The Tipping Point

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I awoke this morning from a dream that I was standing in a gas chamber in Auschwitz, waiting for the gas to be turned on.  My throat was clenched and I was wondering which breath was to be my last.  I was beyond anger and sadness, held in a still point of waiting.  As I ascended into waking consciousness the first thought I had was about yesterday’s decision by Prime Minister Trudeau that a pipeline will be built and Canada will expand an economy based on burning oil.  When I told my wife about the dream she asked me what I needed to say about it and suggested I write. 

It seems to me that the world is being broken, right now at this moment.  I think about the hundreds of millions of small decisions that have brought us to this point in the history of the earth.  I think about what single decision may be the tipping point that firmly puts us on a road to accelerating unstoppable climate change.  Is this decision about an oil pipeline the killing straw?

Earlier this month the CBC ran a story about the Canadian Auditor General’s report on greenhouse gas emissions.  Canada is some 205 megatons off target and showing no sign of improvement or action.  A week ago the CBC reported on a scientific paper that suggested very clearly that the goal of staying within a 2° rise in world temperature needs to be revised down to 1.5°.  Since the early 1990s the 2° goal has been thought to be the tipping point between what is a manageable change in world temperature versus what puts us on the slippery slope to feedback loops that plunge us into climate catastrophe.  We are already past the 1° point and so are now within 1/3° of what climate modellers predict to be an unstoppable progression to a new stable point of somewhere between an 8° and a 10° increase in average world temperature.  At such a temperature increase the world will look very different.  All ice will have melted and sea level will be some 65m above what it is today.  Every coastal city in the world will be gone.  More dramatic are the chemical changes in the oceans that will result in the release of Hydrogen sulfide gas, enough to turn the sky green and kill everything that draws breath. 

I grew up in the 1960’s when words like environment and ecology were just entering our vocabulary.  I remember how teachers and television told me that in the next century the air would be so polluted that we would have to live in domed cities, that this was exciting, and that we would have flying cars.  I suggest a more modern projection on the future of the world looks more like a desolate scorched earth as seen in the movie, The Matrix.

As a professional biologist – Landscape Ecologist I have lived my adult life trying to help create a world where humanity and nature live together in a balance of reverence and stewardship.  In every cell of my being I know this is possible.  Recently I have been in discussion with several people that are very fixed in the view that Canada and the world cannot afford to stop burning fossil fuel.  I do not know the cost in dollars to stop burning fossil fuels, but am sure it is very large.  The real question is about the cost if we do not stop in our tracks, right now, to tighten our belts and roll up our sleeves and work together to walk softly on this earth.

I have followed the scientific and cultural literature on climate change for many years.  In my view the biggest challenge with climate change is the time frame.  I live in a democracy where the majority people do not have either the luxury or the interest to think beyond their personal immediate needs.  The politicians we elect to make the big decisions live by four or five year political cycles and it seems too big a concept to consider that the choices made today will cause immense suffering two or more generations into the future.  I suggest that most people hold to an ill-conceived belief that science or God will somehow solve this. 

Last night’s dream shocked me to my core.  My first reaction ranged from despair to futility.  I feel sick that I am part of the generation that is choosing short term gain at such a future cost.  I spent much of the day asking myself about how to live and find hope and peace in a world with no future.  I remembered the Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas story about the little hummingbird fighting a forest fire one drop of water at a time.  I will embrace what seems futile and do what I can for this world.  I will write and I will talk.  I may stand in protest and be arrested.  I will attempt to live holding creation in a state of reverence, one decision at a time.

 

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

(The 5th Mark of Mission of the Anglican Church of Canada)

Community and Neighbours

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On a shelf beside my desk I have a wooden toy boat, an arc, with several pairs of wooden animals.  It was passed down to me from my grandparents.  As a child I was told the story of Noah many times.  I remember hearing how the people of the earth had become wicked, but God could see that Noah was good.  God told Noah that there was going to be a big flood over all the earth and he was given instructions to build an ark.  The ark would protect Noah and his family and two of every creature of the earth.  I was told that all of Noah’s neighbours laughed at him and his sons for building a big boat a long ways from the sea.  I remember how it rained for forty days and forty nights.  When the flood came Noah’s neighbours cried out for him to help them, but he did not.

As a child I was quite troubled by the thought of the rains coming, the water rising and all the people stuck on their rooftops calling for help.  One fall season in my childhood in Vancouver we had a stretch of forty days and forty nights of continuous rain, and I was afraid.  What did the people do that was so wrong?  Was I like them?  Why would God kill all the people except Noah and his family?  Why didn’t Noah’s neighbours believe Noah and build arks of their own?  It is interesting that in the biblical story of Noah in the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis Chapters 6 through 9, there is no mention of Noah’s neighbours and their reactions to his building the ark.  It was only last week that I actually came across the source of the story about Noah’s neighbours as anecdotes in the Christian Gospels of Matthew 24:37-39 and Luke 17:25-27, but they do not give details about laughter and ridicule and neighbours calling for help.

Over my life I have read many stories about surviving great disasters.  They have often depicted individuals of great fortitude and families that have prepared for what might befall them.  I get quite fascinated by the technical aspects of what tools and resources one might need from the old world and what skills might hold over into the new reality.  I remember years ago how a friend, Randy, described how he would like to feel that he had the skills and knowledge such that he could walk into the forest with just the clothes on his back and return a year later with a crystal clear vessel of glass.

About three years ago I was listening to CBC morning talk show, On The Island, with Host Gregor Craigie.  The subject was earthquake preparedness and the potential flooding with a tsunami.  Several callers described what they had done to be prepared.  One caller described how her family was very well prepared with provisions for several weeks.  In her last couple of sentences she said something in the effect of “if you have not adequately prepared, don’t come to me.”  I found these words very chilling and thought back to my childhood stories of Noah’s neighbours drowning and calling for help. 

On the news we often hear stories about natural disasters or the tragedies of war.  We hear two types of stories, those where communities band together to help each other, and then the reverse, where a fine line is crossed and community dissolves into self serving individuals, looting and stealing, and falling into anarchy.  In the early 1980s I lived next door to my Grandmother.  She told many stories about her life.  Her favorite stories were about the great depression.  Her eyes would sparkle and she would smile when she remembered how neighbours and the community of her church would work together to prepare food, mend clothing, and make sure others were cared for.

We live in a world with an uncertain future.  The issue could be an earthquake, or climate change, or economic collapse, the actual event is not the issue.  The real question is about what actions we will take to prepare for and face the future.  Do we hoard scarce recourses?  Do we build walls around our families for protection?  Do we shut ourselves in an ark and live haunted by the death cries of our neighbours?  I believe it is possible to work together, right now, to nurture a community that will respond to uncertainty with trust in each other.

Heron Tower Reflections

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In the late winter through early summer of 1989 I spent three days a week in a six foot by six foot plywood box, a “bird blind”, about 25 feet up in a stand of trees.  As part of my Masters of Science degree I was observing behaviours of Great Blue Herons nesting near a pulp mill.  I was attempting to determine if there were behavioural abnormalities that might be linked with chemical contamination originating from the mill.  During this time of “field-work” I had quite a lot of spare time to meditate and to think about the bigger questions of life and my place in the world.  I had a tiny AM radio and one day in early July I listened to David Suzuki talking about the environment and suggesting that we had maybe 10 years to alter our actions or the world as we knew it would drastically change for the worse.

The words of David Suzuki were certainly not new to me.  I had been giving a lot of thought to what direction my life might take and his words spoke to my heart.  I was following a goal of becoming a Wildlife Biologist with an interest in environmental protection and conservation.  I was examining my relationship with the natural world and the world altered by human activities.  I was looking for ways to help repair places where humanity had broken the natural unfolding of creation.  I felt angry and powerless and sad when I thought about how the culture I was born into seemed dominated by greed, and how the desire for money and material goods was destroying the natural world that I valued very deeply.

Sitting in my tower I looked across the soft upper branches of gary oaks, arbutus and shore pine, over a little bay towards the herons.  If I looked in the other direction I could see the boiling plumes of effluent from the stacks of the mill.  I felt like I was sitting on the boundary between heaven and hell.  The later 1980s was a time when the human impact on the environment was entering mainstream awareness.  For me it was a time when many pieces of information were converging into defining my life path.  On the little table in my blind I had a copy of Emily Carr's Diary and recently read about her finding God in the world and in her work as a painter.  As part of recent course work I had been examining classic scientific papers by Lynn White Jr: The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis and Garrett Hardin: The Tragedy of the Commons.  1989 was two years after the United Nations released the Brundtland Report, the result of The World Commission of Environment and Development, and the document which coined and defined the meaning of the term "Sustainable Development".  It was four years before The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, seven years before the Koyoto Protocol.

As I sat and recorded the behaviours of the herons I thought about how conservation and protection efforts so often lead to groups fighting over beliefs.  The other side was always bad.  I thought about how there was to be a protest at the mill with regards to how pollution was killing the herons, and how I had recommended the protest be cancelled because the herons were doing very well that year.  I thought about getting permission to be on the mill property and a lunch I had with the mill manager, how he talked about his family and how I saw his humanity.  I remembered that I lived in Vancouver, in a wooden house in a clear-cut.  I thought about the real origin of environmental destruction how in the deepest recesses of the basic premise of my cultural tradition words in biblical texts gave humanity dominion over the world and instructions to subdue creation.  I thought about how all life and creation is in a constant state of fluctuation; how conservation and protection efforts must carefully not close the doors to change.  I wondered if after 60 million years it might just be time for the herons to pass from existence.   Who was I to know the answer?

Looking back and forth between the mill and the herons I realised that “my cross to bear” was an ability to see both sides of the situation.  As a scientist it was my job to observe and present the information, to produce a result, not to judge what was good or bad.  Looking at the sunlight sparkling on the water and backlit on the trees behind the herons my sadness and anger softened.  For a few hours I descended into a place of profound peace.  I decided that my life path was some middle road between – I was not sure what.  Thinking of William Wordsworth and William Blake I wanted my life effort be to advocate for a world where dominion was translated into reverence and subdue was translated into stewardship.  Reflecting back to that time, almost 30 years ago, I feel sad in that my success has often been measured by situations where a compromise is made and no one is really happy.  The line between the natural world and civilization remains in constant retreat.  For much of my career I have felt alone but found peace when I hold an inner sense that I tried.

                                    Photo of Ian at Jericho Park by Kevin S. Moul