw this group come of age as adults predominantly in the mid-1970s.  Over their working lives, no progress has been made reducing Canada’s per capita carbon footprint, even though our knowledge of the risks of global climate change have increased dramatically during that period.  In the mid-1970s, Canadians were among the top three emitters at 17 tonnes per person, and we remain so today, even though many other countries which already had smaller per capita footprints have since reduced carbon emissions still further.


Canadian Boomers leave this environmental debt even though the national economy more than doubled over the same period, producing an extra $35,000 per household on average. Perhaps this means the Boomer generation traded environmental progress in order to get the country’s fiscal house in order?  Nope!  Over that same period, government debt has nearly doubled relative to the size of our economy.


Compounding these dynamics, public spending in Canada ranks very badly by international standards when it comes to investing in programs like parental leave and child care services in support of families with children under age six.


In sum, a dominant trend since the 1970s has been to mortgage the future environmentally, economically, and in terms of social policy.  This is a bad generational deal.


One made worse by the fact that the standard of living for younger Canadians is in serious decline compared to the mid-70s.  Young couples’ household incomes have stalled, after adjusting for inflation, even though far more young women contribute household income today than they did a generation ago.  With stalled incomes, young Canadians must pay for higher housing prices that increased 76% across Canada, and 149% in BC.  It leaves a generation squeezed for time at home, squeezed for income after the high cost of housing, and squeezed for services like child care, which often cost the equivalent of a second mortgage.


Moving from a bad generational deal to a New Deal will require us all to reprioritize.


Younger Canadians, who are more likely to tune out electorally, must care less about who is being voted off some damn island on TV and care more about who is being voted into our legislatures provincially and federally.


Boomers must care to protect pensions and medical care, but not at the expense of a better environmental and family policy deal for their kids and grand kids.


For at bottom, going green requires that we all ask:  What kind of Canada do we want?  One that ignores a growing generational breach?  Or one that recommits to once again working for all generations?


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