Photo: Why we can't afford to do nothing: the cost of energy complacency

Canada has the resources, education, expertise and thriving economy to drive research and investment into fossil fuel alternatives (Credit: swisscan via Flickr)

By Kealy Doyle, Communications Coordinator

We live in exceptional times. So exceptional that there's growing recognition that we've entered a new geological age: the Anthropocene, or the age of (hu)man. We have enjoyed improving standards of health, life expectancy and quality of life for several centuries, but never before in human history have we been so numerous, so hungry and so thirsty for a way of life sustained by a finite resource.

In a recent Science Matters column, David Suzuki highlighted how, in our increasingly desperate search for and extraction of fossil fuels, we are causing profound changes in the biology, geology and chemistry of the earth. Our pursuit of prosperity at any cost has led to aggressive exploitation of our natural resources, such as trees and water, with little regard for the long-term consequences, which we are only now beginning to appreciate.

These natural resources provide us with essential services. Forests, oceans and wetlands filter our air and water, mitigate climate change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, and protect us from storms and floods. They are the very things that allow the human race to survive and prosper.

Yet the real value of these services continues to be masked by a consumption-driven economic system based on supply and demand of raw materials: fish, lumber, ore. The tremendous economic growth of recent centuries is not sustainable if we deplete the ability of the natural world to provide us with the resources we have so hungrily consumed.

Ever increasing consumption is not sustainable in the long term. Despite suggestions to the contrary, there will come a time, if not now certainly in generations to come, when we reach the point where we cannot become more efficient because the cost of extraction is simply not viable.

The human and environmental cost incurred in reaching that point will be tremendous. In the developed world, our relative wealth and influence insulates us from many consequences of our actions. But the impacts are felt in other parts of the world when people can no longer afford their staple diet or farm their land. We have already seen the environmental costs, when shifted weather patterns and increasing global temperatures cause crops to fail, land to flood, animals to starve and people to go without.

It's not too late to start building a sustainable future. We can even take the lead. Canada has the resources, education, expertise and thriving economy to drive research and investment into fossil fuel alternatives now. We should not wait until prices, a mechanism greatly influenced by profit-driven markets, reach a breaking point with all the human suffering that entails.

We can create a national clean-energy plan with clear ways forward. We can ensure the true value of the environment is accounted for in our economic systems and the management of natural resources. And we can introduce policies that encourage green investment, in order to make these technologies efficient and affordable as quickly as possible.

We can also make changes in our daily lives by reducing the amount of fossil fuels we use, getting involved in our own communities and making sure our leaders make a sustainable future a priority.

We've been lucky enough to avoid total collapse so far. Unfortunately, that's no guarantee that we'll be able to do so in the future if we carry on as normal. Let's act now. We can be a force for good.

Do your part to sustain our natural resources: Demand clean air, healthy oceans and a stable climate.

June 14, 2011

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