Sunday afternoon, the first weekend in June. It’s a glorious day, more like summer than spring. We are paddling kayaks in Howe Sound, surrounded by ocean, mountains and islands, and counting seals and eagles.
We are not alone. In the waters around us others are enjoying the beautiful blue sky day. There are motor boats filled with families fishing, picnicking and water-skiing. Off in the distance other boaters are travelling to and from their cottages. Water scooters zoom noisily back and forth. From the mainland across from us, we hear the roar of traffic on the Sea to Sky highway – folks coming home from a weekend of hiking or mountain biking at Whistler, and motorcycle riders making the long day’s circle trip up the Duffy Lake Road. High overhead, seaplanes filled with sightseers circle around the scenery.
It’s a busy day in Howe Sound. Everyone’s finding their soul space, doing the things that give them pleasure, and enrich their lives. It’s at the heart of why we love this province, and why we live here in coastal BC. And it is all completely and utterly dependent upon fossil fuels.
Without carbon products, the only sounds in Howe Sound would be waves lapping on rocky shores and the beat of seagull wings.
Strung out along the mountainside just across from where we are paddling is the community of Lions Bay. It was once home to a few waterfront cottages. Now it’s a community of over 1300 people. Made possible by, and utterly dependent upon, our car culture. As a place to live, it fails every walkability score ever devised. Yes, there’s a community school, but it stops at grade 3. There’s a village hall. There’s a small general store that serves great cinnamon buns, and a real estate office, and a marina, but that’s about it. Everyone who lives in Lions Bay does their shopping somewhere else, a bus ride or, far more likely, a car drive away. They would all be helpless without carbon fuels.
The same is true for all of us who live or play in Howe Sound and its islands. There’s Bowen Island, increasingly populated by folks who commute daily by ferry and water taxi to Vancouver. There’s Gambier and Keats and Anvil Islands, with cottages and boat docks lining their shores. It’s motor cars and motor boats that make it all possible. And the chain saws that clear our views, and the generators that operate our water pumps, and the ferries and the water taxis that deliver us to our destinations. And yes, of course, even the plastic kayaks in which we are paddling.
There’s a breath-taking gap between the promise we have made to reduce our carbon output and the reality of our lives.
I feel this all the more acutely because I know that some of those boating or driving around on this lovely Sunday afternoon will spend their Sunday evening writing letters to the editor insisting that we keep the LNG vessels and oil tankers away from our precious waters. LIke them, I believe that Howe Sound is a special place, and I am glad it is cleaner today than it was a generation or two ago. I certainly don’t want to turn back that clock. But I also don’t want to live in denial - to pretend - or even simply just ignore - the reality that without carbon none of us could live or play in these waters.
But what about the orcas? Yes, there are the orcas that, for the first time in my life, are swimming in Howe Sound. Those orcas. They are beautiful, majestic creatures. I always know when there’s a sighting. That's because I can see the train of motor boats following behind and surrounding them.
The problem, I think, is not that we aren’t superficially sincere in wanting a better, cleaner, sustainable environment. It’s that we assume that all that heavy lifting is going to be done by someone else, somewhere else, some other day, while we continue to live and enjoy our carbon-dependent lives to their fullest. As if, somehow, we will have done our part for the environment if we insist that the pipelines and tankers go somewhere else. But please make sure I can still afford the gas I need for my boat or car!
Canada has signed on for ambitious carbon reduction targets. As the Canada West Foundation recently pointed out, the amount of the reduction required by the year 2030 is equivalent to the elimination of all GHG emissions from Ontario, Atlantic Canada, Manitoba and the Territories. Completely shutting down the oil sands would only get us partway there. The reductions in carbon activity required to achieve this target are nothing short of transformational. Are we actually ready for that change? As I look around at the busy waters of Howe Sound on this lovely day I don’t think we have even begun to turn our minds to the magnitude of the task.