What the Pine Beetle is Teaching Us

More Good News: Real Solutions to the Global Eco-Crisis

By Sarah Fletcher

Published on July 1, 2010

More Good News: Real Solutions To The Global Eco-crisis
David Suzuki and Holly Dressel

Greystone Books
$22.95
paper
432pp
9781553654759

Holly Dressel calls them the “green techies”: the researchers who herald newfangled technologies to solve large-scale environmental troubles. But there is no global panacea, she explains in More Good News: Real Solutions to the Global Eco-Crisis, a study in sustainable living co-written by Dressel, an Adjunct Professor at the McGill School of Environment, and David Suzuki.

Less than ten years ago, for instance, proponents of agricultural biofuels endorsed growing renewable fuels, such as corn or switchgrass, rather than drawing on a steadily decreasing, finite supply of oil or coal. Canada, the United States, and the European Union quickly jumped in with tax breaks and subsidies for biofuel development.

Why, so quickly afterward, were the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Resource Efficient Agricultural Production (REAP) frantically compelling governments to amend the initiatives?

I interviewed Dressel, who took on the project with David Suzuki as a follow-up to the 2003 Good News for a Change. “When David and I wrote our first book (Good News for a Change), we were skeptical. We were the only ones who weren’t on board with biofuels,” Dressel explains. The initiatives simply did not fit with the conditions they had developed for global sustainability.

In fact, though neither Dressel nor Suzuki dismiss biofuels entirely, these have proven far from the godsend environmentalists hoped for. Large-scale deforestation, rising food prices, and widespread famines and food riots followed hot on the heels of the biofuel explosion. Not only that, but the targeted decrease in fossil fuel emissions proved largely a mirage as growing, processing, and transporting biofuels demanded as much energy as ever.

“We’ve got a whole society that’s convinced people that quick fixes are possible,” Dressel says simply. “But they’re only possible in the short-term.”

A dense overview of today’s environmental issues, More Good News explains why quick fixes do not work. It dramatically and optimistically redefines the conditions for sustainability when the meaning of the word has grown opaque, lost under the spell of short-term solutions, trends, and misinformation. Suzuki and Dressel draw connections between ostensibly different themes (agricultural biofuels only scratch the surface), examining the interplay between our oceans, forests, agriculture, water supply, and politics, in order to develop lasting principles of sustainable living. The book meanders through Ecuador and India, Canada and the United States, China and Zimbabwe and traces international trends in environment to come up with reliable guidelines.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, the authors stress; solutions to local problems must operate on a local level. It feels like an impossible goal in an age of globalization and increasing homogeneity, yet both insist that regional solutions are paramount.

A professor on the frontiers of environmental legislation and education, Dressel is relentlessly upbeat, both in print and conversation. In spite of the incredible spectre that lies ahead, she exudes an infectious enthusiasm. Talking to her is like chatting with an encyclopedia; she spills over with the information acquired in the year she spent writing, researching, and editing with Suzuki. The authors have a close personal friendship, having met twenty years ago as Dressel was doing research for an episode of The Nature of Things.

How did they manage the potentially awkward task of co-writing a book?

”We balance each other out,” Dressel explains. “I do much of the actual writing. David gets these great ideas, and I’m the one who goes ‘wait a minute.’ It’s a bit of a good cop, bad cop dynamic.”

Though she describes herself as cynical and suspicious, Dressel’s focus on positive empowerment is refreshing in a pessimistic, even apocalyptic, landscape of eco-books.
“A lot of books will tell you all the things that are wrong, but there is a much less certain sense of what to do.”

Foremost for Dressel is the importance of moderation – cutting back, consuming less, and developing flexible and multi-faceted solutions. Even green technologies bring their own troubles, as the biofuel example illustrates. Excessive use of wind power, the prototypical symbol of green and environmentally conscious living, is known to cause “wind turbine syndrome,” inducing nausea and headaches among surrounding residents. Thus Suzuki and Dressel advocate nothing less than a radical paradigm shift from traditional large-scale environmental policies and blanket solutions.

For readers discouraged and cynical about the state of the environment – disappointed in the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, frustrated when watching the BP oil spill spiral out of control and increasingly looking towards some terribly grey future – the prescriptions and observations of More Good News salvage some sense of optimism. Many grassroots movements are gaining a foothold and effecting local change. Techniques for a better world are already within reach. For readers who may come to the book with skepticism or resistance, the information is intended as a proverbial wake-up call to action.

“We have very poor journalism in Canada,” says Dressel. “In Canada, a lot of people don’t know what’s happening. Even the G8 and the G20 are coming around to the idea that the environmental crisis is real. Stephen Harper is very far behind.

More Good News is about things that we ought to know and don’t,” she continues. “The media are always drama, drama, drama, or else everything is great. Sorry, but it’s not like that.”

She hesitates when I ask if journalists are blowing the environmental crisis out of proportion. “Well, we are in the biggest crisis since the beginning of humanity. We are acidifying the oceans. We are in huge trouble.”

The scale of the damage is humbling, particularly given the impressive repercussions of minute changes. Human intervention in otherwise balanced ecosystems frequently create unforeseen consequences. The practice of fire suppression in British Columbia, paired with unseasonably mild winters, created the perfect conditions for the pine beetle, which duly burst in population and ravaged over half of the province’s interior pine forests. Over the last decade citizens have watched as a creature the size of a grain of rice has wreaked havoc on their landscape, with an estimated 80% of the forests projected to be decimated by 2013.

Similar examples and case studies abound in More Good News, and they confirm Dressel and Suzuki’s point – that the smallest factors have unforeseen effects in a delicate but perfect natural balance. Throw one element out of whack, and the rest fall like dominoes. Nor can these changes be predicted. Like the stock market, the principles ruling nature are multi-faceted and often interact too intricately to predict.

Therein lies the problem of legislation, and the reason why solutions like agricultural biofuels and cap and trade have proven disappointing. Top-down solutions are almost inevitably bloated with bureaucracy and out of touch with reality. Whereas local people on the margins of society, with a desperate need to develop solutions for their survival and without the benefit of subsidies, are innovating sustainable solutions to support themselves over the long-term.

“People who live within an ecosystem are the ones who know it best,” Dressel underlines. She emphasizes that any sustainable system must mimic natural processes to be viable, and that what works for one region doesn’t necessarily work for another.

How, then, to apply Suzuki and Dressel’s principles in day-to-day life? Here and there the 400-page study is peppered with advice to readers. Get involved, and support local NGOs. Cut back on consumption, and engage in all the practices that have already caught on: recycling, buying local, commuting to work, conserving energy. For Dressel, the increasing interest in environmental living and activism since Good News for a Change is grounds enough for optimism.

“You end up with an enormous sense of empowerment and urgency. Ultimately that’s what we hope to leave people with.” mRb

Sarah Fletcher is a writer in Montreal.

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