One Winter Night

Posted by in Article

When Jim Boucher was a young boy, around the time the oil sands industry came to his forest, he was returning alone by dogsled to his grandparents’ cabin from an errand in Fort McKay. It was a journey of 20 miles or so, and the temperature was minus 4 degree F. In the moonlight Boucher spotted a flock of ptarmigan, white birds in the snow. He killed around 50, loaded them on the dogsled, and brought them home. Four decades later, sitting in his chief-executive office in white chinos and a white Adidas sport shirt, he remembers the pride on his grandmother’s face that night. “That was different spiritual world,” Boucher says. “I saw that world continuing forever.” He tells the story now when asked about the future of the oil sands and his people’s place in it.

A poll conducted by the Pembina Institute in 2007 found that 71 percent of Albertans favored an idea their government has always rejected out of hand; moratorium on new oil sands projects until environmental concerns can be resolved. “It’s my belief that when government attempts to manipulate the free market, bad things happen,” Premier Stelmach told a gathering of oil industry executives that year. “The free market system will solve this.”

But the free market does not consider the effects of the mines on the river or the forest, or on the people who live there, unless it is forced too. Nor, left to itself, will it consider the effects of the oil sands on climate. Jim Boucher has collaborated with the oil sands industry in order to build a new economy for his people, to replace the one they lost, to provide a new future for kids who no longer hunt ptarmigan in the moonlight. But he is aware of the trade offs. “It’s a struggle to balance the needs of today and tomorrow when you look at the environment we’re going to live in,” he says. In Northern Alberta the question of how to strike that balance has been left to the free market, and its answer has been to forget about tomorrow. Tomorrow is not its job.

We decided to try an experiment. For one month we tracked our personal emissions of carbon dioxide (Co2) as if we were counting calories. We wanted to see how much we could cut back, so we put ourselves on a strict diet. The average U.S. household produces about 150 pounds of CO2 a day by doing commonplace things like turning on air-conditioning or driving cars. That’s more than twice the European average and almost five times the global average, mostly because Americans drive more and have bigger houses. But how much should we try to reduce?

For an answer, I checked with Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth. In his book, he’d challenged readers to make deep cuts in personal emissions to keep the world from reaching critical tipping points, such as the melting of the ice sheets in Greenland or West Antartica. “To stay below that threshold, we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent,” he said.

“That sounds like a lot,” PJ said.” Can we really do that?”

It seemed unlikely to me too. Still, the point was to answer a simple question: How close could we come to a lifestyle the planet could handle? If it turned out we couldn’t do it, perhaps we could at least identify places where the diet pinched and figure out ways to adjust. So we agreed to shoot for 80 percent less than the U.S average, which equated to a daily diet of only 30 pounds of CO2. Then we set out to find a few neighbours to join us.

John and Kyoko Bauer were logical candidates. Dedicated greenies, they were already committed to a low-impact lifestyle. One car, one TV, no meat except fish. As parents of three years old twins, they were also worried about the future. “Absolutely, sign us up,” John said.

Susan and Mitch Freedman, meanwhile, had two teenagers. Susan wasn’t sure how eager they would be to cut back during their summer vacation, but she was game to give the diet a try. As an architect, Mitch was working on an office building designed to be energy efficient, so he was curious how much they could save at home. So the Freedmans were in too.