It is humbling that after countless marches and demonstrations around the world, a tiny virus – Covid-19 – has forced humanity to slowdown. I have been locked in isolation since March 13 at my cabin on a remote Pacific island with my wife, youngest daughter and her husband and three grandchildren. We heat the cabin with a wood stove, draw pure water from a well and each day we go out and gather abundant oysters and clams, empty prawn traps and fish for salmon. We pick stinging nettles as a wonderful substitute for spinach, our garden is now fully planted with vegetables and for hours I play with and read to my grandchildren. It is a privileged way to live during the pandemic, but even here, we depend on a grocery store for most of our food, a pharmacy for the drugs for old age, a marina for gas to power our boat, electricity from the grid for our car, lights and stove and the internet to stay plugged in.
I am told the Chinese character for crisis is made of two parts: danger and opportunity. The pandemic fulfills both of these parts as we must take this pause to reflect on what it all means. Just as the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima revealed, the coronavirus pandemic shows that we are a globalized species; it is virtually impossible to confine radioactive contaminants or a virus within a local area or even country but at the same time, information can be shared at the speed of light.
In the face of Covid-19, I have been astonished at the sharing and co-operation at all levels of government and the disappearance of political posturing as everyone shares the primary job of minimizing the threat to all Canadians. We are not forgetting some of the most threatened yet marginalized groups in Canada – Indigenous people in remote communities, migrant farm workers, prison inmates, street people and the poor. Unbelievable government payments in the tens of billions are being committed without complaints about the deficit or irresponsibility.
Ever since serious lockdowns were imposed in Canada in March, anything before that now seems like ancient history, but we ignore the past at our great peril. Let me take you back to October 2018 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a Special Report that concluded that a rise in temperature beyond 1.5oC since pre-industrial levels by 2100 will result in catastrophic climate chaos and called for a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and by 100% by 2050. This was critical call that gave all nations a concrete target. The Canadian federal government touted its commitment to “net zero by 2050” which, in reality, is no commitment at all. No elected politician today will still be in office by 2050 so there is no accountability to ensure that governments are even trying to achieve the target. In Canada, the day after the IPCC Special Report was released, marijuana became legal and pushed out all media discussion of the crisis of climate change.
In May, 2019, the United Nations released a terrifying report about the loss of biodiversity around the world with a further million plant and animal species in danger of extinction. As if to amplify this news, scientists announced that insects, the most abundant, diverse and important group of animals have undergone catastrophic declines over the past decades. The day after the UN report was released, Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan had a baby and that pushed all discussion of mega-extinction out of the news.
In the fall of 2019, galvanized by Greta Thunberg, millions around the world including 500,000 in Montreal and tens of thousands in Toronto and Vancouver marched to demand action on behalf of youth. The rallying call was simple, “listen to scientists and take their pronouncements seriously because if we don’t, today’s youth face a dismal and uncertain future”. As if to punctuate those demonstrations, an entire continent, Australia, caught fire.
Before the magnitude of Covid-19’s threat became inescapable, 2019 ended with civil society demanding heroic action to avoid climate change and species extinction. 2020 would be the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day and should begin a fundamental shift to a sustainable future. The new coronavirus ended all that movement even as scientists predict this will be the hottest year in recorded history.
There has never been a cessation of human activity on such a massive scale as the present time. We must not lose the opportunity to determine where we are, how we got here and where we should go once the pandemic has passed. Already, the Canadian government is pouring billions to shift workers from drilling in Alberta’s oilsands to closing tens of thousands of wells abandoned by the fossil fuel industry and leaking the potent greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere. This is a step in the direction of moving workers to meet the challenge of our time – restoring and rewilding the planet.
My parents married during the Great Depression of the 1930s and like the current pandemic, those difficult times taught them what matters most and that they drummed as aphorisms into my sisters and me:
Those adages were hardwon life lessons and have guided me through my life and seem every bit as relevant today. Here on a distant island I wonder about the unsustainability of the food chain we have developed. As I order fresh lettuce, oranges, tea and coffee, I know none of these are grown in Canada and are delivered using fossil fuels from thousands of kilometers away. We have to shorten that food chain and become much more self-sufficient, yet British Columbia is building a massive dam in the north to provide energy for liquified natural gas (an industry that must be phased out) and the dam will flood a fertile valley that should be the breadbasket of the north.
Whenever I visit Japan I try to visit the Tsukiji market because I love fish. Yet I am astonished there isn’t a massive movement in Japan to protect the oceans from plastic pollution and over-fishing. People may be comforted to see abundant, diverse sea food displayed at Tsukiji every week, but it is an illusion created by a fishing fleet that exploits oceans around the world. And while prized bluefin tuna are still being auctioned off daily, the escalating prices and diminishing sizes of each fish are evidence that they are being fished to extinction. Can people of Japan imagine living in a world without fish? Yet that is where scientists tell us we are heading.
Modern society is built around energy but we now know with certainty that burning fossil fuels on today’s scale is altering the chemistry of the atmosphere and changing the pH of the oceans. The great evolutionary breakthrough for all life was photosynthesis. When bacteria found a way to capture the energy of a photon and store it in stable molecules (sugars), they not only accelerated life’s evolution, they transformed the atmosphere by adding oxygen to it at high concentrations. People have always worshipped the Sun which has supplied vast, inexhaustible clean energy to the planet and fuelled movement in the atmosphere and oceans. We boast that we are intelligent, so knowing the deleterious consequences of fossil fuel use and near limitless supplies of clean, renewable solar, wind, tide and wave energy and heat from the earth, are we unable to find ways to use them? Japan adopted nuclear technology to boil water, yet as one of the most seismically active nations in the world, has huge reserves of hot water underfoot. Japan like Iceland, could replace fossil and nuclear fuels with geothermal energy. All it takes is the commitment to do it, and our intelligence will find the ways.
When Ryo, my grandson was a year and a half old, I was pushing him on his daily ride on a trail beside the ocean in Victoria, passing dozens of people who were walking, jogging or biking, when I spotted a huge owl on a low branch of a tree. Rushing up to take pictures, I excitedly pointed the bird out to Ryo, loudly exclaiming what a wonderful sight it was. Not one person bothered to look up to see what I was excited by! Only Ryo saw that owl right there in our neighbourhood. We are so busy, we shut ourselves off from the world with our earbuds, cellphones and other distractions.
Today, I look up and see blue clear sky unblemished by contrails of jets or other planes. Without the roar of traffic, boats and crowds of people, I hear the wind in the trees, the call of loons on the water and geese high above on the way to nesting grounds in the Arctic. I revel in the rain that attests to this place as a rainforest and that nourishes my garden and recharges our well. I eat seafood without having to worry about contamination or pollution while the preparation and consumption of our food has become a wonderful ritual for children and adults. Cell phones and television don’t work here although the internet provides all the communication we need and I wonder before this pandemic, why were we so busy that we couldn’t enjoy each other’s company, play with the children, share in the ritual of cooking and eating, listening to the world around us.
And I think of the economy that has become the highest priority of governments and corporations. I am amazed that suddenly there is money to support people during this lockdown, yet there was nothing like this to support renewable energy projects, help workers transition to sustainable jobs, restore damaged ecosystems and plant forests and build the infrastructure for clean, renewable energy grids and provide free public transit in cities. The economy is not a force of nature. It is a human construct and currently, the demand for constant growth, the allocation of nature to an externality and the absence of responsibility for consequences of economic activity, make the current system a driving agent of ecological and social disruption. If it’s a human made entity, then surely it can be changed and we have to begin by asking:
How Did We Get Here?
For most of human existence, we were nomadic hunter/gatherers, following plants and animals through the seasons. We have always known that we live in a complex web of relationships with other species and air, water, soil and sunlight. We learned to survive through observations and experience, accumulating knowledge essential for survival. Even in the most recent phase of human development when agriculture became the source of our food, most humans lived in rural village communities with a deep understanding that weather, climate, and the seasons were vital aspects of survival and well being. Farmers know the importance of insects for pollination, of nitrogen fixation by certain plants, of the role of water and sunlight in growing crops. Nature has always been recognized as the source of our lives and livelihood.
But with growing populations, religions arose to provide values and rules to guide groups and govern behaviour. Some religions posited humanity as special, elevated above the rest of life. Francis Bacon stated “Scientia potestas est – knowledge is power” and believed the rigour of the scientific method provided powerful knowledge for the betterment of humanity. Rene Descartes stated “Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am” thereby separating mind and body and elevating intellect above the physical within which it exists. And Isaac Newton suggested that the universe seems to be a mechanical entity that could be understood through science by focussing on its parts that could eventually be fit together to explain the whole. As science exploded in vigour and discoveries, the Industrial Revolution reinforced the sense that humans are no longer subject to the constraints and limits imposed on all the other parts of the web of relationships. After all, telescopes enabled us to peer to the edge of the universe, microscopes enabled the discovery of a world of life in a drop of water, machines could toil endlessly or transport us at speeds beyond any biological creature. Ad so we moved from an ecocentric way of seeing ourselves as part of and dependent on a complex web to an anthropocentric world where we are at the centre of the action and everything is about and for us.
Our legal systems reflect the anthropocentrism as they define human and property rights. We seem to feel that we can define rights of other species on the basis of their value to us (resources, weeds, pests, etc). But in our laws, where is the right of a songbird to live its life as it evolved to live, the right of a river to flow as it has for millennia, the right of a forest to flourish as a community?
Our political systems are designed to govern groups of people, but when it is assumed that human needs are of greatest urgency without a recognition of our utter dependence on the rest of nature, then party politics and re-election become the highest priority and driver of our actions. The folly of politics in handling the bigger ecological considerations is illustrated grotesquely in the United States today.
And the dominant economic system that has been embraced globally is based on the creed of cancer – endless growth - that is impossible in a finite biosphere and absolutely unsustainable. Furthermore, since the economy is based on human creativity and productivity, all of the services performed by nature to keep the planet habitable and productive are ignored and the loss of those services when we dam, burn, clearcut or farm, is considered an externality to the economy, collateral damage from human demands.
The way we see the world and our place in it determines how we act and treat that world. We have to rediscover our relationship with the biosphere through an ecocentric vision but how can we do that? Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, acknowledged in Our Common Future, her 1987 report for the UN, Indigenous people are the only groups with track records of sustainably, living in a variety of ecosystems for thousands of years. They have accumulated hard-earned lessons from ancestors that enable them to thrive in ecosystems as varied as Arctic tundra, Amazon rainforest, coastal mountains, plains and deserts. They have battled against invaders who claimed to come from superior cultures in search of resources. The many battles of Indigenous peoples all over the world that continue to this day, are all about their place in this world and the threat of those who simply want what is in and on the land.
It has been my privilege to work with Indigenous people for over 40 years. In many celebrations, memorials and potlatches that I have attended, I am struck by the fact that in the songs, dances and prayers that differ from people to people, the same sentiments are expressed. They give thanks to their Creator for Nature’s abundance and generosity and always acknowledge that they have responsibility to care for Nature so she can continue to be productive. It is that reciprocity of thanks and responsibility that is missing in so much of the world today. I do not know, but I am told that the ancient practice of Shinto is based on nature worship. That has to be the perspective from which we base societal practices and demands.
Over and over again, we find that we are too ignorant to “manage” the world that we think is there for us to use as we wish. When Paul Mueller discovered that DDT kills insects, it was seen as a wonderful solution to diminishing the threat of insect born diseases like malaria and agricultural pests. Mueller won a Nobel prize in 1948. But insects are the most numerous, diverse and important group of animals on Earth. Without insects, terrestrial ecosystems will collapse or undergo massive change. When DDT began to be used in huge amounts, we discovered the phenomenon of biomagnification when eagles began to disappear and its cause was tracked down. When atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, scientists didn’t know there was a consequence of radioactive fallout, of electromagnetic pulses of gamma rays that knock out electrical circuits over a wide range, or the possibility of nuclear winter. When CFCs began to be widely used in spray cans and as refrigerants, no one knew they would persist in the air and high above Earth, ultraviolet light from the Sun would break bonds in CFCs and liberate chlorine free radicals that attack ozone.
Where do we go from here after Covid-19, with the twin crises of climate change and species extinction?
Let us focus on restoring a caring supportive society, on greater self-sufficiency, on a rich network of family, friends and community, on nature as the source of all we need to be happy and healthy – clean air, water, soil and food, energy and biodiversity. The new opportunities post-Covid-19, lie in restoring and rewilding the planet and moving away from this economically-driven orgy of consumption to enriching relationships.