A look to the recent past shows how humans have hurt the Earth and its creatures. We need to do better.
THIS PAST CHRISTMAS I gave my guy a device that converts slides to digital images, the perfect project for these COVID at-home hours, days, weeks and months. Secretly I plotted that we—mostly he—might finally comb through boxes of old slides and negatives, teasing the prized keepsakes away from the celluloid chaff. As a result, we’ve been rediscovering hundreds of images and innumerable memories from the early days together, four decades ago.
The most startling thing we noticed, notwithstanding our short shorts, tube socks and poofy hair, was how much the landscape has changed since then. It’s not subtle.
Here we are, playing on my childhood beach, the stately cliffs tall and dominant in the background. When I last saw them two years ago, they looked hunched and forlorn, resigned to the merciless onslaught of ice riding in on ever-rising waves. One section has gone entirely to rubble.
Here I am in an Ontario meadow, sitting with my camera trained on a monarch butterfly while at least a dozen more flutter within my reach. Back then, they and several other species were a common sight, beautiful and totally taken for granted. So were the legions of bees that buzzed in the thistles and goldenrod surrounding the hayfields of my childhood. Not anymore. The monarch has all but disappeared and many species of bees are at risk everywhere.
When we moved to Victoria 30 years ago, I was especially captivated by the iconic Olympic Mountain Range along our southern skyline, its splendid peaks generously robed in snow even throughout summer. But, that’s all changed too. These days the summer coverage amounts to a few, shrunken daubs of white scattered on and around bare gray peaks. The US National Park Service confirms the decline, reporting that the Olympic range lost 82 glaciers between 1982 and 2009. That’s an alarmingly high disappearance rate of three glaciers per year.
Repeat photographs of Anderson Glacier in Olympic National Park. Arrows in identical locations illustrate the dramatic retreat/disappearance of this south-facing glacier. (Photos: 1936 by Asahel Curtis; 2015 by Byron Adams)
Locally there’s plenty of micro-evidence that nature is struggling and changing—animal species in decline or on the move, native forests and other flora stressed and foundering, unusual or erratic weather bouts year-round (including an incredibly forceful thunder storm last summer and a bona fide snowstorm as I write), and now, a pandemic.
COVID-19 arrived at our shores—or, more likely, airports—just as it seemed we were finally beginning to acknowledge our own involvement in the degradation of every aspect of the environment. Just as we were starting to notice our sullied, suffering world and concede that we couldn’t rightfully go on like this.
Weren’t we finally beginning to connect some dots, say, between pesticide use and insect decline, and wanton habitat destruction and animal extinction (not to mention the spread of their diseases to other species, including ourselves)? Weren’t we finally beginning to understand that our carbon-rich lifestyle is altering the climate and putting immeasurable burdens on the planet and our descendants?
Hadn’t we just recently tried (as we’re doing again) to ban single-use, plastic shopping bags? And hadn’t we just marched 20,000 strong through our downtown core to demand, finally, some real government leadership on climate change?
COVID-19 sidelined everything. A huge silence fell on climate change. Now was not the right time. We were in a full-blown, unmatched human health crisis.
The height of any crisis is never a popular time to question how it happened and how we can prevent it from happening again. Could we inadvertently have been the cause? That kind of querying wasn’t wanted, was considered callous and tone deaf, when Canada’s costliest wildfire consumed Fort McMurray in 2016, and when Manitoba experienced “the flood of the century” in 2017. It isn’t really welcomed now either, what with every hand required just to keep the virus—and now its variants—under control. Not to mention concern for the battered economy.
The problem, however, is that no one wants to hear this between crises either. No one wants to hear that we’re near to arriving at the outer edge of what our environment can support. That the changes required to keep the Earth liveable will be uncomfortable, and impossible to kick further down the road. That each and every one of us will have to adjust to new standards and realities. That “natural” catastrophes are only the beginning if we choose to do nothing.
We know by now how governments work, even in the face of impending climate catastrophe. They go nowhere because they keep trying to walk in opposite directions at the same time. The most dramatic example of this was the pairing of Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2015 declaration in Paris that Canada was back as a climate leader with his bewildering purchase of an old, overpriced pipeline just three years later. Then, having painted himself into a philosophically incongruous corner, he lectured without irony that, “Canadians know you have to protect the environment and grow the economy at the same time.”
That’s been his modus operandi ever since.
Meanwhile, our provincial government has been simultaneously walking on both sides of the fence for so long that surely there has to be chafing going on. Horgan and his team want to be both champions for climate action and champions for every extraction industry in the province. That especially includes liquid natural gas—a heavily subsidized pet project that, as the fairy tale goes, will use the “clean” energy of the Site C Dam to save Asia from dirty coal. The reality is a long and destructive path of carbon-heavy enterprise that starts with the contentious Site C project itself, and reaches all the way to yet-to-be-determined Asian ports, and beyond.
LNG is where many of our provincial tax dollars hit a dirty dead end.
Then there’s Clean BC, the government’s beautifully worded, all-encompassing plan to “reduce climate pollution” and “build a low-carbon economy.” Except that it falls so short of these goals as to seem intentionally deceptive in both messaging and accounting. Writer Russ Francis reveals what’s really going on here, in a recent detailed analysis for Focus.
All the top-down deception and dithering would lead us to believe that the situation is hopeless, but perhaps it isn’t. Real change has always started as a groundswell, building upwards until politicians finally feel it’s safe enough for proclamations and ribbon cutting. It’s why we need to stay persistent with our petitions and calls for change, all the while bettering the way we live and work and play in our own community.
The pandemic has not quashed our community groundswell. Even in these trying times our ongoing enterprise and activism remains quite remarkable: The University of Victoria is moving $80 million out of fossil-fuel investments. Camosun College will soon start training tradespeople on net-zero construction. Combined with all the solar innovation and expertise we have here, it’s a solid step towards the inevitable requirement that all new buildings be closer to net-zero and have at least some solar-powered infrastructure.
Torquay Elementary School in Gordon Head has just installed a $60,000 solar project, a giant step towards its goal of net-zero energy consumption. Esquimalt is banning single-use plastic bags, and more municipalities will follow suit. Zero waste groceries and many household goods are increasingly available at locally-owned stores.
Victoria has committed to a complete transition to green energy by 2050, and Saanich is one of the first communities in the world to adopt a One Planet strategy, which means that every decision the municipality makes must also pass through the lens of climate change. The CRD has the same intent under One Planet Region.
All this and more keeps us resilient and our hope alive.
I hope that years from now the people will be alive and well, and shaking their heads at the memory of us and our folly. I hope they will have a re-stabilized climate and thriving, prized environment.
I hope there’ll be summer snow on the Olympics once again.
I hope the monarch butterflies are back.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a writer, grandmother and Master Gardener living in Saanich, BC. Her books include People in Transition and Ernie Coombs: Mr Dressup (both from Fitzhenry & Whiteside).