The winds of change have been blowing ever stronger in North America since that exceptional day in November of 2008 when Barack Obama became president of the US. The appearance of this man on the world scene has empowered millions of informed and progressive people and fanned optimism amongst millions of young people. With his recent visit to Canada, it should spur us to contemplate where Albertans and Canadians are and not only where we might go, but where we can go.
At a North American level change offers hope for stronger democracy and expectations for greater accountability in government and limitations on the excesses of the corporate world; a return to rule by the people for the well being of society.
At the same time that this hope has arisen, there is a counter balance; deep and widespread pain and gloom amongst tens of millions of North Americans. We face a crisis brought on by financial, corporate and government mismanagement and greed. No one who is a student of the private sector should be surprised, yet the immensity of the destruction wrought by this lawlessness struck us again like a tsunami. Great damage has been done to democracy and our environment by those who tore down the pillars of public accountability in order to facilitate corporate and industrial domination of the political, regulatory and conservation world.
Parallel to this meltdown, but beginning several decades earlier, has been a growing environmental crisis, often referred to as the Great Acceleration, which included mass endangerment of biological diversity and ecological processes. It has been inflicted on the world by the very same corporate and government people, institutions and attitude that finally butchered an economy that was dying from bloat. With the exception of some independent and academic scientists, some environmental activists, and progressive citizens, this crisis has virtually been ignored.
There have been no bailouts for the environment, yet the cost will exceed many fold the price tag of bailouts now in the news; an estimated $317 billion annually world wide just to maintain biological diversity and evolutionary potential. No heads have rolled (in Canada) amongst elected or senior government management, and there have been no regulatory responses, no executive orders or orders in council issued. Biological diversity and our public and natural landscapes have been dismembered as part of the race to private sector enrichment. But like over extended and unearned financial credit, destruction of and disdain for the living processes that support life on earth under the guise of “economic growth” is a illusion that can be hidden only so long.
Alberta flounders deep within the bowels of “the great darkness”, as international political analyst Gwynne Dyer calls the period of rule by neo conservatism and right wing think tanks imposed on America by George W. Bush. It is characterized by attacks on science and regulation necessary to protect the public, subversion of democracy and the rise of bigoted and biased media. Incessantly we have been barraged by propaganda that Alberta is the white knight leading the free world, at least in Canada, but we now know this “made in Alberta” claim to be yet another falsehood. Truth and reality now bring prospects of much more difficult times.
There are many Albertans, and a frightening number of people within our conservative government that are still today begrudging the fact that they are part of a larger world ruled by the laws of science. Mired in intellectual obscurity, a long series of Alberta conservative governments and their corporate bedmates have denied Albertans the principled, scientifically sound and legally and democratically accountable regulatory structure that would mark us as a progressive civilization.
We learn for example, after several decades of bitter conflict, that the public and independent scientists were right; grizzly bears are endangered, and their numbers but a fraction of what the public was led to believe. And still we see hostility to endangered species legislation. We are suffering, at great cost, as vast areas of Albertas forests are deliberately being denuded in a hopeless and wasteful effort to control a largely natural process of regeneration -–pine beetle expansion –even as scientists warn of the doubling of “background” forest mortality for trees of all ages in Western North America as a result of climate change. And still there are no environmental impact assessments or legislated forest plans. An appallingly inept land use framework is being proposed for the province; astonishingly, it has never been subjected to the scientific rigor of an environmental impact assessment, nor has it ever seen the light of democratic process, the foundation of which is public hearings. It will further entrench, should it ever be implemented, priority access upon those industrial, agricultural and motorized interests that have historically dominated public lands for their own private use, the very people and organizations that have led us to the environmental, social and economic abyss.
Albertans continue to suffer from rampant expansion of industrialization of public lands. This expansion is the work of “regulators” like the Energy Resources Conservation Board that sneer at scientific evidence and principles and make a mockery of the legitimate visions and democratic dissent of citizens and public interest groups; 99.9% of permits are summarily issued, reeled off like sheets from a roll of toilet paper. We daily see denial at senior government levels of environmental destruction, economic mismanagement, and democratic failure that resembles the contempt and arrogance of Holocaust denial. Disdain and ridicule for the science of global climate disruption inflame carbon emissions from the countries most concentrated source, hence the label “dirty” oil from the tar sands. Contrast this attitude with the words of President Obama: “the science is beyond dispute and facts are clear”…. “Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high; the consequences too serious”. In the face of this tidal wave of evidence and mounting atmospheric disruption, Albertans are crippled by more and more tax and regulatory breaks designed to expand these environmentally destructive, grossly expensive, and according to Bishop Luc Bouchard, morally unacceptable tar sands activities. In an act of desperation that exposes a pathological distrust of Albertans, Premier Ed Stelmach and the Conservative government have gone so far as to legislate a muzzle on access to information regarding royalties agreements and calculations.
Each and everyone of these decisions bears heavily on not just our natural heritage like fish and wildlife and publicly owned resources, including habitat, but on our collective and individual ability to take back control of our government and of our lives. The ever growing list of failures by Albertas government are designed to fuel continued growth in human population at a time when excessively bloated human populations, Canada included, are crushing the Earths ecological life support systems. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, Stelmach and his oil patch cabinet cheer on global climate disruption. They appear oblivious to the fact that each unit of resources converted to human consumption is a unit lost to the natural world, essentially withdrawn from the “bank” of biological diversity upon which humans depend for survival. Each unit of economic expansion represents liquidation of our natural capital. This depletion of our biological support system is where lies the most serious crisis facing us today.
Where lurk the solutions to these chronic problems? Dare the citizens of Alberta have the audacity of hope? Well, of course, we dare. And for many years, many Albertans – I would even argue that most of them – have held the audacity of hope that intellect and science will rise to the top in public Alberta. In doing so, a revolutionary and democratic government could provide our part of the world – our gutted and presently meaningless “public” processes, our crippled atmosphere, our few roadless valleys, our fragile and fragmented wildlife populations, our damaged and bleeding fish and wildlife habitat, , just to mention a few on a very long list – new life and new direction. Our vision goes beyond hope to legitimate expectation to see and experience the reality of wisdom, science, and public control of our environmental, social and economic destiny.
Public lands and legally entrenched regulatory processes, strong on public oversight, ought to be, and must be, the foundation of the New Alberta, the New North America. Public lands provide us with the least socially and environmentally expensive, most politically and legally accessible, most effective means of securing a reservoir for water and biological diversity, a reserve that might help us buffer the avalanche of global climate disruption impacts cascading down on us.
We can, and no doubt will, do battle over the role of private lands, and we will and must fight over the engineering and financial boondoggles that will be proposed to provide us with the ever promised but never materialized nirvana – technological escape from global climate disruption. As has far too long been the case, these technological “white knights” remain as elusive as ghosts, the rarely attainable “birds in the forest”. They have been flashed in front of us, like a red cape in front of a bull, to divert us away from the only honest and possible solutions to the cause of all the worlds destruction – capping and reversing human population growth and resource consumption. We do, however, have a “bird” in hand, one that can best kick start our climb out of The Great Darkness. It can best anchor the publics need for and dependence upon water, clean air, a return to an atmosphere with 350 ppm carbon, and a robust life supporting ecosystem. It will go a long ways to meeting our philosophical, emotional and real need for and enjoyment of biological diversity, part of which defines us as humans. That “bird in hand” is physically intact, ecologically functional, legally protected public land.
In times of crisis, the people of a land must force their way back into public debate and take control of democratic process and regulatory direction away from those who drove us into this crisis. Fellow citizens, with brighter light from the south shining our way, there will never be a better time than now.
Dr. BRIAN HOREJSI is a widlife scientist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.