Letter: N.L. should be leading the way to a green economy

Published on October 18, 2016

It is good to see common sense creep into the conversation about the future of the Newfoundland economy. I don’t mean Premier Dwight Ball’s ill-advised austerity measures, but Beothuk Energy’s success at finding a European funder for their wind energy project in St. George’s Bay.

One of the reasons long-awaited wind farming in Newfoundland is beginning offshore rather than inland, where construction would be less costly and more environmentally friendly (no seabeds to tear up) is that Nalcor is not interested in developing wind energy. The biggest obstacle to converting to clean energy in Newfoundland and Labrador is our dogged commitment to developing fossil fuels (including fracking) in spite of the increasing global consensus on climate change.

Nalcor, of course, has their renewable energy file: the great red herring, Muskrat Falls. A Harvard study has reminded us that while hydroelectric plants do not emit significant greenhouse gasses, the construction of the dam on the Lower Churchill could poison and destroy Innu and Inuit hunting and fishing grounds. The protests this week in Labrador and St. John’s demonstrate that not everyone sees this as a reasonable price to pay for renewable energy.

This past spring, our research group, For a New Earth, in collaboration with the faculty of humanities and social sciences, brought Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue to St. John’s, where she made a desperate plea to a hundred or so people assembled in the Rocket Bakery to do something to save the Innu from cultural genocide at the hands of the provincial and federal governments. As she wept openly over the fate of her people, I surveyed the crowd. I have never seen so many guilty faces in one room. The feeling was tragic.

No one said what everyone felt: in the face of the push to develop the economy at any and all cost, the Innu don’t stand a chance.

Two stories about the future of the human race are repeated wherever the facts of climate change are taken seriously. The first story is pessimistic. It foresees human civilization inevitably regressing to a pre-industrial economy at the expense of countless millions of lives as the irreversible effects of climate change take hold (desertification, food shortages, swamped coastal cities, armies of refugees). The other story is optimistic and sees us transit from a fossil-fuel based economy to renewables in the next decade, thereby averting total ecological collapse. It is hard to know who to believe.

Perhaps Al Gore is right and we can rebuild our consumer economy on more sustainable terrain. Or it might be that this vision of green consumerism is the noble lie we need to tell ourselves to prepare for “the ecological conversion,” necessary according to Pope Francis if we are to save the planet and ourselves.

What the pessimists and the optimists have in common is their insistence that climate change is not a political fable concocted by the left; it is the most serious threat to human civilization we have ever faced. This is more than can be said for many in our province, who still dream of a resource-based economy that will make us all rich.

We should be leading the pack in greening the global economy but instead we are lagging behind in another century. With our small and affluent population, our largely uninhabited wilderness (so much to lose), our relatively healthy seas, and our recent experience of the eco-collapse of the fishery, we are well-positioned to join countries such as Iceland and Germany in positively responding to the reality of climate change.

Wind farms are a good start, but we need to talk about much more: renewing rural communities, jump-starting agriculture, economic diversification, and above all, the end of consumerism. In recent memory many Newfoundlanders lived in largely self-sufficient non-consumerist communities. Today, I sometimes hear people smugly talk of how climate change is great for Newfoundland and Labrador: longer summers, more tourists, etc.

Maybe, but say goodbye to the picturesque outports and take seriously the prospects of a world without fish. It has been proven: cod and most other species of cold-water fish stocks cannot survive a warmer and C02 salinized North Atlantic.

It is time for us to own the challenges of climate change, and take the lead in shaping the green economy of the future.

Prof. Sean McGrath

Department of philosophy, Memorial University

Director, For a New Earth (www.foranewearth.org)