Photo by Michael Swan

Two steps forward, one step back

  • June 25, 2015

The Vatican last week released the Pope’s encyclical on the environment and while many pundits suggested the Catholic Church and its spiritual leader should butt out of ecological politics and economics, the Pope’s hard-hitting missive about our endangered planet got a relatively positive review.

“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” the Pope wrote in explaining that climate change is not a fairy tale and that it continues to get worse.

He argued that man’s role on Earth is one of “mutual responsibility between human beings and nature” that implies a duty to protect the planet and ensure its fruitfulness for future generations. He said a deteriorating environment and society affects the globe’s poorest people the most. And Pope Francis talked about the importance of assuring that clean water, a basic human right, be available for all the world’s population.

For Nova Scotians, the encyclical might be regarded as Pope Francis versus the Bluenose Bigfoot.

In Nova Scotia, the Bluenose is the famous racing schooner that has become synonymous with the province itself. The Bigfoot descriptor comes from a study that concluded our provincial “ecological footprint” was much larger than it ought to be. The GPI Atlantic report from a decade ago concluded that it would take 8.1 hectares of productive land and sea to absorb our waste and support our eating, shopping, travelling and energy use habits. That compared to an average global ecological footprint per person of 2.8 hectares.

If the rest of the world’s population were to consume at Nova Scotia levels, the study concluded, four additional planet Earths would be required to support them.

We were simply living far beyond our ecological means, and doing so at the expense of people in the rest of the world.
Thirty per cent of the world’s population at that time consumed 70 per cent of the world’s resources and produced 70 per cent of the waste.

The average African’s ecological footprint was 1.3 hectares and the average American’s a whopping 12.2 hectares.

Just as the Pope’s encyclical would urge people years later, Nova Scotians were admonished to reduce their ecological footprint by walking and riding a bicycle whenever possible, carpooling or taking public transit, driving smaller cars, buying locally grown food, not overeating, consuming more grains and vegetables and by reducing household energy by turning lights off, using less heat, hanging out laundry and upgrading to energy efficient appliances.

Our governments were asked to invest in public transportation, to integrate land use, offer tax incentives for environmentally friendly projects and to support local agriculture.

In 2010, the government passed a law requiring 25 per cent of the province’s power to come from renewables, such as wind and hydro, by this year. That was to jump to 40 per cent by 2020.

Wind and tidal power are two things this province has in abundance. The Bay of Fundy boasts the highest tides in the world, with 160 billion tonnes of seawater flowing in and out of the bay during one tide cycle. The provincial government has plans to provide support to companies looking to sell tidal power to the grid.

This past weekend, the South Canoe Wind Farm’s 34-turbine operation, the largest of 30 commercial wind farms in the province, went online in Chester near Halifax. Despite appeals from nearby homeowners worried about noise and decreasing property values, the wind farm with a capacity to provide energy for 32,000 homes, is up and running.

Efficiency Nova Scotia, a non-profit organization, claims the province has reduced its carbon output by more than 650,000 tonnes, the equivalent of taking 130,000 cars off the road.

Still our dependence on fossil fuels won’t disappear overnight. The Nova Scotia Mining Association hopes to have the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton running soon, producing up to 2.5 million tonnes of coal a year to be sold to Nova Scotia Power for its generating plants and to buyers overseas. Nova Scotia, like most of the developed world, is taking steps forward and back in the Bigfoot battle.

But Pope Francis sees hope in a dark situation.

“All is not lost,” he said. “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.”

But we will need more effective weapons to accompany the Pope’s ray of optimism in the fight against the Bluenose Bigfoot and his Bigfoot cousins worldwide.

(Campbell is an editor at the Chronicale Herald newspaper in Halifax.)

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