Category Archives: ecology

Knowing limits

Adapted from remarks delivered to the York Model United Nations in February 2009, and recently rescued from my drafts folder.

batmanIn the film The Dark Knight, there’s an exchange between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth about limits. Specifically, Alfred warns Bruce that he needs to “know his limits.” Bruce first rejects this idea, claiming that “Batman has no limits.” When Alfred points out that, while that may be true, Bruce Wayne does have limits, Bruce counters that he “can’t afford to know them.”

“And what’s going to happen on the day that you find out,” Alfred asks.

“We all know how much you like to say ‘I told you so,'” Bruce says.

“On that day, Master Wayne,” Alfred says, “even I won’t want to.”

People within the green movement have been talking about limits for years. On a finite planet like ours, there are limits to growth, whether you’re talking about energy generation, the economy, or how much we can squeeze out of the environment. In fact, the recognition of limits has often been used as the key distinction between the Green party and other political parties. In 2004 David Suzuki was the keynote speaker at a federal Green party convention in Bragg Creek, Alberta where he told us that the Green party was the only party that understood limits to growth.

Contrary to popular belief, and despite the party’s own messaging and positioning, most Greens I know have been very concerned about an impending economic collapse for years, and have been focused on it as the core challenge we should be addressing. We have recognized that the environmental, economic and energy crises are interrelated and must be dealt with in a coordinated fashion.

The response from most people to these realities, including our political leaders, has first been one of denial (“we have no limits”) then one of inconvenience (“we have limits but we can’t afford to know them”). The first goal of the green movement was to convince people that it was better to understand our limits and discover them on our own terms rather than encounter them unexpectedly in a way that would have disastrous consequences.

By many measures, that objective was not met. I don’t mean to say I’ve lost hope for a better future, because I have not. But realistically, many of the things we should and could have prevented will now come to pass. There were limits to how far we could push destructive economic growth, and we have learned (some of) them. There are limits to how much we can abuse and take for granted our environment, and we are beginning to learn them. There are limits to how long we can continue to exploit our current sources of energy at current rates, and we are rushing towards them. We are stumbling towards the triple E crisis instead of meeting it on our own terms.

The day has arrived where we can now say “I told you so.” And on this day, we don’t want to. Nor should we waste our breath. The fact that we’ve allowed the great challenges of our time to become even greater only means that we must focus more than ever, and work harder than ever, on solving them. Every time we miss the mark, we will redouble our efforts and start anew.

We Will Not Save The Environment Until…

With all the focus on the politics and math of mitigating climate change (which is getting exceptionally urgent, by the way), it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Last night Spacing Magazine launched their 10th issue, the “green issue.” Inside the front cover is the following, by Pier Giorgio DiCicco, Poet Laureate of the City of Toronto, edited from a speech at the Walk21 conference two months ago. It is, IMHO, profound.

After the many seductions, logical and visionary, have been played—I shall make a plea for the salvific aspect of the act of walking. Yes, salvific. Not just to save the environment, but to save ourselves, and not just by regarding the environment. We will not save the environment until we have found a reason for living together. Until we discover civic care in each other, until we restore the city to its definition as a place of unexpected intimacies, not just as a place of amenities, convenience, business, and entertainment, we will not have sustainability. For sustainability is about replacing an ethic of entitlement with an ethic of sufficiency. And sufficiency is what we find in each other. In an era that glorifies independence and even inter-dependence we are shy of admitting the awful truth: that is, we are dependent on each other, not by connectedness, but because we are one body breathing the same air. It is not cars that are the enemy of the pedestrian. The enemy is the absence of civic communion, the lack of empathic citizenship, our inability to see cohabitation as that place where we enjoy ourselves, by enjoying others. All human traffic is under siege, because it is becoming increasingly purposed, guarded, and negotiated. The body is not just a means of locomotion. It is our chief means of restoring a city to its raison d’être, its purpose. And that purpose is civil encounter.

But civic trust has been corroded. Our cities are becoming disinhabited, even when the streets are safe and landscaped; gentrified neighbourhoods are no more interactive than the brownfields and cloverleafs they replaced. The problem is not, fundamentally, to get people to slow down, or to move without being toxic to their environment. The problem is to make people aware that anonymity is as toxic to the ecology of heart as hydrocarbons are toxic to the atmosphere. The problem is how to restore intimacy, curiosity, trust, and play into the happenstance encounter of citizens, in an era when the happenstance and the unpredictable are a threat.

When all the cars will have been taxed or tolled on their way to the cities, when bike paths and parks will have reconfigured our neighbourhoods, when safe and cleaner transportation has cut emissions, a fundamental question will remain. Is the safe city, the sanitized city, the sustainable city, the same as the livable city? If all we want is clean and well-designed cities, it will likely come to pass. But in the long run, to save the environment means that we will want to save the environment not just for ourselves, but for each other. And to reverence each other means that we will have to discover each other.

I wonder if any of the delegates and observers to Bali channeled Dr. Eleanor Arroway on arrival, saying “they should have sent a poet.”

Dispatches From Caribou Country

Crossposted from, where there are also accompanying images and illustrations.

“What are you doing tonight,” asked a friend of mine Monday afternoon. “Well,” I said, “I’m going to an event called ‘Caribou Country: Our Shield Against Global Warming.'”

“You lost me at Caribou,” my friend replied.

We’re told that environmental issues are at the top of everyone’s mind, but anecdotal evidence suggests that that attention may be narrowly focused. This new environmentalism, it seems, is all about carbon: emissions, taxes, and credits. Carbonmania, the result of increased awareness around the climate crisis, is perhaps a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has undeniably given the environmental movement a shot in the arm and triggered a new wave of awareness and debate about our only home’s life support systems. On the other, it has hogged the spotlight, leaving other equally important environmental issues in the shadows.

Or, it should be said, other related aspects of the same macro-environmental issue. Because, as climatologists routinely point out, climate change is a crisis that did not evolve in isolation from other environmental crises, nor can it be solved in isolation. In short, there’s more to this than carbon itself.

And yet, with a title like “Caribou Country,” Monday night’s event—presented by Wildlands League (the Ontario chapter of CPAWS, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) at the University of Toronto’s Hart House—caused our friend to think of the old “hippy, tree hugging” environmentalism: a kind of thinking that seems (to many) to exist in isolation from the practical reality of every day life, the kind of environmentalism that is “out there,” and doesn’t affect us directly. This line of reasoning, as the speakers at the event explained, is faulty.

“Caribou Country” refers to Canada’s boreal region, which occupies 35% of total Canadian land area and 77% of Canada’s total forest. It also refers to an ecosystem that is on the run. In 1880 the forest (and, along with it, the caribou population) extended south almost to Algonquin park; today it has retreated to the remote north of Ontario, well above Sault Ste Marie. And while its preservation may seem like a distant “nice to have,” the health of the boreal ecosystem is inextricably linked to our choice between increasing or decreasing the destructiveness of climate change.

Crisis Gone Global

The difference between the amount of intact forest pre and post industrialization—a reduction of 70%—is striking when seen on a map. Overlay that map on a photo of the Earth at night from space, and there’s an inverse relationship between the areas that are lit up and the areas that still have wildlife. The immensity of that change means that environmental problems are now global instead of local, which is why we can no longer afford to think of wilderness protection as an altruistic frill.

It also means that we’re entrusted with decisions and responsibilities that have effects far beyond our own boarders. Canada has 20% of the Earth’s wild forests, 20% of its fresh water (which is purified by forest systems), and 50% of the global population of 40 species. In other words, we hold the ability to have a huge impact on the entire globe, be it positive or negative.

Burning The Planet At Both Ends

In order to understand why that is, we need a basic understanding of the carbon cycle. Discussions regarding global warming tend to focus on one half of the cycle: those things that emit carbon, including fires, volcanic explosions, and decompositions. It’s equally important for us to understand the other half of the cycle, however, which is concerned with those things that store (or sequester) carbon: forests (trees and other vegetation), oceans, other biological process, and deep storage including petroleum, marble, coal, and lime stone.

Most people now have a good understanding of how we’ve contributed to climate change by burning fossil fuels and thereby emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases in a short period of time. What’s less well understood is that we’ve also seriously harmed the planet’s “carbon sinks,” those systems that store carbon and keep it out of the atmosphere. You could say we’re burning the Earth at both ends. Therefore, when we talk about fighting climate change, we need to recognize not only the importance of reducing emissions, but also the importance of preserving and ultimately expanding our planet’s natural carbon sinks.

Those sinks are in serious trouble. Recent evidence suggests that the world’s Oceans—which normally absorb a full quarter of all carbon emitted into the atmosphere—have become saturated and are shutting down their absorption. Other research has shown the level of carbon in the atmosphere to have exceeded 450 parts per million, a particularly frightening reality since the scientific consensus was that that wouldn’t happen for another ten years. The last thing we need to be doing is actively destroying the boreal forest, which has the highest concentration of land-based carbon in Canada, which, in turn, holds 30% of all the land-stored carbon in the world.

Oh, and here’s a kicker. Global warming is having a negative impact on the boreal ecosystem itself, so the more of it we damage, the more vulnerable it becomes to future climate shocks, creating a feedback loop.

Paying The Price 

The primary cause of destruction of caribou habitat is logging, while diamond mining and large-scale hydro electric projects also have a serious impact. Dr. Anastasia M. Lintner, a lawyer and economist with Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund), spoke last and had the responsibility of suggesting solutions to these problems. She proposed a move towards a “low carbon economy,” which she described as an economy where there are deep reductions in emissions due to the internalization of carbon costs (you must pay a price to pollute), and where we aim to “sink carbon” once we’ve reduced our emissions. (In other words, it’s not enough to reduce our emissions, we must actually reverse them.) One of the ways to do this is to set up a carbon trading system, where companies (or, theoretically, individuals) who have made reductions in carbon can sell those “credits” on a stock exchange-like market to other companies or individuals who have not reduced their emissions. Linter emphasized that these kinds of actions must be mandatory if they’re going to work, unlike the current federal government’s plans to promote “aspirational” targets (which are a step below “voluntary”). As an example, she pointed to the EU carbon exchange, where there are mandatory rules and the price of a tonne of carbon is around $30. On the Chicago carbon exchange, which is voluntary, the price is less than $2 per tonne.

It’s important to place a price on carbon so that we can make intelligent decisions about what it’s worth to release it into the atmosphere. So, what does that mean in real numbers? According to Linter, “allocated forest” in Ontario (meaning the parts that are slated to be cut down) currently stores 1,363 Mt (mega tonnes) of carbon, even without including the peat lands (which store far more carbon per hectare than the forest area does). On the EU carbon exchange, keeping that carbon in the ground would be worth $8,200,000,000. At that price, it makes no economic sense to log any more of the forest

Although, Linter argued that the area of forest below the cut-line isn’t commercially viable without subsidization anyway. Our forest industry is struggling because we can’t compete with fast-growing other parts of the world with lower labour costs. Instead, we need to think about how this industry will transition and diversify. We can take advantage of emerging “green” markets while simultaneously preserving threatened woodland Caribou habitat and fighting climate change. And we need to ask ourselves, “what is the dollar value we want to place, as a society, on keeping the forest intact, on the water and air that it cleans, on the carbon it keeps sequestered?”

Using this strategy, Linter says we can successfully 1) fight climate change, 2) preserve caribou habitat, and 3) position Ontario as a leader in emerging green markets and the future low carbon economy.

Caribou live in the most carbon rich environment on the planet. We in Canada have a global trust to keep that carbon where it is, and to keep the ecosystem intact so that it’s more resilient to the impacts of climate change. If we succeed, our success will be global. Likewise if we fail. From a climate change perspective, a wilderness perspective, and an economic perspective, the choice is clear. We must act before it’s too late, and the clock is ticking.

On Islands

This past Saturday I had the privilege of speaking at Toronto Cuba Friendship Day, an annual event held at Nathan Phillips Square outside City Hall in Toronto. (Audio of my comments here, courtesy Toronto Social Justice Magazine.) The event was MCed by former Speaker of the Legislature David Warner, and other platform guests included city councillor Joe Mihevc, Consulate Generals from many countries, and Cuban Ambassador to Canada Ernesto Senti Darias. (NDP MPP Peter Kormos, who I was looking forward to meeting, unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute.)

One of the more interesting and lesser known facts about Cuba is their position as an environmental leader. They’ve made investments in renewable energy, legislated forest protection, significantly increased their country’s tree canopy, spoken out about the dangers of biofuels from food crops and, perhaps most remarkably, made the transition to 100% organic agriculture while simultaneously improving yields (proving for the rest of us that it can be done).

When it came my turn to speak, most of these examples had already been lifted up by the other panel members. So, instead, I wondered aloud why it was that Cuba had so many positive environmental examples. Here’s a theory: Cuba is not only an island, but one that has in many ways been cut off from the world. Without detracting from their accomplishment, many of their systemic changes have not been made out of a desire to “do the right thing,” but out of necessity. The shift to organic agriculture, for example, happened rapidly when the Soviet Union collapsed and took with it Cuba’s supply of petroleum-based fertilizers (the artificial energy inputs required for non-organic agriculture). In other words, on an isolated island you have to live within your means.

We, of course, do not live within our means. As much as we’ve grown to loath financial deficits, we continue to operate with huge environmental and social deficits that will come due someday soon.

And there it is. This Earth, too, is an island. As Carl Sagan wrote, “on it [the Earth] everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Every breath of air you ever breathed, every drop of water you ever drank. Every barrel of oil you ever burned.

He goes on: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”

We’ll have to learn to live within our means soon. Islands who haven’t have paid a high price.