The Global is the Local

By Stephen (Team Deep Earth)

Sudbury has been the site of some of the most devastating local environmental destruction I’ve ever heard of. Throughout the 1900s the city saw vicious deforestation, “open-pit roasting,” and billowing sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions from ore refineries. Together these processes eroded soil, polluted water, killed vegetation, and harmed humans on a massive scale. Sudbury infamously became a “moonscape.” A Mordor-esque landscape of bare soil and soot-covered rocks. Mayor Brian Bigger grew up in Sudbury, and in our conversation with him last Friday he mentioned that as a child he thought all rocks were black until he saw one broken open and the true grey colour within revealed.

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source: sudburysoilstudy.com

The past forty years have seen a dramatic re-greening effort undertaken collaboratively by local universities, governments, and companies. Technological development has reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by orders of magnitude and millions of trees have been planted. The moonscape is just an embarrassing memory. Still, the city maintains a focus on local environmental protection. Mayor Bigger plans to release the “Sudbury Protocol” later this year in partnership with professors at Laurentian University. The Protocol synthesizes four decades of learning from Sudbury’s regreening efforts, drawing especially on the hundreds of papers published by local academics.

In our meeting I asked Mayor Bigger about the next big environmental challenge for Sudbury. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for a particular answer. We still have some momentum from the Paris climate negotiations; there’s lots of talk about carbon pricing in Canada, and the Premier are meeting with the Prime Minister this week to get started on what we hope will be an ambitious and progressive plan to help Canada achieve its GHG emission reduction goals. Meanwhile, you can see the smokestacks of local ore refineries everywhere in Sudbury, spewing billowing clouds of white smoke. Mostly SO2 still, but with some carbon mixed in of course. I wanted Mayor Bigger’s answer, as I would want any Mayor’s answer, to be reducing GHG emissions. That’s the next big environmental challenge for all Canadian cities.

I thought it was softball question. A big, juicy changeup, thrown right down the middle for our friend Brian to smash out of the park.

Instead, Mayor Bigger answered “watersheds.” Sudbury’s next big environmental challenge was watershed protection.

On the one hand, it’s an okay answer. Watersheds are a crucially important and drastically underappreciated part of environmental protection, and when we’re talking in Sudbury about heavy metals, tailings ponds, and toxic run-off, watersheds are hugely important to consider.

But the next great environmental challenge? The follow-up to the Sudbury Protocol? The dominant environmental issue of the next 40 years? Well…

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Note that Mayor Bigger was nothing but pleasant and welcoming to us.

Throughout our week in Sudbury I kept waiting for someone to talk about carbon reductions. Granted, I was coming to Sudbury directly from the Climate Choices Conference, a conference at the Wilfrid Laurier’s Balsillie School specifically about Canadian climate policy, and knew that the week after the Sudbury trip I was off to Vancouver for Globe 2016. I had GHG reduction strategies on the brain. But I still don’t think it was unreasonable to want somebody (anybody! please!) to talk about carbon reductions. Especially in an industry-intensive city like Sudbury.

There’s a curious dynamic at play here. The horrific destruction wrought upon Sudbury in the 20th century has led to what Brenda Koziol, senior scientist at Science North, called in conversation with us a “culture of environment.” Sudbury calls itself the “Education Capital of the North” and we interviewed Dr. David Pearson at the gorgeous Living With Lakes facility at Laurentian University. But during the week we heard far more about SO2 reductions and cutting-edge toxic run-off disposal techniques than cutting carbon.

I wonder if the intense focus on local environmental issues has left the perception of Sudbury environmental concerns too narrow. Is it impossible to think hard about serious GHG cuts when you’re so worried about protecting local water sources and trees?

I thought there might be a symbiotic relationship between these concerns. That Sudburians, having seen what happens when you don’t think about the effects of industrial costs being externalized to the environment, would care deeply about all things environment. We’re basically doing to the world right now what we did to Sudbury in the 20th century. It’s happening more slowly, but on a much wider scale.

Two more thoughts:

First: it’s key, I think, that we can hear about re-greening from someone like the Mayor. He experienced the moonscape early in his life, was part of the community that took aggressive action, and has been a direct beneficiary of that action later in his life. The problem with climate change is that the cause-and-effect relationship of aggressive action and tangible benefits won’t be felt by those who take action.

Second: the Inco Superstack, Sudbury’s most iconic building, was built to alleviate the effects of local SO2 poisoning. But it didn’t actually do much in itself to reduce total SO2 emissions. It was just built really really tall so that the emissions would go higher into the air, get blown around by the wind, and be distributed over a much wider area. Somebody told us that most of the emissions now end up somewhere in Michigan.

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photo: Stephen Clare

The Superstack that solves a problem, but doesn’t really solve the problem. If the perception of what ought to be protected was wide enough, the Inco Superstack wouldn’t really solve much of anything at all.

The same thought processes that led us to build the Superstack are holding us back from dealing seriously with climate change.  Our perception of “where” ought to be protected isn’t wide enough.

What Happens When Being Good to the Planet Isn’t Profitable?

By Team Deep Earth

Part I (by Stephen)

I’m thinking a lot about the dangers of just making a business case for sustainability. Businesses can save on electricity bills by replacing lightbulbs and appliances, reduce waste disposal costs, cut supply chain costs by being more efficient or recycling. But what happens when the return on investment doesn’t make sense on purely economic grounds? Then, by framing sustainability as a good business decision, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. It’s even harder to effect real change.

At our meetings today we learned that some local mining companies have made the emissions they’re sending up the smokestack less hazardous by filtering out some sulphur dioxide, converting it to sulphuric acid, and selling it to companies in other industries. But if they were still able to just send it up the stack unrefined they’d probably do so. Recycling the sulphur is a way to mitigate the cost of scrubbing the gaseous by-product, not a genius way to increase profit.

I know that the Centre for Impact Investing at MaRS tries to get investors to devote 10 percent of their portfolio to stocks which will provide lower financial returns but some good social benefits. There’s no equivocating about the economic cost. If you want to do good, provide social or environmental benefits, the market will not reward you. Your bottom-line will take a hit.

Maybe we need to just steel our resolve and be real about what it means to be sustainable, even in Sudbury. Internalizing the costs we’ve been externalizing to the environment for hundreds of years is going to suck. It’s going to be expensive. It’s not going to be a way to make more money (at least not in the short-term). Until we’re willing to have that conversation, and until we’re willing to force companies to pay those costs through legislation such as a carbon price or bans on certain practices, we’re doomed to fail. More missed targets, forgotten action plans, and lost decades. Let’s get real.

 

Part II (by Ian)

Working with B Lab Canada, I have come to strongly believe that the private sector must be involved in the fight against the complex social and environmental issues facing our communities. Our meetings on Tuesday in Sudbury with EarthCare and reThink Green highlighted the important role businesses can and need to play in addressing environmental issues. Both initiatives, EarthCare through the city and reThink Green as a non-profit, have key elements that focus on getting local businesses involved in sustainability work.

In our meeting at reThink Green it was exciting to learn about how Sustainable Waterloo Region, part of the Sustainability CoLab Network, is working with B Lab to expand their Regional Carbon Initiative. The program was originally focused on getting companies in Waterloo to reduce their CO2 emissions but is now expanding into a holistic Regional Sustainability Initiative that helps businesses look at a range of environmental factors. reThink Green will be launching its own program focused on businesses called Green Economy North. If the Regional Sustainability Initiative is successful in Waterloo, there is potential for it to spread to Sudbury and other cities in the province through the Sustainability CoLab.

It is really encouraging to see such interest from companies in Greater Sudbury to get involved in these initiatives but I still left with some reservations. The current paradigm around corporate social responsibility (CSR) is based on the idea that changes to help the environment will also always have a positive impact on a company’s economic bottom line. The argument is that companies need to make these environmental changes to increase their profits and maximize their competitiveness, with the benefit to the environment being an important but secondary selling factor. While I understand that this has been the only way to get many companies to even consider environmental policies and programs, I worry that it is not enough. While for a majority of situations I think there can be a win-win scenario between the economy and the environment, I don’t think it will always be the case. This argument continues to place corporate profit above both people and the environment, meaning that in the case of a trade-off, profits come first. It does not touch on the moral, ethical and very real issue that our current economy is operating beyond the limits of what our planet can sustain. At what point do we recognize that we do not need to be making environmentally focused changes in businesses to increase economic profitability, but because it is necessary if we want our economy to stop eroding the planet we all depend on?

Quick wins such as getting companies to recycle or use energy efficient appliances are an important first step, but I want to continue pushing further. I want to support companies that are willing to look beyond their bottom line and find ways of using their business model to a positive net impact on their community and the environment. I want to be working to build an economy with companies that use business as a force for social good, not CSR initiatives as a way to mask the harm the inflict. The B Corp certified companies and the business leaders I have met through B Lab prove that taking this next step towards true social and environmental responsibility is possible. I look forward to seeing the impact that EarthCare, reThink Green and the Green Economy North program have in Sudbury, and I hope that the B Corp movement can follow right behind to take companies to the next level.

Wide Open Spaces

By Stephen (Team Deep Earth)

Lacloche sunset
Sunset, La Cloche Lake Provincial Park. Photo: David Lawless

Before diving into research in Sudbury proper, Team Deep Earth has holed up for the weekend in a cozy cabin on the shores of La Cloche Lake, about an hour and a half west of Sudbury. Part of a beautiful little fishing retreat overseen by site supervisors/gracious hosts John and Anne (La Cloche Lake Camp), it’s the sort of place that seems to exist outside of time. The guest registry in our cabin goes back almost two decades. “Our first week here was spent as our honeymoon,” reads one entry from 2002. “Rick’s parents honeymooned 26 years ago here in this very camp.”

Another entry, somewhat less adorable, documents the local wildlife. There were sightings of beavers, loons, snakes, a fox, and a turtle. Regarding the turtle, the journaler, to Dave’s horror, writes “We watched as they cleaned him and we plan to cook the meat tomorrow.”

After six months in downtown Toronto, I find the white and empty frozen lake breathtaking. The first thing I saw as I came into the kitchen this morning was a pair of deer trotting out of the forest and onto the ice. They seemed unconcerned by evidence of human life, namely the half dozen ice fishing huts that dot the lake, as they made their way to the opposite shore.

After a magnificent pancake breakfast we, too, made our way onto the lake. Although the thickness of the ice was earlier demonstrated by the fishermen driving on it in pickup trucks, our first steps were trepidatious, and made more tentative still when we felt the snow give way and saw water bubbling up in our tracks. The days preceding our arrival had been above 0 Celsius, i.e. unseasonably warm – Sudbury’s all-time record February high is 9.6 degrees. I suspect this melted a few centimeters of ice on top of the lake, not all of which refroze overnight, leaving puddles of water all over the lake hidden by a thin layer of ice and snow.

In the city I never, in my day-to-day life, experience space like that desert of ice. I felt smaller and smaller as we walked further out to the lake’s center. Even my senses were reduced; sounds were muted by distance and I had to squint into the glare of the sun. Only random gusts of wind evidenced time passing.

We followed a trail off the lake and into the forest where snowmobiles had cut a slippery scar of ice into the crunchy white snow. Here I paused a moment and looked into the woods. The uncountable tree trunks made a messy tapestry before my eyes.I noticed in the chaos of so much crowded life how the hemlock trees, in their competition for sunlight and water, neatly spaced themselves a few feet from each neighbor. Each tree had claimed a few square feet to call home, in which to stretch out and drink in sunlight and water. Each tree standing in that spot for years, decades. Existing here before my time and after it. I felt the life around and within me and I realized that it would go on, silent and unseen, long after I left this place and returned to Toronto.

Dave scratched off a sliver of bark from one of the trees and let the sticky resin within ooze out. He scooped the glistening amber bead up with a twig and made us smell it. It was sharp and fresh and enlivening. It smelled like nourishing air; it smelled like long walks on twisting forest paths; it smelled like life itself.

I wanted to spend some time during our Quest at a place like this to remember smells like the hemlock resin. The passion that drives my environmental work was ignited during a childhood spent outdoors climbing trees, skipping stones, and chasing squirrels. I remember feeling the trees as a kid. I remember my hands sticky with hemlock sap. I remember wide open spaces. It’s when I forget those things that I struggle to get up in the morning and go to work, and instead lie in bed wondering what this is all about.

Another thing I remember: that our environmental crisis is fundamentally a matter of change. Human society is too frantic, dynamic, and is disrupting the natural world at rates it’s not equipped to handle. We’re too quickly burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, and dumping garbage in the ocean. We’re too quickly changing the world in which we live. And as quiet and eternal as the frozen lake I’m look at appears, the changes are all too real here.

In truth, this place doesn’t exist outside of time. Last week La Cloche was unseasonably warm, approaching record temperatures. Warm enough to melt parts of a lake that should stay frozen all through the winter. Now consider climate change: in ten or twenty years will there be ice fishing in February on Lacloche Lake? Will deer be walking out at dawn in search of food for the winter? What new species will migrate north with warmer temperatures, and how will they alter the delicate ecosystem processes that have led to the hemlock trees’ neighborly spacing?

I honestly don’t know, but I’d rather not have to find out. La Cloche, like so many sacred and important places around the world, is melting away before us. I guess that’s what this is all about.