Strength of the herd

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Debates in the Letters to the Editor section are one of my favourite things about the Times. It is almost reminiscent of pen pals holding a healthy debate through their hobby. A debate that has been going on for months now is one taking place between Steve Gabell, local chapter president of the Green Party of Ontario, and many other local residents regarding the subject of climate change and environmental sustainability. Dare I weigh in? Yes, I dare. 

Environmentally conscious individuals were, a few short decades ago, often mocked for their beliefs. Those who cared about the environment in generations past were labelled as “tree huggers”, stifling progress and caring more about preserving water, energy, and greenery than preserving jobs and facilitating economic growth. Simply put, in many circles, those who care about the environment used to be a heavily disregarded minority. I am not particularly old, but I am nonetheless old enough to remember when recycling was forward-thinking, and there were those who simply chose not to recycle. Today, such a move would be almost unheard of, and would be met with strong rebuke. This shows some of the progress that has been made when it comes to caring about the environment. 

In many ways, environmentalists have been vindicated in the sense that caring about the environment is no longer a “trend” or a minority movement, but is rather seen by many as a social imperative that works its way into many businesses’ practices and the day to day lives of most people. We don’t just recycle now – many people compost. Gasoline powered cars are required to meet stringent emissions standards, and most car manufacturers now have fully electric models available. Natural gas – which used to be celebrated as a cheap way to heat homes – is now being fazed out in some jurisdictions due to its environmental impact. Electric heat (a term which used to sound like nails on a chalkboard to any financially responsible homeowner) is now likely to dominate the future. Single use plastics are being eliminated by law, with things such as plastic straws becoming something of a “taboo” in the restaurant industry. Governments are even willing to give out significant rebates to people who install things like water-saving showerheads, and smart thermostats. Even our eating practices have changed in part due to a care for the environment. Vegans no longer exist simply to save animals; some choose veganism because it is known to be better for the environment. Some changes to environmental practices have become so ingrained within us that we forget about them. Ask yourself – when is the last time you purchased an incandescent light bulb?

How have we come this far? We talk about “herd immunity” when discussing vaccines. It is true that there is a strength in herds – strength in numbers. Animals travelling in packs do so for safety. What would happen to a pack animal who deviated from its herd? Aside from obvious safety concerns, it would certainly be less likely to accomplish anything. It is not likely to be a good hunter, good at finding shelter, or good at getting adequate rest given the need for near constant vigilance in the absence of trusted companions. With time, it may be that this lone animal would give up, knowing it’s only a matter of time before a predator strikes. 

Let’s think of environmental sustainability as the “predator” in this analogy, and the “herd” as the mainstream population who is, at best, indifferent to matters related to the environment. A person who deviates from the herd and attempts a crusade of environmental responsibility is likely to soon give up, seeing his or her actions as unhelpful unless others support the cause as well. To flip the analogy around, if the “herd” is in fact a well-meaning government instituting environmentally conscious policy changes, and the countless citizens who have no choice but to follow along form the herd, deviation from the herd is unlikely. Few people would have had the audacity to switch from natural gas to electric heating in 1995. Likewise, when new homes are banned in the near future from using natural gas or propane for heating, it would take a special kind of whacko to make leaps and bounds to circumvent the law in utter futility. No matter what the herd is doing, there is strength in the herd. I don’t know of many people who would willingly choke on the remnants of what used to be a paper straw before their drink is even finished, unless those around them are doing it too. 

Circling to the point, one thing is abundantly clear: no matter the status quo, the average person will go along with it. It’s therefore important that instead of shaming individuals who commit environmental wrongs, we focus on the importance of progress in the status quo. I will admit that when I have an empty bottle of ketchup or salad dressing, I do occasionally throw it out rather than using the large amount of water required to rinse it for recycling (sorry, Steve!). This attitude comes in part from a recent episode of CBC’s The Fifth Estate, chronicling the dirty work of some Canadian recycling companies that simply ship blue bin plastic overseas, making no effort to actually recycle it. I would rather save the water than rinse something that may end up in a garbage pile anyway. Am I wrong? Maybe, but you will not save the world by scolding me. Save the world by advocating for the policies that will change the behaviour of the herd, both individuals and corporations included. 

Changes take time, and people will always resist change. For example, electric cars are a leap for many and expensive for most, and they sprang up on us rather quickly. Sometimes, this resistance to change has a side benefit in that it makes the change sustainable. A sudden switch to only electric cars, for example, could cripple our electrical grid. Slow and steady wins the race, though it is clear that we need that steady march forward. Let’s be proud of our progress, and look to good leadership to guide us as a herd. Only then can we ensure a healthy planet for our children, our grandchildren, and beyond. 

1 COMMENT

  1. You have a talent for phrasing things in an interesting manner. I enjoyed the read. I believe in sustainable development and progress no matter how slow. The herd mentality is great unless you are a lemming. We need to thoughtfully evaluate all the options before investing countless tax dollars into things that create collateral damage. It is okay to be on the leading edge but not the bleeding edge. Having invested in LEED certification I feel I do understand when we need to throw the ketchup bottle out rather than wasting resource when we know there is no will or capacity to recycle it.
    Your point is well taken, however if it were not for the leaders and entrepreneurs we would still be in the Stone Age. EV’s have their place but I believe the hydrogen cell is an emerging technology more suited to how we live.

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