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Limits to Growth? Not in Canada, no way. Canada is a Resource-Exporting Nation!


Limits to Growth

Two weeks ago, I was a participant in the third Muskoka Summit on Environment.  This year’s topic was the relationship between the economy and the environment, and we had an exhilarating two days proving that a community outside a big city can sponsor a successful discussion of important environmental issues.  Paul Kennedy will devote the June 4th episode of his nation-wide CBC radio program, Ideas, to the Summit.  With the help of six invited speakers from across North America, we managed to confront the need for a substantial philosophical re-boot as well as significant changes in behavior if we are to step away from the perpetual growth that currently governs the world economy.  And we did so while remaining cautiously optimistic that a better world is possible.  (I remained cautiously optimistic; some of the speakers were more enthusiastic about the do-ability of the tasks facing us and ensured we departed in an upbeat mood.)  The fourth Muskoka Summit on Environment will take place in 2016.  Watch for it.

All in all, it seems like an appropriate time to talk once more about the limits to our growth.

The problem rests in the fact that the global economy generates a growing amount of wealth by consuming growing amounts of resources and energy while releasing growing amounts of pollution all on a finite planet that is now being sorely stressed.  When the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth in 1972, their arguments and their conclusions seemed obvious to me as an ecologist – of course there are limits to growth on this planet.  But I learned over the years that followed just how successful the great majority of people were at ignoring this elementary fact.  We wanted to believe that their dire predictions were going to prove to be incorrect, and so we did believe this.  As Marshall McLuhan once said with reference to a quite different matter, “If I had not believed it, I never would have seen it”.  His artful statement nicely captures an interesting fact about us – willfully, unwittingly, consciously, unaware, for devious personal reasons, or because of blind trust that our world will not change in dangerous ways, we regularly see what we want to see while avoiding seeing the obvious and important evidence that we are overtaxing our planet all around us.

I just called it ‘our’ planet – that is ‘our’ meaning ‘the one we live on’, not ‘the one that belongs to us’.  While ecologists frequently talk about an environment’s capacity to produce goods and services, let’s be quite clear.  The goods and services are produced, but they are not produced FOR US.  We simply rush in and use them before some other organism does.  We are highly successful squatters here rather than the lords of creation.  (Felt I needed to say that because there may be a few of you who still believe we have dominion over the Earth.)

Let’s look quickly at some of this evidence.  Even the World Economic Forum, hardly a leftist, green bunch of rebels, lists water crises, food crises, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and greater incidence of extreme weather events as four of its top ten global risks for 2014.  The first two of these are risks caused by inefficient and excessive use of resources; the second two are both due largely to excess emissions of greenhouse gases, chiefly CO2 through our economic activities. FAO’s latest State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, released in December, shows global capture fisheries continuing more or less unchanged around 90 million tonnes, where it has been since the mid-1980s.  Always optimistic, FAO predicts catch will grow by 5% between now and 2022.  I am unconvinced.  More ominously, FAO reports that just under 30% of fish stocks are now being overfished, and all but 10% are being fished at or beyond capacity.  Looking at food more broadly, the substantial grain reserves held in countries like Canada, the US, Russia and Australia during the 1980s, are long gone, and Dr. Fred Davies, senior science advisor to US AID’s division of food security, has recently spoken of the world facing a global food shortage by 2050.  I won’t even bother to mention such more esoteric limits as the loss of pollinating insects, of forests, or of global biodiversity.  But I will mention our continued expansion of releases of greenhouse gases, because our impacts on climate are exacerbating many of the other problems we face.  And I will also mention an important article by Johan Rockström and colleagues, published in Nature in 2009.  I have blogged previously about this article (and a more detailed, open-access version in Ecology & Society).  They speak of nine planetary boundaries that should not be crossed if we are to live sustainably on this planet.


The trend in rate of CO2 emissions globally is sharply upwards.  The rate slowed slightly in 2013, but we are still emitting CO2 twice as rapidly as we were in 1990.
Graph © Global Carbon Project, from a presentation released in November 2013.

 Rockstrom planetary boundaries 2012

The nine planetary boundaries that human activities should not transgress.  Green represents the region of safe use or impact, while red shows the present level of human use or impact.  We have already transgressed three boundaries and need to pull back as soon as possible.
Figure © Rockström et al, Nature 2009.

The problem confronting us is simply far too many people, using ever more of the planet’s resources and polluting with the wastes our economy generates.  Governments which continue to stress the need for economic growth, or to argue for increased birth rates to ensure there will be young people to do the work and pay the taxes that sustain the growing numbers of elderly, are mindlessly enforcing a continuation of the status quo.  The world desperately needs to rethink the way in which we organize our economic lives, and wealthy countries like Canada, the USA, Australia, and Europe should be among the leaders in the needed transition, because we have more capacity than developing countries to weather the difficulties that will certainly occur as the transition takes place.

In Canada, for example, we can hold population constant, or even reduce it, merely by adjusting the flow of immigration – no need to venture into morally difficult discussions on topics such as how many children people are entitled to have.  Canada also has a relatively well-educated population that should be able to flourish in an economy that deliberately works to minimize or eliminate any increases in use of resources or energy in order to halt the growth in our environmental footprint.  Such an economy will likely contain a far higher proportion of service jobs, and ‘manufacturing’ jobs which produce more expensive but much more durable products, and products with high intellectual content, but little in the way of material resources – products like literature, the arts, and apps for cellphones.  We will still exploit mineral deposits needed for our economy, but will decarbonize aggressively, and will slow and ultimately cease the export of hydrocarbons on the grounds that doing so simply enables other countries’ resistance to the obligation to decarbonize their own economies.  Such an economy may provide less work, but this will be solved by having more leisure time – nobody ordained that one must work 40+ hours per week for most of one’s life, and more leisure is much less socially disruptive than higher unemployment rates.  Maybe this all sounds like I’ve been smoking funny cigarettes, and maybe the specific details of a Canadian reorientation will be quite different to what I have suggested, but the point is we are not going to be able to continue to behave the way we do at present, and wealthy countries are in the best position to lead the way in making the necessary shift.  The point also is that now is the time to begin the transition.

Not Happening in Canada.  No Way.  Not if the Harper Government can Help It.

The single-mindedness of the Harper Government would be inspiring if it was applied to achieving worthwhile goals.  Imagine a government, committed to serving its people in the best possible way, building them a future that they will be happy to enter, making the tough decisions that need to be made to get there, and doing so with a single-minded clarity of purpose.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  In Canada we have to be satisfied with a government that is taking us further down a wrong path with a degree of focus that is rarely seen.  It even uses the Humpback Whale as a cheerleader.

43-1376298824 Silverbanks Humpback W Niedermayr

The humpback whale, 12-16 metres in length, and weighing as much as 36,000 kg, dwindled from 125,000 to a mere 5000 animals worldwide before a global moratorium on harvesting them was put in place in 1966.  It now numbers about 80,000, 18,000 of which live in the north Pacific.  This photo was taken off Tonga.  Photo © W. Niedermayr

The Humpback Whale, a magnificent beast with every bit as much right to live on this planet as humans, has suffered, as have most whales from our overzealous hunting over many years.  And yet, there is now some good news.  From a global population of about 125,000 animals prior to whaling, the humpback was reduced to about 5000 individuals before the International Whaling Commission managed to put in place a moratorium on hunting in 1966.  That moratorium remains in force.  Since 1966, the humpback population has increased to about 80,000 animals worldwide with about 18,000 in the North Pacific.  Some 2145 of these whales spend part of the year in Canadian waters off British Columbia.

In 2008, IUCN (which publishes the global ‘red list’ of endangered species) reclassified the humpback whale from ‘threatened’ to ‘a species of least concern’.  Under its Endangered Species Act, the US lists the humpback as ‘endangered’, however it is currently reviewing the status of the north Pacific population at the request of Alaska, and may delist it.  In Canada, COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, initially examined and classified the humpback whale as ‘threatened’ in 1982.  This classification was re-examined and confirmed in 2003, but on re-examination in 2011, the status of the north Pacific population was downgraded to ‘special concern’.  The science is telling us that the humpback whale is recovering well, since the imposition of the hunting moratorium, and various bodies evaluating its status are in general agreement.  This is good news!

Canadian law dictates that COSEWIC’s decisions are merely recommendations to government.  The ultimate decision on whether to list a species under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) is a political one.  Listing carries certain requirements to do with actions that must be taken to aid the conservation of the species: a recovery plan must be developed for every ‘threatened’, ‘endangered’ or ‘extirpated’ species, and a management plan must be developed for every ‘species of special concern’.  Canadian governments do not always jump when COSEWIC recommends listing a new species, and when they do list they are often slow to put a recovery plan together.  In fact, federal law on species at risk only came into existence in 2003 with passage of SARA, despite Canada being one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on Biodiversity in 1992 – governments can be good at agreeing to undertake conservation action, but slow to build the legal framework to actually do the conservation.

The north Pacific humpback whale, listed as ‘threatened’ under SARA since 2003 does have a recovery plan, completed only in 2013, which includes monitoring, evaluation, public education, and the identification of four specific areas of ‘critical habitat’ that must be protected to assure the continuance of the species.  These four quite modest regions off the BC coast account for about 75% of all sightings of humpback whales in Canadian waters.  The recovery plan talks about the need for planning over the next several years for actions to implement it.  (I would not want to be a species at risk, dependent on Canadian government action for my survival.)

And lest it escape your attention, were the humpback whale to have its status revised under SARA, following COSEWIC’s recommendation, there would be no need to ever implement the recovery plan.  All that would be needed is a ‘management plan’, which could simply be a plan to monitor the population to ensure it does not start to dwindle again.  Now, notice the map of the four areas of critical habitat taken from the recovery plan.  And notice the location of Kitimat, BC, the port for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.  And notice the number of whale sightings in the narrow channels around Gil Island.  I think I understand why the Harper government has been rather quick to embrace the idea of down-grading the status of the humpback whale.  It took them 10 years to prepare a recovery plan (and they continued working on it for at least a year after the COSEWIC revision of status).  It took them mere months to recognize they could make the nasty business of caring for a species at risk go away.

Humpback critical habitat from recovery plan

Figure 4 from the recovery plan for the north Pacific population of humpback whales in Canada.  The four proposed areas of critical habitat for humpback whales are shown.  The map conveniently does not include many place names, but Kitimat, the proposed terminal for the pipeline, lies about 90 km upstream from Gil Island.  Figure © Fisheries and Oceans Canada


humpback sightings in four critical locations

Figure 5 from the humpback recovery plan, showing the four critical habitat areas, and the number of whale sightings within each.  Together, these account for about 75% of all sightings in western Canadian waters.  Note the abundance of sightings in the Gil Island location (lower right).
Figure © Fisheries and Oceans Canada

While it can, and has been argued that the government’s decision to downgrade the SARA listing was an appropriate response to the scientific recommendation, there is just too much coincidence here.  Moving all those tankers back and forth past Gil Island has now become a lot less problematic, because bumping into a species of special concern is legally not nearly so bad as bumping into a threatened species.

Stephen Harper Sean Kilpatrick Canadian Press

Prime Minister Harper wearing his ‘Who, me?” expression.  Of course he did not allow his government to make an environmentally appropriate decision only as a device to ease approval of the Northern Gateway project.  No way.  Of course not.  Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Of course, the humpback saga is just the latest in a string of actions taken recently by the Harper government, all designed to ease approval, construction and operation of the Northern Gateway pipeline plan.  Whether it’s the slick advertisements in the New Yorker, US $ 207,000 paid with Canadian tax dollars, that distort the reality of the tar sands and the government’s behavior, or the increasingly narrow criteria determining who can participate in a “public’ hearing during a pipeline approval process, or the quiet tweaks to safety regulations, such as those governing tanker spills or pipeline ruptures, that do not really address the magnitude of the environmental risk in the event of a spill, the Harper government has recently been very busy laying the groundwork for a swift approval of the Northern Gateway project.  These actions come on top of actions over past years that penalize environmental organizations that speak out against government policy, that progressively reduce or eliminate science programs that might be providing any information about environmental matters in this country, and that restrict the ability of Canadian environmental scientists from speaking publicly about their own scientific research.  And constantly there is the drumbeat of jobs, jobs, jobs – our government is ensuring there will be jobs for Canadians.


Cartoon © Steve Nease/Metroland Media

But then there is the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which seems to be an excellent way to enable the Harper government to please businesses by enabling them to avoid hiring Canadians at all, while importing foreign labor on dirt cheap wages.  The recent political ruckus all started with Mandarin-speaking Chinese being hired to work a Chinese-owned coalmine in Canada.  Yes, there are limits on this planet, and I think Canada is fast approaching the absolute limit of a governmental single-minded, ‘damn the consequences’, effort to aid business, especially the mining business, at any cost.

One day Canada will look back at the twenty-teens, and notice how so many wrong decisions were rammed through all to foster continued economic growth, primarily through rapid expansion of a polluting mining sector.  I don’t think there will be much adulation for the political leaders of the time.  Canada can do much better.