Address at the
Northern Science Award Presentation,
9 November 1989

William 0. Pruitt, Jr.

Department of Zoology,
The University of Manitoba,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
R3T 2N2

 

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Pruitt, W.O., Jr. 1989. Address at the Northern Science Award Presentation, 9 November 1989. Canadian Field-Naturalist 103 (4): 606-609.

 

Mr. Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Erna and I moved north in 1953. Since then I have studied northern mammals and their adaptation to northern environments in Alaska, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Sweden, Finland and USSR. We have experienced wildly fluctuating levels of financial and intellectual support. Erna has kept the whole operation from falling apart.

I believe the high point of governmental support for northern scientific research was in 1970-1973 with the International Biological Programme. Since then I have seen a progressive withdrawal of the Federal Government from support of northern science. What is clearly a Federal responsibility (and what in every other northern country is recognized as a responsibility of the central government) has, in Canada, been sloughed off and turned over to unwilling provincial and immature territorial governments and, most unfortunately, to transnational corporations. These corporations have been delighted at their sudden, unexpected ability to direct and control northern research to their own benefit.

In times before the Government's abrogation of responsibility, scientists had protection from outside exploitive and commercial interests because they were Federal civil servants or university faculty; they also had stability of careers. With the abrogation of responsibility by the Federal Government, the actual northern scientific research shifted to small, sometimes ephemeral, consulting companies who were, themselves, beholden to the transnational corporations that hired them. Thus began the starvation of northern biological research that continues today.

Northern field biology is particularly susceptible to control by the transnational corporations by way of these consulting companies. I certainly do not mean anything as gross as false reports or false data but in the wrong questions being asked. I do mean, however, that there are subtle (and not so subtle) pressures to produce envirnomental recommendations that are not out of line with a prevailing climate of opinion. Scientists lacking long-time familiarity and commitment to a given region or restricted subject, but assigned the work on a short-term basis, cannot appreciate the niceties or intricacies of a subject or the peculiar environmental sensitivities of a certain region and therefore cannot be expected to ask the correct questions. If the scientists do not, then who will? The answer is: No one.

For example, consider an application for a new mine in a tundra region. Environmental Impact Statements are required, so a consulting company is hired by the mining company. Consulting company scientists are brought in to study effects of access roads, water diversions, tailings ponds, etc. on caribou migrations and other biological phenomena. Long, detailed reports are submitted. But no one has yet asked the critical question: "Is the mining project itself justified?" The only justification is the short-term economic profit-and-loss analysis by the mining company itself. This may be good capitalism but it is damned poor ecology.

I have also noted increasing difficulty of getting NSERC grants for northern field research. The change in the regions of interest to DIAND, restricting them to regions of permafrost, ignores several important facets of the definition of Nordicity such as distribution of animals and plants as well as the human factor of isolation. This foolish decision further restricted support for northern research.

As an example, I may mention the severe effect it has had on the northern research at Taiga Biological Station of the University of Manitoba. With DIAND support we had a planned programme of long-term research. This stability of research support disappeared and we now exist from year to year by grace of a private research trust and small grants (on the order of 1 to 3 thousand dollars) from the Province, Canadian Shield Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, various wildlife clubs, Manitoba Naturalists Society and small private donations. The whole situation is unhealthy for northern science. That is why the 5 thousand dollar prize accompanying this award is so valuable and appreciated - it means I can support a student in the field for almost a year. Of course, with the shift in Federal Government goals from maintaining an independent northern nation to changing it into a fragmented and incidentally northern warehouse of resources and cheap labour for benefit of the dying nation to our south, this is probably all part of a grand governmental plan. Let us pray that this plan is soon frustrated.

Because the Brundtland Report, the Federal Task Force on Economy and Environment as well as the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) all involve impacts on northern environments, I would like to discuss these policies and laws. Neither Brundtland nor the Federal Task Force takes into account any serious consideration of the major climatic change looming in the immediate future, although there is now a large body of empirical data and many extrapolations of the effects this enhanced "greenhouse effect" will have on northern Canada and particularly Manitoba. A recent analysis describes some studies that calculate northward shifts of the southern boundary of the taiga or coniferous boreal forest from 250 to as many as 950 km, with its replacement by northern hardwoods forest, aspen parkland or even grassland vegetation. In addition, there is mounting evidence that a more valuable use of the boreal forest (taiga) will be simply to remain growing, as a carbon sink.

The Manitoba Task Force on the Environment has, therefore, recommended that the Provincial Government do all in its power to persuade the Federal Government to install (or re-install) programmes and financial support to reduce drastically Canadian burning of fossil fuels by means of, for example: (1) encouraging and subsidizing train travel instead of subsidized aircraft, bus or automobile travel; (2) by electrifying the transcontinental line of Canadian National Railways; (3) by preferential use of such an energy efficient mode of transportation as steel wheels powered by hydroelectricity and running on steel rails, for government travel and shipping, including some categories of Canada Post, instead of air, bus, truck or automobile travel and shipping; (4) by elimination of direct or indirect support of any project intended to explore for, or increase extraction, consumption or export of petroleum or other fossil fuels.

One major thrust of the Free Trade Agreement is to increase use of fossil fuels (Article 409, 904a, 906) in spite of the conclusions of the International Conference convened in Toronto in 1988 by the Federal Department of the Environment(!) that a 50% decrease is necessary. The Government itself sponsored this conference and gave much lip service to its conclusions but has acted just the opposite.

The United States now uses about 986 x 106 m3 per year of oil and produces about 115 x 1012 gm C per year or 25% of the world's total atmospheric burden of carbon. Canada already exports to the U.S. about 30% of its yearly oil production and about 38% of its natural gas production. Canadian oil sold to the U.S. thus, alone, contributes about 4% of the atmospheric carbon given off by the U.S. The recent disastrous decision by the National Energy Board to allow additional export of 1.28 x 1010 m3 per year of natural gas to the U.S. means that our contribution to the U.S. release of "greenhouse gasses" will be increased by approximately 1 percent. Articles 409 and 904a of the Free Trade Agreement force Canada to furnish the U.S. the same proportion of the total supply of Canadian gas, oil, water, etc. as it did in the previous 36 month period. Canada cannot reduce the proportion of total energy exported to the U.S. below the proportion exported in the previous 36-month period, no matter how much we want to reduce pollution by greenhouse gasses. This locks us into a spiral of ever-increasing exploitation of oil and natural gas (and therefore increasing our contribution to the world-wide "greenhouse effect.") instead of a decreasing spiral resulting from conservation of energy and reduction of use of fossil fuels. This is also just the opposite of the recommendations of the Brundtland Commission Report.

The Free Trade Agreement is designed to decrease activities in energy conservation, alternate non-fossil sources of energy and soft energy paths (Article 506). It violates the spirit of the Brundtland Report as well as the recommendations of the government's own Task Force on Environment and Economy. The recent devastating cutbacks in the budget of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources and the National Research Council in the fields of research of non-fossil fuel sources, energy conservation and soft energy paths indicate the government is following the dictates of the Free Trade Agreement. Therefore the Manitoba Task Force on Environment has recommended the Provincial Government do all in its power to persuade the Federal Government to rescind the Free Trade Agreement with the USA.

The present Federal Government has the worst record on environmental matters of any Government in the history of Canada (e.g. savaging of the Department of the Environment and Canadian Wildlife Service, loss of nearly half the employees of the Department of the Environment, slash of over 50 million dollars from its budget, selective stopping of research on pollution caused by supporters of the Government, dramatic cuts in the budget of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources and the National Research Council, etc.) Therefore the Manitoba Task Force on Environment has recommended that the Provincial Government do all in its power to persuade the Federal Government to restore the activities of the Department of the Environment, Canadian Wildlife Service, the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources and the National Research Council especially in the fields of pollution research, soft energy paths, alternate energy sources and energy conservation.

The Brundtland Report and the Federal Task Force on the Environment and Economy are both flawed because of minimal scientific input. Because of its unfortunate choice of English words, the Brundtland Report has been gleefully interpreted by exploiters and some politicians as advocating "sustaining the present level of development." The Federal Task Force (and the resulting "Round Tables") are heavy with industrial people who cannot solve the problem because they are the problem! Would you trust the president of INCO to write air pollution regulations? Would you trust the president of MacMillan-Bloedel to write regulations governing sustainable multiple-use of our forests? Would you trust the president of Union Carbide to write safety regulations for a factory to manufacture pesticides?

The world-famous ecologist, Dr. Stan Rowe, recently wrote: "The order of the words in the United Nations-sponsored World Commission on Environment and Development wisely implied that environment precedes development and is the latter's prerequisite. No environment, no development. Nevertheless, somewhere along the line when the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, was being written this bit of wisdom got lost. Instead, the Commission adopted Sustainable Development as its centrepiece, and in its follow-up the Canadian Task Force - mindful that commerce rules the world - further refined the goal toward which all should strive as Sustainable Economic Development. What ever happened to Sustainable Environment?"

Neither report takes into account human populations having equitable access to the sustainable resources of the world; without reduced, stable human populations all environmental "solutions" become irrelevant. Nearly 20 years ago Bill Fuller expressed the situation best: The plain facts are that we are unable to support the number of people we now have - either globally, where two billion people go to bed hungry or starving every night, or in Canada, where 30% to 40% admittedly live at, or below, an arbitrarily defined poverty level, or in the North where some of the greatest economic poverty in Canada exists. Yet those who follow the conventional wisdom here, or in India, or in any other country, or in the U.N. have yet to make a forthright statement on the need to reduce the human population of this country or this planet. This is a far different thing from advocating family planning to slow the rate of increase. Family planning, unless rigorously pursued to bring about a decrease in population, is merely an exercise in a vacuum. Barring catastrophe, human numbers will reach about 7 billion by the year 2000 and could attain 56 billion by 2100. This is greater than the population that even one of the outspoken critics of human population control believes the earth is capable of supporting.

Both Brundtland and the Federal Task Force on Economy and Environment are based inherently on laissez-faire market capitalism, not on ecology. They talk about an era of "unparalleled economic growth" but their acclaim forgets that "unparalleled economic growth" is the motto of the cancer cell. The "partnership" between private and public sectors that these reports extol cannot solve the environmental problem. Indeed, such an incestuous relationship is precisely what is producing the looming envrionmental collapse. If the sole aim of a society is to help companies manufacture widgets at the most efficient rate, regardless of whether widgets are needed or not, or whether they are environmentally damaging or not, then the conclusions of Brundtland and the Federal Task Force are valid. If, however, the aim of a society is ecosystem stability (as ecology tells us it must be), then we must reject these outdated theories of flat-earth economics. We, collectively, must first decide if widgets are environmentally safe, are necessary, and, if so, how many shall we make in order to satisfy society's need? Therefore, we must plan all aspects from mining or growing the material, to manufacturing or processing, to distribution, to use, to final dissolution so that recycling and environmentally-safe processes occur at all steps. In other words, the Brundtland Report makes nice-sounding, quotable phrases, but the crucial methods advocated for solving the problem turn out to be more of the same old stuff.

Mr. Minister, I urge you and your colleagues to rethink your role and position in the biosphere, to forget your dearly-held ideas of laissez-faire market economics and continual economic growth, to begin to think ecologically and to act positively on changes such as those proposed in the recommendations I have described.

I shall leave you with a paragraph I wrote long ago in Wild Harmony: "...In regions of reduced energy input, slow vegetational succession and low mammalian biomass, all human schemes must be examined critically from an ecological perspective. The decision to implement any scheme must come only after we know it will not degrade the ecosystem. The ecological history of the white man's invasion of boreal regions teaches us one unassailable fact: any obligatory restriction to profit-oriented free enterprise as the sole economic system allowed is incompatible with ecosystem stability. Under this system no scheme or action dare be undertaken unless a profit is predicted, and, conversely, any scheme or action that promises a short-term profit is automatically considered desirable. The boreal regions are too important to the future of mankind to allow their use to be governed by only one preconceived economic system. The only valid criteria for determining use are ecological ones."

I am grateful to the Selection Committee for the singular honour they have bestowed upon me. I accept the honour on behalf of my students and colleagues who, in spite of increasing difficulties and decreasing support, have contributed, and continue to contribute, so much to our knowledge of northern ecosystems and their mammals. And I accept the five thousand dollar prize on behalf of Taiga Biological Station and the student that the money will, one day, support.

 


 

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