Environmental lawyer David Boyd has long been concerned about the relentlessly negative news about various ecological crises. He’s witnessed friends’ teenagers becoming depressed and feeling powerless after learning in school about species extinction and climate change.
Boyd’s moment of truth came when his seven-year-old daughter, Meredith, came home distraught. “She said, ‘Papa, have you heard of global warming?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ ” Boyd recalled in an interview in the Georgia Straight office. “She said, ‘It means the animals’ habitat is disappearing, the ice is melting, and polar bears are going to go extinct.’ She burst into tears.”
That’s when he realized something had to be done to change the narrative for the next generation. Boyd, who cochairs Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Team with Mayor Gregor Robertson, decided to systematically research the most pressing environmental challenges to determine how much progress is being made. And in his new book, The Optimistic Environmentalist: Progressing Towards a Greener Future (ECW Press), Boyd describes astonishing successes on several major fronts.
“I was just blown away by what I found,” Boyd said. “It’s changed my outlook on the world, much to the better. My wife is just delighted by the fact that I’ve written this book and become a sunnier person.”
Chapters focus on improvements in air quality, the increasing electrification of transport, and surprising reductions in toxic chemicals in the western industrialized world, among other topics. He pointed out that lead, a neurotoxin, has been eliminated from gasoline and paints. There have been dramatic reductions in mercury emissions and the elimination of harmful chemicals such as DDT, dioxins, and furans.
“These are all remarkable stories of environmental progress that the vast majority of people are unaware of,” Boyd said.
Another chapter focuses on the recent recovery of endangered species in the world’s temperate zones, including B.C. and the United States. Boyd acknowledged that there is a “sixth extinction” under way, primarily in the Global South, but he noted that there have been thousands of Pacific white-sided dolphins as well as humpback whales returning to the Salish Sea after a century of absence. There used to be no sea otters left in Canada, but that’s no longer the case.
“We had to import them from Alaska to start the recovery, and now there are thousands on the B.C. coast,” he said. “I was amazed to learn there are over 1,000 species that are on the U.S. endangered-species list—90 percent of those species are on target to meet their recovery goals.”
He also devotes considerable attention to the “circular economy”. He defined that as an economy based on products that can be either recycled, reused, or composted. He said more than 2,000 products have been certified as “cradle to cradle”, which means they can be disposed of without harming the environment. Boyd called this “an unprecedented shift in the way our economy functions”.
But perhaps the most important chapter deals with the renewable-energy revolution. Boyd said the price of solar photovoltaic electricity has fallen sharply during the past decade, making it far more affordable in sunny areas such as the southern United States, Australia, Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. He mentioned that the International Energy Association has consistently and sharply underestimated the exponential growth in renewable-energy generation.
He also pointed out that in Austin, Texas, there was recently a call for bids to supply electricity. Solar power was the cheapest option, being offered at the bedrock price of four cents per kilowatt-hour. “We’re going through changes that in previous human history would have taken centuries or millennia,” Boyd stated. “So it’s very difficult for the average person—who is overwhelmed by information—to really process the fact that things are on the cusp of really profoundly positive changes.”
When asked if these changes are happening quickly enough to stave off runaway global warming, Boyd replied that he’s not going to soft-sell the challenge facing humanity. But he also pointed out that in 2014, greenhouse-gas emissions levelled off for the first time even as the economy grew.
“I think we are in the midst of an energy revolution, which will, by and large, address climate change,” he predicted.
To buttress his argument, Boyd noted that Canada’s solar-energy industry has grown 100-fold during the past decade. And he said that Canada’s wind-power industry is in the top 10 globally without any federal support. He suggested that if there were federal programs, Canada would be “at the top of the leader board” with far more green jobs and a more sustainable economy.
“We need a different government in Ottawa to enable us to move forward,” Boyd added. “Whether it’s a Liberal government or an NDP government or a coalition government doesn’t really matter. Any government would be better than the Conservative government.”