Driving from Roskilde to Them (Jutland), Denmark (c) Ajit Ghai

I

Bob Carty’s Arctic report and how it froze my heart

Scientists do not write in the first person, since their findings seek to reflect processes that unfold beyond the vagaries of human will. When they say that the explanations they pursue are “objective,” one of the things they mean is that their models are as free as possible from the “subject,” with all of her or his subjective preferences, desires and biases. However, the climate crisis we now face has been breaking down these distinctions between object and subject, because we are now beginning to directly and personally experience climate change as never before.

Most of us are already aware of the difference between weather and climate. As NASA puts it:

Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time.

Climate is measured in centuries and millennia, but the weather is what we experience over the period of a day, a season, a life.

Contemporary climatologists and meteorologists must create models to reach backwards to the beginning of the industrial revolution (and much further in the past), so they can extrapolate forward into the next century. That is no easy task. Are we heading to a world that is 1.5-Celsius degrees warmer? Maybe 2 degrees or 3 degrees? No one knows for sure, especially if we are unable to curtail our current destructive practices.

Speaking personally, I am a 77-year-old man who was born in rural England, raised in New York City, and who has spent the last fifty years in Montréal – with a year off in the Netherlands (more about that a little later).

I completely believe the scientific consensus that greenhouse gases and other pollutants will bring such heat to the atmosphere that, without radical change, our children and grandchildren will live in a dystopian world. The air around us will produce great negative change in the atmosphere, and the biosphere will suffer terribly.

Climate change now means the disappearance of land and of coast and of animals. It is clear as well that for present and future generations, weather and climate are coalescing, “revealing” themselves objectively and subjectively in the atmospheric disturbances right before our eyes.

This kind of synchronicity only happens at certain historical moments. The same type of convergence occurred at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when climate was obviously altering, although today’s scientific forms of measurement were not available.  People nonetheless perceived the change strongly in their own lives – in the polluted rivers, the coal-blotched towns, and the workers with poisoned lungs and cancerous skin.

The industrial revolution continues today, but many of its ugly externalities have been displaced to countries beyond Europe and North America. Still, even if sometimes unseen, the global transition we now face is not unlike the one 200 years ago, despite technological trappings that disguise the real state of things.

Empirically, I cannot readily speak of the climate, but I can look back at my own lifetime of experiencing the weather and recall a number of occasions when alterations in nature really became evident to me. In my mind’s eye, I can see a whole set of moments that represent my own first-person sense of climate change.

As with many others, my reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 prompted me to begin opening my eyes to the gravity of our interventions against nature. The book analyzed the impact of pesticides on insects and began with an epigraph citing remarks made by Albert Schweitzer in the 1950s to a beekeeper whose bees had been destroyed by pesticides: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall,” said the Alsatian theologian. “He will end by destroying the earth.”

Looking back, there was one personal epiphany that stood out, representing the environmental destruction we have not been able to forestall.

In 2000, a very gifted CBC producer, the late Bob Carty, made a radio documentary about how warming temperatures and thinning ice in the western Canadian Arctic were affecting people south of the polar belt. In his lucid way, Carty described going on an icebreaker and observing a weather feedback loop.

Warmer arctic temperatures were melting ice whose white surfaces had reflected solar energy. There was then a greater amount of dark water that absorbed the heat of the sunlight in the western Arctic. This absorption in turn continued to melt more ice. Each moment in the loop – ice melting, dark water, more ice melting, more dark water – reinforced the next.

This process is known as the ice albedo effect. Carty recorded the sounds of the ship breaking ice with its prow and gave a very direct explanation of the self-reinforcing dynamic taking place on the surrounding ice flows. I remember sitting in my Montréal kitchen listening to the radio and feeling completely stunned by the gravity of what Carty’s mild voice was so vividly describing.

His report froze my heart.

True, all through my various wanderings I had been aware of changing weather.  In the late 1970s there was a hot and weirdly “brown” autumn in England, when normally green fields looked more like arrays of tweed jackets. When my wife and I lived in the Netherlands in 1989-90, I worked at Radio Netherlands (RN), and we had brought our ice skates with us. That winter, though, the canals surrounding the area where we lived only froze over twice.

Meanwhile, back home in Montréal, winters were becoming shorter and shorter until there were only 8 weeks left when you could count on playing outdoor hockey.

But it was Bob Carty’s radio report that stood out for me as a metonymy symbolizing all my other misgivings over a number of years.

Pond near Roskilde, Denmark – photo (c) Nilambri Ghai

II.

From la canicule to 2020

In June 2003, my wife and I hiked in the Pyrenees. It turned out to be l’été de la canicule, the summer of the great heat wave, when temperatures in Europe were higher on average than they had been since 1540. We were at altitudes above 5,000 feet, and it was supposed to be about 20 degrees Celsius in the abandoned village where we spread our sleeping bags in the evening. Instead it was 30 degrees Celsius at 8:00 p.m.

The close and uncomfortable heat of the still air made the broken walls of the village houses seem all the more bleak. The next day we walked to a higher altitude, up to beautiful meadows, and completely by chance met a Spanish photographer who was an expert on alpine flowers. When he told us that all the glaciers he had visited in the French and Swiss Alps were drastically melting, I felt deeply depressed. What he spoke of was imposingly real.

It was around this time that I was using the naturalist Edward O. Wilson’s book, The Diversity of Life (1999), to teach a graduating class at Dawson College in Montréal. The emphasis in the text was on biodiversity, and near the end of his argument, Wilson stressed that “extinction rates are already hundreds or thousands of times higher than before the coming of man.” He sounded the alarm: “I have said that a fifth or more of the species of plants and animals could vanish or be doomed by the year 2020 unless better efforts are made to save them.”

Wilson wrote that the plants and animals of the world are caught in a vise: “On one side they are being swiftly reduced by deforestation and other forms of direct habitat destruction. On the other side they are threatened by the greenhouse effect.”

On a cold day in the autumn of 2004, as I stood waiting for a traffic light to change on the corner of de Maisonneuve and Atwater in downtown Montréal, I suddenly had a mental vision of all the ice fields in Greenland melting in my lifetime. The moment was hardly rational – but for the first time I had a deep personal feeling that such a profound change could happen very quickly.

I was thinking about this idea at the time, probably because of a random article I had been reading about ice melting at the bottom of ice sheets and the resulting water then reducing the coefficient of friction far below the ice surface, to the extent that whole glaciers would start to slide into the sea.

James Hansen is the famous American atmospheric physicist who had a run-in with his own government. In his 2009 book, Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity, Hansen told the story of trying to persuade powerful officials in the U.S. government that our climate is changing. In making his case, he focused on the Arctic and its ice.

Hansen explained how climate change consists of “forcings” – solar energy, greenhouse gases, and aerosols – and “climate feedbacks” such as ice, snow, clouds and water vapour.

His estimates of what we really need to do are now a decade old but they bear remembering. In 2002-2003, to his considerable discomfort, Hansen found that Scientific American insisted on distorting his commissioned article, “Can We Defuse the Global Warming Time Bomb?” His criticisms of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were not welcome, and the editors were intent on reflecting an IPCC perspective that in Hansen’s view minimized likely sea level rise, accepted far too high levels of global warming, and failed to envisage alternative scenarios.

He withdrew his article from Scientific American and published his own version, free of editorial interference:

My inference [in 2003] was that global warming (…) should be kept to less than 1 degree Celsius. That limit implied that CO2 would need to peak at about 450 parts per million – or perhaps 475 ppm, if substantial but plausible reductions of non-CO2 forcings were achieved. (As mentioned earlier I’ve since revised that target limit downward to 350 ppm.) [Hansen, p. 76]

Hansen was greatly concerned by rising temperatures and their effect upon ice. He has estimated that during inter-glacial periods in the past, warming of between 1 degree and 2 degrees Celsius produced major water level rises. He came to believe that we must limit CO2 to 350 parts per million.

III

Destroy The Power Of Ahab

Fast forward to right now.

January 2020 was the warmest month on record for the global climate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States government has recently issued a bulletin report:

The January global land and ocean surface temperature was the highest on record at 2.05 degrees F (1.14 degrees C) above the 20th-century average. This surpassed the record set in January 2016 by 0.04 of a degree F (0.02 of a degree C).

The four warmest Januaries documented in the climate record have occurred since 2016; the 10 warmest have all occurred since 2002.

On Feb. 11, 2020, the Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawaii reported its highest ever February measure of CO2: 416.08 ppm.

Greta Thunberg reacted to this news on her Twitter account:

The saddest thing is that this won’t be breaking news. And basically no one understands the full meaning of this. Because we’re in a crisis that’s never been treated as a crisis.

While writing this article, I have been in contact with climatologists from the Nordic countries. They have told me that Norway, Sweden, and Finland have all been experiencing surprisingly warm winters, with very little snow. One of these experts is Aarne Granlund of Finland. After a visit to the Arctic four years ago, Granlund wrote these comments on his blog:

Science measures that the cryosphere – frozen water in its multiple forms – is now melting and thawing at rates which are unimaginably fast and in quantities which are beyond understanding. The ice sheet on Greenland is losing mass; sea ice on the Arctic Ocean is shrinking both in volume and in extent. The previously present ice in the ground called permafrost is melting too. Permanent features of the landscape are unraveling. If you want to follow these changes, look at what your national meteorological service says. You’ll find the trends there. Talk to scientists on social media. See for yourself on Earth Nullschool, Climate Reanalyzer or some other online climate and weather visualization service. NASA has great communications on this issue. (“How To Witness Climate Change,” Nov. 4, 2016, Aarne Granlund)

Aarne Granlund takes climate change personally.

Greta Thunberg takes climate change very, very personally.

And this intensity is the principal source of social change right now.

On September 27, 2019, half a million people marched in Montréal with Greta Thunberg to demand action on climate change. I was there as part of a delegation from the non-partisan Green Coalition, a Montréal group that has been fighting for the environment for more than 30 years. The event was inspiring and fun, but also chastening, because it was clear that the half a million individuals would disperse to their own lives – and perhaps very little would change, despite all the good will.

Ancient Viking burial mound, Denmark – photo (c) Nilambri Ghai

Nonetheless, a critical mass of committed people is definitely emerging worldwide and the source of this particular upsurge was one Stockholm teenager sitting down, holding a sign in the street only a year or so ago. Thunberg and many others are “forcing” (to borrow a term from Hansen) a massive, global coalescence of energized individuals.

The challenge will be to create an enduring movement. And governments will have to face hard policy choices head on. For Canada’s extraction economy, that means changing the entire way we do business. Storms of My Grandchildren ends with James Hansen making two firm demands: 1) there must be a continually rising price on carbon emissions; and 2) “coal emissions must be phased out rapidly, and the horrendously polluting ‘unconventional’ fossil fuels, such as tar sands and oil shale, must be left in the ground.”

For Canada, the imperative is absolutely clear: no tar sands production whatsoever.

At this time, Albertans do not want to accept that they are clinging to a dying resource industry. In “clean” Québec, with its plentiful hydroelectric power sources, citizens are purchasing more and more SUVs, oblivious to their own blindness. Their government, meanwhile, pursues natural gas projects without any true regard for the environmental crisis.

At the same time, the captains of global capitalism want to save their ship – even if the rest of us perish in the process. We are like the mesmerized sailors of the Pequod in the grip of Captain Ahab’s monomania. Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick as the tragic epic of the American empire, and we are living out that drama right now. Those pages are in our veins.

We know how the story reaches its climax. The whale will hit the vessel. When that happens to us, first person climate change will shift from singular to plural, “I” will become “we,” and a huge social struggle will likely emerge whose outlines we are just beginning to see.

At this point, though, the research and the news stories keep coming in.

On Feb. 12, Benjamin Storrow of Scientific American filed a report: “Global CO2 Emissions Were Flat in 2019 – But Don’t Cheer Yet.” Storrow points out that while coal emissions are down in Western Europe and North America they are actually going up in China and India. Companies maintain their supply chains, but shift the dirty work of fossil fuel production elsewhere.  Methane-producing natural gas projects are also going up around the world at a frenetic pace. Storrow ends his article with an observation from Glen Peters, research director for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway. “There is little in sight,” says Peters, “to tell us we are about to reduce emissions at the rates necessary for 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2 C.”

Peters’ judgement, in fact, is that “the world is headed toward a global temperature rise of 3 C.”

Such an outcome would produce a very serious rise in sea levels.

As I am filing this story (on Feb. 15, 2020 in Montréal), I am looking at yesterday’s front page of the daily newspaper Le Devoir. The headline reads (my translation): “Record Heat in Antarctica; More than 20 degrees Celsius on the World’s Coldest Continent” (“Record de chaleur en Antarctique,” par Fabien Deglise, Le Devoir, le 14 février, 2020.)

On Sunday February 9, 2020, Brazilian scientists registered a temperature of 20.75 degrees C on the Antarctic Peninsula – the warmest ever. True, it is summer in the southern hemisphere, and the peninsula has the most moderate weather on the continent, but the usual temperature is zero or just below at this time. And the continent’s average annual temperature is -57 degrees C. The report in Le Devoir pointed out that the annual loss of glacial ice sheet in Antarctica had increased sevenfold from 1979 to 2017, and if all the ice melted on that continent, world sea levels would rise by 60 meters!

We have reached the point of interdependency described by the poet John Donne:

If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were…
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

The belling is tolling for us all, and we are at a moment of involvement, both passive and active, when first person climate change must become a plural WE.

We are different, though, from the sailors on the Pequod. We know that Melville named his prophetic ship to remember the elimination of the Pequot Native American tribe. When you sail on the Pequod, genocide is never far off, and we unconsciously sense that proximity. Ishmael’s knowledge, his science, is available to us because the Ishmaels all around us are telling us a tale of destruction every day.

Ahab’s mad narcissism is truly the driving force of the world as it is organized today. We should be able to see that reality.

Melville’s epic tale forewarns us. We must arise and destroy the power of Ahab – before he kills us all.

Tlahuitoltepec, Mexico, 2013 (c) Jody Freeman

 

 

Allison Meier, Biodiversity (At the American Museum of Natural History.) From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, ShareAlike.

Life and Death

In 2017, the worldwide loss of biodiversity is a question of life and death.

For the two million species that we do know, and the millions more who remain unclassified, the human dilemma is part of their millennial drama. We are killing a good number of them, but they remain as nature’s Greek chorus, looking on at us and reacting to what we do as best they can.

The extinction rate now is nearly 1,000 times the background rate of extinction that prevailed before homo sapiens sapiens became the dominant terrestrial creatures.  And the “Anthropogenic Age,” characterized by the human reshaping of the whole planet, coincides with what evolutionary biologists call The Sixth Great Extinction. The last such massive destruction of biota was, of course, the elimination of the dinosaurs and of 75% of other living species, which began 65 million years ago.

One of the major contemporary theoreticians of biodiversity is the Harvard professor emeritus, Edward O. Wilson. A specialist on the life of ants, Wilson made headlines two generations ago when he extrapolated his insect research and applied a reductionist schema to human societies. However, he then went on to write the most important and accessible assessments of biodiversity in the English language, and the hallmark of that effort was the 1992 book The Diversity of Life.

Wilson’s latest work is Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Liveright, New York/London, 2016), the conclusion of a trilogy that spells out Wilson’s view of our place in nature and the terrible danger we pose to ourselves and the living organisms around us.

In the middle book of the trilogy, The Meaning of Human Existence (Liveright 2014), Wilson explains where he thinks we now stand: “The human impact on biodiversity, to put the matter as briefly as possible, is an attack on ourselves. It is the action of a mindless juggernaut fueled by the biomass of the very life it destroys.”

Half-Earth opens on a similar note: “Humanity’s grasp on the planet is not strong. It is growing weaker. Our population is too large for safety and comfort. Fresh water is growing short, the atmosphere and the seas are increasingly polluted as a result of what has transpired on the land. The climate is changing in ways unfavorable to life, except for microbes, jellyfish and fungi. For many species it is already fatal.”

Among the surviving wild species of animals and plants at the present time, how many will survive in the next 100 years? “If present conditions persist,” Wilson says, “perhaps half. More likely fewer than one fourth.”

Half-Earth puts forward the claim that at least one half of the world’s surface must be kept undeveloped and “that only by setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival.”

Right now, though, only about 15% of the world is reserved as natural spaces. And the main reason for the global decline of biodiversity is the loss of habitat that very rapidly becomes exponential. For example, in Canada over the last two generations this country has lost 90% of its urban wetlands.

Wilson’s suggested target of putting aside half of the earth for conservation would consequently mean doing three times what we now do to preserve nature, but he believes that human beings actually need an ambitious environmental goal that will be game-changing precisely to overcome the immense fear that now drives our thinking. “Half-Earth,” as he calls his idea, would definitely ensure the survival of other life forms and ourselves.

The warning voices of Wilson and other experts like him are telling people the unvarnished truth. At the present time, however, the ruling political classes in the world, without exception, are not prepared to do the heavy lifting to really ensure human survival in some decent form.

Examining what political décideurs like to say and what they actually do is crucial to reclaiming the future and to understanding the breakdown of competency at every level of global decision-making. Canada and Montréal, unfortunately, are case studies of what we are all doing wrong.

In 2010, researchers at Simon Fraser University issued a report entitled The Maple Leaf in the OECD: Canada’s Environmental Performance. That study indicated that Canada ranked 24th out of 25 OECD countries for its actions to preserve the environment, with the United States coming at the very bottom of the ranking. Our failure, the researchers said, has nothing to do with any inherent limits to environmental stewardship but simply reflects a lack of strong national policies. In 2016, The Conference Board of Canada gave this country a “D” grade on the environment, pointing out that the United States, Australia and Canada have the highest CO2 emissions per capita among the rich countries.

Even the Scandinavian countries that have high environmental rankings actually have some of the most damaging ecological footprints, principally because their wealth is based on extractive industries.

This is the unsustainable world that we are a part of and help to create every day.

Suppose one looks down from the summits of national policies and examines local decision-makers and their actions on the environment. The result is instructive. Here in Montréal, observers have an opportunity to observe conservation of the environment at the all-important municipal level, and what one sees is a paradigm of environmental negligence. Montréal’s municipal leaders love to “talk green” but the city’s real record on the environment, when closely examined, is appalling.

Montréal: Destroying Biodiversity

The Island of Montréal lies in the quadrant of Québec that has the province’s highest biodiversity. At the same time, the city is the Canadian champion of urban sprawl, and since the end of World War II, poorly planned growth has spread from east to west, destroying farmland and natural space. At this moment, if you bisect the island along a SW/NE axis, the only significant areas of natural space are in the western part of the island.

Furthermore, Montréal only has 6% of its territory preserved as natural spaces. The city’s official planning documents call for the city’s own intermediate goal to be increased to 10% of natural space, or 2,000 more hectares than now exist, for conservation.

Internationally, the city has already committed itself to the strategic biodiversity goals agreed to by Canada in the 2010 Nagoya accord signed in Aichi, Japan, pledging that by 2020, Montréal will ensure that “at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved” (see “The Aichi Biodiversity Targets,” Strategic Goal C: Improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity, Target 11, published by the UN Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montréal, and further information at www.cbd.int/sp2020).

In other words, Montréal in 2017 is 11 percentiles below its international pledge to reach 17% protected natural space by 2020 – so the city is actually 5,500 hectares short of its own pretensions. There is an added irony as well. The headquarters of the UN Convention on Biodiversity is housed in downtown Montréal!

If you take a close look at a map of Montréal and then move your eyes from west to east over the modest swaths of remaining natural spaces, you will see an arc of tension marking the locations where citizens are fighting for conservation and Montréal authorities are blindly promoting the development of the remaining nature areas.

Here is a summary of these places and what is happening there, including indications of on-going legal actions to preserve these natural spaces.

AREA: PIERREFONDS WEST

Next to a nature area called L’Anse-à-L’Orme, there are 185 hectares of wet meadows, once used for haying, but now re-naturalized. Despite the enormous ecological value of these fields, the City of Montréal and its borough of Pierrefonds plan to allow a developer to put 5,500 housing units right on top of land that is an official “eco-territory.” The real estate promoter has even advertised the proposed project as an “eco-city.”

In Dec. 2016, researchers at the Université de Québec en Outaouais, Marie-Eve Roy and Jérôme Dupras, along with the environmentalist Patrick Gravel, made public their study of the area’s biodiversity – the Évaluation de l’ouest du territoire de Pierrefonds-Roxboro. Their conclusion is unequivocal: “The proposed development zone represents a place of very great ecological significance, especially since habitats of this quality and area are extremely rare on the Island of Montréal.”

The summary of the scientists’ findings is telling: “11 species of fauna that are endangered, at risk or subject to be so designated; 122 different species of birds, nine of whom have protected status; 16 species of reptiles and amphibians, including three designated species, two of which are directly in the development zone and 291 plant species, of whom at least nine are designated.”

To see a video of this area, go to https://youtu.be/wnr83fd7N_o.

LEGAL ACTION: The Sauvons L’Anse-à-L’Orme Citizens’ Committee is participating in an on-going motion for an injunction seeking to overturn the residential zoning of land right in the middle of the 185 hectares.

AREA: FURTHER EAST IN PERREFONDS

Further east in Pierrefonds, there is a servitude applying to an extension of Highway 440 where the roadbed has been built without the necessary authorizations from Québec’s Environment Ministry. The Sauvons L’Anse-à-L’Orme Committee is protesting the construction of this road over what had been wetlands.

LEGAL ACTION:

Again, the local committee is acting legally by filing a motion for an injunction to compel political authorities to go back to the beginning of the development process, hold the proper hearings that should have taken place at the very outset, and in the meantime, restore what they had destroyed.

¨For a video of this area and the various groups involved in this action, such as The Green Coalition and the Sierra Club, see https://youtu.be/lvcRMTC5lDI.

AREA: TECHNOPARC WETLANDS IN VILLE SAINT-LAURENT

Moving one’s view to the east, just next to Montréal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport, there is a section of woods and wetlands that is a favourite area for more than 150 species of birds, many of whom nest in the marshes and woodland. Ornithologist Joël Coutu has led a citizens’ group called Technoparcoiseaux, fighting to save this precious renaturalized domain. Ironically, one of the main threats to the marshes as they are now is something called “The Hubert Reeves Eco-Campus,” a project that uses the name of the famous French scientist and environmentalist, Hubert Reeves. Preliminary road construction work in this very place began in the autumn of 2016.

To see a video of ornithologists visiting the site, go to https://youtu.be/AOVrCuW-YIU.

LEGAL ACTION

The Green Coalition of Montréal is seeking an interlocutory injunction to compel the City of Montréal and the Borough of Ville Saint-Laurent to undo the construction undertaken so far and return the area to what it was previously. Expert witnesses have come forward to document the extraordinarily diverse and valuable bird species living in and around these marshes.

AREA: THE ENTIRE ISLAND OF MONTRÉAL

Connecting all these green areas threatened by urban sprawl of various kinds is a gigantic transport project that will bring inevitable environmental degradation with it – if the project goes through. It is an 8-billion-dollar (current estimates) rail project promoted by Québec’s Caisse de depot, a fund that manages many of the province’s pension funds. This scheme is known as the Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM), a kind of electrified SkyTrain for the Island of Montréal. The REM will employ an astronomically expensive technology that costs at least 5 times as much to construct as a more conventional Light Rail Transport system of the type found, for example, in Edmonton and Calgary. The elevated stations of the REM will be made entirely of concrete, and their construction alone will account for a huge spike of greenhouse gas emissions. Because the SkyTrain will use what is known as a “proprietary technology,” a number of existing rail services will become redundant, and the REM will not fit easily into Montréal’s transport infrastructure. The Caisse also happens to own a 30% share in a local company that manufactures precisely this kind of technology.

Although the REM is intended to be a rail connection to the airport in Dorval, the route the train will take is a highly circuitous one through less densely populated areas where Montréal’s remaining natural spaces are located.  A former Director General of Québec City has publicly called these spaces the “underdeveloped” sections of Montréal, and has said the REM is intended to bring real estate development into the same “green strip” described in this article.

From the time the REM was first announced in April 2016, critics have pointed out that it cannot possibly make the profits claimed for it, and that consequently only real estate speculation driven by the Caisse could boost revenue. The Caisse also happens to have a land development branch as well. Even so, the project will demand $2.5 billion in immediate subsidies and will clearly require constant public subsidization throughout its lifetime… all for an initiative that actually undermines existing mass transport service.

The well-known chronicler of Montreal’s natural spaces, Sylvia Oljemark, has said that the REM will mean terrible damage for Montreal’s remaining natural areas. Indeed, on Jan. 20, 2017, Québec’s environmental public hearings office (Bureau des audiences publiques sur l’environnement – BAPE) stated that it could not provide a recommendation on the REM project so many vital questions were yet to be answered by the promoters.  Almost immediately, the Premier of Québec, Mr. Philippe Couillard, and the Mayor of Montréal, Mr. Denis Coderre, began questioning the legitimacy and the competence of the environmental public hearings office.

The décideurs did not want to truth about the REM to be so expertly and explicitly put before the public eye. A cogent summary of the myriad flaws in this project can be found at http://trainsparency.ca/.

Montréal is a case study of how we have been losing biodiversity all over the world. What has happened here is what is happening everywhere. We are blind to the animals and plants surrounding us and we are destroying life with the focused concentration of a serial killer.

In the particular cases described in this article, it is citizens’ groups that have led the struggle to stop this destruction. The Sierra Club Québec and the Green Coalition have publicly called for a 10-year moratorium on all real estate development in Montréal’s remaining natural spaces. Activists have joined with environmental lawyers to seek the rigorous application of existing laws and regulations at all levels of government, to save the Island of Montréal’s natural areas.

The leadership has not come from politicians, but from individuals acting at the roots of Montreal’s civil society, from those activists relentlessly seeking to bring reason to political structures plagued by ignorance and cronyism at every level. All eyes should be fixed on the fate of Montréal’s natural spaces, since they are clearly part of the larger story of what is happening to our species.

Adapting to Ourselves Means Changing Ourselves

To what extent is the Sixth Great Extinction also our own? That is impossible to know, although we are clearly straining against natural limits by altering the weather, exhausting resources and destroying living organisms that are crucial to our lives. Both individually and collectively we are adaptive systems, but in the anthropogenic age, the external reality we adapt to consists not only of external nature, but also of our own nature transformed by human techniques. Our ecology must take our own complex behaviour into account – in short, we need to adapt to ourselves.

Interestingly, E.O. Wilson’s earliest scientific work was about habitats and habitat fragmentation. The more natural space becomes divided up, the more the overall natural system loses vitality.

In the same vein, conserving and restoring more and more habitats is similarly exponential, but the result is positive and incremental. That is why saving a relatively small group of areas on the Island of Montréal is key to the ecology of the whole area. Freezing destructive development and making the preservation of nature a main priority would be tantamount to resisting and ultimately changing the behaviours that we thrust upon ourselves. We would be enhancing natural areas instead of constantly diminishing them, and in the process we would change the motives, goals and aspirations of the community to which we belong.

These questions of evolutionary choice are absolutely existential, and are clearly looming at the global level.

This sort of crisis is also very local… as we can see right now in Montréal.

9781552667620_300_453_90

 

Yves Engler’s latest book, Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation, continues this author’s relentless work not only of speaking truth to power, but also of telling Canadians the truth about themselves.

Near the end of his latest compilation of research, Yves Engler sums up the narrative he has brought to light. The story of Canada’s governmental and business dealings in Africa, he says, “is one long (mostly unbroken) line of exploitation by Canadians of African people and resources.”

It is a sordid history that begins with the British Empire and graduates of the Royal Military College here helping successive British governments pillage African lands. Then, in more recent times, Canadian officials became loyal followers of the American Empire, putting their political loyalties to NATO and anti-communism before any real concern for Africans and their daily dilemmas. Along the way, Anglophone protestant missionaries and Francophone priests in Africa conveyed their “civilizing mission” to the “savages” that they spoke of in their letters when they reported back home to kith and kin in Canada beyond the sea.

Engler’s account shows in accumulated factual detail how that imperial heritage has, in the last generation, spawned a whole new era of grotesque neo-colonialism centred on Canadian business activity in the mining and energy sectors. The prize is to extract, manage, and sell the resources of a whole continent in which most people live on less than $2 per capita per day. In case after case, Engler shows how Canadians have cheated Africans through a carefully organized web of tax evasion, bribery, bad faith and outright violence. The environment has suffered enormous depredation; small farmers and workers have lost their livelihoods; labour unions have been castigated and sovereign governments gravely weakened. It is amazing to read Engler’s pages and find the names of Canadian public figures who are still respected, and yet who have been drawn into the morbid lust for easy loot.

Like the renowned Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, Engler likes to compile detail upon detail in order to build his story. His main method is to catalogue the facts, but the result is not a Homeric type of catalogue, which is typically a long list of the gloriously brave. Canada in Africa is a catalogue of dishonour.

Engler says that he uses voice recognition software to write, so this latest work is indeed a kind of recitation, and the author-cataloguist takes quite a time to get going. Chapter 10 – “Mining Conflict” – is when the story really starts moving, with detailed reports about Canadian business in a host of countries: Burkina Faso, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Western Sahara and Zambia. At the beginning of the chapter, even Engler confesses how tiring the process of gathering the research data has been. He forewarns us that the “information that follows may be exhausting, but it is not exhaustive,” and explains that he has assembled his data “to illustrate the scale of Canadian mining activity and its effects.”

Canada in Africa describes a system of business activity with terrible structural consequences, and he wants his fellow Canadians to know about this behemoth.

First, there is the pre-eminent role of Canadian mining enterprises. By 2011, Engler stresses, Canadian mining investment in African economies “had surpassed $31 billion,” and he underlines that “Canada, not China, is the leading international resource investor in Africa.”

Secondly, the scale is vast: “With mines in at least 35 African countries, Canadian companies operate over 700 mineral projects across the continent.”

Thirdly, these companies have their shares traded on Canadian stock exchanges, since “Canada is home to half of all internationally listed mining companies operating in Africa.”

The essence of this system is that a select group of well-known people in Canada own, control and manage the one financial element that Africa lacks – capital. Through connections with national and international agencies, an elaborate number of pressures are used to mould the behaviour of African politicians and partners. Typically, lenders of capital and aid insist on privatization of a resource, and often the Canadian experts who engineer the credit and insist on the conditionality of loans are the same people who reap the profits from consulting fees and resource extraction.

Finally, the immense amount of money accumulated enters the off-shore network of bank accounts in places such as the Cayman Islands to ensure that neither African governments, nor the Canadian government, will tax these already inflated profits. It is no accident that royalty fees in Africa are much like what they are in Québec – below 5%. Our absurd mining regime has been successfully exported and turned into an all-Africa scheme to churn out money for the few – here – at the expense of the many – there. And all at the expense of the African environment as well.

Little wonder, then, that Engler points to the judgement of the director of Global Financial Integrity, Mr. Raymond Barker, who calls this off-shore financial system in African mining “the ugliest chapter in global economic affairs since slavery.”

That is the shaming message of Canada in Africa.

 

 

Yves Engler is a Montreal writer and activist. Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation (Fernwood Publishing, RED Publishing, 2015) is his eighth book, two of which have been co-authored. Perhaps his best-known works are The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy.