Are We Up To The Challenges?
By Dr. G.F. Hartman
07 August, 2006
There is a very substantial volume
of highly credible writing, for anyone that wants to see it, that warns
us that humankind has only a few decades left in which to ‘get
it right’. We face demographic challenges and global ecological
disruptions on scales like nothing that people have seen before. This
is no longer news; the information is out there. In spite of this, most
people in North America are still ‘sleepwalking’ into the
Part of the quandary we face
is that the more complex and long range the issues are, the less suited
our political system is to meet them, and the less inclined people are
to think about them. For the politician, discussion of mega-environmental
issues and the politics involved does not attract votes for the next
election. Indeed, thinking beyond the next election does not fit the
agenda in our power-obsessed political system. For much of the public,
discussion of impending crises is apt to lead only to dismissal –
‘doomsday talk; now lets see who is winning the hockey game’.
It is a societal failure that, at a time when we need political people
to share responsibility as we face rough seas ahead, there is neither
leadership nor vision. There is no one at the wheel.
I urge that readers do not
escape by ‘turning me off’. Our children and grandchildren
will not be able to ‘turn off’ the massive impacts of the
changes that are converging around us now. The denial of today, is the
parent of the disaster and discomfort of tomorrow.
If there was such a thing
as a report card on humanity, at the beginning of the 21st century,
the failing grades would outnumber the passes and pluses. Ecological
and demographic dangers are not offset by the positive and encouraging
things that are occurring. Not only that, when we do look at issues,
the examinations are too often only skin-deep. If and when media coverage
is given to large-scale environmental crises, the coverage is on a single
problem basis. In addition, mass media coverage is, far too often, absorbed
with the symptoms of problems rather than base causes. Blood and tears
sell, penetrating analysis does not.
What is crucial to understand
and face up to, is the fact that we are not confronted by a single issue
such as climate change, depletion of oil, or loss of fish resources,
serious as each of these may be. We are, in reality, confronted by an
inter-connected complex of environmental and resource loss and/or breakdown
challenges that will shape the societies of the future. The elements
within the list of challenges are formidable:
> We add about 70 million
people per year to an already overloaded planet. Writers who hold the
darkest vision suggest that after reaching 8 or 9 billion people on
earth, environmental collapse will drive human numbers back by two thirds.
Like almost everywhere else, we are ‘in the game’ in B.C.
Here, we add about 50 thousand per year to our own province with its
southern portions already people-stressed.
> We are at, or past,
‘peak oil’. The major reserves have been located and we
are now using them up. There are no comparable and flexible substitutes
for this energy bonanza, laid down over millions of years but consumed
in only one or two centuries. The sub-urban sprawl of North America,
the long-range transport of food, the operation of our great sky-scrapers,
and life built around the automobile are all in peril. Read J.H. Kunstler’s
“The Long Emergency”. The influence of declining oil supplies
will affect nations, worldwide. In Canada, declining supplies and increasing
costs of oil and gas will be critical to people living in colder regions,
wherever these may be as climate warms up.
> Climate is changing
with a powerful array of potential impacts on water availability, forests,
fishes, infrastructure, health conditions, and livability of many regions
without cheap energy. See Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient
Truth”, or read the book. Although the impacts of climate change
are many, the people of central B.C. are living with one of major importance
to their livelihood. The eruption of Mountain Pine Beetle from Clinton
to Fort Nelson is, in large measure, due to changing winter climate
> In association with
increased CO2, ocean pH is decreasing, i.e., acidity is increasing.
The effects of such change on corals reefs, and production and composition
of marine plankton, are not known. Prof. D. Pauly, Head of the Fisheries
Centre at UBC, in a recent interview on CBC radio, regarded ocean pH
change as enormously significant and risky.
> Freshwater resources
of the world, and of many parts of B.C., are dangerously over-taxed
with use, or are being degraded. It is projected that by 2025, between
2.4 and 3.4 billion people will live in conditions of water scarcity
or stress. Considering local examples, here in the lower mainland of
‘Supernatural British Columbia’, groundwater is being heavily
charged with nitrate from chicken farms. Nitrate is well above the level
of 10mg/L, the acceptable standard for drinking water. Worldwide, about
460 million people depend, almost entirely, on groundwater reserves
that are being used faster than replenishment.
Such use includes that of
the 450,000 km2 Ogallala Aquifer underlying eight U.S. states. When
that aquifer is depleted, American water users will come to Canada for
water. If such required water is deemed to be of “national security”
to the USA, you decide how much, and how effectively we will be able
> Major fisheries of the
world are under assault. According to a study in the scientific journal
“Nature” (2003), industrial fleets have fished out about
90% of all large ocean predator fish – tuna, marlin, swordfish,
sharks, cod, halibut, skates, and flounders. This done in the last 50
years. Midwater fish species, that were at one time considered unusable,
are now being fished down as well. Pacific salmon are in decline from
central B.C. southward through the US Pacific Northwest. Freshwater
fish over much of the world are put in jeopardy by forestry activities.
Much of this is covered in a book by T.G. Northcote and G.F. Hartman,
“Fishes and Forestry: Worldwide Watershed Interactions and Management”.
> Since the dawn of agriculture
we have lost about half of the earth’s natural forest. The annual,
worldwide, loss of natural forest is currently about 120,000 km2 per
year. Tropical forests are under assault from both the forestry and
agriculture sectors. Boreal forests across the world are at risk of
loss due to climate warming.
> Our perennial demand
for economic growth, which invariably results in conversion of ecosystems
to human use, reduces biodiversity which ultimately affects the stability
of these systems (See http://www.countercurrents.org/cc-dawe030406.htm)
Functional ecosystems of
the earth provide us with vital services such as water treatment and
detoxification, waste assimilation, regulation of air quality, control
of erosion, regulation of local climate, spiritual fulfillment, and
many other things. These services, valued at near 33 trillion dollars
per year, have been put at risk by our collective activities. The “Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report” (2005) states that 60%,
15 out of 24, ecosystem services evaluated are being degraded or used
On the ‘plus side’,
there are important positive elements:
> Awareness of our plight
is increasing, and hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups are
actively involved in dealing with environmental issues.
> Means and scale of communication
have increased. Television and the internet, if used responsibly, have
wonderful potential to inform and connect people. The David Suzuki shows
have increased awareness among tens of thousands of viewers.
> The powerful documentary
movie and the book, “An Inconvenient Truth” by Vice- President
Al Gore has reached million of North Americans.
The list of demographic,
environmental, and resource challenges indicates the powerful but unbalanced
array of processes occurring on our planet. One way or another, some
or all of these will affect people everywhere. Many of these dangerous
and disturbing processes are interconnected, and the interconnections
lead back to the reality that excessive numbers of people and their
consumptive demands are overstressing the planet. As it stands, and
as we behave now, increasing crowding and “shortages” will
exacerbate the ongoing lawlessness and civil strife on earth.
I believe that the next few
decades will make it even more clear to us that we can not sustain the
kind of social and economic systems that have prevailed over North America.
Environmental and resource changes will force us into a very different
relationship with the earth. It will be one that involves less consumption,
less waste, and less travel. Life may, indeed, be less comfortable.
Our legacy may be that future generations look back at us with dismay
If we go back to biological
principles, every animal species on earth lives in some state of balance
with other species and the physical environment. Whether it is an experimental
population of meal worms in a jar of cereal, a population of snowshoe
hares in the Arctic, or salmon in the Fraser River system, the numbers
go up and down, but they don’t rise indefinitely. We too, are
bound by this ecological reality. Compounding technology, as we have
too often used it, has served only to increase, our numbers, our developmental
pressures on the environment, and ultimately, the distance we may fall
when the system collapses.
The convergence of ecological
crises demands that we go further than trying to deal singly with climate
change, or depletion of oil, or some other issue. It demands that we
move to ‘steady state’ economies and populations, not those
growing like mad. It demands, also, human behavior in which we are part
of the system, not an increasingly dominant element within it. Politically
and socio-economically, we will have to make a quantum shift. The challenge
of doing so, and having a vision-driven role on the earth, beyond growth
and profit, may be one of the most difficult that we have faced, or
will have to face, as a species.
The political systems of
today seems to be quite unsuited for dealing with the massive and complex
ecological and social challenges that are either here or on the horizon.
These challenges eclipse most of the issues that currently occupy our
I believe that we should
seek some type of forum, however chosen, whose role it is to understand
‘macro-issues’, and to inform and encourage elected people
to get them to deal with challenges that may not be popular in the short
term. I do not know exactly what the structure of such a forum might
be, but we need a ‘long-term brain’ for government. As part
of the foundation for this, we need awareness.
This critical foundation
requires that we recognize and begin to understand the full nature of
our situation. The extent to which we can do this, and have some influence
on our own future rather than having nature make the decisions for us,
may tell us just how much we deserve the “sapiens” in Homo
sapiens, the Latin species name we have given ourselves. We had better
be “sapient” (wise) because ‘nature bats last’.
Dr. Gordon Hartman: Born in Fraser Lake, Dr. Gordon
Hartman is known the world over as one of the most knowledgeable scientists
on any fishery. He has a Ph.D. in zoology, was the scientist in charge
of a major fish-forestry research project, held senior positions in
the provincial government and the Yukon government; He has taught at
the university level for about six years (University of Guelph and Addis
Ababa University) and spent three years in Africa with CIDA for two,
and FAO for one. He thinks he has written about 80 publications, scientific,
or managerial, or philosophical.