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.
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.
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.