Tag Archives: environment

The Last Post

In all likelihood, this is the last post on this site. The blog has run for precisely three years, this post aside, and was, in good part, a deliberate but modest exercise for me. During its first year (2013), I set myself the task of writing a post every week, and then did that, before tailing of to a more intermittent schedule. As I wrote in an earlier article, I have blogged as a creative outlet, for myself, because I actually enjoy the art and craft of writing, especially when I can do so on my own schedule.

Photo: Thomas Hawk
Photo: Thomas Hawk

Maybe the writing and posting is little more than the piteous human impulse to leave something behind, after we’re so soon gone: a small stack of notes, initials carved in the trunk of a tree, ‘handprints on the wall of the digital cave.’

My approach has of course meant that the size of the audience for this blog has been limited, to say the least, but I’m not too fussed about that. Its final value for me has lain elsewhere.

Maybe one day it will be appreciated as one small record kept during times which were changing as quickly as they have ever changed for humankind. The disruption of the digital revolution was in high gear back in 2012-13, and it seems to me that it has slowed some in more recent years. Robotic cars are coming on rather more slowly than did smart phones.

These days, it feels more like we are living in a time of reckoning with that technical, social, economic disruption, a time when many people are looking for someone to blame for the more difficult circumstances they suddenly find themselves living in. And, sadly, there are always politicians willing to step up and seize the opportunity afforded by those searchings, politicians like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. Clearly there is a price to be paid when change is not so well managed by those with control of the social and economic levers. If we don’t get effective progressive change then we get reactionary change, and reactionary change is doomed to fail, at least in the long run.

The most impactful change has of course been economic, the result of globalization in a capitalist society which makes having more, as opposed to less money ever so much more convenient and status boosting. Median incomes have stalled in the West, given global competition; jobs have disappeared, the kinds of jobs available have changed, and it is so much easier to blame immigration—the visible signs of change—than it is to blame, say, automation, which has been so much more likely to have undermined your economic well being.

What does it mean for the future? It’s always hard to say. Events are by their very nature unpredictable, and unforeseen events can quickly sway historical outcomes in big ways. As the human species continues to overrun the planet, we are going to have to wrestle certain problems—overpopulation, ecological damage (especially climate change), economic inequality—to the ground, or we are in for a rough ride.

Can we do so? It’s certainly possible. All it takes is the right choices, collectively and individually, made by the right people at the right times. Simple, right?

No, not so simple. But then, what we can do individually is restricted, so that makes it a little easier. Educate yourself, sit back, see the bigger picture, make choices for the greater good, rationally rather than out of frustration, resentment, anger or any of those other emotions which we then look to rationalize. Try to be aware of when you are acting selfishly, blaming others, speaking only to those from your own ‘tribe’, however that may be defined, whether by class, race, religion or nationality. Like it or not, we are all in this together. That colony on Mars will never be our salvation.

Maybe, just maybe, this blog has helped someone other than me to do these things, to maintain a wider perspective, clarify, stay calm and choose wisely. If so, bonus. Great. If not, that’s okay too. It’s helped me.

Eating Meat

Yesterday, more than 150 million animals were slaughtered for human consumption. The same number will die today. This is a worldwide number, and it doesn’t include marine life.

It’s a veritable animal Holocaust, happening everyday, out of sight, out of mind. And I use the H-word advisably here, not in any original way. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Jewish, Nobel Prize-winning author who in 1935 fled the growing Nazi threat in Warsaw for New York, referred to our daily massacre of animals as “an eternal Treblinka.”

It arises from something called speciesism, the notion that humankind enjoys a set of rights which all other living species do not. It’s applied unevenly of course, without any real logic. We kill and eat cows, chickens and pigs, but protect cats, dogs, horses and… great apes, that is select wild animals. Lest you immediately think the concept is truly wacko, I would remind you that, only 50 years ago, a large number of people believed that all members of another race enjoyed considerably fewer rights than did we white folks. If we track back 200 years we find that nearly everyone in the West believed this.

Back to great apes for a moment, as we consider the wacko-ness of speciesism. Are you entirely comfortable with the idea that we capture and imprison a mountain gorilla for our edification and viewing enjoyment? Me neither. The next question would be, why not? (Sure, zookeepers argue protection of an endangered species, but if that was the only reason we would put all our resources into protecting gorillas in place.)

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Back in 2006, Dr. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas published a book called The China Study, rightly subtitling it “The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted.” Dr. Campbell is a Professor Emeritus from Cornell University, and The China Study was conducted through that University, Oxford, and The Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine in Beijing. The gist of the massive study’s findings might be summarized as diets with higher meat and dairy consumption correlate directly and significantly with higher rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the so-called ‘diseases of affluence.’ Likewise with obesity, same sort of correlation.

The typical Chinese diet contains less fat, less protein, more fiber and iron, and much less animal foods than does the typical American diet. And the incidence of the most common killers in North America is far lower. Interestingly, the average Chinese citizen actually consumes more calories than does the average American, indicating that it’s not how much you eat, but what, plus how active you are.

What’s more, Dr. Campbell and his cohorts discovered that, if you were already afflicted with the diseases of affluence, a plant-based diet is in fact effective treatment of those diseases.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard more of this study, you might want to read Dr. Campbell’s chapters on “Why Haven’t You Heard This Before?” The experience he describes directly parallels the too-long successful campaign by the fossil fuels industry to obfuscate the climate change debate—essentially the meat, dairy and egg industries pay for research which contradicts The China Study, succeeding not in refuting the evidence presented, but in simply ‘muddying the waters,’ causing you to think there is no conclusive case to be made, either way.

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The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald's
The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald’s

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the devastating ecological effects of the livestock and fishing industries worldwide, and how the big environmental organizations like Greenpeace, in their own selfish interests, avoid criticizing these industries. With the possible exception of our global abuse of fresh water resources, no single factor contributes as much to our environmental peril as do the farmed animal industries. You likely have only to think about habitat loss, factory cattle and hog farms, and the water-born runoff of pollutants to grasp the enormity of the destructive impact, including the industry’s contribution to climate change.

There is really no doubt about it, whether you come at it from a moral, health or environmental perspective, there is no good reason for our continued consumption of animal-based foods. There is, of course and however, one overriding explanation as to why we continue to eat meat: habit.

The Sacred Cow

It begins with this startling fact: the livestock industry (meat and dairy) is responsible for the release of more greenhouse gases than is the entire transport industry combined (cars, trucks, trains and airplanes). According to a 2013 UN report, greenhouse gas emissions originating with the raising of cows, pigs and chickens constitute about 14% of the world’s total; the collective emissions from motor vehicles of all kinds are 13%. Not a vast difference you might think, though, like me, you may well be surprised by this truth, but here’s an even more disturbing fact:

None of the big environmental activist organizations—not Greenpeace, not the Sierra Club, not the Rainforest Action Network, none of them—want to talk about it.

Why? Well, sadly, it comes back to that truism that applies to corporations; these environmental organizations are just that, organizations, not-for-profit ones, but organizations just the same, and just like Shell and GE and H&M and all the other for-profit companies that the environmental groups like to condemn, they are first of all concerned about their own bottom line. To attack the livestock industry would be to damage the inflow of their donations, their membership fees.

p10935874_p_v8_aaThis is all pretty much nailed by the feature documentary Cowspiracy, by the way. A new version of the show is currently available on Netflix.

The harmful impact of the livestock industry is multifaceted of course. Not only do cows fart prodigious amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more destructive than carbon dioxide, the industry is also the leading cause of species extinction, largely through habitat destruction, and water pollution. What’s more, animal agriculture is currently consuming water at an absolutely unsustainable rate. The growing of feed crops for livestock alone accounts for more than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. And water, in the coming days, is going to be increasingly scarce in many populated areas, courtesy of climate change.

I’m reminded of the time, years ago, when I was producing a documentary about a group of men with severe spinal cord injuries trying to leave the institution they lived in, trying to establish an independent group home. This was during the time that Rick Hansen was travelling the globe by wheelchair, raising awareness everywhere of the rights and prospects for those with spinal cord injuries. I naively supposed that Rick Hansen’s organization would be encouraging of our efforts; after all we were supporting the same cause, but no, I was surprised to learn that individuals within that organization (not the man himself) were badmouthing us and our project. And then it occurred to me—the Rick Hansen organization’s prime cause was the Rick Hansen organization, not spinal cord injury sufferers per se.

It’s a distressing reality. All organizations seek first of all to augment themselves, and individuals within any organization seek above all to further their own careers, to add to their own bank accounts.

But the larger issue here is indeed the unsettling certainty that, in future, we all should eat less meat and dairy, a lot less meat and dairy. And the large environmental organizations are right; few of us want to hear that. We enjoy eating meat and fish and eggs and cheese, and, more fundamentally, we don’t appreciate anyone, organization or individual, telling us we shouldn’t. Guilting us. It’s a lifestyle change that isn’t easily managed, but like any habit, it’s one that is most easily changed incrementally. Think of it this way: ‘meatless Monday’ eventually needs to become ‘meat Monday,’ the one day of the week when you eat meat guilt-free, but for now maybe it can be meatless weekdays, or maybe meatless days beginning with S or T.

Whatever. It’s a discomforting secret that we all need to wake up to. If we are to collectively escape the worst effects of climate change, as Michael Pollan has so rightly recommended, we need to eat “mostly plants.” And it seems that, for the foreseeable future, we are all going to have to do so without the help of the very organizations who claim to be most concerned about climate change.

 

Invasive Schminvasive

A couple of years ago I noticed a new plant growing on our island property, up near an old woodpile. It was sprouting so vigorously into a small heap of green, corrugated leaves that it immediately caught my attention, and I began watching its growth with interest, wondering what it would become.

It became a multi-stemmed plant about chest high, with a cluster of little yellow flowers atop, similar to yarrow. I’ve since tried to properly identify the plant, but thus far with no success.

My point being that I had never seen this plant before that day, in some 20 years of messing about on our wooded acreage. And it has since sprung up all around.

As it appears now. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo
As it appears now.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo

And it’s not alone in this sort of botanical victory. When we first bought the property there were no daisies growing anywhere. I’d see them growing by the side of the road in other areas on the island and think, a little wistfully, that they might look quite nice in the meadow above our home.

Those daisies now grow in all the open spaces near us. When I mow I leave some of them standing in white, fountain-like sprays.

Ranging further afield, as a young man I don’t recall seeing great blue herons mincing about the beaches of Vancouver, as they do now, while nesting noisily in considerable numbers in Stanley Park. As a child I don’t recall seeing red foxes within the bounds of Grande Prairie, or wild rabbits within Edmonton’s limits, as I do now when I visit those cities.

My greater point being that, in just my adult life, I’ve seen that Nature is a fluid system. Certain species come and go. (Blue birds seem to have disappeared from Alberta.) Especially it seems, certain species have learned to adapt to the urban landscape.

So when folks get worked about so-called ‘invasive species,’ I tend to get a little skeptical. A few years back purple loosestrife was the invasive danger of the day, said to be poised to assault and entirely conquer all the wetlands of Canada. Japanese knotweed seems like it may be the current favourite among those who get agitated about Nature’s changing patterns. On Galiano, some residents have actually proposed campaigns to eradicate Scotch broom, an introduced species that has infested the Garry oak meadows so characteristic of the southern Gulf Islands. But as anyone who has ever witnessed the power of that particular plant to spread and prosper could tell you, such a campaign is hubris of an extraordinary dimension.

But such hubris is precisely what characterizes us as a species. We have hugely altered the planet’s surface; astonishingly, the Geological Society of America estimates that we have now modified more than 50% of the Earth’s land surface. And as we all know, the two words most often mentioned when ascribing causes to the elimination of animal species on our planet are ‘habitat loss.’ And guess who is responsible.

We alter the landscape because we can. We seem to possess an irresistible urge to change, adjust and otherwise ‘improve’ the environment that exists immediately around us. Certainly I am among the guilty. Our bit of rural paradise has been revised by me in any number of ways in the time we have ruled over it; trees have been felled, gardens planted, even a creek dammed. Sometimes this had been done for practical purposes, storing water or providing heat, but, as often as not, it has been done for what can only realistically be described as ‘aesthetic’ reasons. We humans feel safer in open, controlled spaces, even when no real dangers exist.

Red foxes have moved into cities because of the food supply they find there. Rabbits find that the cities support fewer of the predators they fear, although coyotes may have more to say about that in future. The daisies first appeared on our property after a trench was dug for the water line which runs from the well to our home. And this is how it is with the great majority of the species which so concern us. They almost always arrive with the disturbances that we humans bring.

No, the truth is that, when it comes to invasive species, we have some nerve to even mention the supposed problem. The only true invasive species is us.

Rewilding Galiano

When the British writer George Monbiot moved in 2007 to a small town in Wales located on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains, he was excited about the chance to explore this largely uninhabited ‘wilderness area.’ The Cambrian Mountains Society describes it as an “unspoiled landscape with a rich cultural history and vibrant natural beauty.”

'The Cambrian Desert?" Brother Magneto photo
‘The Cambrian Desert?”
Brother Magneto photo

When he ventured out onto this landscape, however, Monbiot instead found what he quickly came to see as “the Cambrian Desert,” an ecological disaster area with a severe paucity of wild animals and a much degraded diversity of plantlife. Where a variety of trees and flowering plants once grew, there was now mostly just heather. Few birds were to be seen; even insects were hardly present. The suburban cityscape Monbiot had left behind, he discovered, was in fact richer in wildlife than his new locale.

Why? Well, animal husbandry, by and large. The area had originally been cleared for crops and pasture lands. Sheep and cattle had replaced the previous fauna, and over time these domesticated ungulates grazed the land into a condition of enduring ecological impoverishment.

Monbiot is one of the chief proponents of ‘rewilding’ parts of our world, an intriguing concept which calls for the reforestation of large tracts of land and the reintroduction of now extinct megafauna—bison, elephants, wolves, etc. A number of rewilding projects have been successfully carried out in Europe, as well as in North America (the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park is a prominent example; here’s video on that success), but, as you can imagine, it remains controversial. Such efforts in the U.K., for instance, have been effectively curtailed by agricultural interests.

Living on Galiano, I know of what Monbiot speaks. The condition he describes in Wales begins as a result of our hunting the ‘apex predators’ in a region to extinction. Evidence suggests that, as we humans moved out of Africa and into all other areas of the world, millennia ago, we went about eliminating these predators at a prodigious rate, and not always for reasons of safety or the provision of food. We did it because we could.

As I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, on Galiano there are no wolves or cougars, and so the deer proliferate in great numbers. They seem to build up in number until some sort of plague breaks out, they die off in significant numbers, and then the cycle begins again. This because, on Galiano, there is no ‘trophic cascade,’ no predation from the apex on down.

The westcoast rainforest is too vigorous for the deer to degrade in the way sheep have the topography in Wales, but nevertheless, as a gardener on Galiano, I’m fully aware of how limited a vegetative palate can survive their constant grazing, at least not when those plants are small. Nothing like an introduced shrub or flowering plant (with the blessed exemption of daffodils) can survive their appetites, except within a tall fence.

And the native vegetation which survives them is indeed restricted. The leathery leaves and smothering underground creep of salal thrives. Ferns get a severe haircut but manage to persist. But there’s not a lot of variation in the undergrowth beyond that.

Rewilding Galiano with the reintroduction of wolves or cougars, thus to encourage the development of a more diverse ecology? ‘Not likely’ hardly begins to describe that prospect. Cougars have been known to hunt smaller children, of which there are a fair number running about on the Island.

One of the related phenomena Monbiot describes in his book Feral: Rewilding The Land, The Sea and Human Life is termed “The Shifting Baseline Syndrome.” It’s a process whereby we judge whatever condition we grew up with to be the norm, the original condition. But, as Monbiot points out, what we grew up with may well already have been seriously reduced. We just weren’t around to see that happen.

Certainly this would seem to be the case with the ocean waters which surround Galiano, where sea life is reportedly not nearly as rich or plentiful as it once was. Regardless, it’s a concept we should all be aware of and appreciate. The sad fact is that, because of our seemingly irresistible urge to meddle in the ecosystem which encompasses us, we are all now living with loss.

Where We Live

“Chicago, on the other hand, was not built for people to come together but for them to be safely apart. Size, power, and the need for privacy seemed to be the dominant dimensions of its architecture. Vast as it is, Chicago ignored the distinctions between freedom and isolation, between independence and selfishness, between privacy and loneliness.”

             Aleksandar Hemon, from The Book Of My Lives

 

Aleksandar Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, where he knew his neighbours and they knew him, where anonymity was “well-nigh impossible.” He was stranded in Chicago when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, so settled there, learning English and before long becoming an accomplished writer. He eventually grew to appreciate Chicago, even writing an article entitled 20 Reasons Why I Do Not Wish To Leave Chicago in 2000, but, as indicated by the passage quoted above, it was not an easy adjustment.

He walked about the city endlessly, trying to know its neighbourhoods, seeking out a connection like the one he knew with Sarajevo, with the residents and the built environment that would help tell him who he was.

Growing up in a small town, as an angst-ridden teenager I couldn’t wait to escape to the anonymity of a big city. I regularly walked about town as well, and I clearly recall finding insufferable the knowledge that, as I walked about, I was constantly being observed by people I knew, either from their passing vehicles, or out the windows of their homes and businesses.

Home version 1 domo k photo
Home version 1
domo k photo

As with nearly all the immaterial conditions of our lives, when it comes to the distinctions Hemon mentions, between “freedom and isolation,” between “privacy and loneliness,” we seek a balance not easily achieved. In Vancouver, the neighbourhood my wife and I live in—that is the zone where we actively know and interact with certain people—is immediate, within a few blocks of where we reside. Beyond that small zone, anonymity is not hard to attain.

On Galiano, our home is secluded, at the end of a long wooded lane; we can sometimes hear but never see our neighbours. Privacy is guaranteed, though, as we move about on the island, we are rarely anonymous. But the balance is off; especially during the long, dark winter months the isolation is too much, requiring an effort to get out and interact, or travel to the city.

Home version 2 p. sebastien photo
Home version 2
p. sebastien photo

One unavoidable factor in this consideration is that we are all the malleable product of our immediate social and physical environment. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but inevitably you will become a different person as you stay in different places. As much as anything, the ‘climate of opinion’ that you are living within will seep through your pores, into your bones, eventually causing you to think, feel and behave differently, if only it is to sometimes remain silent. And this is never more so than it is with children.

Thus it behooves us to think carefully about, and hopefully choose just as carefully where we will live. Especially so if you have, or plan to have children. They will be different beings, depending on where you choose to raise them.

There is a time in your life when it is easier to resettle, and it is earlier in your life, not later. We all know of people who have tried to make this transition at the age of retirement, and how problematic that has been. When you are young, eager to engage socially and professionally, recreationally and vocationally, it happens naturally, as a consequence of that needed engagement.

I like to think that my wife and I have achieved some kind of balance, living both downtown and at the end of a long wooded island lane, but life never stops throwing changes at us, and so it requires constant adjustment. The scales tip easily, and so we have to constantly seek a new balance, a new sense of community. Walking about helps it seems, and that happens for us more often in the city. On Galiano we are more often out of doors, more active in ways other than walking, and that too helps.

Choosing where to live is not so much about choosing the city or the country or both. It’s about choosing who you want to be, or become.

What We Put Up With

The sky was new. It was a thick, uniform, misty grey, but I was told there were no clouds up there. I’d never seen this before, and was skeptical. How could this be? It was the humidity, I was told. It got like that around here on hot summer days.

The year was 1970; I was 17, part of a high school exchange program that had taken me and a fair number of my friends to the Trenton-Belleviille area of southern Ontario. We’d been squired about in buses for days, shuffling through various museums and historical sights, sometimes bored, sometimes behaving badly (my buddy Ken, blowing a spliff in the washroom cubicle at the back of the bus, would surely be considered bad form), sometimes, not often, left to our own devices. On this day we’d been driven to the sandy shores of Lake Ontario, where what was shockingly, appallingly new, much newer than the leaden sky, was out there in the shallow water.

Small signs were attached to stakes standing in the water, just offshore. They read, “Fish for Fun.”

I couldn’t believe it. How could this be allowed to happen? How could people put up with this? As a kid from a small town in northern Alberta, I’d never seen anything like it.

It was a kind of accelerated future shock, as if I had been suddenly propelled forward in time to a new, meta-industrialized world where this was the accepted reality. In this cowardly new world, lakes would be so polluted that eating fish caught in them was unsafe (at 17, I’d caught my share of fish, and always eaten them), and this was how people dealt with the problem. With a lame attempt at cheery acquiescence.

When I think about it, my 17-year-old self would have had a great deal of trouble believing numerous of the realities that we live with today. Setting aside all the literally incredible changes wrought by the digital revolution—where we walk around with tiny computers in our hand, able to instantly send and/or receive information from anywhere in the world—here are a few more mundane examples of contemporary realities that would have had me shaking my teenage head in utter disbelief:

  • Americans buy more than 200 bottles of water per person every year, spending more than $20 billion in the process.
  • People everywhere scoop up their dog’s excrement, deposit it into small plastic bags that they then carry with them to the nearest garbage receptacle. (Here’s a related—and very telling—factoid, first pointed out to me in a top-drawer piece by New York Times Columnist David Brooks: there are now more American homes with dogs than there are homes with children.)
  • On any given night in Canada, some 30,000 people are homeless. One in 50 of them is a child.

There are more examples I could give of current actualities my teen incarnation would scarcely have believed, but, to backtrack for a moment in the interests of fairness, pollution levels in Lake Ontario are in fact lower today than they were in 1970, although the lake can hardly be considered pristine. As the redoubtable Elizabeth May, head of Canada’s Green Party, points out in a recent statement, many of the worst environmental problems of the 70s have been effectively dealt with—toxic pesticides, acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer—but only because worthy activists like her fought long and hard for those solutions.

jronaldlee photo
jronaldlee photo

The fact is that we are a remarkably adaptable species, able to adjust to all manner of hardships, injustice and environmental degradation, so long as those changes come about slowly, and we are given to believe there’s not much we as individuals can do about it. Never has the metaphor of the frog in the slowly heating pot of water been more apropos than it is to the prospect of man-made climate change, for instance.

It’s not the cataclysmic changes that are going to get us. It’s the incremental ones.