Much March Movement

I am very keen to move on to the Economics section of the blog because there are such a lot of important insights to share from the economics perspective that speak directly to the future of our grandchildren.  However, as eager as I am to get on with this, there has been so much activity related to the blog going on in my home city of Vancouver in Canada during the past month that I feel compelled to share the flavour of it with the readers of the blog.  In alliterative style, I am calling it “Much March Movement.”

 Saving the Sacred Headwaters

 For my wife, Gerri, and me the activity began on March 6 when we went to an evening presentation hosted by ForestEthics, an environmental non-profit concerned with protecting endangered forests and wildlife in Canada and the United States.  The evening featured a presentation by Wade Davis who is an international figure in the world of wildlife and wild spaces preservation, where his work with the National Geographic Society as “an explorer-in- residence” has taken him to many parts of the world not likely to be seen by most of us. More importantly to this account, Wade Davis is a resident of British Columbia, the province where I live, where he has lived seasonally in the area known as the Stikine in the northern part of the province since 1978, working as a park ranger, white water guide and writer.

 On this occasion Wade was speaking as the voice of the “Sacred Headwaters” in his home environment where three great rivers rise—the Stikine, Skeena and Nass.  He describes the headwaters and the surrounding area as “a vast wilderness aptly named the Serengeti of Canada for its herds of Osborne caribou, moose, grizzly bears, marmots and wolves.”  Wade has an engaging lilting delivery in his speech, and in the course of about an hour he took us into the heart and soul of this land while, at the same time, instilling in his listeners a sense of outrage and despair because this area, sacred for thousands of years to a number of First Nations communities, is threated with the disruption of industrial development.

 Spatsizi (tributary of the Stikine), early fall with ice on the lakes and willow and birch already golden.  Photograph copyright 2011 by Carr Clifton

A battle has been going on for several years in which the Canadian authorities charged with the regulatory responsibility for protecting the environment and ensuring that the Canadian people are given a voice about industrial development in such ecologically sensitive areas, have been guilty of “egregious decisions” in issuing developmental permits “under a cloud of malfeasance.”  As reported by environmentalist David Suzuki in his Foreword to Wade Davis’s book, The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass, it was the courage and determination of “the Tahltan and all their neighbouring tribes [that] managed to halt, at least for the time being, the industrial activities of Shell Canada, part of the second-largest corporation in the world.  This was an extraordinary accomplishment.” 

 But the restrictions on Shell Canada to mine for coalbed methane expire in December 2012, and, as Wade Davis points out, other industrial players are already active or poised to expand in the area.  Plans for Imperial Metal’s Red Chris mine, already given some level of approval, without appropriate public consultation “call for the removal each year of 10 million tons of rock from habitat that supports the most robust population of Stone sheep in the world; explosions from the pit and the cacophony of massive trucks hauling the concentrate will shake the mountains for nearly thirty years.  The waste rock will be heaped over meadows where moose graze; the toxic tailings will be dumped into a pristine lake, where trout thrive and the ancestors of the Tahltan for generations worked obsidian into spear points and blades.”

 Black Lake is one of nine lakes that form the headwater lake chain of the Iskut River, the principal tributary of the Stikine.  If the Red Chris mine goes ahead, Black Lake and its entire valley will be buried beneath a mountain of toxic tailings and waste rock which inevitably in time will leech into Kluea and Todagin Lakes, seen here in the distance.  Photograph copyright 2011 by Carr Clifton

However, “none of this has to happen.  Egregious decisions can be reversed, and permits issued under a cloud of malfeasance can be revoked.”  Wade Davis contends that these kinds of decisions can’t even be defended on economic grounds: “It would be madness for the sake of a single mine of modest potential to compromise a place that could one day be as important to the world as Banff, Jasper, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon of Colorado, or the mountains of Tibet. . . Red Chris offers the promise of a mere two hundred jobs.  Shell Canada, once its extractive network is in place, would employ even fewer people.  Viewed from the long perspective of history, it is a poor exchange indeed, both for the Tahltan and for Canada. . . The fate of the Sacred Headwaters transcends the interests of local residents, provincial agencies, mining companies, and those few among the First Nations who favor industrial development at any cost.  The voices of all Canadians and of all people deserve to be heard.  Surely no amount of methane gas, copper or gold can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that could be the Sacred Headwaters of all Canadians and indeed all citizens of the world.”

 So the fight to save the Sacred Headwaters is now fully engaged with Wade Davis and ForestEthics leading the charge against development.  One wonders how many similar battles are being fought around the world and how boldly “the citizens of the world” will respond in defence of our natural heritage.  They certainly won’t “UNLESS,” in the words of Dr. Seuss, “someone like you cares a whole awful lot.”

 The Lorax (the Film)

 Which brings me to “The Lorax.” 

 It was not lost on Gerri and me that the present day story of the plight of the Sacred Headwaters bears an uncanny resemblance to the land of the Truffula trees as told by Dr. Seuss in his poem The Lorax.  The pristine wilderness is to be destroyed by the greed of the developer (Dr. Seuss’s “Once-ler”); the wildlife of moose and Stone sheep are driven out (Dr. Seuss’s “Bar-ba-loot Bears” and “Swomee-Swans”); and the trout choke in the toxic lake (Dr. Seuss’s “Humming-Fish”).  It so happened that the new film of “The Lorax” was released in our city in March and we took two families of our grandchildren to see it on March 19.  The film is well done, elaborating on the original poem with an extended storyline to appeal to today’s young children, but pulling no punches insofar as the message is concerned—“UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”  At dinner after the movie we handed out post cards addressed to the Premier of the province with a message to NOT remove the moratorium on Shell Canada’s application to mine for coalbed methane in the Sacred Headwaters, and each of the six grandchildren added their own handwritten message to the Premier: “Listen to the Lorax and save the land!”

 The Search for Shangri-La

 One more connection to the Sacred Headwaters story occurred for Gerri and me on March 26 when we watched a program on our local Knowledge television channel telling the story behind the myth of Shangri-La, as described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. 

 Apparently the origin of the story of a hidden paradise valley in the mountains of Tibet goes back to the 17th century.  In the television program the documentary crew retrace the route of a European explorer along an incredibly difficult passage until they finally come to the ruins of a once beautiful city overlooking a lush valley.  Since the days of that early explorer the rulers of the city had been overthrown by their warlike neighbours.  The rulers and their families were butchered and their bodies thrown into a cave.  The television crew entered the site where hundreds of years later the horror and stench of the carnage can still be felt.  That is the origin of the myth of Shangri-La.

 Which brings me back to the Sacred Headwaters.  Is it not important to know that in the northern wilderness of British Columbia in Canada we still have a modern day Shangri-La, pristine and largely undamaged by human intervention, but now threatened by the modern day equivalent of rape and pillage of the land?  Does its potential devastation matter to us and our grandchildren?  I think it does, for it is a measure of our sense of connection to the natural world.  If we are prepared to stand by and see another of Earth’s pristine landscapes go under to the developers’ machines, what does it say for our sense of responsibility as stewards of what remains of our ecological heritage?  Shangri-La need not be the myth of an ancient paradise lost in the dark corner of the human soul.  It can be protected today in British Columbia and preserved for all time through the nobility of the human spirit.

 The Quest for Clean(er) Energy

 Another notable event in the past month occurred for me on March 15 (the Ides of March) when I was invited as an alumnus of the University of Queensland to attend a presentation by three Australian universities at the Vancouver Globe 2012 international conference on the environment.  The three universities made a special presentation in the “Innovations Den” on the research and development work they are doing on the clean energy front. 

 On one level this is an incredible story of heroic, high cost human ingenuity in action. At another level it raises questions in my mind about reasonable directions on the quest for clean energy.  The University of Queensland is on the search for alternative sources of feedstock for biofuels and in the process is sequencing the entire genome of every variety of  native Australian plant species (there are thousands of them) to find those best suited for domestication for the production of biofuels.  This work is in the beginning stages with little chance of commercialization before another 10 years.  For the Aussies it’s a race against time in a far distant land to find alternatives to their rapidly depleting domestic oil supplies.

 On another energy front in northern Queensland researchers at James Cook University  have moved from a $0 to $50 million project in 5 years to explore the potential of algae to absorb carbon dioxide and produce biofuels as well as other side products of fertilizer, human nutrients and biochar (a form of charcoal used as fertilizer).  Another part of this story is the potential of algae in a process known as bioremediation to extract heavy metals from the waste products in mining operations.

 Perhaps most spectacular of the three university initiatives is the work of the University of Western Australia in the research and development of carbon capture and sequestration.  There are huge reserves of natural gas off shore in north-west Australia making the country the third largest producer of liquefied natural gas for export in the world.  The carbon dioxide produced in the liquefaction process is being captured and injected into shale beds deep under a small island near the gas fields.  Similarly in the south-west part of the state a demonstration project to sequester carbon dioxide from the burning of coal is under development.  Australia is a huge exporter of coal and natural gas and wants to demonstrate to the world how the offending carbon dioxide emissions from burning these fossil fuels can be captured and stored for all time safely underground.  The three universities were presenting at the conference because they and the Australian government are looking for international partners to participate in the research and funding of the very high cost of their energy initiatives.

 Reflecting on all of this I was reminded of James Robertson’s distinction in The Sane Alternative (1978) between Hyper-Expansionist (HE) futures and Sane Humane Ecological (SHE) futures.  I first read this more than 40 years ago, but its perceptive insight about human activity in determining the future was never more clear than when I heard these presentations.  The three Australian universities are front and centre in the HE paradigm to control the future through massive manipulation of the environment in resource extraction at great expense.  Many will argue that we have no alternative but to pursue such intervention.  One thing it will guarantee is that energy costs in the future will be orders of magnitude greater than anything we have known in the past.  Can our grandchildren build a sustainable future on such a paradigm?  No one knows.  Are there alternative approaches that will bring sustainability?  No one knows that either, but many people are exploring possibilities.

 Mobilising for Climate Action

 I had the opportunity to participate the next day, March 16, with a group of about 100 people who are exploring alternatives to the HE future.  This was an event called “Mobilising for Climate Action” organized in a low key, low cost way (in contrast to the high cost venue of the Globe 2012 event the day before) by several small NGOs and local sponsors.  The event may have been low cost, but the organizers made a valiant effort to go high tech with computers, monitors and wireless technology.  Despite the wireless features, there were wires everywhere, snaking around the floor of the room at a local community centre.  Not inappropriately, this venue was constructed with many clean technology features and formerly served as the hub of the Olympic Village for the winter Olympics held in Vancouver in 2010, where young people strove for athletic excellence in the glare of world opinion.  On this occasion young people again were struggling to connect with the world in a different way.  They were using the technology to bring in live presentations by guest speakers from outside Canada and allow the participants in Vancouver to engage in dialogue with them.

 Dr. Tom Crompton speaking from the United Kingdom made a very useful distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” values.  Intrinsic values are those in play when we connect with families, friends and community in positive life affirming ways.  Extrinsic values cause us to pay attention to social position, wealth and power.  Thinking about this I recalled some lines from a sonnet by the nineteenth century English poet, William Wordsworth:

                        “The world is too much with us; late and soon,

                          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

                          Little we see in Nature that is ours,

                         We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.”

 Tom Crompton’s point, echoing Wordsworth, was that there is an imbalance in our attention in industrialised society between extrinsic values (greater emphasis) and intrinsic values (lesser emphasis).  In so doing we “lay waste our powers” and have created societies worldwide that are “not remotely on course to be sustainable.”

 Dr. Susan Moser spoke live from Stanford University in California.  Her presentation was essentially about the importance of intrinsic values to human well-being and how we are suffering grief from their neglect.  She spoke of the need to meet “the psychological and social demands of a world in distress.”  Foremost in her advice to the audience was to face the truth: The world we have known is going to change in damaging ways. However, if we hold fast to hope and the belief that, though all of us are part of the problem, enough of us can be mobilized to change our ways of thinking and acting that the worst scenarios for the future can be avoided.  But we have to understand that we must focus on community building (intrinsic values).  “We will not get through this without restoring community. . . We will not get through this without our neighbours.”

 The Power of Compassion

 The importance of intrinsic values was again the major focus of discussion when Gerri and I went on March 28 to an evening with Karen Armstrong hosted by CBC Radio in Vancouver.  I have referenced in this blog Karen Armstrong’s book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which I will deal with in detail when I come to consider the role of Empathy in building a sustainable future.  However, because she was in town, and because we had the opportunity of a question and answer session with her, let me just say here that the main point she emphasized is that the only hope humanity has for getting through to a good future for our grandchildren is to learn how to have full and total respect for other people (other cultures, nations, religions, and ethnic groups) as fellow human beings with whom we are inextricably interlinked in creating the world future.  The main focus of her current work is the promotion of the Charter of Compassion, which was created as a result of worldwide consultation and published in its final version in February 2009.  In part, the Charter states: “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there.”  Easy to say, but very hard to do; because we are “addicted to our ego.”  That is why she has prepared a twelve step process to control our addiction to ego, similar to the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to control a person’s addiction to alcohol.  For me the takeaway phrase from the evening with Karen Armstrong was, “We are at our best when we give ourselves away.”

 Warriors for Good

 The values of selfless service to and with others for the greater good as advocated by Karen Armstrong, Susan Moser and Tom Crompton must also be matched with principled determination to act strategically.  This was the theme of the last two March events in which I participated.  In downtown Vancouver on March 26 several hundred people turned out for a rally on a rainy afternoon to hear speakers express their opposition to plans to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline to take heavy crude oil from the Alberta oil (tar) sands across British Columbia for export to Asian markets in giant tankers through waters that are difficult to navigate.  Several First Nations leaders spoke with great passion of the need to protect their territories and sacred landscapes, as well as the fish and wildlife on which much of their livelihood depends.  Bill McKibben was also there from the United States.  I have included his book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, in the list of references in this blog. His work as an environmental activist is now focused on control of carbon emissions, and he warned against a potential future for British Columbia envisioned by Big Oil interests and government policy (as opposed to people policy) as “a kind of portal” for exporting climate altering carbon to whoever will buy it from us.  Mark Jarrard, a professor of environmental science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, criticized the Canadian government’s duplicity on control of carbon dioxide emissions and said that he has come to the point of view that civil disobedience will be necessary to avert the worst consequences of misguided energy policy, or lack thereof.

 The final event in which I participated was held on March 31.  In large measure it was an effort to demonstrate that civil disobedience is not the only option for those who want to change the direction of government decision making.  The choice here was to use the political process itself by showing democracy in action.  Several professors and about 200 of their students from the University of British Columbia (along with others young and old) turned out for a door to door campaign to ask constituents in the riding of British Columbia’s Premier to sign a petition asking the Premier and her government to oppose the construction of the Northern Gateway Pipeline.

 To date the government has said it will not take a position for or against the pipeline while the environmental assessment process is still underway.  However, that is not good enough for the professors and the students who argue that it is already clear that exporting 500, 000 barrels a day of crude oil (and carbon) would contribute far more greenhouse gas emissions to other parts of the world than we currently generate by our own provincial activities.  This is morally wrong as those emissions contribute to global excess that threatens the future of these young people and their generation around the world.  A decision to oppose the pipeline should not wait upon an environmental assessment, which is not even considering the issue of exporting carbon emissions.

 I live in the Premier’s constituency, so I joined the students for their day of democracy in action and went door to door with a new friend, Matt, collecting signatures and chatting with my neighbours.  It was a stimulating and respectful experience.  In about 60 percent of the households where we found people at home they agreed to sign the petition, and 40 percent declined.  Other canvassers to whom I spoke had a similar result. In all some 4000 households were visited by canvassers working in pairs.

 Afterwards we all gathered on a rainy afternoon in a local park to assemble for a 10 block walk to the Premier’s constituency office to deliver the petition.  To shouts led by a young lady on a bullhorn of “This is what democracy looks like” and “Our planet our future” and much more such like, we wended our way cheerfully and respectfully along the sidewalks to the accompaniment of car horns and applause from bystanders.  The Premier was not in her office to receive the petition on a Saturday afternoon, so it would be delivered later, but in the meantime the plate glass windows of her office were festooned with the signs the students had carried saying such things as “Stop the Carbon Pipeline”, “Climate Action Now”, “Say No to Carbon” and so on.

 Full Circle

 And so we come full circle in this journey through a month of intersecting activity.  It began with a cry of distress that human consciousness could be so insensitive to the wild beauty and splendour of the Sacred Headwaters of three great rivers in northern British Columbia that we would sacrifice them to the thundering plunder of man’s machines, and spill the toxins wrenched from the Earth’s crust into the pristine beauty of ancient lakes.  It ended with the enthusiastic hope in the hearts of the young students I walked with in their appeal for sanity in the political process to protect their future from the danger of unrestrained carbon emissions. Two sides of the same coin that is the story of this blog.

We turn next to seek to understand how the economic system that has powered past prosperity has now become the major force in creating the tension between the Earth and human consciousness.


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2 Responses to Much March Movement

  1. Jim Short says:

    Des the photos of the lakes are beautiful,it is a shame that greed an big money destroy so many places,Our kids deserve to share in these wonderful places on earth

    • Thanks, Jim. Yes, this is a big problem all around the world. The good news is that people are now working to preserve these precious places against exploitation. But greed and big money are formidable opponents. It is up to all of us as citizens of the world to support efforts such as the campaign to preserve the Sacred Headwaters.

      Best wishes


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