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Summer of infernos

Amidst the intensifying impact of climate change, Canadians endured nightmarish journeys, unforeseen expenses and heartwarming acts of kindness.

Renowned for its vibrant summer festivals, Montreal bore witness to a disturbing transformation this scorching season. Azure skies became the canvas for relentless infernos, shrouding the city in smog and smoke, a poignant reminder of fires sweeping not just across Canada, but the world.

Among those affected were Concordia University students, enduring a nightmarish ordeal that left a trail of devastation. 

For Joshua Iserhoff, a human relations student, this summer became a harrowing nightmare. His family embarked on a frantic odyssey from one threatened community to another, pursued by the flames.

The journey from Montreal to their home in Nemiscau along the Billy Diamond Highway was fraught with tension. Despite some reassuring forecasts, the unpredictable nature of wildfires always loomed. 

“Rabbits [were] running on the highway because they’re running as well,” Iserhoff recalls. “And that’s the safe place that they could find.”

Due to the fires, their endeavour involved additional hours on the road and in hotels, incurring unexpected expenses, a heavy burden, especially for a student. Their families rallied to provide support, easing the financial strain.

Their escape began on July 11 after attending a wedding in Ottawa, heading northward. At the Matagami Gate, a crucial checkpoint on the private Billy Diamond Highway, they received the all-clear from the toll attendant, oblivious to the impending danger.

Iserhoff had been driving his sister’s car when in mere seconds, the winds intensified, carrying a blinding wall of smoke and flames, plunging them into darkness, cars threatening to lift off the ground. Panic set in as he glanced at his own family in the other vehicle. 

Unable to communicate through open windows due to his daughter’s asthma, Iserhoff’s wife used soaked towels as makeshift respirators for their children, a life-saving suggestion by Iserhoff’s mother. Fortunately, an elderly stranger saw them struggling and offered N95 masks, providing a glimmer of hope.

Survival instincts took over. “I have to drive,” Iserhoff told his wife after switching cars to join his family. “She covered [the kids] with a blanket, and opened the iPad. We were singing in the cars.”

Despite putting on a brave face for his children, it was a traumatic experience. “It does something to your humanity,” Iserhoff said.

Out west, creative writing student Jess Thodas confronted an advancing wildfire that jumped across the lake that separates East and West Kelowna. “We went out with my dogs to the lake”, Thodas recounts. “We started noticing the sky was turning red.”

Reliant on sporadic emergency alerts and Twitter updates, she relied mainly on messages from within the community to stay safe.

All flights were grounded, runways reserved for water bombers. More than a week of cancellations later, Thodas finally boarded a flight back to Montreal, leaving her concerned for her family.

Thodas embarked on a challenging 20-hour journey, which involved a night sleeping at the airport with her dog. Unable to relax until reaching her apartment, Thodas just collapsed on her bed once she’d made it.

Photo courtesy of Jess Thodas
Photo courtesy of Jess Thodas

In the midst of this crisis, Dr. Rebecca Tittler, a forest ecologist who teaches at the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability and in the Departments of Biology and of Geography, Planning and Environment and coordinates the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability and the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre at Concordia, provides insight into the situation.

She points out that while wildfires are a natural part of forest ecosystems, this year’s early and severe onset can likely be attributed to the hot and dry conditions caused by climate change. “We must remember that trees naturally burn, releasing what they’ve stored, unlike the greenhouse gases emitted by humans altering the climate,” she explained. 

Dr. Tittler emphasizes the pressing need to address climate change and safeguard communities in isolated forested areas and enhance evacuation measures, underlining that firefighting efforts prioritize protecting human lives due to the vastness of Canadian forests.

Despite these stories of resilience in the face of nature’s fury, each new blaze serves as a stark reminder of our shared vulnerability and the urgent imperative to confront the growing impact of climate change.

Cree Nation of Wemindji – Photo courtesy of Bradley Georgekish

How-to reduce your water use

Here come the waterworks — Canadians need to use less water, here’s how:

*Please note that the statistics on Quebecers’ water use do not represent water use or access on Indigenous reservations.

How much water does the average Montrealer use every day in their home? Enough to fill two bathtubs.

That’s 225 L of clean water. The province-wide average is even bigger, at 400 L per person every day, according to McGill University.

How much fresh water do private industries use per year? About 10 times household use, Statistics Canada notes.

Most of our household water use comes from addressing basic physical needs. 65 per cent comes from toilet flushing and bathing. The rest is accounted for in our drinking, preparing meals, and cleaning (including laundry).

We could trim down our water use by letting it mellow when it’s yellow, but a more impactful change could simply be redirecting our efforts to curb the wasteful practices of big industries, which make up 68 per cent of Canada’s annual fresh water use, according to McGill University.

Why is this important? After all, Canada is known for its abundant access to freshwater lakes and rivers. However, that’s not the full story.

“Canada has some 20 per cent of the world’s total fresh water resources,” according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. Of that, only seven per cent is renewable fresh water, making the supply “heavily used and often overly stressed.”

Household water use accounts for 20 per cent of the total fresh water use in Canada, and farming practices use just 12 per cent.

Still, voices in green consumption continue to refocus the lens of public discourse about climate change on personal action, despite the well-documented majority impact coming from private industry.

How can the public influence the ecological footprint left by private industry? We can start by reducing our consumption of the products these companies sell.

This logic runs counter to the profit goals of private industry, and they’re putting up a fight against it.

Marketers have identified a key change in the public: people want to feel like the companies they shop at share their values. “Sustainability, trust, ethical sourcing, and social responsibility are increasingly important to how consumers select their products and services,” according to Harvard Business Review (HBR)’s analysis of The EY Future Consumer Index.

HBR puts it this way: Pre-pandemic, “Your brand should stand behind great products.” As an additional requirement post-pandemic, “Your brand should stand behind great values.” The association of a brand with values creates the phenomenon of “brand values,” which amount to the marketing strategies that companies develop to target a particular consumer profile and its associated value system.

This loophole absolves the public from facing the actual scale of the problem of over-consumption, while validating the feeling that we’re curbing our personal climate footprint. Compliance with this marketing strategy also helps to reduce our guilt without requiring companies to actually improve their production practices.

Some might call this a win-win, others a lose-lose.

Reducing water use within the production line and reducing consumption of those products altogether would ultimately have the biggest impact on water waste in Canada.

Instead, companies look to their marketing teams to come up with how-tos that focus on tweaks in the public’s household behaviour (like switching the laundry setting to cold water) and divert attention from industry and consumer waste.

In the current cultural focus on resilience catalyzed by COVID-19, HBR elaborates, “Marketing now has the opportunity to seize an ongoing central role in that dialogue.”

Corporations have identified a key role that marketing plays in the way the public talks about the health crisis, and by extension, the climate crisis. When brands dictate the narrative surrounding these discussions, solutions are limited to those that propel their “broader growth and innovation agenda.” Those solutions all require our participation in industry waste.

Comparing the respective impacts of personal versus industrial water use provides a distilled picture of the biggest threats to sustainability. It is vital to critically assess the narrative around consumption by considering who tells the story, who benefits from the story, and ultimately, how the story obscures the harder truths about our contribution to climate change.

 

Feature graphic by @the.beta.lab

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