People who deny that humans are wreaking havoc on the planet's life-support systems astound me. When confronted with the obvious damage we're doing to the biosphere—from climate change to water and air pollution to swirling plastic patches in the oceans—some dismiss the reality or employ logical fallacies to discredit the messengers.
We've long known extracting oil and gas comes with negative consequences, and rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, increases the problems and adds new ones—excessive water use and contamination, earthquakes, destruction of habitat and agricultural lands and methane emissions among them.
Grizzly bears venturing from dens in search of food this spring will face landscapes dominated by mines, roads, pipelines, clearcuts and ever-expanding towns and cities. As in years past, they'll also face the possibility of painful death at the hands of trophy hunters.
Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario has had to boil water since 1995. "We're over 20 years already where our people haven't been able to get the water they need to drink from their taps or to bathe themselves without getting any rashes," Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias told CBC News in 2015. Their water issues have yet to be resolved.
They're not alone. In fall last year, 156 drinking water advisories were in place in First Nations in Canada. More than 100 are routinely in effect—some for years or decades. According to a 2015 CBC investigation, "Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade."
Water advisories vary in severity. A "boil water advisory" means residents must boil water before using it for drinking or bathing. "Do not consume" means water is not safe to drink or consume and a "do not use advisory" means water is unsafe for any human use.
Water on First Nations reserves is a federal responsibility, but "severe underfunding" (in the government's own words) for water treatment plants, infrastructure, operations, maintenance and training has led to this deplorable situation. Canada has no federal standards or binding regulations governing First Nations' drinking water.
After years of pressure from First Nations and Indigenous and social justice organizations, the Liberal party promised in its 2015 election campaign to end all First Nations' long-term drinking water advisories within five years of being elected. In 2016, the new government's budget included $1.8 billion over five years, on top of core funding for First Nations' water infrastructure, operations and management. Funds have gone to help Neskantaga and other communities, but money's not enough. If the federal government is to fulfill its commitment to ending advisories in five years, it must reform its system.
The David Suzuki Foundation and Council of Canadians have published a report card rating government's progress on meeting its commitment in nine First Nations in Ontario, which has the highest number of water advisories in Canada. The Glass half empty? report found advisories in three communities have been lifted or will likely be lifted within five years.
Efforts are underway in three other communities, but uncertainty lingers about whether they'll succeed within the five-year period. Three others are unlikely to have advisories lifted within five years without reformed processes and procedures. And in one community that had its advisory lifted, new drinking water problems emerged, illustrating the need for sustainable, long-term solutions.
It's unacceptable that so many First Nations lack clean water and face serious water-related health risks—especially for children and the elderly—in a country where many people take abundant fresh water for granted. The United Nations recognizes access to clean water and sanitation as a human right and Canada has further obligations under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The report card concludes that the system for addressing unsafe drinking water is overly cumbersome and must be streamlined, First Nations must be have more decision-making power to address community-specific drinking water issues and government must increase transparency around progress and budgetary allocations. It calls on government to redouble its efforts to advance First Nations-led initiatives, fulfill its fiduciary responsibility to First Nations, respect the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ensure the human right to safe and clean drinking water.
The federally funded Safe Water Project is one example of a First Nations–led approach. The Keewaytinook Okimakanak Tribal Council started the initiative in 2014 in response to long-term advisories in four of six member nations. The project keeps management at the community level and includes training and certification of local water operators, operational support while local water operators pursue certification and remote water quality monitoring technology.
The project's success illustrates the benefits of a local approach. Community-specific, traditional and cultural knowledge are integral to developing lasting solutions. Because the federal government holds the purse strings, it calls most of the shots and often overlooks knowledge held by community members. This needs to change.
Clean drinking water on reserves is not just an Indigenous issue. It's a human right and it should concern all of us.
For decades, scientists have warned that we're on a dangerous path. It stems from our delusion that endless growth in population, consumption and the economy is possible and is the very purpose of society. But endless growth is not feasible in a finite biosphere. Growth is not an end but a means.
Humans are one species among countless others to which we are connected and on which we depend. Viewed that way, everything we do has repercussions and carries responsibilities. That we are part of a vast web is a biocentric way of seeing that we've followed for most of our existence. But in assuming the mantle of "dominant" species, we've shifted to thinking we're at the center of everything. This anthropocentric perspective leads us to imagine our needs and demands supersede those of the rest of nature.
The failure to see our interconnectedness and interdependence is most striking in the way we manage government affairs. Forestry, environment and fisheries and oceans ministers' priorities are not to protect forests, the environment or fish and oceans, but to rationalize our actions and ensure that whatever we do benefits us.
In an anthropocentric world, we attempt to manage important factors through separated silos, shattering the sense of interconnection. We draw arbitrary lines or borders around property, cities, provinces and countries and try to manage resources within those boundaries. But salmon may hatch in BC rivers and migrate through the Alaskan panhandle along the coasts of Russia, China, Korea and Japan before returning to their natal streams. To whom do they "belong"?
How do we manage monarch butterflies born in Ontario that travel through numerous U.S. states into Mexico? Grizzly bears are protected as an endangered species in the U.S. but can be shot if they cross into Canada.
This absurd disconnection was illustrated when provincial first ministers and the federal government met to discuss climate change and health in December. It was an opportunity to recognize the enormous health implications and costs of climate change. Instead, talks proceeded as if the two subjects were unrelated.
The repercussions of a mere 1 C rise in global average temperature over the past century have been enormous. In 2015, climate negotiations in Paris were meant to signal a shift away from fossil fuels to prevent an increase of more than 2 C this century. Though the Paris commitment dictates that most known deposits must be left in the ground, governments like Canada's continue to support new pipelines and continued exploitation of fossil fuel reserves. Efforts by Canada, the U.S. and other major greenhouse gas emitters have been so minimal that scientists now openly discuss global temperature rises of 4 to 6 C this century. Because we can't seem to curb our emissions, many suggest we must geoengineer the planet!
As top predator, our species remains dependent on clean air, water and soil and biodiversity, making our ability to survive catastrophic planetary disruption questionable. Surely that should be a top line in discussions about health.
At the December meeting, having ignored the effects of climate change on health, our political representatives simply assumed health-care costs will rise steadily (they have) without attempting to understand the cause. Instead, they focused on provincial demands for and federal resistance to annual payment increases. But health costs can't continue to rise indefinitely.
We are accelerating degradation of the very source of our lives and well-being—air, water and soil—through massive use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers and literally tens of thousands of different molecules synthesized by chemists. Scientists suggest up to 90 percent of cancer is caused by environmental factors. It's lunacy to ignore widespread and pervasive pollution as a primary health hazard. What we put into the biosphere, we put into ourselves.
If we want to keep health costs from rising, we should focus on keeping people healthy rather than dealing with them after they're sick. The highest priorities must be to stop polluting the biosphere and clean up what we've already dumped into it. Most importantly, we have to rid ourselves of anthropocentric hubris and return to the biocentric view that we are biological beings, as dependent on the rest of nature for our survival and well-being as any other.
If you fly over a forest and look down, you'll see every green tree and plant reaching to the heavens to absorb the ultimate energy source: sunlight. What a contrast when you look down on a city or town with its naked roofs, asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, all ignoring the sun's beneficence! Research shows we might benefit by thinking more like a forest.
The longer we delay addressing environmental problems, the more difficult it will be to resolve them. Although we've known about climate change and its potential impacts for a long time, and we're seeing those impacts worsen daily, our political representatives are still approving and promoting fossil fuel infrastructure as if we had all the time in the world to slow global warming.
We can't say we weren't warned. In 1992, a majority of living Nobel prize-winners and more than 1,700 leading scientists worldwide signed a remarkable document called World Scientists' Warning to Humanity.
It begins, "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that we will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about."
It then outlines critical areas where the collision was and is still occurring: the atmosphere, water resources, oceans, soil, forests, species extinction and overpopulation. In the 25 years since it was published, the problems have worsened.
The document grows bleak: "No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished. We the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated."
Now, as monthly and annual records for rising global average temperatures continue to break, as extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, as refugees overwhelm the capacity of nations, and as tipping points for climatic feedback loops and other phenomena are breached, the need to act is more urgent than ever.
The warning suggests five steps needed immediately. That was a generation ago. They can still help prevent the worst impacts:
1. "We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth's systems we depend on." It specifically mentions reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air and water pollution. It also highlights the need to address deforestation, degradation and loss of agricultural soils and extinction of plant and animal species.
2. "We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively." This one is obvious. Finite resources must be exploited much more efficiently or we'll run out.
3. "We must stabilize population. This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning."
4. "We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty."
5. "We must ensure sexual equality and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions."
The warning recognizes that we in the developed world are responsible for most global pollution and therefore must greatly reduce overconsumption while providing technical and financial aid to developing countries. This is not altruism but self-interest, because all of us share the same biosphere. Developing nations must realize environmental degradation is the greatest threat to their future, while rich nations must help them follow a different development path. The most urgent suggestion is to develop a new ethic that encompasses our responsibility to ourselves and nature and that recognizes our dependence on Earth and its natural systems for all we need.
The document ends with a call for support from scientists, business and industrial leaders, religious heads and all the world's peoples. Like Pope Francis's groundbreaking 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity was an attempt to galvanize the world to recognize the dangerous implications of humanity's path and the urgent need for change.
Forewarned is forearmed. We can't let the lure of the almighty buck blind us. We must come together, speak up and act for the good of all humanity.
How much stuff will you give and receive this holiday season? Add it to the growing pile—the 30-trillion-ton pile. That's how much technology and goods humans have produced, according to a study by an international team led by England's University of Leicester. It adds up to more than all living matter on the planet, estimated at around four trillion tons.
Scientists have dubbed these times the "Anthropocene," because humans are now the dominant factor influencing Earth's natural systems, from climate to the carbon and hydrologic cycles. Now they're labeling our accumulated goods and technologies—including houses, factories, cars, roads, smartphones, computers and landfills—the "technosphere" because it's as large and significant as the biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere. Researchers estimate it represents 50 kilograms for every square meter of Earth's surface and is 100,000 times greater than the human biomass it supports.
As CBC science commentator Bob McDonald wrote, "Our technology is a super-organism that competes with the biosphere for resources and is winning that competition by taking over the surface of the planet."
Report co-author Mark Williams explained the significance: "The technosphere can be said to have budded off the biosphere and arguably is now at least partly parasitic on it. At its current scale the technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet—and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly. Compared with the biosphere, though, it is remarkably poor at recycling its own materials, as our burgeoning landfill sites show. This might be a barrier to its further success—or halt it altogether."
Living systems renew and recycle. Organisms die, get eaten or absorbed by other organisms, and other life takes their place. But much of what we produce takes enormous amounts of natural, mostly finite resources to make and breaks down slowly, if at all. It covers the land and fills oceans, and even extends into space. As the human population continues to grow and consumerism shows no signs of abating, the technosphere expands, causing pollution, contamination and resource depletion, further upsetting the delicate natural balance that keeps our planet habitable for humans and other life forms.
Many things we've invented have made our lives easier in some ways. But much is unnecessary and, we've learned, a lot comes with consequences we didn't foresee—such as climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions from our obsession with private automobiles and cheap energy.
If this pace continues, we'll leave a fascinating fossil record for any intelligent species that comes across our planet in the future. But that may be all. If we want to survive as a species, we must get a handle on population growth and consumerism. It's something to consider this time of year, when so much time and energy are spent on acquiring new stuff, for ourselves and others.
Although population growth is starting to stabilize, curtailing growth requires greater access to effective, voluntary family planning and birth control, increased women's rights including the right to make decisions about their bodies and reproduction, and reducing poverty.
We can all do our part to reduce consumption. We might find we're happier when we do. At the end of his life, my father didn't talk about accomplishments or possessions or wealth. He talked about connections to friends and family and shared experiences. Although he didn't have a lot of material possessions, he felt wealthy and happy.
That's what life is about. A new car or smartphone won't make you happier in the long run. Nor will it fill gaps caused by loneliness or lack of connection to others. That doesn't mean we should live without material goods, but we should consider what we really need, and make sure we recycle items we can no longer use. Reduce, re-use and recycle! And reconsider what really makes us happy.
More important, during the holiday season, we should nurture our connections to friends and family, and give gifts that won't add to the technosphere. We can share time, experiences and food. Those who find themselves alone might consider volunteering to help others during what can be a difficult time.
May you all have a joyous season, focused on the important things in life. And may the New Year bring humanity a greater understanding of what truly makes life worthwhile.