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Dossier

Our Green Gaps

How our daily actions fall short of our goals to fight climate change.

Editorial

GREEN GAP 

The disconnection between our good intentions and our daily actions
when it comes to the environment and climate change.

 

Our Apocalypse Fatigue

From the moment I get out of bed, I feel like every decision I make is a test of how committed I am to fighting climate change. My spirit animal is an angry owl shaming me with a hard stare from his branch on a withering tree.

Thank God I have not yet succumbed to the seduction of the coffee pod. But how sustainably is my essential cup of morning joe actually harvested? What’s the total footprint of the thousand-odd cups I knock back every year? Being the editor of an environmentally conscious magazine, I should probably keep track. We all should. The pride I feel when I hop on my bike to get to work is evident —I give myself a mental pat on the back— but on the weekends, I zip around the city by car covering much more ground. At home, I compost, I recycle, I shop at zero-waste grocery stores. But when at work, time flies, and I often end up picking up quick lunches wrapped in so much plastic packaging that I have to try and squeeze it far down into my small office garbage can so my colleagues won’t notice.

Every day is made up of tiny victories, and, hopefully, negligible failures, which, in the end, paint my personal footprint a pretty pale shade of green.

These past months, I’ve come to seriously wonder, if most of us know to some degree what’s best for the environment, why do we make the “wrong” choices again and again: the organic carrots elegantly packaged in a non-recyclable Styrofoam tray, the heart-shaped palm oil chocolates at the pharmacy counter, the flight to Hawaii for a much-deserved vacation… We may never be able to know the full significance of our individual actions, but we sense the bigger picture. Our collective wrongdoings do amount to some striking statistics and truths about our everyday paradoxes.

Here are just a few that may pinch your heart:

Source: Climatic Change, vol. 125, Issue 2, July 2014.
Source: Carry Your Cup, 2017.
Source: European Parliament on palm oil and deforestation of rainforests, 2017.
Source: Science, Vol. 354, Issue 6313, 2016.
Source: Federal Highway Administration, 2017.

So yes, we — both individually and collectively — have a hard time walking our talk when it comes to the environment. This is what David Owen, prolific author and long-time writer for the New Yorker, describes in the latest issue of BESIDE Magazine as the “Green Gap.”

 

“Most of the putatively climate-friendly behaviour changes that I and other reasonably concerned people have adopted during the past couple of decades —recycling our trash, upgrading to more energy-efficient appliances, buying produce at farmers’ markets, bringing our own shopping bags to the grocery store— have been minimally beneficial, sometimes even counterproductive.”

“The main effect has been not to halt the world’s accelerating slide towards catastrophe, but merely to relieve the consciences of the guiltiest parties, often while making the underlying problems worse. The disconnect between good intentions and useful action has been referred to as the Green Gap. It’s the place where most of us live.”

David Owen

Life in the green gap

An essay by David Owen

Read an excerpt here

The concept does not apply to individuals who want but cannot afford to make more environmentally friendly choices. Neither does it apply to people who need to be convinced that climate change is real. The Green Gap concerns all of us who could afford to pick a more responsible option at checkout, go the extra mile to change a daily habit, and vote the party with the strongest environmental policies into office.

The Climate Change Diet

We can no longer blame our disconnect on a lack of knowledge. We are being fed a pretty hearty diet of alarming facts about climate change. Here are just some of the most impactful statements from the scientific community that media outlets across North America circulated in 2017:

Source: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2018.
Source: Earth Overshoot Day, 2018.
Reference: Nature, Vol. 546, Issue 7660, June 2017.
Reference: National Research Council, 2013.

What strikes us as problematic, though, is how the media largely focuses on demonstrating the seriousness of climate change and nature’s impending peril as a result. This tends to polarize the debate between the two dominant voices, climate change “believers” and “deniers,” even further, offering equal coverage to each side (even if, in reality, one of these voices represents a small minority both in the scientific community and the public). Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School, explains that our “position on climate change has come to signify the kind of person one is,” which would be good news if it meant acting on those values. But with the conversation so polarized and sterile, action is of lesser importance.

Bold stats might also thwart our best intentions. The larger the piles of data we read on ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, or the myriad quantitative economic goals that policymakers set to overcome climate change, the more distant we feel. It is fundamentally difficult for us to absorb information that is far away in time (think 2100), in distance (think the Arctic circle), and in scale (think earth’s temperature), and react personally.

In recent months, the stories we hear have become more relatable; California, Puerto Rico, Florida. But even these tragedies are difficult for us to link back to the impacts of our daily actions. And there is a risk to focussing on the scenarios of a climate apocalypse. Journalist David Wallace-Wells was criticized over the summer for publishing a story in New York magazine predicting that:

“It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.”

David Wallace-Wells

These apocalyptic statements can trigger a lot of guilt. But even worse, we get accustomed to them over time, even secretly thrilled by them. We become desensitized from the reality that is slowly hitting us.

 

CLIMATE PORN

The sensationalism of alarmist news about climate change becoming a secretly thrilling, apocalyptic construct of our cultural imagination rather than a constructive message.

According to Norwegian economist and psychologist Per Espen Stoknes, what we come across in the media is generally “abstract, doom-laden, fear-mongering, guilt-inducing, and polarizing” information that contributes to making us feel only more helpless, desensitized, and paralyzed by guilt. So there are reasons to believe that what’s behind our inability to stick to what we know and hope for the environment comes from a fear of what we might lose if we made all of the appropriate changes to live up to our ideals. It’s too easy to simply blame media sensationalism for our own Green Gaps, or blame our policy makers for not restricting us more in order to adopt better habits (David Owen suggests strategies for making traffic worse, to discourage us from taking our cars). Instead, we could wonder what would happen if our discomfort became part of the narrative.

What if we started by acknowledging that we fail, as individuals, a little bit every day to address climate change directly in our lives? There actually might be some value in knowing that your neighbours are just like you, doing a little bit better or worse from one day to the next. We may not see our aggregated actions making a difference on a large scale, but exchanging our shared difficulties in overcoming “apocalypse fatigue” might enable us to find better ways to fill our personal gaps.

 

Green Gap Diary

Collective Confessions

Since we here at BESIDE have become able to put a tag on these everyday actions that fall short of our responsibility to the environment, our office has become a bit of a laboratory for documenting and reporting our Green Gaps. Some of us still drive to work, some of us continue to order takeout, we leave electronics charging all night, but we also hold each other accountable, which can get pretty hilarious sometimes.

Nonetheless, we are not alone, not by a long shot, in facing these daily paradoxes of the global citizenry. So we decided to reach out to a bunch of professionals — illustrators, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, visual artists, and scientists — who we know are deeply concerned with the state of our climate and aspire to live in a healthier and more sustainable world, to see what challenges confronted their day-to-day lives. Their responses came in like a tidal wave of sincerity. We’ve pieced these confessions together into a diary for you to enjoy, with the hopes of kick-starting a different kind of conversation, one that stems from a more personal and positive place.

Perhaps this will be the key to start crafting more realistic solutions…

“I’m a good person. I always pick up any piece of garbage I see in a national park, but I also burn 80 litres of diesel fuel to get there.”

Jeff Spackman - Outdoor and adventure photographer based in Alberta

“It feels good to be able to enjoy non-polluting activities in harmony with nature, but you paradoxically have to drive for hours to get there.”

 

SÉBASTIEN THIBAULT

Illustrator from the Gaspésie region whose editorial work is inspired by the social and political issues of our time
Catherine Lepage
Author, illustrator, and co-founder of design studio Ping Pong Ping

“We bought an electric knife for one reason alone: slicing our sandwich bread.”

Christine Beaulieu - Actor, author, and creator

“I’ve got a geothermal system set up at home… but I still can’t dip my toes in the water if my pool isn’t heated.”

Jean-François Bouchard - Visual artist, founding president of creative agency Sid Lee, and head of the C2 board of directors

“The only way to cure my hangovers: taking baths, sometimes 4 of them.”

Vincent Bilodeau
Animator director and artistic director

 

 

“Tomorrow, I’ll be flying to Palm Springs, California, to give a talk about water—and I’ll be taking my golf clubs.”

David Owen - Staff writer at the New Yorker and author of over a dozen books

“During the winter, because I’m really tough, I proudly keep my heating at no higher than 18 °C [64 °F]. It’s the perfect chance for me to spend the day in my nice wool sweaters, thick Christmas socks (even when it’s not Christmas), and oh-so-comfortable (and ugly) jogging pants. Problem is, at night, to defrost, I take a hot shower for at least 15 minutes.

“Well done, Boulerice.”

Simon Boulerice - Actor, playwright, director, poet, and novelist

''A little insight into my Green Gap: I'm vegan and that's good for the planet and its animals, but I tend to eat my salads with disposable plastic forks.''

KANE TCHIR
Founder of the multi-dimensional illustration and art studio NICENOTHINGS based in Vancouver

“I carefully prepared some healthy food for my unsupported expedition crossing the Chugach Mountain Range Icefield. I’m sick of eating airport food, and I am against GMOs and other chemical products ending up in my body. However, on day 14 of our journey, my expedition partner Børge Ousland took a big bag of marshmallows out of his sled. We ended up grilling them over the stove with the help of our extra tent poles. I felt guilty in the end!”

Vincent Colliard - French polar explorer, adventurer, and co-founder of the IceLegacy project

“I’m constantly doing mental calculations for my own personal carbon ‘guilt-print’… If I’m not having children, how many flights per year does that allot me? If I reside in an urban area and stick to public transportation, can I get away with a little extra time in the shower?”

Ksenya Samarskaya - Brand consultant and founding member of the graphic design studio Samarskaya & Partners

“I have yet to find a meal that cooks itself better than a steak. I know that our meat consumption is prodding us toward our own extinction, but when I’m on the subway after a long workweek, I can’t conceive of a five-minute meal that tastes anywhere near as delicious as a lightly seasoned, fat-encased, pan-seared hunk of flesh.”

Aliya Pabani - Host of The Imposter podcast based in Toronto

“Sometimes, I take my car out for no other purpose than filling it with gas.”

Philippe Brach, Singer-songwriter

Valentine Thomas
Spearfisher, accomplished chef, and ex-lawyer

“My long-term documentary photography project uses an aerial perspective to examine renewable energy development. I usually fly in small helicopters and airplanes to shoot this project. Thus, I am adding to my carbon footprint, while promoting ways for us to reduce our collective footprint.”

Jamey Stillings - Photographer and founder of the Changing Perspectives project based in New Mexico

“I can describe in detail why factory pork is an environmental and ethical nightmare, but I still treat myself to a delicious sausage whenever I pass through the market by my house.”

Mark Mann - Writer based in Montréal and Toronto

“I consider myself to be conscious about climate change, but each day, I turn a blind eye as I fire up my old diesel Land Cruiser and a big puff of smoke fills the forest behind my place…”

Shayd Johnson - Outdoor photographer and amateur sasquatch researcher based in Vancouver

“Living in Europe, I do everything I can to travel by bus or train so as to lower my carbon footprint, but my Green Gap includes six flights over the last three years to Italy, Croatia, America, Japan, France, and Finland.”

Kaori Mitsushima
Freelance illustrator based in Prague

“I have over 200,000 lifetime flight miles with United Airlines, from flights taken both for work travel and for adventures around the world. This yields me a whopping 35,000 kg carbon footprint, heavier than a Sherman tank. All the while, I love the benefits frequent flyer status gives me, including upgrades, which actually worsen that footprint!”

David Jalbert-Gagnier - Principal at Objective Subject, a design firm in New York City

Matthieu Dugal

Radio host, reporter, producer

 

“Quite honestly, I never thought I’d write this. In fact, it’s not exactly easy to do considering how people judge this lifestyle in all levels of society, from left to right, top to bottom. I’m clearly not going to get likes, friends, or gratitude with this confession. When I’m done I promise I won’t ever mention it again.

“To make a long story short: about a year ago, my girlfriend started her 21-day vegan challenge. I say ’her,’ because if I’d started off saying ‘Okay, I’m doing it with you’, I would already be picturing my glorious return to omelettes, rosemary lamb chops, osso buco with extra parsley, tender tilapia, and delicious sausages of all kinds. Because I love meat. I’m crazy about it.

“A pretty big fan of fish too. Black cod in a butter sauce? Tuna steak with a balsamic reduction? Thick-cut salmon drowning in lemon juice? Bring it on. And cheese… Don’t even get me started. Dates stuffed with blue cheese. Yum.

“But hey, if I’m going to deprive myself for three weeks, might as well find out why.

“I’m going to be completely honest with you (and with her): Even though I really love my girlfriend and I think her online presence is really awesome, I’d never really tried to understand the reasons behind her veganism. In fact, it always kind of got on my nerves (just a little, though) to see her posts, her persistent enthusiasm. Besides, I told myself, we’ve been eating meat for thousands of generations. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s as normal as it gets. And seriously, we’re at the top of the food chain, we’re predators like a thousand other predators in the animal kingdom. Have a thought for the suffering of lesser beings? Fuck that. Cage aux Sports!

“In other words, I thought vegans were a little over-the-top with their fanatical prohibitions and refusal to enjoy scarfing down good food.

“You’ve probably noticed by now that science is one of the main beacons that guides me through my earthly existence. It’s during these three weeks of research, where I attempted to approach this lifestyle from a critical point of view, that I came to realize a few things. It’s true that certain vegans border on ridiculous; they almost sound like Jesuits telling natives there’s a God far greater than theirs they need to welcome into their hearts. Apart from that, though, veganism makes a lot more sense than a meat-based diet. By one hell of a wide margin.

“Strictly from a thermodynamic point of view, eating meat is a bit as if we were still heating our homes with coal. The amount of energy and water we need to produce a kilo of meat, milk, or butter is simply unsustainable if we want to be able to keep feeding the 10 billion people who will soon inhabit the earth. There are 70 billion livestock in the world; the food, fertilizer, and medication we give them, and the shit they produce, amounts to an environmental catastrophe of the same magnitude as Trump’s insistence on opening oil drilling areas like they were McDonald’s franchises. The river and ocean areas that died because of the fertilizer used in industrial agriculture (mainly to feed livestock) are choking even the toughest ecosystems.

“If everyone avoided eating meat, the number of farms required to feed everyone would be 20 times lower, and we know for a fact we need more forests.”

“And that’s not even counting overfishing: more and more studies show that we’re progressively, and literally, emptying the oceans of all life. For a kilo of fish caught, we kill five kilos of marine biomass. According to many experts, unless you only catch two or three trout once in a while in a lake in the Laurentians, the concept of responsible fishing is a bunch of greenwashing bullshit.

“Since Darwin, we’ve also come to understand that we’re only one branch of the evolution of life on earth, and what we thought was exclusive to us, consciousness, is probably pretty common. Neuroscience is unequivocal: our industrial livestock are endowed with consciousness and they suffer. So, on the highway, when I come across a truck full of pigs on their way to the slaughterhouse when it’s rainy and cold, I figure they’re aware of their painful lives. I’m not being sentimental; it’s scientifically proven. Whether you eat meat or not, it’s something you need to know.

“Organic meat, cows in the fields, free-range chickens? That’s great, but the quantity of land required to meet our collective needs is simply impossible to reach.

“Like many experts, I came to the conclusion that the meat industry is scientifically and environmentally unsustainable. Such an enormous environmental mess just to have something in your mouth that tastes good? I don’t buy it anymore.

“Do we really need meat and milk and fish to survive? No way. It’s far from essential.

“Is veganism within everyone’s reach? For a bunch of reasons — health, accessibility — no. I’m lucky enough to have a decent income (but seriously, meat is hella expensive) and live where vegan options are pretty much available everywhere. I chose not to have children, so I don’t need to deal with pressure from their school or friends.

“I’m also lucky to love food, all of it (in fact, apart from bananas and goddamn parsnips, I’ll eat pretty much anything). I’m lucky to have an incredible girlfriend with whom I enjoy cooking real gourmet food, not just tasteless substitutes for food I actually like.

“We already know that collectively, we don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Our populations have fibre deficiencies, and that causes a bunch of health problems that are too long to list here. Can we live better by avoiding eating meat? We sure as hell can.

“It happens rather frequently that during a shoot, I’ll have to eat out with the team. Am I going to cause a fuss? No. If you invite me over, I’ll probably grab a slice of your dry sausage before dinner. And I still eat oysters (until proven otherwise, oysters have no consciousness and farming them doesn’t endanger the oceans). Do I feel righteous? No way. I’m as full of contradictions as the next person, I own up to them, and I’m obviously open to discussing them.

“I’d really like to thank Marianne, my wonderful girlfriend, who helped me realize all this by initiating this change, which isn’t nearly as hard as it looks.

“Is my choice a way of condemning my colleagues and friends who do things differently? Not at all. I’m not going to speak out against something I did for decades.

“You can judge me quietly, or not. But I hope you’re still going to talk to me. I’m still going to laugh at vegan jokes (a lot of them are really funny). I love you all, I wish you a great year, no matter who and where you are. And thank God beer is vegan.

 

Afterword

We are perfect*

 

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces,
I would plant my apple tree.”
— Martin Luther

 

In this unique amalgam of stories about how we fail to honour the earth that hosts us with appropriate etiquette, I actually hear a tenor of hope. It’s a community of people saying, “This is how I wish I behaved, but this is how my lizard brain reacts instead.”

Social media marketers figured this out a long time ago. They know that the loftier our ambitious humanistic aspirations, the more susceptible we are to falling for the easy and comfortable options scrolling down our screens: autoplays of cat videos on Facebook, ready-to-cook dinner delivery services, a one-click purchasable juicer on Amazon that inspires us to buy more fruit than we’d normally ever consume, only to watch it go bad on our countertop.

We’re hard-wired to operate within a system that, by design, lures us into making choices that are damaging to both our health and our environment.

But that’s no reason to bang our heads against the wall. We might feel helpless at the fact that the planet is heating up, we might disappoint ourselves from time to time, but we must also recognize and acknowledge our strong desire for change and our astounding track record for reaching new social and environmental milestones. As climate change journalist and creator of the now defunct New York TimesDot Earth blog states:

“In our variegation and imperfection, we humans —with motivation and sustained work— are perfectly suited for surviving, and perhaps thriving, in a consequential, complicated century and changing climate.”

Andrew Revkin

The more we visualize our immediate impact on the environment — how we pollute our air, how our stuff is made, the shelf life of our most common goods — the harder our discomfort will be to silence. And switching to more environmentally friendly choices won’t be a luxury anymore, it will be a necessity. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

This feeling of urgency has already begun to inspire scientists, entrepreneurs, and citizens alike to make bold and creative changes in their lives: the fisherman who has adopted sustainable ocean farming methods, the entrepreneur who uses beekeeping as a tool to unite communities, the ecotourism-funded biologist dreaming up ways to save coral in the South Pacific Ocean. These people are committing their lives to bringing us choices that allow us to have a positive impact on the world. These are the stories we should hear more of: stories of the glass half full.

“The more we tell these stories, the more we will begin to live them.”

Per Espen Stoknes

In order to feel this urgency in our daily lives, it’s been proven that positive peer pressure can actually help bring about motivation. If, for example, you saw a poster on the subway stating: “90 per cent of people in your neighbourhood are actively composting and therefore cutting their waste production by half,” chances are you’d get your hands on a bin yourself and start filling it right away. Call it FOMO, call it our competitive side: there is no wrong way to inspire positive action.

In the end, radical change on a large scale isn’t going to happen by shifting the blame around. It’s going to happen by voicing our discomfort, demanding to be presented with better choices, and holding ourselves and each other accountable for the stewardship of our planet, so that gradually, acting in favour of the environment becomes effortless. And our lizard brains can fool us no longer.

*The title of Andrew Revkin’s TED Talk on our behaviours and climate change.