Friday, February 21, 2014

Environment under Siege

I woke up this morning to saddening news. Federal scientists confirm that Alberta oilsands tailings ponds are leaking, polluting ground water and seeping into the Athabasca River. This is not new news. This didn't just happen yesterday. But this news is important because federal scientists are saying it, and not just maligned environmental groups. This information is from some of the few remaining scientists at the federal level, after many research facilities have been closed or had their funding reduced (see a very scary list here: http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/blog/federal-programs-and-research-facilities-that-have-been-shut-down-or-had-th), as our federal government continues to muzzle all voices that do not agree with them.

I cried this morning because of this news. I was born and raised in Alberta. My family took regular trips to the Rockies, driving along the TransCanada Highway, seeing the sparkling waters of the Athabasca river. When oilsands projects became more economically feasible with the rising price of oil (around 2006) and the rate of oil extraction increased, all I could think was that this is an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. We're like frogs coming to boil in a pot of water right now, not noticing the temperature increasing until we're dead. If the environmental impact is relatively slow and not glaringly obvious (though anyone visiting any tarsands site couldn't possibly think that), we don't notice, or want to notice. This is why environmental damage, aka climate change, can be ignored or denied by so many people. Because if we actually believed it was happening, how could we, as a society, vote in governments that deny, and in fact attack, environmental warnings from multiple scientists and environmental agencies? Yet, that is the political climate that we live in right now, with Harper's government at the federal helm.

I've never felt so afraid to speak my mind about government and the environment. I've always felt privileged to live in this Canadian democracy, naively believing in free speech and that my vote counts. I haven't written a blog post for many months because I've been afraid of how my own words can be twisted against me. This past year, in addition to farming, I've been appealing an Employment Insurance ruling against me from 2008/2009 that used as evidence, my own blog posts about finding a new career in farming. After much stress and time spent preparing a lengthy written rebuttal (with much welcome input from friends), I appeared before the Appeals Tribunal in July 2013 and I won my appeal. But along the way, I felt persecuted by my own government, shamed by their false accusations, and afraid of its power over me: to garnish my earnings, to take my land, to stop me from farming. This was the rotten cherry on top of a whole load of other government issues which have been raising my political ire for years.

I am not the only one who feels persecuted. The Harper government is shaking out the couch cushions, looking for every dollar given out that they can take back, and they seem to be targeting those people who don't have the resources to fight back. People supposedly like me, barely eking out a living, unable to hire lawyers, or take time off from work to put together a defense, or perhaps without the analytical and writing skills to do so. How many people get the government letter and go further into mountains of debt as a result, without the perseverance, sheer stubborness and/or energy required to sit on hold on the phone, get hung up on, sit on hold again, read through government documents, look up legal acts on line and all their changes over the years, and construct a meaningful defense? Meanwhile, those with great resources defraud the government with impunity. Much like the corporations who cause the pollution, benefit, and then our tax dollars are used to clean up their messes.

Harper is also targeting environmental groups because they keep speaking up about the negative impact of our country's continued preference for fossil fuels (oilsands & pipelines) as our major government backed resource. They currently face Canada Revenue Agency audits (http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/7-environmental-charities-face-canada-revenue-agency-audits-1.2526330 ). I remember a few years back when a Mennonite newsletter was threatened with losing their charitable status because one of their youth columnists asked people to make informed voting choices (thereby implying it wouldn't be for Harper's government). Harper's government doesn't have to send the police after you (though they did with the G20 protests in Toronto), they'll just use whatever government agency is at their disposal to persecute you.

The Harper government fear mongers...there won't be any jobs without the oilsands...our economy will tank...oil is inevitable. And they bully...unemployed people throughout Canada flock to Alberta for work, partly because new EI rules almost require them to do so. And we wonder why our kids suffer from so much bullying in schools and at such young ages, either as bullies or the bullied. Our own government and society set the tone, with adults bullying each other in government and corporations. They serve as the template.

Everyone needs to feed themselves and their families, but our country doesn't have to be so heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry. Profit at the expense of the environment doesn't have to be our only choice. The IMF released a study in March 2013 stating that countries need to rein in energy subsidies. For Canada, in 2011, that subsidy amount was $26 billion (http://www.desmog.ca/2013/05/10/just-how-much-exactly-are-you-paying-subsidize-fossil-fuels ) to the fossil fuel industry. Imagine if that money were spent on research and development into renewable energies instead! Maybe we'd already have more efficient and affordable solar cell technologies and wind turbines that aren't so controversial.

I live in a region that hates wind turbines. This is not essentially because they are green energy, but because they are imposed by the provincial government and outside corporations and do not benefit the communities into which they are placed. I don't blame people here for hating the wind turbine projects, which set neighbour against neighbour and increase the urban/rural divide. People in Toronto would fight even harder against them if they were made to install them in their neighbourhoods. Yet wind energy doesn't have to be harvested in such large scale, monolithic projects. Many other technologies could be developed at various different scales and installed accordingly in different environments. The same can be said for solar projects. Our government and society's obsession with large, corporate projects, means we've stopped considering other ways of doing things. Resilience and diversity are not  prized in the corporate world; economies of scale and efficiency are the buzzwords there, though they are the opposite of how our natural environment works.

I went into sustainable farming because I think it's somewhere I can impact personally, even if only on my 40 acres of land and spread out to the 60 odd families in the GTA I supply with food in a growing season. I believe if hundreds and thousands more of me could do the same at various scales, the world can actually change. I have been accused of great naiveté on this front, but I would rather do something, at whatever scale I can impact, then pretend the world is ok the way it is.

I refuse to be afraid any more. I'm writing this blog post today because I'm fed up. I've survived one government persecution, and while I hope to stay completely off their radar in the future, I can't be so afraid of poking the beast, that I say nothing at all in this public forum.

I believe there are many solutions to our environmental problems and that we need a society and governments that are willing to explore the various options. We do not need to be afraid to try new things, to say no to technologies that damage. We can disagree with our governments and vote for the people and ideas that represent what we actually want in our society (if they would actually have the courage to run for office!). I wish for a democracy not based on fear-mongering, that allows communities a say in their futures, where our political representatives are worthy of respect. I wish for a country whose various industries succeed without destroying the environment and without exploiting their workers. I wish for us all to feel empowered to bring about change.