The Nature of Things

Climate change is at the forefront of most people’s minds today, although the way we approach the discourse needs to be addressed in order to make progress

Christine Beyleveldt // Editor-in-ChiefF

During the 2008 economic recession, Masa Takei was one of many looking for an escape.

The Vancouver-based writer was worried about his future and, determined to be prepared for any outcome, including having to eke out his existence in the woods, started hunting. A few years later, he packed his belongings and left the city to build an off-the-grid cabin on Haida Gwaii – a bucket list item he had written in a Moleskine journal, prompted by apocalyptic thoughts and a love and concern for the environment. His two years living off the land were recorded in a self-filmed documentary for RadX.

“I think a lot of people have this romanticism about wanting to escape to the simpler life, because I think our lives have gotten incredibly complex,” said Takei, now a Communications instructor at Capilano University. “We’re woven into this supply chain of instant gratification.”

However, living off grid for two years and having to hand haul his drinking water and build a shelter with his own two hands wasn’t a simple task, and even on Haida Gwaii there was no escaping the effects of climate change. In 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake hit the coast of Japan, and at the end of Takei’s first year of living on the island all of the garbage and debris from the disaster had washed up on the shores of Haida Gwaii. “It just reinforced to me that we’re all tied at the hip. We’re all on the same little marble.”

Takei, who once classified himself as a “strident voice” amongst fellow environmentalists, has since come to accept the fact that arguing is not always the best strategy. He recalled a particular dispute with a friend over dinner a number of years ago, and noted that it can be a very emotional topic. “I said something about how when my friend’s daughter, was our age, there probably wouldn’t be any salmon left on the West Coast,” said Takei, with a tinge of remorse. “That felt like a direct attack to her and she went into full defensive mode – that moment really sticks out in my mind, but I had done that on numerous occasions.”

Climate change is at the forefront of  the minds of most, but the way the discourse is approached can be an issue of contention. While some believe that we are beyond the point of talking and an aggressive and action-based approach is the only way forward, others are deterred by this, believing it’s hypocritical to point out others’ shortcomings instead of doing their own part to reduce their carbon footprint. In some cases it can alienate would-be activists from the conversation.

“I’m at the point where I’m thinking – how can you engage people without overwhelming them, depressing the hell out of them and making them want to bury their heads…” said Takei. “Which is a really tall order when you think about it.” He likens it to putting money away for retirement. “You know for a fact you will retire – barring early death – but even then people don’t want to engage with it.”

“I think a lot of people have this romanticism about wanting to escape to the simpler life, because I think our lives have gotten incredibly complex.” – Masa Takei

Open-Minded Conversation

A 2017 study on best communication practices for climate change shows that there is often a disconnect between environmental communicators and the growing body of psychological research related to sustainability and environmental conservation.

The study found that what was lacking most in the discourse was a sense of community and place attachment. Researchers found that by addressing “the relationships between people and their physical and social environments” they were more likely to take action. It was these relationships that had the biggest impact on people’s attitudes and behaviours, and in turn on promoting the “well-being of local and global environments.”

Unfortunately, the prospects often feel bleak, and it’s this that we tend to focus on. We can’t control how other people live their lives, which results in frustration as we play the blame game. “It is vital to avoid controversial terms and to focus on issues, impacts and solutions with which the target audience can relate,” the same study reported.

The Courier put the question to a pool of students and alumni – which activities or habits did they think would make a difference in combating climate change? And which of these activities or habits would they be willing to adopt? Each question posed gradually asked respondents about the possibility of making more and more sacrifices.

Only 57 per cent of respondents agreed that separating their garbage, recyclables and compostable material would actually make a difference and help combat climate change, although 93 per cent of the same respondents said that they would be willing to adopt this habit.

The Courier also proposed transit, ride-sharing, walking or biking as a way to minimize the carbon footprint, one that requires more effort on the part of the individual, and again 57 per cent of respondents agreed that this initiative could help combat climate change. Although fewer, only 53 per cent, said they would be willing to change their habits in this way.

38 per cent of respondents agreed that limiting their water consumption to as little as 50 litres per day would make a difference and 33 per cent of those surveyed said they would be willing to adopt this habit if necessary.

But it was the last two questions posed that were telling. The Courier asked whether students thought that limiting the resources they consume to those produced locally, or going one step further and replacing their gas or diesel powered vehicle with an electric one or transitioning to solar energy, would produce visible results in reducing the effects of climate change. 64 per cent of the total respondents believed these initiatives would produce visible results, although only 33 and 47 per cent of those same respondents respectively admitted that they would be willing to adopt these habits. Unsurprisingly, time, money and convenience are often barriers under the circumstances.

Barriers to a Sustainable Life

Despite his experience living off grid, Takei believes that it’s easy to fall prey to instant gratification if resources are available. “I think as a human, I’m lazy,” he admitted. “I’m just picturing myself as one of billions of people who makes their decisions based on convenience [and] laziness.”

“I want to get on board with it, but their intensity scares me away. Especially if [activists] only point out my shortcomings as opposed to teaching me new ways of helping out.” – surveyed student

The discrepancy between the number of people surveyed who believed that certain habits would yield tangible results and the same people who would be willing to put in the effort to adopt those habits, which in some cases would mean drastically altering one’s lifestyle, shows that people still expect others to make changes, but aren’t willing to put in the same effort. “Recycling is going to counter climate change like kale is going to cure cancer,” said Takei as an example. It’s something, but it’s just not enough, and we tend to look for the easy way out.

When the Courier asked the same pool of respondents for their own suggestion on how to effectively combat climate change, the top answers included government action and proper education – again reliant on a higher power to make changes instead of putting responsibility firmly at the individual level.

“You can recycle, you can drive less,” said Takei, “but I heard recently that about 80 per cent of emissions leading to climate change can be attributed to 100 some odd companies. So that’s 100 odd corporations, and then we’re talking about 7.8 billion people, but we’re focusing on and attacking a few individuals.”

Kirstin Besemann, an energy engineer living in Nelson, BC, agreed. “In general the capitalistic system that corporations are built within is the problem. Our system needs to change,” she said. “Corporations rely on growth, and as individuals we have the power to consume so much… we complain about things being expensive but they should be expensive if we take into account all the costs – including the cost on the environment.”

However, some people feel they can no longer stand with the climate change activists. One of those people is Zach Taylor*, an SFU student who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym to retain his privacy, who simply can’t get behind the activism because he believes there are too many flaws in the modern discourse.

“Since the 70s [activists] have been prognosticating doom but you know we’re in 2019 and the world’s not collapsing,” said Taylor. “I realized, what is the point of this science if it’s not going to be updated and if the whole scientific method is to prove what is true? But you’re only looking to prove what benefits your position then how do we even know that you’re correct?” What irritates Taylor is the apparent hypocrisy. In the 1980s Bernie Sanders prophesied doom in the not-too-distant future, and in the 1990s Al Gore repeated the same message. Yet both politicians own multiple homes and draw far more than their fair share of energy from the grid – all the while preaching that others must reduce their consumption.

Besemann disagrees. “The discussion feels unproductive when we discuss whether climate change is a serious threat or not. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that it is.” She believes being blunt about the situation is the only way. “Climate change is more important than any individual’s feelings.”

Besemann feels the time for talk is over and the time for action is now. Takei agrees, but also addresses that we are dealing with an ambiguous multi-headed monster. “The way we live is just not even within the realm of reason for what we need to do,” he said. “Even if we get the people who adamantly disagree about it to say ‘hey, it’s an issue,’ then what? Where does the conversation go from there?”

Even though Taylor holds opinions that most people would disagree with, he feels he can’t even take part in the conversation because he won’t be afforded the opportunity to speak. Instead of engaging in an honest debate where he could be convinced to change his mind, he feels that he’ll only ever be shouted down. He admitted that he has tried speaking his mind in class before. He recalled one instance where he brought up a theory proposed by Northumbria University Astrophysicist Valentina Zharkova – who instead attributes the changes in the earth’s climate to signals pointing towards another ice age – as an alternative in a class discussion to test the waters, only to be shot down and called a climate change denier and a right-wing conspiracy theorist.

However, Besemann feels there is no time to wait, and the consequences of being wrong are too great to bother arguing. “Even if things did work out fine, do we want to go ahead with one big dangerous science experiment on our planet?”

At this point, Taylor has checked out of the conversation. “It’s really not worth it to go and poke the beehive all the time because at a certain point I’m going to offend the teacher and that’s going to [affect] my mark.”

Another student who was surveyed anonymously at CapU stated that “People can be too pushy or overwhelming in their approach towards climate change.” Several respondents to the survey issued admitted to being constantly stressed about the state of the environment and the impacts it will have on them and future generations.

Other respondents claimed there is “so much emphasis on demonizing each other” and “when people use photos of sick polar bears and attribute it to climate change and then it comes out that it had nothing to do with it… little things [like that] that are meant to play on your emotions are extremely detrimental to the movement.”

“I want to get on board with it, but their intensity scares me away,” said another respondent. “Especially if [activists] only point out my shortcomings as opposed to teaching me new ways of helping out.”

Working Together to Instigate Change

A recent Guardian article provided some suggestions based on commonly touted solutions. Do we all need to go vegan? Do we need to forfeit having children? Stop travelling? The answer is no – however, by limiting meat consumption, travelling less and teaching our children to live sustainably we can limit our impact without too much sacrifice. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing solution. At a governmental level, we can push to implement green taxes to promote the creation of green energy infrastructure, and make systematic changes.

But if we truly want to make headway, we may need to open up the conversation be more inclusive of contradicting opinions. Taylor suggests honesty is the best policy. “Be honest. People need to be honest about what their intentions are.” He worries that a lot of people bring a political agenda to the conversation, which is he believes is a barrier to open dialogue.

Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom, and in the midst of it all, the youth have risen.

On March 15, hundreds of thousands of students all over the world took to the streets, inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, Greta Thunberg. It was one of the biggest rallies for climate change yet, sparking hope in many. Meanwhile, Copenhagen’s mayor, Frank Jensen, recently announced that the city aims to be carbon neutral by 2025. The city has already cut its emissions by 42 per cent from 2005 levels, mainly by moving away from fossil fuels to generate heat and electricity. As seen in recent weeks, it’s often more effective to join forces rather than point fingers.

At the end of the day most of us agree that we have to work together to combat climate change. Takei has made peace with himself and accepted that he alone can’t make a huge impact. In order to make headway however, we need to provide realistic alternatives and learn to adapt, which can only happen through collaborative conversations that address the needs of those tied to the current structure. Even if it feels unproductive at times, an important aspect of that outcome is tied to the discourse, and if people are feeling alienated from the conversation or if nobody is prepared to lead by their own example, then no progress will be made.

“We have to be willing to do what it takes,” said Besemann. “Otherwise, let’s hope Elon Musk saves the day by figuring out how to live on Mars or something.”

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