Environmental Concerns In the Forest City and Beyond

We constantly read headlines about the various tipping points of climate change the planet is passing with pleas to alter our course, but what can we really do? In fact, are we going to do anything? On October 6, 2016, the LYAC held a discussion about the environment. Ward 14 Youth Councillor Mike Scafe led a discussion on environmental issues, from the concept and perceptions of environmentalism on a wider scale, to environmentalism as it is practiced (or not) here in our own backyards, to the issue of apathy.

Who Should Read This?

  • Environmentalists and their skeptics
  • Every resident of the planet!

Environment versus Environmentalism

Mike asked the group: What do you think of when you think of environmental issues? Some members of the group perceived environmental issues as something that will come to a head 40 to 50 years from now, and others shared a more survivalist idea of environmental issues, of ensuring having enough resources to survive into the future. The question also brought to mind specific environmental issues, such as recycling, pollution, and tree cover.

One point that came up when discussing environmental issues was the use of the specific term “environmentalism.” Two terms “environmentalism” and “environment” often paint different images and carry different meanings. With this in mind Mike asked the group: When you hear the term environmentalist do you hear a positive or negative connotation? Here are some of their thoughts:

  • People aren’t as likely to use the term environmentalist because it has a negative connotation, specifically a sense of judgement.
  • Environmentalist organizations such as Greenpeace come under fire because they use controversial advertising. People will often agree with stances, but think the activist actions themselves are problematic.
  • Environmentalists get the most positive connotations of every activists and are  judged differently from groups like feminism. It’s easier for people to deny systems of oppression than science, (though there are people who deny science as well).
  • Perceptions of environmentalism can vary from place to place. For example, within Canada, the perception of environmentalism might be different in an oil province such as Alberta.
  • Being an activist can be a privileged position, particularly when thinking of consumption-based activism. It costs more to shop locally/ethically.

Mike pointed out that environmentalists are often perceived as annoying because they want people to change their behaviours. He asked to what extent should people try to make people uncomfortable, arguing that people are too comfortable in their lives and need to look at themselves. These ideas of comfort and change would come up throughout the meeting.

Is the Forest City Green?

From greater questions on the nature of environmental issues, Mike brought the discussion to a local level. London is famously named the Forest City, but is London a green city? Mike asked the group this question, and the responses were mixed:

  • London is a car city, with the exception of specific pockets of walkable areas
  • Biking is dangerous due to the lack of trails and bike lanes as well as bylaws preventing cyclists from biking on the sidewalk
  • London, for being the Forest City,  is actually drastically below the recommended amount of tree cover
  • We are seeing a shift back to communal transport with a focus on public transit.
  • New highrise developments downtown might be good for economic growth but they will upset the local ecosystem

Specifically when thinking about London’s openness to environmental issues, Mike asked about the proposed City of London green bin program. One councillor commented that the green bin issue is part of a long list of things people don’t want, noting that London was one of the last places to get recycling as well. Other members of the group offered some clarification on the issue:

  • When the green bin program came up before council, the problem was budget allocation. The previous years of tax freezes under mayor Joe Fontana created a shortfall.
  • When the LYAC toured the landfill recycling plant, the workers at the plant explained that they were finding a way to capture methane and turn it into energy, but the province turned down their attempts 3 times. Landfill sites are provincially controlled.

Issues of cost and control certainly provide challenges to developing a green city. Though the green bin program is still to be seen, the London Plan, a plan developed to guide London through the next 20 years of development, seems to have environmental issues as an outlined concern. Mike explained that one of the priorities of the London Plan is conserving greenspace.  He asked the group about the benefits of having greenspace. Here are some of their thoughts:

  • Greenspace can contribute to overall wellness
  • Property values are raised with the presence of nature.
  • Mixed-use greenspace can make for an attractive city.
  • Support natural ecosystems, if we keep building on them we disrupt the ecosystems

The group also noted that green spaces can be a source of engagement with the city, both for individuals and communities. One example given was the self-tour by the Thames River as a form of individual or group engagement. A community event such as the Gathering on the Green in Wortley Village was also named as an example of using green space as a way to get people engaged.

The Possibility for Change

The uncertainty when it comes to change extends beyond London and beyond Canada to envelop the planet. Mike asked the group a difficult question: Do we care enough to change? Here are some of the thoughts the group shared about the motivation for and nature of change when it comes to environmental action.

  • Even if the attitude for change is present, change is still a complicated process in terms of who bears the impact. For example, the city is talking about limiting the number of trash bags and fining people who have more than the limit. An action like this could disproportionately impact low-income people. Are individuals who already face so many barriers the right target for these types of punishment?
  • There is a lot of lip service paid to helping the environment from oil companies, claiming they care to a certain extent, and truly only supporting until it hurts the bottom line
  • Some groups who do have an interest are primarily interested in NIMBYing (Not In My Back Yard) to the point of putting pipelines through Indigenous communities or offloading waste to other countries – an out of sight, out of mind mindset.

Mike argued that people don’t want to change unless change is easy, and does not interrupt their lives. He explained that individuals will often say yes to different initiatives until they personally have to give up something. On the flip side for people who are invested in change, there is the perception of those people who care as judgemental, creating a barrier to understanding. The LYAC did not solve any environmental crises this evening, but everyone left the meeting with some points to think about. There is a lot of social interplay and social pressure at work that keeps people from attaining a mindset for change.

Personal Stories

One member of the group went to Vancouver for a trip and appreciated the ability to leave the city for the beach, being near the water and finding a space away from the city for congregation, particularly a space where you are not obligated to buy something (meeting friends in a public park versus meeting in a cafe).

Another member of the group shared that green spaces were a large deciding factor in choosing where to pursue her post-secondary education. She was considering the University of Ottawa, but she found the campus to be more of a concrete beach as opposed to Western with it’s abundance of trees and trails. Green spaces can provide a much needed mental break from the study environment.

Reporter’s Notes

It’s incredibly overwhelming to look at the climate crises placed on our shoulders and wonder what one person can do. I don’t think the answer is necessarily consumer-based activism – and I say this as I partake in that very act, trying where I can to make what I perceive to be the “ethical” choice, whether that be shopping local, organic, free-range, or any of the other labels that we ultimately use to define ourselves as caretakers of the earth through our dollars. Encouraging the continued production of even more choices of product seems a little counter-intuitive though, and it’s important to remember that even coming from the larger companies, there is always that underlying knowledge that companies go more green at least in part because being green is the new trend. While it’s a bit of a cynical way to regard that, perhaps we can use it to our advantage. Perhaps making “green-ness” trendy and attractive flips the social pressure so that environmental skeptics and apathetics won’t want to feel excluded from the fad of caring for the planet – clearly, we need more than a fad to save the world, but it’s a start.

Big Questions

  • What will make our population as a whole care enough to allow ourselves to be inconvenienced in our everyday lives – to make the more difficult changes necessary to preserve our environment?
  • How can we implement policies and strategies for environmental change that don’t punish marginalized populations?

Things We Still Need to Learn

  • What can we take away from how other cities implemented their green bin programs?
  • Are there cities facing similar obstacles that might have some different insights?