Christmas is a complicated time of year. There’s the Yuletide carol and gay apparel, the peace on earth and goodwill toward man. There are wonderful acts of charity and more acts of shopping. There’s food, music, and for some, religion. And then there’s the end-of-year, off-the-treadmill downtime for reflection. And the fact that the planet is going to hell in a handbag.
Humans are good at not letting reality get in the way of a good time, and Christmas provides a great opportunity to hone those skills. I recall one Christmas Eve, sitting in my Sunday best at my grandmother’s dining-room table, trying to stay afloat in the grownup conversation and pass the gravy boat without spilling, while ignoring the inebriated family member grazing on the carpet at our feet.
A complicated time of year indeed, but with age and children of my own, I’m less concerned about drunk relations under the table than what’s going on outside the window. News on the planetary front is nothing short of dire. Between climate change, the most severe spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs and global pollution on an unprecedented scale, Earth has little cause for celebration. The belfries of the land will have to work very hard this season to be heard above the alarm bells of environmental science.
In October, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlined what is required to achieve the Paris agreement’s aspirational goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial averages. It amounts to “unprecedented change.” Represented graphically: carbon emissions, which have been climbing steadily since the postwar period, need to drop off a precipitous cliff. Now.
The report also explains how “every extra bit of warming matters” – how the seemingly trivial difference between 1.5 and two degrees of warming could translate to, say, coral reefs or no coral reefs, summertime ice in the Arctic or no summertime ice in the Arctic.
In November, the United Nations Environmental Programme followed up with its annual Emissions Gap Report, which tracks the divide between actual emissions levels and those required to meet targets. The gap yawns ever wider. Having stagnated for three years, global greenhouse gas emissions were on the rise again in 2017. Only half of G20 countries are on track to meet their stated emissions targets by 2030 and Canada is not among them.
It’s tempting to put a little asterisk next to the “Seasons Greetings” on this year’s Christmas cards and footnote a snappy quote from one of the world’s leading scientists. Such as: “The next few years are probably the most important in our history” (Debra Roberts, co-chair of working group behind the IPCC report). Or, “We know that we’re moving in the wrong direction” (Johan Rockstrom, incoming director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who foresees a three- to four-degree temperature rise, based on current plans). Or, “We are sleepwalking towards a cliff” (Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, whose most recent Living Planet Report records a 60-per-cent decrease in animal populations since 1970).
Of course, asterisks won’t suffice but something needs to be done. God knows we can’t rely on leadership from above. Confronted with his own administration’s report on the crippling economic impact of unchecked climate change, the orange-haired President of the second largest carbon emitting-nation in the world shrugged and said, “We’re at the cleanest we’ve ever been.” Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford felt justified in cancelling the province’s cap-and-trade program on the basis that Ontario has already done its part toward carbon reduction. His Environment Minister, Rod Phillips, derided ambitious climate plans as the work of “environmental sophisticates” who have “lost the storyline.”
Is the storyline so very complicated? A growing body of scholars feel that it can be summarized in one word: Anthropocene. They argue that we have entered an era in which, for the first time in geological history, humans are permanently affecting the planet, and not for the better.
This fall, my son did a project on water pollution for his Grade 5 social-sciences class. He found the research gratifying, because it was effortless. Every few days, the newspaper delivered a new nugget: “Dead whale washes up in Indonesia with 115 Plastic Cups, Two Flipflops in its Stomach”; “More plastic than fish in sea by 2050”; “Microplastics found in 93% of bottled water.” As the Bristol board poster filled up with alarming factoids, my son composed a little beatbox riff to accompany the presentation: a doom-and-gloom theme that could have been ripped off a Star Wars soundtrack. Problem is, this isn’t science fiction.
The other problem, as he pointed out, is that as he worked on the project, the classroom garbage pail fill up with the daily yield of the school’s snack program: around 20 plastic wraps of individually packed cheese sticks, or yogurt tubes, or disposable spoons.
Therein lies an important paradox. “Canadians’ concern for the environment is as high as it is anywhere,” says Stewart Elgie, associate professor of law and economics at the University of Ottawa and director of the university’s Institute of the Environment. “At the same time, we have one of the heaviest environmental footprints in the world.”
By almost any environmental measure – water use, waste, carbon emissions – we are, per capita, among the worst global offenders. According to Prof. Elgie, Canadians fall prey to two illusions. One, a product of our vast geography, is what he calls the “'we could never ruin all this' syndrome.” We look out onto yonder field or lake, where the snow lies crisp and even, and think: it can’t all be that bad.
The other illusion, particularly beguiling in this season, is that prices reflect the actual value of things. In fact, they’re compulsive liars, steering us toward the toy plastic firetruck made in China rather than the one crafted locally from sustainably harvested trees. They persuade us to order three cashmere turtlenecks for the price of two on Cyber Monday, rather than walk to a nearby shop and buy the one that we actually need.
Maybe this is where we can actually do some good this season, or at least less bad; stick a naughty-to-nice-o-metre in our pockets and try to err on the side of niceness. May we hark its beep as we consider the 36-foot prelit artificial Christmas rope garland with 100 clear lights at Home Depot, or the granddaughter’s request for a pair of speckled plastic eggs that hatch into battery-operated burping pets. May it steer us toward a nearby forest to collect boughs, or a local farm to visit real animals.
When it comes to wrapping and packaging and the swell of virtue we feel as we toss “recycling” into the blue bin, may it remind us that 72 per cent of Canada’s municipal waste ends up in landfill (more than twice the European level). And that, at 2.3 kilograms daily, we pretty much top the charts of per-capita waste generation in the developed world.
To those who worry that an environmentally streamlined Christmas will lack merriness – be heavy on tubers, beeswax candles and wailing children, traumatized by the preloved toys wrapped in outdated National Geographic maps that they found under the tree – I say, fear not. Many of the best things about Christmas, from music to wassail to mistletoe and what goes on beneath it, are pretty much carbon neutral. In fact, the closer we hew to traditions of yore, the better we are. Profligate consumption and waste are recent habits in the grand scheme of things.
And it’s the grand scheme of things that Christmas gets us thinking about. It may be a complicated season, but it – and every other one – will get a lot more so if we carry on, business as usual.