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Hurry up: slow down to save the Earth
We can’t afford to burn so much energy trying to save time.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
by Albert Koehl
One thing is clear about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approach to the urgent problem of climate change: He is in no hurry.
He may be on to something.
In fact, if everyone slowed down we would more quickly reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Going about our lives in a hurry means using a lot of energy usually from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal. Burning these fuels releases stored carbon into the atmosphere as a heat-trapping gas.
On holidays, we rush to relax by loading up ATVs, Ski-Doos, powerboats, jet-skis and other energy-sucking machines.
Our transportation choices are generally motivated by the desire for speed. We choose cars for personal travel, just-in-time truck delivery systems for business, and airplanes for travel between cities, even nearby ones. As a result, more than one quarter of all Canadian GHG emissions are from motor vehicles.
Slower options are not popular. Walking to the transit stop, waving hello to neighbours, and taking a bus to work produces far fewer emissions than going by car. Cycling may take even longer but GHG emissions are zero. Taking a train between cities like Montreal and Toronto instead of a plane cuts emissions dramatically, as does delivering goods by train rather than truck.
When we get home, the race to save time continues. Leaf blowers, power mowers and clothes dryers get things done fast, at the expense of high energy use. In Ontario, the use of clothes dryers alone results in 700,000 tonnes of GHGs each year because much of the power comes from burning coal. The so-called phantom load constantly draws electricity so that appliances like TVs jump into action at the touch of a button and electronic displays announce the time — all the time.
Hanging clothes under the sun and exercising with a rake or push mower reduces power demand. The phantom load would disappear with simple manufacturing changes, or some power bars. And slowing down to adjust the thermostat on your way out the door can pay big GHG-reduction dividends.
Big business is in a big hurry too, especially to extract the country’s natural resources. There is, for example, such a rush to exploit the tar sands that we use absurd amounts of natural gas to coax oil out of the sand and upgrade it. We sell the product to Americans, who squander much of it on big, fast cars. The federal government prods the industry to go faster with $1.5 billion in tax breaks each year. (Even former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed has begun pushing for a “slow down” in tar sands development.)
Our daily lives are fast-moving but it’s on our holidays that the pace reaches break-neck speeds. We rush to relax by loading up ATVs, Ski-Doos, powerboats, jet-skis, and other energy-sucking machines behind or atop giant SUVs in a veritable emissions-making frenzy. Others escape the din by embarking on epic air (the fastest growing source of global GHG emissions) and cruise voyages to see it all, fast.
Longer vacations and shorter work weeks might help us slow down — a change in attitude would help more.
Perhaps our society’s most amazing achievement in its constant hurry is to have turned the awesome into the mundane, even the tragic. Traveling through the sky in winged machines is now often just a trip to be endured, not enjoyed. The marvel of massive quantities of oil created millions of years ago and left in the sand is fast becoming a legacy of toxic waste ponds, denuded landscapes, and poisoned air and water.
The irony is that when we slow down, everything might actually move a bit faster. American author Ivan Illich calculates that the total time North Americans devote to their cars (payments, repairs, traffic jams) means that we travel, on average, just a little faster than our ancient ancestors. It turns out our speed is mostly an illusion. Unfortunately, the climate danger is real.
By taking mass transit, or cycling and walking for shorter trips, for instance, we free up roadways from traffic congestion that costs our economy billions of dollars annually in delays.
There are ways to get us in the habit of slowing down.
First, ask yourself if you need to rush. Does the world really depend on me flying from Edmonton to Calgary to save a few hours instead of taking the bus? If you answer yes, get a second opinion.
Prime Minister Harper can lead by example. There is no need for him to jet to Toronto to tell us what can’t be done to comply with Kyoto. He can take the train. We can wait.
Second, encourage governments to use carbon taxes — taxes that depend on the amount of fossil fuels burned for specific activities — and road tolls to motivate people to choose less-polluting options.
Finally, spend a week slowing down to see if what you lose isn’t actually quite small compared to what you gain in the quality of your life, and the life around you.
It is, after all, just about time.
Albert Koehl is a lawyer with Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal), a Canadian environmental law organization.