Let's move beyond passive denial to active solutions

Published Tuesday, November 24, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Every now and then, when I find myself in a discussion explaining some element of sustainability, an interesting thing happens.  The person I’m speaking with nods in understanding and agreement, but their body language signals otherwise.  It tells me that they really aren’t understanding or agreeing but they’re too polite to say so; or they just don’t want to know something unpleasant or inconvenient if it comes with an obligation to change or act.

Perhaps that behaviour speaks of the biggest barrier we will need to overcome as we try to figure out how we’re going to transform our fossil-fuel dependent world into a sustainable one: the one in our own minds.

Passive denial

As evidence of climate change becomes ever clearer, the voices of denial are in full retreat around the world (with the notable exception of the US Republican Party).  It would seem that facts – the most recent one being that October was the warmest October on record – are finally winning out, and people are starting to comprehend that we can’t keep using our atmosphere as a dump for emissions.  Those are good things.

But you don’t have to look too far to see that passive denial – polite ignorance of those realities – is still widespread, at individual and collective levels.

For example, my television is awash with pickup truck ads that boast of power, toughness and traction.  But none of those ads show fuel economy because they don’t have a very pretty story to tell.  It’s hard to envision a place for such emission-producing gas-guzzlers in a sustainable future.  Yet their omnipresence on our streets and roads suggests we’re not yet ready to accept that reality.  Passive denial.

Not so long ago, winter vacations to warmer places were beyond the means of most people.  Today, however, hopping on a southbound plane in winter is common and even routine.  It comes with a pretty big carbon footprint, and most of us know that – but, alas, that doesn’t seem to deter us.  Passive denial.

And, on a larger scale, it’s now a well accepted fact that most of our planet’s known reserves of fossil fuels, including most of the Alberta oil sands, must stay in the ground if we intend to limit climate change to two degrees.  Yet New Brunswick’s business community and political leaders seem conveniently oblivious to that reality as they embrace and promote a pipeline that will facilitate the expansion of the oil sands – the very opposite of what reality tells us we need to do – by bringing bitumen through NB to world markets.  Passive denial.

There's more: solo commuters; drive-throughs; even shopping trips to Bangor.

(I don't mean to come across too harshly.  In fairness, every one of us - me included - is in passive denial to some extent because we all depend on fossil fuels in one way or another; they're a hard addiction to shake in this world we've built for ourselves.)


But here’s the silver lining: perhaps the above examples illustrate just how much potential we have to live more sustainably if only we reject passive denial, deeply internalize the reality of climate change and understand our responsibilities in fixing it.

Maybe then we’ll see that fuel efficient vehicles are fine for commuting, and larger capacity vehicles can be shared or rented when needed.  We’ll see that there are awesome places to visit in NB, even in winter.  We’ll see that NB’s greater future lies not in a bitumen pipeline but in ramping up our renewable energy capacity and achieving energy self-sufficiency.  And we’ll discover many other ways we can live better, more happily and more sustainably.

Let’s hope world leaders will make strong commitments at next week’s Paris climate conference.  And let’s pray we’ll then have the wisdom and focus to act on those commitments and turn them into reality.