If you feel that there are problems with the environment today, or are concerned with climate change, you are not alone.

If you think that environment is more important than economy, you are not alone. Seventy percent of Canadians will agree with you.

So, why are we where we are? Why, according to the 2016 Environmental Performance Index, is Canada ranking 82nd in forest conservation, 99th in the conservation of fish stocks, 111th in biodiversity and habitat protection more generally, and 107th in CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour?

Why on one side, has the Canadian government signed the Paris Agreement in December 2015 but on the other, approved two pipelines that together will increase oil transport capacity by one million barrels per day and stimulate further development of the tar sands?

Why this contradiction?

Banff, Alberta
William Notman & Son. Bow River and Twin Peaks, Banff, Alberta, 1889. Canadian Centre for Architecture

“Environment” is still a very abstract idea, often perceived to be outside of everyday experience. When environment becomes “real”—we often mythicize it, or call it ‘nature.’ In Canada, popular ideas of environment cling to ideals of untouched wilderness—a pristine north, magnificent glaciers, the great boreal forest and temperate coastal rainforests, rich prairie soils, pure freshwater lakes, ocean waters abundant in fish, and rich biodiversity.

But Canada is a country whose economy is premised upon resource exploitation, continuing from the centuries-old idea of a New World that could be a “spare continent, to use for parts,” as author and public speaker Naomi Klein wrote in September of last year. Relentless exploitation is ubiquitous to mass consumption of oil in Alberta’s tar sands—an area with the potential to become one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in the world, to large-scale fracking operations in Alberta and British Columbia, and to the expansion of vast energy infrastructures, that promises to continue with the approvals of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and Enbridge Line 3.

The country’s mineral mining and nuclear power production (currently supported by 22 reactors) have continued to stimulate industrial development following the Second World War; Canada currently ranks in the top five countries for the global production of 13 major minerals and metals including potash, uranium, and nickel. Commercial fishing on the North Atlantic coast peaked in the 1980s and continued until the moratorium in 1992, and for as long as reliable trade statistics have existed, Canada has held the world’s largest forest product trade balance. Contrary to mythical notions of untouched wilderness, the idea of the environment as disposable resource and object of consumption is central to the Canadian economy and an integral part of everyday life.

Hazeltine Creek transformed by the Mount Polley tailings spill, 2015. Photo by Nicky Young

The broken link between two polarizing ideas of environment, between “environment” as pristine wilderness and “environment” as disposable resource is only one of the many irreconcilable contradictions inherent to modern ideas of development, ideas of society founded on the faith in inevitable progress and the continuous expansion of our needs—a cultural condition that accelerated following the Second World War.

How do these two ideas of environment serve to sustain our ‘modern’ ideals? How do they reinforce one another? The separation of ‘untouched wilderness’ from ‘environmental resource’ has in turn separated elusive definitions of ‘nature’ (that should be protected), from ‘reserves’ (that can be considered disposable). As a result, environmental damage has become increasingly difficult to recognize or distinguish relative to the use-value of resources.

Environmental cost becomes even more difficult to recognize when it takes a lot of time to become visible, or when we deliberately try to hide it: for example, beginning in 1972, the construction of Sudbury’s 381-meter smokestack deliberately dispersed pollutants throughout a vast territory, making effects of emissions more difficult to track; in the mid-1980s, high concentrations of toxic chemicals were found in northern Canada resulting from slow accumulation after decades of industrial use; consumption of nuclear energy, beginning in the 1950s, has left the country with a growing crisis in the management of radioactive waste; industrial farming and tar sands operations have caused severe hydrological imbalance in the prairies, putting an increasing amount of land at risk of desertification; and in 2015, decline in water quality left communities across Canada subject to 1,838 water advisories, a disproportionate amount being in indigenous communities. A continuous flow of slow structural violence threatens land, air, and water; danger insinuates outside our ordinary perception, having longer term consequences or affecting more marginalized or less visible environments and populations.

After some investigation, we might discover the unanticipated result of earlier actions. We may realize that even the most ideological landscapes—the pristine north and the great boreal forest—have not escaped contamination. The convergence of the ‘two environments’ have caused a sudden shock, as landscapes popularly perceived as untouched have in reality become sites for militaristic occupation, geopolitical games, and resource exploitation.

Postcard showing the Superstack in Sudbury, Ontario, University of Waterloo Library, Special Collections & Archives, Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain fonds. Canadian Photoscene Products Inc

In some cases, retrospective understandings of human disturbance of environments have been short-circuited by disasters, alerting us to the precariousness of our current condition. These events surprise us, taking unforeseen directions that deviate from the path we envisioned based on experience or rational thinking. In the 1950s Chalk River was the site of one of the first meltdowns of a nuclear reactor worldwide; in 2013, the derailment of a train carrying 8 million litres of petroleum crude oil flattened the centre of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47; the collapse of a mine tailings pond at Mount Polley in 2014 contaminated local water systems with 24 million cubic metres of waste and water; in 2000, an E. Coli outbreak killed seven in Walkerton during a week Health Canada dedicated “Safe Drinking Water Week.”

View from the Boulevard des Vétérans, one kilometre from the train accident and four hours after the disaster, Lac Mégantic, 6 July 2013. Photo by Michel Boulet

We can look at our ‘modern’ relationship with the environment as a sequence of man-made disasters—a continuous succession of crises, each disturbing a fragile “balance” we have established between vested interests in economy, social and cultural values, and environment. Each new disaster demands an effort to repair the damage. Today there is a constant demand to manage our disturbance.

How do we respond to these sudden and dramatic ruptures in the usual course of things?

In the past, some reactions have offered tools designed in attempt to deviate from our current trajectory, including various treaties and legal interventions like the 2016 Great Bear Rainforest Agreement in British Columbia, now protecting 85 percent of the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world; environmentalist protest like the first voyage of Greenpeace in 1971 protesting nuclear testing in Amchitka, resistance from indigenous communities such as the Cree and Inuit in reaction to the James Bay project of the 1970s in Québec; various manifestos for a new, diverse, and renewable resource economy like David Suzuki’s 2013 Carbon Manifesto and the 2015 Leap Manifesto, alternative architectural proposals for autonomous houses and clean energy use; and landscape interventions like Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s project for the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly building, which was premised upon new respect for indigenous species and sensitivity to the fragility of northern sites.

Northwest Territories landscape. Photo courtesy CCA.
Snapshots from the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Building in Yellowknife, with landscape architecture by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, 1991-1994. Canadian Centre for Architecture

Yet it is increasingly apparent that specific or local actions are not enough. Those voices advocating for the consideration of the environment must be heard in a broader society, in decision-making for larger territories, and in longer-term planning. But we cannot think of larger-scale or more comprehensive, strategic planning as a solution—it is only a tool; just as we cannot consider carbon taxes or new mechanisms for the regulation of energy consumption to be solutions—they are only tools. We must also conceive of new relationships to environment and rethink exactly what “environment” means to us, assigning a new definition to the word or substituting a completely different word that can supplant our existing culture with a new and different one.

Until we are able to think about environment in different ways, the contradictions inherent to ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘natural resources’ will persist; we will continue on a path premised upon progress, continuous growth, and unrestrained consumption. If, as Justin Trudeau recently asserted “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” in a speech that was met with a standing ovation from energy industries present in Houston last March, it is clear that any serious change in course will require new perspectives on contemporary ways of life, perspectives developed outside of the parameters, assumptions, and certainties of modern faith in progress.

Architect, author and curator, Mirko Zardini has been the Director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture since 2005. It’s All Happening So Fast, his latest exhibition and co-edited publication is a reflection on our often conflicting ideas about human relationships to the environment. The exhibition was first shown beginning November 2016 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and will open at the University of Toronto Art Museum from 3 May to 15 July, accompanied by a curatorial tour by Mirko Zardini on 4 May.

Let me see the size of his house, and his travel schedule, and I'll tell you if he has real environmental concerns or just likes posturing. Picking on the production end of energy, rather than consumption, makes it easy to be a moral scold. The same people who think that fossil fuel consumption can be inhibited by beating up on the producers would never imagine that about the war on drugs; there, they know it just drives up the price.
Reading these things always reminds me of George Monbiot's book, "Heat", where he noted the interview with singer Chris Martin, who self-praised a recent album as being all about the environment and getting people to think about their environmental choices...then, a minute later in the same interview, spoke enthusiastically about his new private jet, and how it allow Ms. Paltrow and their daughter, Apple, to fly to join him every weekend while on tour.
If an architect wants to write about energy-efficient dwellings and how apartments are more efficient than single-family-detached and centralized living reduces travel costs, I'll read. But here we have an architect writing exclusively about the production-end of the energy industry, and how terrible they are for creating energy. The question, of course, is "how much does he use"?

I don't understand your comment? My interpretation of what the the author is trying to say that people in general can't connect the dots in regards to how we live and how our actions affect the environment. I know people who critize Trump for denying climate change, yet have no problem warming their car for 30 minutes, taking multiple vacations
using air travel and never dreaming of walking anywhere. The list goes on however, while we know climate change exists we do little to change our lifestyle.

From Natural Resources Canada, "Emission Impacts Resulting from Idling": "In fact, if Canadian motorists avoided idling for just three minutes every day of the year, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could be reduced by 1.4 million tonnes annually. This would be equal to saving 630 million litres of fuel and equivalent to taking 320,000 off the road for the entire year. Eliminating unnecessary idling is one easy action that Canadians can take to reduce their GHG emissions that are contributing to climate change."
Like you I see people idling to warm their car in winter (which according to studies is very bad for the motor; it is preferable to just go, which will warm the engine faster and consequently the interior of the car) ), and in the summer to cool down the interior of the car. The more recent bad behaviour is related to people idling while talking on their cellphone on the side of the road (I see it all the time as I don't have a car and walk most of the time when I go shopping or go for a walk).
For every litre of gasoline used, a vehicle produces about 2.3 kilograms of CO2 (2.68 Kg for diesel), the principle GHG linked to climate change. In 2015, net sales of gasoline and diesel in Canada were 42,563,098,000 litres and 17,988,762,000 litres respectively. The amount of CO2 emissions (and other emissions like volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen that contribute to air pollution and smog) produced in Canada by road motor vehicles (excluding all off-road motor vehicles) in 2015 amounted to around 146 Mt, or 84.4% of all emissions from the transportation sector.

Production of fossil fuels and consumption are intimately related, and as long as there is a demand for fossil fuels, producers will provide them. Both are responsible for producing half of all GHG emissions in Canada.
In 2016, more than 60% of all passenger vehicles sold in North America were light trucks, a category which includes pickup tucks, vans and SUV's.
A Canada's National Energy Board study shows that "consumer preference" for SUV's and light trucks has resulted in GHG emissions from light trucks more than doubling, from 22 Mt in 1990 to more than 50 Mt in 2104, which has more than "offset" reductions in passenger car emissions from 52 Mt in 1990 to 36 Mt in 2104. GHG emissions from the transportation sector in Canada represents roughly 23% of all Canadian GHG emissions (the highest emitter sector, oil and gas, had 2014 emissions of 192 Mt, or around 26% of total emissions).
(source: NEB Market Snapshot, 2016-07-14: "Increased GHG emissions from the transportation sector reflect major consumer and business trends").