Evan Saugstad: Clean air, clean dirt, and clean water


Clean air, clean dirt, and clean water – shouldn’t these be our environmental priorities?

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Unless it's a major calamity like the Mt. Polley tailings pond breach, someone’s home being consumed by a wildfire, or Victoria crapping into the Pacific Ocean, all we seem to hear about is carbon dioxide in our air, or equally as much, the potential for some pipeline to break and spill its contents and kill the last chinook salmon that feeds the last starving whale.

Yes, our ever-changing climate and the effect that increasing carbon dioxide production has on our climate is important, but we seem ignoring just how important our “old” priorities were and still are. Stories about how we look after our air, or water or dirt are scarce, though I did read one the other week about Burnaby restoring its streams and how salmon are coming back to spawn in what used to be industrial ditches.

B.C.’s 2019 proposed budget estimates about $58 billion in expenditures. Try finding any new expenditures to ensure we have more or better clean water, air, or dirt. We have added $111 million over three years to help fight and prevent wildfires, and $13 million for reforestation efforts due to wildfires and forest disease/pests. Yet, $462 million is taken out of one “dirt” ministry (Forests, Lands, Natural resource Operations and rural Development). Going backwards?

I tried to find references in the budget to money being allocated to help feed our starving southern resident killer whales, or dollars for helping to increase our caribou herds, or any other endangered species, but couldn’t. Guess it's because they don’t vote.

Looked for any money to help make our water cleaner and ridding B.C. of boiled water advisories, but no specific mention. In fairness, there could be money in the $20 billion capital investment fund, but its stated purpose is for health, transportation, and education.

Looked for any money to clean-up old garbage dumps, contaminated lands, improvements to better soil for farming, but alas, nothing, no mention. But, I could find $902 million in the budget to help rid of us those “evil” fossil fuels.

Remember when it was important that we had clean air to breathe, clean dirt to grow our foods, and clean water for everything related to life? Remember when our top media stories used to be when one of these three were violated and we actually cared? What happened?

Simply put, we have become overly focussed on one issue, that being carbon dioxide and climate change. That shouldn’t be and we shouldn’t be losing our focus on our environment.

Day after day, we read headlines about how weather-related climate change impacts that “could or might” happen in 50 or 100 or 200 years, and wipe out huge parts of the world, even though we can't forecast next week's weather. Yet, we hear little about the need for and day-to-day efforts to clean up our world, not only locally, but globally.

Although Canada still has, for the most part, the cleanest air, water, and dirt there is on Earth, the rest of the world isn’t so lucky. For a month this winter, I toured Morocco and Egypt. Last year, it was Cambodia, Lao, and Myanmar, and for the years before that, other Third World and developing countries, and what I saw was much the same.

Clean air is hard to come by (and I am not referencing carbon dioxide). It would be a long list if I tried to tell you of the number of places I have been where there is no blue sky, where you watch the sun disappear into an orange haze, well before it has the opportunity to sink below the horizon, and, at the end of a day visiting some of the world’s most historic and romantic places, one's eyes and throat are sore.

Water courses where you wonder how they can call them rivers and streams, as they seem to be more like flowing sewage lagoons or garbage dumps. Most clean water, other than in major cites with sophisticated water treatment facilities, comes from plastic bottles. And then there are the acres and acres of land covered with garbage where nothing grows. As to clean dirt, it's hard to say how good their farm lands are, but I sure hope their dirt is better than what one sees along their highways and in their cities and towns.

And where are we, as Canadians, in all of this?

Sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that all of that doesn’t matter, as we have a better idea. We think that banning our use of fossil fuels and plastics will make a difference. Do we really think that we will solve the world’s problems by paying carbon tax while we all just keep consuming more energy to survive?

News flash: The average person in the rest of the world just doesn’t seem to care.

Take my latest trip to Morocco and Egypt as an example. Egypt’s response to the use of fossil fuel? Subsidize it to the tune of about 50% so most of their population can afford to use it, and as they watch their population grow by about 2 million people per year. 

Ask someone from Cairo whether they ever see blue sky and they look at you like you are weird and picking on them – you don’t have clean air where you have 22 million people just trying to survive.

Try driving along the canal to visit the great pyramids of Giza and not wonder why anyone could treat their water that way.

Yes, Egypt is also planning to build its first new nuclear power plant at El Dabaa to try to keep up with demand. Morocco has built one of the world's largest concentrated solar power stations at Ouarzazate Solar Power Station. Where they can, they will do their part.

Yes, Canada, the world has big problems, and eventually, we will feel these same problems here at home. That filthy air will eventually make its way across the oceans, unless climate change brings us more rain to keep our air scrubbed clean. All those major rivers pumping all that pollution into our oceans will change how we view a day at the beach. And, for dirt? How much longer will we be willing to source our food from countries where we know nothing about what is in the soil where that food is grown?

Will this ever change? Maybe. Maybe these developing countries will look to countries like Canada for help in supplying and introducing technologies to help their farms, factories, vehicles and everything else to reduce their impacts on earth.

And maybe, just maybe, we Canadians will get off our high horse and instead of opposing almost everything industrial, have our best and brightest minds go to work solving the world's real problems, sustained by a prosperous economy that allows us to spend time doing just that.

Simply put, it's much easier to convince the world’s population that we need access to clean air, clean water, and clean dirt, as we can easily see the results and don’t need anyone to convince of this need. Once that occurs, reducing our carbon footprint will surely follow.

Evan Saugstad lives in Fort St. John.

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