What good is environmental idealism anyways?

As I see it, writes Margareta Dovgal, the greatest challenge in facilitating a constructive dialogue across Canada on the role of natural resources is in bridging knowledge and perspective gaps.

One on hand, resource enthusiasts are accused of being blind to the reality of climate change – of putting short-term, "trivial" concerns about jobs front and center while neglecting imminent threats at play from global climate change.

On the other hand, environmentalists are dismissed for being out of touch with reality – forgetting how every single necessity and luxury alike in modern life is the product of natural resources, especially hydrocarbons – and for being all-too-willing to condemn working women and men in our resource industries to hardship.

Let’s blow that dichotomy apart.

Environmentalists can be pragmatists. Supporters of natural resources can be environmentally conscious. And they should be – but why is it so hard to find that rhetorical common ground in the public conversation that plays out on social media, in newspapers, and on television and radio?

I’ve been puzzling over the role of idealism in public life since I started university. When I began at UBC in 2013, a campaign to divest my university’s investment holdings from fossil fuels was underway, and it was taking hold of students’ imagination by storm.

Activists of this sort, then and now, envision a future free of reliance on carbon-emitting energy sources and they situate the most effective push for that, in their grasp, as coming from cutting institutional ties with the purported culprits of climate change: the evil energy multinationals.™

I hope the sense of irony comes across.

What if instead, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youths (I count myself in this camp, for the record) came to terms with the idea that the single greatest barrier to effective climate action wasn’t profit, but the question of human development itself? If you want to turn off the taps, you need to be okay with a complete cessation of human activity.

Yes, as environmental activists often point out, there is an undeniable link between climate resilience and economic development. Developing countries, especially those who already struggle with food security, access to clean drinking water, and conflict, will bear the brunt of climate change in a particularly visceral way.

At the center of any good public policy discussion must be the question of empathy and humanity. The ancient Chinese philosopher, Mencius, said it best, that "the heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence." 

What infuriates me is that progressive causes near and dear to my heart – those that push for human progress ­by overcoming poverty, oppression, and disease – have been rhetorically hijacked. The needs of developing countries are mentioned, their hardships are conveniently mobilized as an “Ah, yes, all these people will suffer from climate change,” but their material realities and potentials for agency are swept under the rug.

Let me be clear: there is no overcoming starvation, inequity, and illness without electrification. Every single developing economy, in order to realize the comforts of development and 21st century life, has to radically increase the amount of energy that is to be consumed. There is an undeniable need for renewable energy and its time is coming, but the peak of fossil fuel energies hasn’t come yet.

Idealists still have an important role in pushing us to imagine a world that is better in every respect. They push the needle on vital issues. But idealism must subsume neither reality nor the nuances of a global energy transition that is only beginning to unfold and that owes the developing world the right to rapid development.

Every developing country is obligated to offer its citizens a chance to prosper and to improve to standards of living for themselves and their children as quickly as possible. This means that if emissions-intensive energy sources are available, they are quickly snapped up by the market.

As an energy-producing country, we are in no position to compel other countries’ choice of fuels, but we are in a possible to offer a better alternative – to ensure that as long as oil and gas are economically viable and that until fully-renewable energies are, that ethical oil is a choice that can be made.

Undercutting Canada’s production and export of oil & gas will not dampen global demand for energy. It does, however, dampen Canada’s own capacity to deliver for its citizens.

Markets and energy demands are global, and emissions know no borders. At the end of the day, it’s about human dignity. Let's keep that front and center. 

Margareta Dovgal is a researcher with Resource Works.                                                       

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