Choosing the worse environmental evil

First the trees have to be cut down, then the earth must be dug up. Once the pipe is laid into the ground and in operation, the contents pumping through it will pollute the soil and water if it ruptures. If living creatures ingest the contents they’ll become very sick. It’s expensive, dirty and time consuming to clean up the mess.

Sewage pipes are taken for granted in modern life but I don’t remember the last time I heard criticism of their consequences. I do remember the last time I heard criticism of natural gas pipeline projects.

Living in this part of Canada there are many voices slamming every aspect of the planned gas pipeline. The gas-guzzling generators powering the worker camps, the disruptions of contractors’ trucks on forest roads, the risk of explosions in the pipeline, natural gas is a fossil fuel and burning it releases carbon dioxide, etc. And all those concerns are valid. The pipeline will be a big project and environmental standards must be upheld.

However, sometimes we have to re-focus our attention and try to see things that are so close we miss them. The fact is that modern industrial life is bad for the environment and entails a lot of injustice.

The smartphones we buy and use for communication were most likely made in China, where labour conditions in the factories would be illegal in Canada. If an industrial accident at the factory causes toxic chemicals to leak into the soil or air, the management can bribe the authorities to avoid facing any consequences. The plastic in the phones is made partly from oil, most likely imported into China from Saudi Arabia, a kingdom where the ruling authorities think little of human rights.

The coffee we drink every morning is grown on plantations in Central America where the working conditions would shock most Canadians. The coffee is then packaged and transported thousands of kilometres north by truck which burns gasoline and releases emissions into the atmosphere.

All of these actions are byproducts of the supply chains that keep our modern lives going. We buy these products because it would be too expensive – or not even possible – to produce them in Canada, but we’re not always aware of the implicit ethical choices made in our trade systems.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t put a spotlight on what corporations are doing with natural resource development projects in Canada. We should. And we need look out for the well-being of our communities and our environment and hold companies accountable for their actions.

But if we really care about the environment we should first examine the impacts of our ingrained modern habits and economic structures. It seems like blaming the actions of a company coming here from outside the region absolves us of looking in the mirror.

I worry that in a few years, after the pipeline is built and the work camps are gone, most of us will still be sipping coffee and playing on our smartphones while being outraged at another problem blamed on outsiders.


Blair McBride
Multimedia reporter
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