It's not easy being green

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In this excerpt Olympic critic and author of Five Ring Circus, Christopher Shaw, lays out the glaring inconsistencies in rhetoric used to promote the Olympic Games and its environmental practices

The Olympics always pretends to be green. Like many governments in the West that nowadays try to adopt a greenish hue, the IOC knows that citizens of the same countries are increasingly vocal in stating that environmental concerns outweigh all others. In response, the IOC and local bid organizers have become quite slick in producing "greenwash" to make the Olympics appear to be not only environmentally friendly, but even a leader in preserving the natural world. Nearly four years after winning the bid, VANOC produced a "Sustainability Report" in 2007 that was long on public relations platitudes but remarkably short on true means to protect the environment.

The very notion of environmental sustainability was given official Olympic status in 1998 when the IOC passed Olympic Movement Agenda 21, thus officially joining sports and art as the newest pillar of Olympism. To put it into the proper frame, or more precisely the one the IOC would like you to remember, a recent example from the City of Richmond admirably serves the purpose.

Richmond is the suburb of Vancouver that scored the dubious honor of obtaining the right to construct the Olympic ice skating oval, having snatched it from the neighboring city of Burnaby after a particularly nasty squabble. To put the theft in a somewhat loftier light, Richmond City staff came up with a vision statement that they presented to their city council. The opening paragraph reads:

Olympism is a state of mind. It envisions a world of peace, international brotherhood and a manifestation of the highest ideals of human achievement. For many around the world, the Olympic Games are seen as a sporting event, but the Olympics are a worldwide cultural festival. Art and athletes are the cornerstone of the Olympic movement. Sport, Culture, Sustainability. These are the "three pillars" of the Olympic movement.

There you have it, it's official, at least in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Richmond, British Columbia: The environment is important to the IOC and to host cities as well. Well that is certainly comforting to know, since some of the more jaded of us on the receiving end of the Olympic machine keep pointing to the uniformly failed promises of the past, noting, perhaps uncharitably, that reality doesn't quite match the soaring rhetoric. In fact, vision statements such as that above are like the constitution of the old Soviet Union or George Bush's fervently expressed desire to see democracy bloom in Iraq: words, even uplifting words, but merely that and nothing more. Or, to be even less charitable, rhetorical gymnastics that obfuscate the real agendas being played out behind the scenes. We can know what the founders of the Soviet Union truly intended much in the same way we can peer into the dim recesses of Dubya's brain by surveying the emergent havoc in the world. In the same way, we can actually hold up the IOC's sound bites, amplify them with the lovely prose from Richmond and ask ourselves if the Olympic reality matches Olympic dreams in any honest accounting. The failure to do so, which we will see as the utterly predictable outcome, does not suggest evil intent by the authors who penned the words, merely blind subservience to the official Olympic frame. In some measure, however, when words so totally fail to match reality, when words are used to hide the opposite of what they pretend, one has to also query if at least a casual negligence of the truth, if not outright deception, hasn't been the goal all along.

The extinction of Eagleridge Bluffs

To examine how green the Olympics really are, no place is more fitting to start at than Eagleridge Bluffs. The history of the "battle for the Bluffs" has already been covered (chapter 9), so it will suffice here to cover the outcomes. On May 2006, 23 protesters were arrested by the West Vancouver Police Department, the officers being as gentle and scrupulous as possible in the face of dozens of watching television cameras. Of those arrested, all but two got monetary fines of varying degrees of severity. All of those so sentenced apologized to the court and to Peter Kiewit and Sons for messing with their construction schedule. The two who refused to apologize, veteran forest activist Betty Krawczyk (aged 78) and native activist Harriet Nahanee (aged 71) got jail time of 10 months and 14 days, respectively. Krawczyk's sentence in part reflected the fact that, several days after her initial arrest, she had returned to the former campsite and blocked Kiewit's machinery once again. She was promptly rearrested. Nahanee spent her jail time in the Surrey Pretrial Detention Centre, contracted pneumonia while there and died shortly after her release. Krawczyk was released from prison at the end of September 2007.

Rafe Mair, former talk show host at CKNW, had this to say about the Eagleridge Bluffs protest and outcome:

Of much more serious consequence was the death of native elder Harriet Nahanee, aged 71, after being sent to jail for refusing to apologize for her contempt of court. I don't believe it's a stretch to conclude that Ms. Nahanee, not well at the time, died because she was sent to Surrey Pretrial Centre, a prison for men and a noted hellhole for women in poor health. Another woman, a veteran environmentalist, 78-yearold Betty Krawczyk, will be sentenced today for contempt of court for her non-violent passive resistance at the construction site. We idolize Mahatma Ghandi and jail Betty Krawczyk and Harriet Nahanee. Some democracy.

That was the part of the human toll. The toll on nature was dramatic and utterly betrayed the various green promises made by VANOC and all levels of government. The day after the arrests, I went back to the Bluffs with a camera and filmed as workmen strode along the Bluff, cutting down 500-year-old Arbutus trees with chain saws. After a few moments of filming, I became nauseous watching the wanton destruction, shut off the camera and drove away. Over the next few months, Kiewit logged a 50-plus meter-wide swath through various species of old growth on the top of the Bluffs, down through the Larson Creek wetlands and up again over the next rise, a total of 2.4 kilometers hacked through the forest. The loss of the arbutus trees, already endangered in British Columbia, wiped out one of the few such forests in the Lower Mainland. For this road alone, the estimate was that over 12 hectares were destroyed and, at approximately 400 trees per hectare, this represents a loss of some 4,800 trees. Added to this "greenest Olympic Games ever" butcher's bill was the loss of a kilometer of one of the last wetlands in the Lower Mainland, home to the endangered red-legged frog. When done, the highway will have very little setback from what remains of the wetlands, virtually ensuring that this last precious remnant also won't survive the pollutants spewing from the thousands of cars expected to use the route daily. What was once a pristine forest overlooking a highway far below is now an angry gash in the earth. By 2010 it will be a four-lane highway, neatly dividing the new housing units that will eventually straddle it.

Excerpted with permission from New Society Publishers and the author. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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