Category Archives: Developing Resilience

Wildfires and climate change: seeking the facts through the haze

by Stan Hirst

Living under smoky skies every day is an uncommon experience for Vancouverites. The TV spectacle of thousands of people having to evacuate their homes and ranches in the interior of British Columbia as threatening forest fires advance is not so unfamiliar. Just one year ago we watched over 88,000 people leaving their homes in Fort McMurray as wildfires swept through nearly 600,000 hectares in northern Alberta. This year nearly 500,000 hectares have burned within B.C., 75% of those in the Cariboo region and another 25% around Kamloops.

It was probably inevitable that the conversation would switch easily to global climate change and its connection to the wildfire blight. For many people and most Suzuki Elders the link between wildfires and climate change is taken as a given. The linkage is now commonly quoted in the press, in current literature and in conversations. The same theme of wildfires becoming ever more frequent as the world warms appears often in the media for western Canada, the western U.S.A., Australia, Portugal and parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

Yet the sceptics remain unmoved and say so through social media. “Fires have always been a feature of forests and rangelands in North America” they say. They point to history books abounding with descriptions of massive fires, some deliberately set, but many linked to natural causes, especially lightning.

It’s not uncommon to find fire scars in centuries-old trees such as sequoias and western junipers across western North America. Studies of lake sediments have found wood charcoal layers which can be dated back for thousands of years. Early researchers attributed these historic fires to lightning strikes, but studies in the past few decades indicate that they may also have resulted from deliberate burning by aboriginals to keep forests free of undergrowth and small trees.

The specific question is not whether wildfires are a natural feature of North American forests or not, but whether global climate change is prompting an increase in wildfires. By being overly simplistic about the two parts of the equation (climate change and fire) we could obscure the underlying linkages between the two and possibly mistake the causalities.

I find it helpful to break the subject matter into simpler relationships (dissecting the argument always helps in winning arguments anyway).

First, the question of a changing climate. This is the easy part; the answers are unequivocally yes. Temperature trends summarized by Environment Canada for the period 1948 through 2012 show statistically highly significant rises across most of Canada. Mean increases range from 0.5 to 3oC, with the highest numbers occurring in the arctic and subarctic regions. Mean ambient temperatures in the Pacific region of B.C. rose 0.7 oC over the same period and 1.2oC in the mountainous areas of southern B.C.

There are also statistically significant changes in geophysical and ecological parameters which are driven by ambient temperatures:

  • longer growing seasons, more heat waves and fewer cold spells, thawing permafrost;
  • earlier river ice break-up;
  • increase in precipitation over large parts of Canada;
  • more snowfall in the northwest Arctic;
  • earlier spring runoff and the earlier budding of trees.

Indigenous people of the Arctic are no longer able to predict the weather as accurately as their forefathers did (cited by the Society for Ecological Restoration).

Have wildfires increased significantly in B.C. over the same period? This brings us to the realization that fires can be measured by more than one parameter, i.e. the frequency with which they occur, the area which is burned over, the costs of fire damage, suppression and management, etc. Any, all or none could be linked to climate change.

Three measures of wildfire activity in B.C. are available from the B.C. government website. These are all shown below for the twelve most recent years.

 

The broad conclusions from these data are that while the annual frequency of wildfires across B.C. has dropped by roughly one-half over little more than a decade, the areal extent of wildfires for the same period has increased six-fold and the associated costs of dealing with the fires has increased twelve-fold.

These results are very similar to those reported in the western U.S. for recent years. University researchers and federal and state forest agencies in California have linked the occurrence of more widespread, bigger, longer-lasting wildfires to higher ambient temperatures and less or later snowfall. They have also indicted past practices of aggressively preventing fires as having had the perverse effect of creating much more fuel within forests themselves to feed future wildfires. The average California wildfire in the 2000s was double the size and burned twice as long as the average fire in the 1990s. Escalating fire-associated costs have also been linked to higher levels of damage as more homes are built on picturesque hillsides and mountains and other areas prone to wildfire.

A recently published study from the University of Idaho has neatly linked wildfires in western forests to human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change. The research group has quantitatively examined the statistical relationship between the essential requirements for wildfires (fuel availability, fuel aridity, etc.) to climate variables such as ambient temperature and vapour pressure which are changed by human activities such as increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The university research group concluded that for the period 2000–2015 climate change contributed to 75% more forested area across the western U.S. experiencing high fire-season fuel aridity. It also added an average of nine additional days per year of very high fire potential. Anthropogenic climate changes were calculated to have accounted for ∼55% of observed increases in forest fire fuel aridity from 1979 to 2015 across western US forests.

Hopefully this all adds a little more fuel to the fire in a quest to hasten meaningful climate action in B.C. and the rest of the reasonable world.

 

 

 

Seeking a spiritual foundation for an environmental renaissance in these trying times

by Stan Hirst

I have occasionally heard some of the Suzuki Elders refer to our group as a Unitarian/Anglican conglomerate. It’s meant as a flattering reference, although statistically its not quite true. A mental rundown of the sombre faces around the Council table indicates that neither group is in the majority and the combined number makes up just half the total Council membership. The remainder of the Council membership seeks formal spiritual attachment through a wider range of channels.

However the pages of this site attest to the fact that spirituality is a deep-rooted facet of the Elders’ group. Karl Perrin has written “…..my faith, my long term spiritual discipline, is in seeking truth and offering service.” Don Marshall makes a case for spirituality as a part of building resilience to the psycho-social impacts of climate disruption. Guest contributors Sally Bingham and Anneliese Schultz  write eloquently of the strength of spiritual traditions and communities in supporting our ongoing efforts to care for Creation. Paul Strome writes of the importance of his spiritual connections to Inuit communities in the North. A review of Pope Francisencyclical Laudato Si published just 16 months ago on the website has to date attracted 2500 readers.

Apart from personal convictions, why should we be concerned at all over spirituality and its role in the activities and future of the Suzuki Elders? For one thing we need perhaps to draw on spiritual convictions to highlight the growing importance of connecting personal, social and political transformations in the public realm.

It is rapidly becoming evident that the world is changing very rapidly and not at all for the better. Global climate change has become the norm along with all its consequences – deterioration of terrestrial, freshwater and marine resources, widespread social unrest, political instability and economic imbalances. The world’s existing and emerging challenges seem to be so complex, contested, interrelated, urgent and exacting that technocratic and technological solutions are unlikely to be enough. They often seem to compound problems, not reduce them.

Canada, and especially British Columbia, have policies and procedures in place to try and manage and ameliorate the conflicts of exploitation and extraction. Planning and assessment guidelines, environmental and social assessment requirements, and mandatory consultation procedures have been in place for close to half a century. Most of them have been adapted and upgraded with experience over the years, yet major conflicts between proponents and opponents continue to be the norm. Oil and gas pipelines, marine transportation of fossil fuels, hard rock mining, hydroelectric dams and marine aquaculture, all commonly deemed indispensable to a modern economy, are prime conflict zones. Why?

One major issue continues to be the deep and sometimes widening divide between, on one hand, corporate interests and their political supporters who drive resource exploitation and economic enhancement and, on the other hand, communities and groups who stand to benefit economically from such activities but who also bear the burgeoning environmental and social costs and losses.

There is a growing sense that more importance be attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. A revised understanding of human nature and our relationship to the earth and its bounties would help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences.

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the U.K. speaks of the unfortunate fetishisation of economic growth as a panacea and global competition as the only game in town. Some in the political sphere point out that citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just the objects. Spiritual perspectives play a role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture. They deepen the vision and lend structure and texture to human development and maturation. The overarching societal role of spirituality should be to serve as a counterweight to purely utilitarian thinking.

Many of the world’s environmental conflict zones already have ‘spiritual’ elements. They are a key pillar of First Nations’ defence of their territories and resources against the inroads of fossil fuel and other extractive exploitation from outsiders. Non-native society by comparison seems unprepared or unwilling to acknowledge a spiritual dimension, and is unwilling or not equipped to seek common ground at such a fundamental level.

Spirituality is ambiguously inclusive by its nature and cannot be easily defined, but at heart it is about the fact that it is we who are alive at all, rather than our personality or status. It’s about our “ground” rather than our “place” in the world. It is possible and valuable to give spirituality improved intellectual grounding and greater cultural and political salience. The primary spiritual injunction is to know what you are as fully and deeply as possible.

Difference is the essence of humanity

by Jill Schroder

“Difference is the essence of humanity”.

This quote from John Hume seems to me an appropriate thing to remember on International Women’s Day. Hume carries on, “Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein likes a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity.”

What a soothing balm this message offers in the face of the xenophobic, misogynistic, hate and judgement-filled atmosphere of the current political arena. Difference is the essence of humanity. I feel my heart open and grow soft, as I reflect on the Syrian family we took into our home just over a year ago, on how they knew absolutely no English, but in a year have learned the language, and gained training and skills and are now contributing to the community and country. Difference and diversity go together like, what? Peace and good government?

John Kennedy writes, “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.“

Thomas Jefferson to William Hamilton, in 1800: “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” Ah, if only!

I like this one from Audre Lorde: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

My husband has recently been enjoying a kaleidoscope as a toy, joy, and metaphor. I look through the viewer and see the multicoloured pieces. On the one hand they are distinct and separate, but they blend together, overlap, criss-cross, to create a truly beautiful, unique and unified image… When I turn the kaleidoscope ever so slightly there is a whole new arrangement of separate pieces, joining to make a remarkable, colourful whole. Cool metaphor for life, for diversity, for difference: the essence of humanity, eh?

As I go out about my day today, International Women’s Day, I will take this in my heart, the warmth, the unexpected challenges, the pleasures and opportunities for growth and connection that come when I respect and celebrate difference as the essence of humanity. I notice how different it is when I intentionally take this view, how differently I see people, how it affects my heart and my mind, what I see, and how I feel – on the bus, the sidewalk, in my building.

Churchill said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Know it and love it!

 

Climate change and emotional resilience: seeking clarity

by Stan Hirst

Resilience has become the buzzword of the 21st century, and its rapid rise to prominence in the media has taken some of us by surprise.  It’s a common enough term in the English language, but it has been applied to a wide number of subjects and themes, possibly not always with the same exact meaning. It is used in physics, ecology, engineering, urban development, military science, psychology and a few other areas, possibly not always with the exact same nuancing or intentions.

Now we have a more recent usage, one which is being promoted by our own Suzuki Elders in relation to global climate change – emotional resilience.  The Elders have defined emotional resilience as “keeping the ability, both personal and communal, to deal with the psychological and social trauma that comes from seeming to lose ground“.

Elder vanity discourages me from admitting I’m not clear on what this actually means, but I’m reasonably sure that I have allies within the Elder ranks when I say that we need some discussion on the concept. This post is my humble attempt at unpicking the concept.

Since I’m old and wise (that’s the definition of an Elder!) a first traditional step might be to turn to a dictionary definition of resilience.  It states resilience to be  “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness“.  Alternately it is said to be “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity“.  That gives us a glimmer of meaning but precious little understanding of the relevance to emotions.

In my own discipline  – ecology – the concept of resilience has been under progressive study for nearly a half-century. Ecologists accept the definition of ecological resilience to be “the capacity of ecosystems to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly“.  Note that ecological resilience typically refers to an entire community or ecosystem.

A common example given for ecological resilience is a mature coniferous forest with stands of several tree species plus understory layers of shrubs, grasses and herbs, the forest occupied by populations of mammals, birds and herptiles. The forest persists for decades in a more or less “stable” state.  Inevitably along comes a forest fire or a major storm or a pest outbreak which destroys huge proportions of  the tree cover, disrupts the shrub and herbaceous layers, exposes the soils to desiccation, erosion and run-off, and kills off a significant portion of the faunal populations. The forest as we knew it is essentially either destroyed or severely disrupted.  However, many of the basic ecological functions such as plant succession, photosynthesis, water retention, energy flow and reproduction remain intact. If left to its own devices the forest will, over decades, regenerate and regain its community structure and functions. Wildlife populations will return.  The whole system might not become be an exact replica of what it was, but we’ll likely accept whatever can be retrieved.

Human sciences have taken on the concept. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes resilience in regard to the individual as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, and other significant sources of stress”. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.  A similar concept is applied to whole communities, towns, cities, agricultural systems, etc. by planners, sociologists and engineers.

The APA points out that resilience in people is ‘ordinary’, not ‘extraordinary’. People have commonly demonstrated resilience, an oft-cited example being the individual and social responses to the 11 September  2001 terrorist attacks in the USA.  Resilience does not mean the non-experience of difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common sequels to major adversity or trauma.  The road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

Psychological studies show that the primary factor in [emotional] resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.  Specific factors that have been linked to resilience include:

  • capacity to make realistic plans and to take steps to carry them out;
  • a positive view of self and confidence in personal strengths and abilities;
  • skills in communication and problem solving; and
  • capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

The science of psychology has laid out some clear strategies for building personal resilience. Developing resilience is seen as a personal journey. An approach to building resilience that works for one person might not necessarily work for others. Various strategies need to be invoked. However, as spelled out by the APA, there seem to be common procedures that work for many:

  •    Make connections.
  •    Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.
  •    Accept that change is a part of living.
  •    Move toward your goals.
  •    Take decisive actions.
  •    Look for opportunities for self-discovery.
  •    Nurture a positive view of yourself.
  •    Keep things in perspective.
  •    Maintain a hopeful outlook.
  •    Take care of yourself.

I can see how this all links in to emotional resilience in individuals and in communities, but it remains unclear to me it links to climate change, either globally or regionally.

We need to remind ourselves that climate change is not the same as a change in the weather, although the two may look the same to an uninformed observer over a short period of time. The difference is that climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over an extended period of time (decades, centuries, aeons). Its still going to  rain along the west coast, it will still be cold in Alberta in the winter, and we will still have dry spells in the Interior; its the frequency, timing, onset, duration and/or severity of all these familiar weather patterns that will change.

Will prolonged winter storms, summer droughts and frequent blowdowns affect me emotionally? You bet they will.  What will I do about it?  Shake my fist at the Westridge Terminal across the inlet? Throw tomatoes at D.J. Trump’s smirking face on the TV screen? I’ll do it but I don’t expect much in return. I will need to be emotionally resilient.

Now if I only knew what that actually meant.

 

 

How do we build resilience to the impacts of climate change?

by Don Marshall

In a more optimistic time we were convinced that, as environmentalists, we could in time help to bring about sustainability and change the planet’s current trajectory of environmental deterioration. So we did what we could to bring about change in our personal perspective, in our habits, and in our institutions and social systems. We worked to help others see the need for the changes.

We think we made some difference, but it has been hardly enough. From many sources we know and feel that we are losing ground in the effort to preserve our environment. The natural world is suffering. The situation at times seems to be getting worse, not better. Our environment has deteriorated to the point that we now need to consider how to adapt to changes that are inevitable.

This is not just a physical problem of the environment. Its also a psychological and emotional crisis within ourselves. How can we hold our centre and keep our commitment to doing what we can to save the planet? How can we keep hope alive? We feel we need to develop resilience. What we mean by resilience is keeping the ability, both personal and communal, to deal with the psychological and social trauma that comes from seeming to lose ground.

In order to keep working as environmentalists we must take care of ourselves and of each other. Resilience, we believe, is best learned and practiced in the setting of the community where we can connect with each other in empathic conversation. We need to ask ourselves sensitive questions about these pressing issues. We need to engage within our own circles. Power to continue on in our environmental quest will come from deeply listening to each other—listening to our fears, hopes, and dreams.

As Suzuki Elders we are working towards bringing Small Group Listening Conversations to various venues in the Greater Vancouver area. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Basic Decent Goodness

by Jill Schroder

Remembering “basic decent goodness” is turning out to be a big help for me in my ongoing struggle with the turmoil, both inside myself and that which I perceive in the world. Sound convoluted? Only sort of! Here’s a compendium of short notes in support of this approach.

Pablo Casals puts it this way: “Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he/she listens to it and acts son it, he/she is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk.” It’s a whole lot easier to talk with each other if we assume that everyone has some positive values and motivations, even if they are very different from ours.

The Suzuki Elders are planning a forum for all generations, especially elders and youth, along these very lines – exploring how we can find areas of common ground, finding ways to say YES, even when there are significant disagreements.

Matthieu Ricard wrote a book called Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. Mike and I have been moved to tears by some of the anecdotes and information. Ricard talks about the “banality of goodness”; he writes “We have to recognize that if we look at the vast majority of the behaviour of 7 billion human beings most of the time … we behave in benevolent, decent, kind, polite and … cooperative ways.”  Just think of how many drivers stop to let a pedestrian cross even when there is no one behind them for blocks — at least in Canada. Just because they want to be kind. There are so many ordinary, indeed banal, examples that come easily to mind. And this is not even counting the ways many of us come forward to offer help when there are real disasters. Basic decent goodness, indeed.

Rick Hanson, meditator, neuropsychologist, author of many books including Just One Thing, suggests in his most recent post that we “choose to love”, basically train ourselves in the art. Start by deliberately bringing warmheartedness to people who are easy to feel loving towards, and move on to adding those who are not. This is a deeply transformative practice, one that would serve us well right now.

A beloved Canadian writer Stuart McLean, who just died, at 68, is recognized this way. Stuart “always emphasized that the world is a good place, full of good people, trying to do their best. He believed in people’s extraordinary capacity for love and generosity. And he had faith in our ability to work together for the common good. He was, in other words, firmly committed to celebrating the positive, joyful and funny side of life. Stuart assured us that even in difficult times, we can find things to be grateful for and ways to laugh.” It would be a fitting memorial to Stuart for us to us to try hard to do just that! Basic decent goodness again.

This approach sets aside the unresolvable question of the existence of Evil and of whether there are inherently evil people. At one level, believing in widespread basic decent goodness is a choice which affects us inside and out. This choice applies and matters, quite emphatically, in the face of despotic, chaotic, or otherwise disastrous regimes, actions or situations.

I’d like to end on a related but different note, one which is on the bright side. Here’s an except from Thirty Thousand Days. I call it Treasure the Pleasures.

“That evening, as I watched the sunset’s pinwheels of apricot and mauve slowly explode into red ribbons, I thought: ‘it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly. It probably doesn’t matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life’s many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are. It probably doesn’t matter if a passerby sees us dipping a finger into the moist pouches of dozens of lady’s slippers to find out what bugs tend to fall into them, and thinks us a bit eccentric. Or a neighbor, fetching her mail, sees us standing in the cold with our own letters in one hand and a seismically red autumn leaf in the other, its color hitting our sense like a blow from a stun gun, as we stand with a huge grin, too paralyzed by the intricately veined gaudiness of the leaf to move. ”

And finally, treasure the incredible photographs in Brightside.

WOW, eh?

 

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