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Big-picture Thinking Needed to Protect Nature

Posted March 20, 2013 by Dr. David Suzuki in Energy and Resources
This map from a recent report by the David Suzuki Foundation shows the scale of industrial impacts on the Peace Valley region over the past half century.

Few places on Earth have been untouched by humans, according to a study in the journal Science. Satellite images taken from hundreds of kilometres above the planet reveal a world that we have irrevocably changed within a remarkably short time.

Although industrial projects like the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline or the recently defeated mega-quarry in Ontario typically grab the headlines and bring out public opposition, it’s often the combined impacts of a range of human activities on the same land base that threaten to drive nature beyond critical tipping points. Once those are passed, rapid ecological changes such as species extinction can occur.

For example, in British Columbia’s booming Peace Region, forestry, energy and mineral leases and licences are widespread and often multilayered in the same area. As various industries have exploited these “tenures”, a sprawling patchwork of large clearcuts, oil wells, dams and reservoirs, fracking operations and thousands of kilometres of seismic lines, roads and pipelines have come to dominate the landscape.

Today, more than 65 per cent of the region has felt the impact of industrial development, leaving little intact habitat for sensitive, endangered species such as caribou to feed, breed or roam. Degradation or destruction of habitat has convinced scientists that remaining herds in the region are no longer self-sustaining and are spiralling toward local extinction. First Nations, who have relied upon caribou as their primary source of food for thousands of years, can no longer hunt them. This is a clear violation of treaty rights.

This dire situation didn’t happen by accident or because of a laissez-faire approach to resource and land management. Numerous industries in the area have been operating legally and according to rules and regulations set by government.

But legal experts, such as those at the nongovernmental organization West Coast Environmental Law, believe a root cause of the problem lies in laws about land, resource and water management that are “hardwired” to fail communities and the environment. The narrow focus of those laws enables industries to operate in isolation from one another.

B.C., for example, has developed numerous individual laws, like the Forest and Range Practices Act, Oil and Gas Activities Act and Mines Act, alongside the regulated industries they enable. But the province lacks a legal framework to proactively and comprehensively manage the cumulative impacts of multiple resource industries operating within the same area.

Because of this, WCEL and its First Nations partners are engaged in a multi-year law reform project that aims to overhaul the way we currently oversee and regulate cumulative impacts, ranging from declining water quality that may arise as a result of multiple industries using a common resource, to emerging threats such as climate change.

A cumulative-impacts approach to governing resource development would upend the current management paradigm. It would focus on the management needs of the land, water, air, wildlife and indigenous communities that depend on them first, rather than the resources to be extracted. In practical terms, this would mean that, rather than focusing on what we should take from nature to create wealth and employment, we should first consider what must be retained in nature to sustain both wildlife and the well-being of local communities – such as clean air, safe drinking water and healthy local food.

At a recent symposium on managing the cumulative impacts of resource development in B.C., numerous speakers – from First Nations to academics to business leaders – stressed that effectively managing cumulative impacts will require new institutions and governance mechanisms, even new legal tools. More importantly, it will require our leaders to adopt a more proactive and holistic way of thinking about the world – one that recognizes that far from just being a place to extract resources like fossil fuels, timber and minerals, nature is our home. Nature provides our most fundamental needs and dictates limits to growth and so its protection should be our highest priority.

Managing our massive, growing human footprint on this planet more sustainably will require leadership, much of which is emerging from First Nations peoples who are on the frontlines of the day-to-day realities of cumulative environmental change. We need to look at the big picture rather than individual elements in isolation.

Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Ontario and Northern Canada Director-General Faisal Moola.

About the Author

Dr. David Suzuki

David Suzuki, Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. He is renowned for his radio and television programs that explain the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way.

One Comment


    Thursday, 21 March 2013 23:42 posted by Alan Blanes

    I believe that Dr. Suzuki has opened a very legitimate area for inquiry. I too have been wondering how can future generations’ interests be served by corporate proposals that put short term profit demands ahead of keeping materials in the ground for the use of 1000s of future generations?

    There needs to be an acceptance of the premise that natural areas and resources need to be utilized on a community economic development [CED] model. This is where the social economy enables multi-stakeholder participation in corporate structuring, where one person one vote is the way development decisions are made. This is the opposite of allowing capital that may be remote – to come in and attempt to use up available resources for external corporate profit maximizing, rather than for the stewardship of the local population and ecosystem.

    There are challenges that this continent faces, such as surplus flood water and getting it to reservoirs and drought stricken areas, and to ensure that this water is decontaminated. If we are to look at a major goal of getting our land areas to sustain enough foliage to absorb the surplus carbon out of the atmosphere, we must explore CED.

    Thursday, 21 March 2013 11:20 posted by KWD

    A cumulative-impacts approach to governing resource development would do much more than upend the current management paradigm, which is why proactive, holistic approaches never get past planning stages.

    Those that depend on growth, environmental destruction and resource extraction in order to continue the lifestyles they have become accustomed to won’t let it happen.

    When the majority of non-indigenous folks believe we can innovate our way around the laws of nature, any talk of limiting growth soon derails the decision-making process.

    If existing “laws about land, resource and water management” are ‘“hardwired”’ to fail communities and the environment”, does anyone seriously believe that we can change outcomes simply by legislating behaviour that prevents failure?

    In the end we are forced to accept that nature, not humans, dictates the limits to growth.

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