Well-intentioned people produced some of history’s worst environmental disasters
Hundreds of millions of people around the world will be switching off the lights at 8:30pm tonight (March 31st) and we will too. It’s time again for ‘Earth Hour’ – the largest environmental event in history. Last year over 5,200 cities and towns in 135 countries participated, and that included a home near Grape Hall, Barbados where yours truly and a few friends sat outside in the dark and sipped cold Banks beer from the electrically-powered refrigerator still humming away in the house.
Luckily the petroleum-based paraffin wax candle burning on the kitchen table didn’t set fire to anything. To be truthful, we never thought about how the smoke from the candle impacted the ozone layer. We saw the candle as a symbol that we were doing our bit for the world.
We felt good about our little Earth Hour party. We were doing something important to help the environment. It was good for the environment, wasn’t it? It did help forward the environmental movement around the globe… didn’t it?
This year though we’re going to do something a little different: we’re going to talk about whether Earth Hour does any harm to the environment or to the environmental movement, and if so, what lessons can be learned and what should be done about it.
I can already hear the angry shouts from fellow environmentalists “How could Earth Hour possibly harm the environment? How could it harm the environmental movement?”
Calm down, friends. Unless you’ve thought about my questions before, why do you think you immediately know the answers? Why do you react so defensively when someone dares to deconstruct what you believe or asks you to verify that which you hold as environmental truth?
When science and common sense yield to shouted dogma
Shouldn’t we constantly question ourselves, our peers and the environmental elites and leadership? Why the defensive, dare I say almost religious indignation when someone dares to question the environmental dogma of the day? Where does this precious environmental dogma originate… from the environmental gods and saints? Is it therefore never to be challenged?
The environmental experts, gods and saints haven’t done so well lately. They have been wrong on more than a few occasions. Like all human beings they are sometimes wrong as individuals and not infrequently they act like a herd of lemmings headed for the proverbial cliff.
Waterless urinals: an environmental disaster
Take waterless urinals for instance. A few years ago at this very blog, BFP staffers Marcus and Robert proposed that Barbados make a law requiring waterless urinals in all new commercial construction. That sounded like a good idea in a water-short country like Barbados and it sounded like a good idea in water-short Boca Raton, Florida too. Perhaps the Boca Raton School Board read BFP’s article because sometime afterwards they installed waterless urinals at Spanish River High School.
The Boca Raton School Board wanted to be ‘green’. They wanted to feel good and be environmentally conscious. They wanted to save the planet. They were well-intentioned, just as the manufacturer of the waterless urinals was well-intentioned.
Flash forward a few years and the magnitude of the ‘waterless urinals’ environmental disaster is just starting to become apparent across the United States. The Spanish River High School ended up with “rivers of urine” flowing in the halls because “with no water moving through the school’s copper pipes to flush the urine into the sewer system, the waste produced noxious gases that ate through the metal, leaving leaky pipes that allowed urine to drip into walls and flow onto floors.”
Boca Raton will have to spend half a million dollars to rip out walls, replace pipes and re-do the washrooms at the one high school alone.
The same thing happened at Chicago’s City Hall and at California government offices. There’s nothing that says ‘We’re thinking green’ like fetid yellow/green rivulets of urine dripping from the ceiling onto your desk.
Boca Raton, Chicago and California are only a few of the hundreds or thousands of locations that installed waterless urinals because everybody knew they were good for the environment. Naysayers were shouted down because as a matter of religious faith, the environmental community just knew that waterless urinals were ‘greener’.
When the truth became known there was no apology from the environmental leaders who promoted this disaster – they simply stopped talking about waterless urinals and went on to the next best latest environmental trend.
Unintended and unforeseen consequences of low-water toilets
Then there was San Francisco where the city leaders decided that low-water toilets were a good idea, but they forgot to consider the fifty and hundred-year-old sewer pipes in their calculations. ‘Frisco saved 20 million gallons of water annually, but unfortunately there was no longer enough water flowing to push the euphemistically named ‘sludge’ through the pipes. The ‘solution’ to this new problem was $100 million dollars in repairs and upgrades, and 8.5 million pounds of bleach being poured into the sewers annually to kill the smell. That flows right into the bay. Without the bleach, the entire city smells like a suckwell for much of the year.
Ironically, the city also had to divert copious quantities of good clean ‘unused’ water to flush out pipes.
The only thing ‘green’ about San Francisco’s low-water toilets is the $100 million dollar unforeseen consequence of good intentions executed on a mass scale without sufficient testing, thought and questioning about what the city was really trying to achieve for the environment.
Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius – Don’t ask about the batteries!
Let’s not forget about the hybrid and all-electric autos that are said to be more ‘environmentally friendly’ than autos powered only with petrol or diesel. As the world is now discovering, those huge batteries have a terrible environmental cost both in manufacture and disposal. Can you say “Rare Earth”?
Your hybrid Camry might save a couple of hundred dollars a year on gas, but it cost 20% more to to buy. According to some calculations, the payback in saved gas vs increased purchase price is five or six years – but guess what? That’s just about when your pro-rated battery gives up the ghost.
If you want to frighten yourself environmentally and financially, Google “Replacing and disposing a Prius battery”. First though, if you own a hybrid pour yourself a scotch. You’re going to need it.
The real solution to transportation energy and resources conservation and the problem of ever more cars on ever more roads – especially in a small country like Barbados – is sufficient and modern public mass transit and the limiting of four wheeled vehicles by laws. That’s a difficult sell and death for any political party that adopts it as policy and backs it up with budget allocations and legislation. The public culture must change first. (Remember that!)
Ethanol: The most environmentally friendly fuel, right?
Do a little research on powering vehicles with ethanol and you’ll find wildly conflicting studies: each of them professionally done and current. Some respected scientists claim that ethanol takes more energy to produce than it delivers. Other great minds claim that ethanol is the answer and delivers twice the energy necessary for its production.
Who is correct? I don’t know… but only a fool would formulate a national energy policy for Barbados around ethanol at this stage, and without consideration for our limited and shrinking agricultural lands. Brazil is often held up as a model for successful ethanol production and use. Look at the map. Look at Brazil… now look at Barbados and remember that some of those Brazilian harvesters don’t turn around for miles and miles. What works in London won’t always work in Bridgetown. Some folks forget that!
What should we make of Earth Day?
By now, some of you are convinced I’ve joined the dark side, that I’ve given up on trying to make a difference. Quite the contrary, I assure you.
I’ve grown tired and cynical about politicians and self-appointed or group-annointed environmental messiahs declaring that their current understanding is best for the planet and best for the human race – and that the current knowledge is the end all and be all forever and ever. Amen.
I’ve grown tired of professional political lobby groups latching on to some environmental idea or technology and declaring “This is it!” when all they are really doing is promoting their own brand and laying a foundation for more fundraising and government grants.
I’m at the end of my patience with dogmatic zealots who buy into environmental concepts, technologies and ideologies to such a degree that they forget their solutions have to work in the real world: that people have to live, work, eat, travel, undergo surgery and enjoy life, and that it is our energy-driven technology and society that makes for the quality of life today.
But the ideological zealots don’t seem to care about people or the failed outcomes of some of the ideas they champion. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary the zealots refuse to budge from an idea until, as with the waterless urinals, they quietly slip away and disavow responsibility for disasters they helped to create.
I’ve also grown tired of mega environmental events that seem to be primarily about money even to the point of illustrating everything that the event is supposed to be against. Think about the Live Earth worldwide concerts held on July 7, 2007. That was quite the lineup of acts: most of which arrived at their venues via Gulfstream Jet, million-dollar tour bus or stretch limousine. Don’t even think about where the Live Earth profits went. In the grand scheme of things a few handfuls of chump change were thrown at real environmental changes. But we all had a great time partying, didn’t we?
Why I will shut off the lights tonight for Earth Hour
In 2009, Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute wrote this about Earth Hour:
“Participants spend an enjoyable sixty minutes in the dark, safe in the knowledge that the life-saving benefits of industrial civilization are just a light switch away… Forget one measly hour with just the lights off. How about Earth Month… Try spending a month shivering in the dark without heating, electricity, refrigeration; without power plants or generators; without any of the labor-saving, time-saving, and therefore life-saving products that industrial energy makes possible.”
… from the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights
Initially, Mr. Lockitch has a point: we have to live in the real world, and it is technology that is greatly responsible for the high quality of life enjoyed by large numbers of people today.
But that’s where Lockitch goes off track. He says “Earth Hour symbolizes the renunciation of industrial civilization.”
Maybe in his mind.
My friends and I view Earth Hour quite differently. It is a time for worldwide focus on where our societies are heading, on our local environment and on how the choices we make every day as individuals impact the environment in our neighbourhoods and on the other side of the world. It is a time to discuss where we as societies want to go – and what we need to do to get there.
When we shut off the lights, we are reminded of what life would be without technology, without the freedom to travel and communicate using the best vehicles and tools that have ever existed.
When the lights go out, we are reminded that the current course is not sustainable for Barbados or any country.
So while we are reducing, re-using and reconsidering our individual and societal priorities, we had better start working hard to invent and implement the technologies that will change the world.
Because new technologies can, will – and must – drive the enormous societal changes we need.
Sitting in the dark like cavemen is no solution.