Connections: a tale of two Smiths

by Stan Hirst

It’s a funny old world. The simplest things can turn out to be complicated once you start examining and  questioning. Which is often why most people avoid talking about issues and ideas and instead concentrate on simpler things. Like themselves.

Just such a question arose earlier this past year, prior to the Canadian federal elections. The Suzuki Elders drafted a memo to federal politicians urging them to consider the long-term effects of reckless resource exploitation on our grandchildren’s future. We were thinking specifically of climate change and actions which lead up to it, e.g. massive additions of carbon to the global atmosphere from Canadian sources such as the tar-sands. But, someone observed, most elected politicians also have children, and grandchildren too in some cases. Why aren’t they equally concerned about these issues and the future?

I actually tried to find out the answer to that. I wrote a letter to my MP (a Progressive Conservative) who has two children in high school and asked him that very question. The response was somewhat underwhelming. He thanked me for my continued support and urged me to contribute to the party coffers.

So let me try an analytical approach. I know two individuals who typify very different environmental  attitudes. I am going to examine their stories and see if I can detect any significant contributory factors.

Denzel Smith is a 36 year-old graphics designer, married with two small children, and owns a heavily-mortgaged house in Dunbar, Vancouver. He also owns a 10-year-old Toyota, two mountain bikes and a 52-inch television set. He has hiked the West Coast Trail a dozen times, and in summer hauls his wife and kids around the province on camping trips. He is a member of one racquet-ball club and three organizations which promote environmental conservation and green living. Denzel has attended numerous protest meetings and demonstrations against hot topics like the tar sands, oil pipelines and tanker traffic along the B.C. coast. He identifies with the underlying driving forces behind the current Occupy Movement, but considers the implementation as hopelessly misguided and ineffectual.

Just 1350km to the east, in Rosedale, Calgary, lives Justin Smith, aged 33. He is a part-owner of an electronics supply store. He too is married, and has two small children. He has a mountain bike and lots of other toys as well, including a Toyota FJ Cruiser, a Kawasaki Ninja 1000 which his wife detests, and a spanking new powerboat which spends eight months of the year behind his garage swathed in a blue tarpaulin. Justin is a member of a winter health club. In summer he rides, boats and jogs, sometimes with his family, sometimes alone. Justin supports oil and gas development in his home province, including the  pipelines being proposed to carry tar-sands oil to the U.S. and to Asia via terminals on the B.C. coast. Although he doesn’t do business with the oil industry, he is disdainful of west coast environmental groups who oppose energy developments in Alberta, referring to them as wackos, parasites and socialistic job destroyers.

These two Smiths typify two different attitudes to the environment.   Justin regards the natural world as an opportunity to test his mettle – a muddy track to be conquered by four-wheel drive, a lake to be crossed at full throttle, a prairie highway to be covered at the fastest speed possible on two wheels. He sees resource development and extraction in any form as economically imperative, necessary for progress and something which should logically be entrusted to private enterprise. He maintains that the critical bottom line will always point the way to a safe and appropriate scope of development.

Meanwhile, back in Lotus Land, Denzel thinks of his environment as a fabric, something in which he can immerse himself. He uses his bike as an exploration device. He knows every nook and cranny of the Endowment Lands that he rides through. He can identify a few hundred bird species and just about every common tree and native plant he encounters on his hikes. He is content to spend hours sitting on a rock next to a creek staring at everything or nothing in particular while the kids play in the rock pools. He is an urban dweller and a typical user of materials and resources that a modern life-style requires. He has no strong feelings about most developments,  he just objects strongly to single-focussed massive exploitation with huge impacts and huge implications for other users and for long-term sustainability.

One thing I forgot to mention about these two Smiths. They are brothers. Both born, raised and schooled in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where their parents still live. Both brothers attended the University of Regina, from where Denzel made his way across the Rockies to B.C., while Justin chose the shorter hop to Calgary. The Smith boys see each other once or twice a year, usually at Thanksgiving and usually at their parents’ home. Still one big happy family, although things can get heated if someone steals the last piece of pumpkin pie or mentions things like tar-sands or fracking.  So the Smiths are brothers and share the same parents, same upbringing, same schools, same social backgrounds, but they differ totally in their environmental perceptions.

When you search textbooks and web pages to find a basic reason or set of reasons why individuals differ in their fundamental attitude to the environment, you usually encounter the name of the late Lynn White, a professor of history. In a much quoted 1967 essay White famously targeted Christianity as the root cause of environmental degradation because of its core beliefs that humans are fundamentally distinct from the rest of nature, and that nature is present merely to serve human ends. He contrasted this with pagan animism in which all things are deemed to possess, or be associated with, life spirits and this leads to an associated level of moral constraint. White’s often-quoted thesis understandably has caused much ecclesiastical furore and a large number of rebuttals over the years. From my perspective I think the professor may have been a little too cloistered down at UCLA. A tour through Hindu India, Muslim Indonesia or communist China might have convinced him otherwise. In any event, the religious aspect doesn’t figure in my Smithian analysis – the last time either Smith boy ventured near a church was in 1998 when Grandma was laid to rest.

Amongst the published rebutters of White, the name of Lewis Moncrieff is most often cited. His proposition is that environmental attitudes have their roots not in theology but in the kind of western culture that has developed over the past few centuries. Two key revolutionary changes laid the foundations for the evolution of modern society – (1) a trend towards more equitable  distribution of power and wealth by evolving  democratic political structures, and (2) dramatic increases in the production of goods and services through scientific and technological development. As a consequence of industrialization, people moved from the country into metropolitan centres, increased the demand for goods and services, and increased the density of the by-products of human consumption (e.g. pollution, habitat loss, etc.).

I can relate both Smiths to this theory, but at different levels. Denzel’s worldview exemplifies the first part, i.e. more equitable  distribution of power and wealth by evolving  democratic political structures, although Denzel himself would argue that the trend now seems to be the other way. Justin reflects the second part – increasing the production of goods and services through scientific and technological development.

For Justin, as with so many people today, the end point is what counts. He is focused on the outputs of the industrial process – the cars, the bikes, the cell phones, the toys, the wine, the food. The consumerist credo of the 21st century tells him that’s just great and urges him to buy a few more goodies. Or sell a few more from his business. The processes by which all these products are created and the by-products of their creation such as wastes and industrial emissions don’t generally show up on his radar, and those that do are dismissed as ‘collateral damage’. He uses cool military jargon he picked up from playing Modern Warfare 2 on his Xbox. For Justin, big energy developments such as the tar sands and long range oil pipelines are triumphs of technological innovation, drivers of employment and the economy at all levels – local, provincial, national and even international for those lucky countries queuing up to buy Canada’s oil.

Denzel’s primary focus, on the other hand, is the hugely complex system which provides all these material benefits. He is all too aware of the vast array of interconnections in the real world. All the components that go into Justin’s cars, bikes and electronics, and all the ingredients needed to make the food and drink he consumes come from somewhere and are themselves part of complex production and extraction processes. The materials all have to go somewhere after they’ve been used, consumed, excreted, trashed or crashed into a tree. The modern industrial world is running out of absorption capacity for all this stuff – the garbage dumps are full, the oceans can’t take any more plastic and effluents, the atmosphere’s carbon load is starting to show up as bad news for the climate.  Denzel sees the signs and evidence all around him – he notices such things.

Denzel doesn’t dispute the value of resources or the jobs their extraction and transportation generate. He just doesn’t think the material benefits are worth the massive environmental and social costs. He thinks the whole concept of exporting tar sands oil is illogical anyway. While Canada spends billions in energy conservation and other programmes to try and keep carbon emissions as low as possible, it sells huge quantities of high-carbon oil to countries who burn it and dump more carbon back into the global climate than Canada saves though conservation programmes in the first place.

So when the inevitable question comes from across the Thanksgiving dinner table “What else you got in mind, dude? You got another way of converting lots of oil, which we have, into dollars and jobs which we want?” Denzel quietly helps himself to the last pour of wine in the bottle and replies “Leave the damned stuff where it is. It’s been lying there for a hundred million years. It will keep until we have better technology, of which you’re so fond, to make more intelligent use of it”.

While neuroscientists are pushing the boundaries of their science and uncovering the highly complicated relationship between neural pathways and behavioural patterns, geneticists and molecular biologists have developed equally spectacular technologies and methods for linking human behaviour to specific genes and genetic patterns. Mark my words –its only a matter of time before scientists uncover a Green Gene. Denzel has it and Justin doesn’t. Probably as simple as that.

Share this post..........Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+

  • Hmmmm… interesting theory, but a dangerous story for environmental education. As an environmental education teacher, I firmly believe in the power of socialization processes, economic situations, and politics.
    Originally, my interest in environmental education was sparked by my childhood camping experiences in Ontario during the 80s, where I happened to meet some very informed and interesting Provincial Park naturalists. They loved everything about all aspects of nature and this was contagious. Kids followed them around and imitated their actions as if they were nature´s super-heroes. When I was 10, my brothers, myself and all my friends at the Park wanted to be just like them. We loaded them with questions and hung on all their answers. We helped them catch insects, snakes, frogs, turtles for observation, tracking and education purposes.
    The friends that I shared these experiences with as a child did not all turn out to be environmental educators, but they did all turn out to be environmentally conscious. I have a tough time swallowing the green-gene hypothesis.
    The kids I now work with respond to me in a similar way to how I responded to the Ontario Parks naturalists. I´m not quite a super-hero, but I´m definitely “in” ;-). If there were a “green-gene” then I would assume that some of the children I have taught would not have been interested in my nature/sustainability- themes. However, I have not yet met a child under the age of 10 who is not interested in what I have to teach them. Therefore, my work experience suggests that the “green-gene” cannot be supported.

    Warm greeny regards,

  • Interesting stories and well written, Stan, and you pose the problem we face: why do some people reject that we need to take action to preserve the planet. However I don’t think psychological analysis, or even neuroscience, will get us very far. I think it may be more useful to focus on the economic and social-political situation of both these people. Follow the money and the politics.

    The environmentalist brother has a job (graphic designer) that has little to do with resource extraction. He lives in a community (Dunbar) that is very comfortable, settled, and satisfied. (He doesn’t realize perhaps, or is not concerned that eventually wasteful huge single family homes on big lots will of necessity be phased out.) He doesn’t drive much on a day-to-day basis at least. He lives within the “green” social milieu of Vancouver.

    His brother’s job in Calgary does depend upon the health of the oil industry – not directly, but much more directly than the person in Vancouver’s job does. His customers probably work for the oil companies or their suppliers. Being environmental would ruin his credentials as a loyal Albertan. In a way he, and his community, are more realistic than his brother. He recognizes that the required response to global warming would destroy his current way of life, and he doesn’t want that. Indeed, what is required is “socialistic” job destruction. (See Naomi Klein’s latest work

    If we want to affect change, I think we have to realize that we aren’t going to find a simple solution, or an effective way to “persuade” the Justins of the world that they should be Denzels. I think work has to be done on all levels, remembering it isn’t simple: attitudes change institutions, institutions change attitudes, and it’s a long hard slog.

  • This story is a bit close to home. MY brother attributes our differences to “the 60s” when it was “cool” to protest the mainstream (silent majority) while “realists” (like Reagan) stood strongly agains evil (USSR) and brought down the Berlin Wall. There is an interesting theory that one’s world view “sets” at about age 18 and that world events then are the background for what happens after that. If that is true then it may be difficult to “reset” a world view into a new framework. Even a green gene requires a trigger and a mode of expression. Good story!

  • Great story! I’m fortunate that my siblings are environmentally conscious, but that’s only step one. We need to act on that information. In your gene analogy, I think we all have a green gene, but it’s dormant in many (perhaps even mutated by the toxins we’ve put in our environment!). So how do we activate the green gene?
    As David Suzuki says, most of us have separated ourselves from nature. We need to be made to feel responsible for our planet, individually as well as collectively. Remember the “Adopt-a-Highway” project that encouraged Canadians to take charge of a section of a highway, albeit mostly for litter control? What if we do that with our planet? There are 7 billion of us now, and about 7 billion acres of arable land (not enough, by the way). Imagine that we are all “assigned” an acre near where we live, and the state of that acre has social or other consequences for us. If a large pipeline threatened to contaminate your acre, or your acre was being considered as a site for a big box store, what would you do? I suspect our green gene would become activated.

  • Stan – this is is a brilliant “story,” let’s put “once upon a time” in front of it and tell it, as Elders. Which you just did. Thanks. Diana

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *