The absurdity and injustice of now

I’m back from a short sabbatical, grateful for some time outside of my daily work and home life, feeling all big picture. But as I settle back into work, I feel like I’m seated in a Theatre of the Absurd play. My news feeds are pulling up astonishing things.

Exhibit one: the North Pole at the moment is a one-foot-deep aquamarine lake. After reaching record low ice cover and thickness at the end of summer 2012, an ice-free arctic in the summer is coming sooner rather than later. All of that blue water absorbing solar radiation instead of ice reflecting it back to space will compound global warming. And as it melts it releases the greenhouse gas, methane, which will further increase warming in one of those bad feedback loops scientists have been warming about for decades. A new study puts the cost of this methane leakage at $60 trillion, a number hard to fathom but close to the world’s GDP in a single year.

Exhibit two: extreme weather is doing some major damage. It’s going to take a while for final numbers to come in, but damages from the Calgary and region floods are estimated in the $3-5 billion range. In Toronto, total damages of $1 billion or more seem plausible. It is important to note that some damages are covered by private insurance, but there are the uninsured too, and even for those with insurance, there are deductibles, caps and fine print. Private insurance notably does not cover replacement of public infrastructure, either. Insurance coverage can be less than 20% of total damages from a natural disaster. In central Europe, flooding caused about $16 billion in total damages back in May, amid a very wet spring. Flooding is a big theme this year, but extreme heat is also a problem: the “heat dome” recently burning up eastern North America, and drought conditions across the plains. All of a sudden, air conditioning is a human right.

Exhibit three: extreme energy development is making a mess. The train derailment, explosion and spill at Lac Megantic is obviously top of mind. Pipeline spills have also been much in the news (even as pipeline companies aspire for new capacity via Keystone XL, Northern Gateway (through northern BC) and Trans Mountain (to Vancouver)). But breaking news includes spills as a result of new extreme tar sands processing, with “unstoppable” leaks from in situ extraction that injects steam below the surface to heat and pump out the bitumen.

The combined impact of damages due to both climate change and from the fossil fuel industry writ large were tallied last year at an impressive $1.2 trillion per year, worldwide, or 1.6% of world GDP. This number will only grow due to “baked in” temperature increase from emissions over the past couple decades.

The injustice is in who wins and who loses from these developments. Those who lose their lives, or homes, or towns are not the same folks who benefit from fossil fuel industries (although Fort MacMurray, ground zero for the tar sands, also experienced flooding last month). You and I benefit from fossil fuels, it is true, but I’m talking about the $1 trillion in profits going to the Big 5 oil companies between 2001 and 2011. These are odious profits – gains made at the expense of others because their business model is to externalize as many costs as possible. Spills are just a cost of doing business, and sticking taxpayers or ecosystems with as much of the cost as they can get away with is only rational for your typical sociopathic corporation. There are workers who benefit as well from the high wages paid by the industry, although in places like Fort MacMurray these must tempered against higher costs of living, being away from home and family for weeks at a time, living in bunkhouses near toxic fumes. Most of those workers would rather be back home doing meaningful work if was available.

Alas, the political response to this news from our Canadian leaders has been to double down on fossil fuels. BC, lauded just yesterday for its carbon tax, has turned its back on climate action. Instead, the province is seeking to become a fossil fuel export platform of epic proportions. While attention has been focussed on the inevitable spill impacts of Alberta tar sands pipelines and tanker traffic being proposed by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan, BC’s front line also includes efforts to massively expand coal ports to facilitate US coal to Asian markets. As well, multiple liquified natural gas plants are under consideration, each of which will be an energy hog, with new pipelines to fracking operations in BC’s northeast. And they will make it impossible for BC to meet its legislated greenhouse gas reduction targets.

But one has to think that all of this damage, from climate change and business-as-usual for the fossil fuel industry, portends political change. Perhaps not this year, but our collective denial of the costs of our fossil fuel addiction has to come crashing down at some point. Or not. Such is our choice right now: is humanity a plankton bloom, here for a good time not a long time, or can we stitch it together to become something more long-lasting on this planet. Life on planet earth will go on, but what will become of the great human drama that has unfolded over the past hundred thousand years? It’s our collective choice to make, so time to roll up our sleeves and build a social movement that will push our political class to action.


  • I get flashes of pure panic now and again when I read about the atrocities happening worldwide – largely because I can’t fix it myself, and I don’t really know where to begin. We need collective action immediately, but I continue to merely spread the word. I ignore it all from time to time and get lost in house renos all the while recognizing that it’s just a way to distance myself from reality. How does the revolution begin? Where do I sign up?

  • It truly is something that is paradoxical for Canadians and the planet. Yet we elect such deniers like Harper, however we do have many provincial leaders of all stripes that have failed to act as well. And then the media, who continue to report on some of what you have outlined above, but never with a thread or a critical voice. And the the community level, not much there either, hauling fallen trees, filling out insurance claims, and burying the dead, without much connecting the dots. It is this level that I am concerned about the most, because that is where change is critical. And then there is the problem itself- it is always presented as insurmountable, and overwhelming. I do think there are audiences that need different messages, however we need to build on positive where we can find it, and keep building the notion of capacity. But we still do need to keep pushing the understanding, and sadly given the inaction by many actors in Canada, we are still stuck in the absurd.

  • Hey Marc, I have been poking around the edges of looking into the global solar power industry- wondering if you or others have any useful sources to contribute. I was thinking of profiling the industry and writing a small piece. I have started with China’s attempts- seems like a whole pile of trade war being enacted by various governments. I do wonder who is pushing these destructive efforts. I do understand the US was pushing thin film tech and that somewhat buckled under when China’s traditional solar severely under cut the thin solar costs due to exchange and production costs mainly (I think by lower labour costs). Every year – every square meter on the earth receives sunlight with the equivalent energy capacity of a barrel of oil- and that is on average (using the older photovoltaic tech- more promising lower cost tech is nearing)! Read more here. I want to dig into this industry and get a fix on how or actually existing capitalism is shaping and developing this resource.

  • thanks Marc, I have been studying China’s economy and there is a huge issue amongst competing multinationals and a trade war with China within the Solar industry. Yesterday marked the signing of an accord that will hopefully bring some economic stability as the EU and China signed off on trade treaty. Not sure of how this treaty actually works out from a public goods perspective i.e. maximizing solar power installation- but the price tag seemed to involve access Wine coolers! Amazing THE HURDLES!

  • The prize for dumb dangerous statements has to go to Gary Doer as he utterly betrays his progressive background. It’s pipeline or rail, he said – meaning approve Keystone or we’ll ship it by rail. In the aftermath of what just happened in Quebec, it sounds like a threat! It’s as if neither Canada nor the US had the power to regulate rail. To make the latter “safe” would presumably involve long-term investment in oil cars, which is back to your basic point that long-term investments are the surest sign that our masters are not serious about abandoning fossil fuels. (Nor adding new lanes to expressways, as we are doing here in Ottawa.) Sadly, it appears that we have to experience how much more horrifying consequences of extreme weather before we will really do something. That day will surely come and we must all do whatever we can to hasten it.


    Not sure if you heard of this technology or not- but if something like this is possible, then we could see even more incentive to electrify the car on a massive scale.

    I wonder if that tech will be destroyed by the status quo- so much change forces used to preserve the status quo – I am absurdly amazed.


    A great report out by MIT and some others stating that China’s dominance over the Solar industry is not because of low labour costs- it was and is industrial strategy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *