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Earth Stewardship – a Job for Everyone

Last week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney criticized Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer for moving too slowly in January to close Canada’s borders to travellers from countries where the COVID-19 virus had been detected, and being too slow to approve new tests and treatments.

We can’t know exactly what Dr. Tam knew in January, but we can observe daily how the information about this pandemic changes – in part based on our looking for new data, and in part by our actions in response to the data we have. For her constant reflection, discussion and reconsideration of the emerging evidence, Dr. Tam has my utmost respect.

The old chestnut of 20/20 hindsight suggests that this particular pandemic should come as a surprise to no one. Remember Marburg, Ebola, HIV, Hanta, SARS, MERS? A full year ago, in January, 2019, The World Economic Forum produced a white paper entitled Outbreak Readiness & Business Impact. The findings include that, “The frequency and diversity of disease outbreaks are expected to grow steadily, as they have for the past 30 years,” acknowledging crowded urbanization, deforestation, displacement of people, conflict, and climate change among factors contributing to accelerating outbreaks (p.7).

A sobering description of the path of a virus can be found in the Emergence Magazine (issue 8) interview with science writer David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Quammen explains that we humans are disrupting wild ecosystems, and shaking their viruses free. He calls for us to reimagine our relationship with the natural world.

The American Geophysical Union (vol 46, issue 4, July 28, 2019) connected unprecedented and damaging fires, like those in Australia, with “advanced climate change”, particularly changes in atmospheric conditions. While the AGU didn’t say so, it’s reasonable to consider how the results of these changed atmospheric conditions and fires disrupt ecosystems, destroying flora, relocating fauna, and possibly shaking viruses free.

An incomplete historic view of that damaged relationship between humans and the natural world should make us all shake our heads. Viruses notwithstanding, we have inflicted illness, pain and suffering on flora and fauna alike with crises of our own direct creation.

Here are some examples.

1954 – Nuclear fallout requiring the evacuation of the population of the island of Rongelap
1956 – Mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan
1967 – Torrey Canyon oil spill off the coast of the UK
1976 – Industrial dioxin poisoning in Seveso, Italy
1984 – Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India
1986 – Nuclear reactor explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine
1989 – Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska
1999 – Erika oil spill off the coast of France
2010 – B.P. Oil Deepwater Horizon eruption in the Gulf of Mexico
1942 – 1981 carcinogenic chemical waste dump in the Love Canal, USA
2014 – 2020 lead poisoning in the water system of Flint, Michigan
and 174 drinking water advisories for over 100 First Nations in Canada, some advisories in effect for more than 20 years.

The opening scene of Kino Lorber’s film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, explains, “The Anthropocene is that time in the geological records when humans moved the earth outside its natural limits.” The film documents how humans have shifted from being participants in the natural life of the planet, to its domination, treating the planet not as a living system, but as both an endless source of materials and a bottomless pit for our garbage.

The good news is that many individuals and organization have, for more than the 30 years of modern virology, maintained an understanding of, and love for, our Mother Earth, recognizing that her health and ours were the same. They continue to take her care personally, in their words and deeds. Here are some voices inviting us to follow a different path.

Chief Seattle (lived 1786 – 1866)
“All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man. The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”

The Sierra Club (founded 1892)
“To explore, enjoy and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems.”

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
Written to draw attention to the damaging effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides on flora, birds, insects.

Greenpeace (1971)
“To ensure the ability of the earth to nurture life in all its diversity.”

The Limits to Growth (1972)
Commissioned by the Club of Rome, this computer modelled study showed that because the resources of the earth are finite, and human population growth apparently unchecked, serious action on resource issues would need to be taken to avoid “overshoot and collapse”.

Western Canada Wilderness Committee (1980)
“Envisioning a Canada where wilderness and wildlife thrive for the benefit of all, we are united to protect life-giving biological diversity in Canada through strategic research and grassroots public education.”

The Council of Canadians (1985)
“Through our campaigns we advocate for clean water, fair trade, green energy, public health care, and a vibrant democracy. We educate and empower people to hold our governments and corporations accountable.”

Our Common Future (1987)
A report from The World Commission on Environment and Development. Commission Chairperson Gro Harlem Brundtland, (Prime Minister of Norway) described it as “a global agenda for change”. This report introduced the concept of “sustainability” in resource use.

Ecojustice (1990)
Taking a case to the Supreme Court of Canada, this organization established the precedent requiring environmental assessment for most major development projects across Canada.

David Suzuki Foundation (1990)
“working to find ways for society to live in balance with the natural world that does sustain us”

Earth Summit (1992)
The first of a series of United Nations meetings took place in Rio de Janeiro, producing 27 recommendations, and endorsing the precautionary principle for protecting the environment.

Dogwood (1998)
“We organize local people to win back control of our environment, energy and democracy in British Columbia.”

Wangari Maathai (2004 Nobel Prize winner)
Maathai planted thousands of trees in her native Kenya to create both habitat and hope. “The environment and the economy are two sides of the same coin. If we cannot sustain the environment, we cannot sustain ourselves.”

Many of these organizations focus on the essential diversity/complexity of living systems, and the inseparable relationship between the environment (where and how we live with nature) and the economy (how we respect and manage the planet’s finite and renewable resources).

We can see, more recently, leadership on the traditional “economy” side of this coin.

Late last year Japanese carmaker Honda announced plans to sell only electric and hybrid vehicles in Europe starting in 2022, three years earlier than previously planned. Honda (HMC) said that the accelerated timetable reflects its confidence in green technology and regulatory changes that have upended the industry in Europe. “The pace of change in regulation, the market, and consumer behavior in Europe means that the shift towards electrification is happening faster here than anywhere else,” said Tom Gardner, senior vice president at Honda.

In a January 16, 2020 article in the New Yorker, Bill McKibben reports on the letter to investors of Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock (investment holdings of 7 trillion US dollars) who said that climate change is “almost invariably the top issue that clients around the world raise with BlackRock.” McKibben reports that “Goldman Sachs, Liberty Mutual, and the Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. have all put forth new climate policies, and the European Investment Bank … announced that it would stop lending to fossil-fuel projects altogether.”

Jason Markusoff, (Maclean’s February 25, 2020) writes, “Viewed once as a winner, oil sands are now widely viewed as an investment loser … Climate change adds a whole new dimension of risks.”

In a speech to the Edmonton Business Association, Premier Kenney said “I’m here to tell you today, as the premier of this province, that we are prepared to do what is necessary to ensure a future for this province’s economy, including for women and men, Indigenous people and new Canadians, and everyone who depends upon, either directly or indirectly, our energy industry.” (Edmonton Journal, February, 27, 2020).

This week, the federal government announced financial support for the “energy industry” targeted at cleaning up orphan oil wells, and reducing methane gas emissions (a significant contributor to climate change – see fires, see shaking viruses free). Alberta has the richest concentration of energy specialists, who could reimagine “energy” just as all of us have reimagined our relationships with family, with travel, with grocery shopping during this pandemic. We are reimagining the difference between “want” and “need”. We are thinking seriously about our futures.

Wednesday, April 22 is designated on my calendar as “Earth Day”. Many colloquia and webinars and conversations are planned, along with celebrations across the planet. Of course, the reality is that EVERY DAY IS EARTH DAY. Both gravity and history keep us humans here. What will YOU do to make Earth Day everyday?

An alleged “old Chinese proverb” asks the question, “When is the best time to plant a tree?” The answer is, “The best time is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.”

In this second-best time, let’s all find ways to plant trees.

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