Category Archives: Seeking Clarity

Turning the wheel – reflections on the season

by Jill Schroder

Turning the wheel of the seasons, we soon come to Hallowe’en, full of tricks and treats for some. This time is also widely honoured as Samhain, All Saints Day, and an opportunity to remember the dead, and supposedly a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest. Acknowledging the seasons and their transition markers helps me to sink into to feeling, to notice the flavours, and take meaning from the moments as they flow by.

Apropos thin veils, the living and dead, here is a provocative article in the Huffington Post: “Are You Living Your Eulogy or Your Resume?” Good question, that! The article is an invitation to explore our priorities and how we spend our minutes, hours and days. At some point we will no longer be living our lives… we’ll be gone. That’s the one sure thing. So now, while we’re still here, still alive, we still have the opportunity to reflect on the question.

Turning the wheel, indeed. A useful way to frame it: am I living my “to do list” – scrambling around hectically and electronically, forgetting to breathe, fitting in one more e-mail, or even signing one more petition for a good cause – before we (actually I, because I’m talking about myself here!) dash off to an activity, or move on to another item on the list. Or am I truly living my life — being here, attending to what nourishes me, ‘taking in the good‘ (as Rick Hanson recommends), tuning in to the larger context, the deeper holding, what’s beyond the body, the personal…

Here’s a short and sweet, helpful and transformative three-part practice I’ve just come across.

  1. Take a few belly breaths. Deep ones.
  2. Let your muscles melt… drop the shoulders, let go of all the contractions. Just do it.
  3. Calm your mind… maybe use a favorite mantra, or whatever helps to create space. Just for a while.

I’ve been amazed at how this seems to literally change the chemistry in my body.

As I get ready to head out on a bike ride, I remind myself to take 20 to 30 seconds to really feel into some of the magical moments in a day: the sound of the burbling fountain near my desk, the colour of the fall leaves, a stranger’s smile, the good feeling after a big workout, a hug from lover or friend or grandchild.

Don’t rush, or even move, on to the next moment, but savour this one, let it resonate. Wow! It feels like all kinds of veils thin when I do this, and I become more alive. Turning the wheel consciously.

May these thoughts help you find your own ways to live your Eulogy, not your Resume. May your days be blessed, rich, full, aware. May we see clearly, look far. Let us help each other find ways to live now as we would like to have done when we’re no longer here!

 

Spiritual poetry and its roots in Deep Ecology

by Errol McKinstry

Professor Arnie Näess (1912-2009) introduced the term ‘Deep Ecology’ in1972. As a philosopher, activist, and mountaineer he wrote and taught extensively over 37 years about environmental degradation and possible solutions. He stated that

Stewardship of nature is shallow impersonal ecology often in service to capitalist profiteers. Our interference with Nature is arrogant, excessive, causing global loss of biodiversity and habitat. Our solutions are superficial, piece-meal, anthropocentric, perpetuating biblical domination of all life. What is needed is a paradigm shift of consciousness from ego centered identity to eco-philosophy where deeper wider identification with all living beings leads to self-actualization as mature compassionate ‘Ecoselves’ with respect, reverence for all non-human life/eco-systems”.

These ‘living beings’ include not only flora and fauna but also rivers, watersheds, oceans, mountains, and wilderness.

All life has intrinsic worth beyond utilitarian commodity value. As with our pets which we name, clothe, and love, the pain and suffering of other beings should also cause us grief as we share a common home. Millenia of poets and indigenous culture elders, in teaching stories through song, dance, totems, and poetic narratives have celebrated the right of all wise beings to flourish. These truths have much relevance for us in 2017.

My 30 years engagement with the mythopoetic men’s movement as a participant/facilitator was mentored by three wise elders – Bly, Meade, and Hillman. It restored my love of poetry, it is pithy, nourishing imagery echoing life’s agony and ecstasy, woundings and healings. Bly’s gift to me in one retreat was this:

You loved poetry as boys but came to hate it when teachers demanded perfect public recitation before the class; any error in content or performance was shaming. Do read/hear poems again, discern the essence, and share them in your own vernacular voice. Be liberated!”

So, what is a poet? Hafiz (1320-1389), the celebrated Sufi mystic wrote A poet is someone who can pour light into a cup, then raise it to nourish your beautiful parched, holy mouth.” A poet may also express the ineffable, the unsayable, touching deep mysteries of life/death that can inspire us. We can feel nourished, encouraged, emboldened, to persist in our quest/work that is often stressful.

The vast cross-cultural poetry written over millennia (mankind’s legacy) include a few special poems—a unique genre, a deep well, that illustrate Deep Ecology’s values and principles. They reveal our unconscious need as a species to personify ‘Beings‘ in Nature, and then to identify with that ‘Being‘ to broaden and deepen one’s sense of self through dialogue and drama. This is the framework of fairy-tales and mythology (think Zeus, Hades, Hera, Freya). Our separate “I”, our ego-self merges with the `Other’ creating a ‘We’ or expanded eco-self as Naess explains.

Now our concern for the ‘Other’ has shifted dramatically. Now we care deeply for this new composite being’s welfare and destiny. The Other is no longer just a commodity to be cruelly exploited, but part of us – mind, body, and spirit. Now our priorities, values and actions may take a major shift towards compassionate kindness, peace and love – a re-sacralization of the world and our lives.

Beyond traditional church theology, liturgy and catechism is a mystical tradition that values direct experience with the sacred/divine in Nature without ministers and priests as intermediaries. The three Abrahamic monotheistic religions all have their gnostic traditions (Jesus an Essene, Rumi a Sufi). This a rich source of ‘seed’ ‘poems that can spark ‘awakening.’

Critics may exclaim loudly “But this is just new-age psycho-babble, all sound and fury signifying nothing” (to quote Sir Willy), the world is ours to plunder”. To them the deep ecologists say “All new revolutionary ideas are threatening, but in time benefits will accrue and we may save our sacred Mother Earth from our avarice and ignorance”.

Here are some of my favourite examples of Deep Ecology poems. Some have been gently edited for brevity and space. A brief introductory comment is included about the author or salient features.

Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain by Li Po (762 A.D.)

“The birds have vanished down the sky. Now the last cloud drains away. We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.”

Widening Circles by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

[From ‘The Book of Hours’ pub.1905. Hints at a sacred world with a mysterious centre. Rilke was considered Europe’s Rumi]

“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one, but I give my life to it.

I circle around the primordial tower, I’ve been circling for thousands of years, I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?”

When I was the Forest by Meister Eckhart (1260–1328).

[Eckhart was a celebrated Christian mystic and philosopher whose theme seems to dramatize his hope to rediscover the Garden of Eden]

“When I was the stream, the forest, the field; when I was every hoof, foot, fin and wing, even the sky itself—no one ever asked me did I have a purpose, or was there something I needed, for I loved everything. But when I left all we once were, the agony and fear began, questions came and 1 wept tears as never before. So I returned to the river, the mountains asking for their hand in marriage again. I begged to wed every object and creature.”

A Limb ( Branch) Just Moved by Hafiz.

[Hafiz was a Sufi mystic whose name means ‘recite’. He had memorized the Quran and made a living reciting verses at ritual functions]

“You taught Your songs to birds first—why was that? You practiced Your love in the hearts of animals before You created man. I know the planets talk at night and tell secrets about You. A branch just moved before me and the Beauty of this world makes me weep.”

For All by Gary Snyder

[Gary Snyder is a famed contemporary Buddhist monk, deep ecologist poet and activist who, at age 87, still leads the Ring of Bone zendo in California. We met at Hollyhock Farm in a 1989 workshop and earlier in 1973 at an Alan Watts memorial in San Francisco. Turtle Island is a traditional First Nations term for North America]

“Ah to be alive on a September morn, fording a stream barefoot, pants rolled up, holding boots, pack on, sunshine, icy shallows, northern Rockies. Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters, stones underfoot, small and hard as toes, cold nose dripping, singing inside, creek music, heart music, smell of sun on gravel. I pledge allegiance to the soil of Turtle Island, one Eco-system in diversity, under the sun. With Joyful Penetration for all.”

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep by Mary Frye (1905-2004).

[The only poem she ever published (1932) for a friend’s memorial. It has become famous, set to a lovely melody sung by many western singers and choirs. She comforts her friend by reminding her of their shared experience of Nature’s Beings as ‘I-thou-we” will live on beyond our demise.

“Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry;

I am not there. I did not die.”

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (1935).

[A well-loved contemporary American poet, English professor, and Pulitzer Prize winner who captures our longing for union with ‘the ten thousand things’ (Tao Te Ching) in many of her nature poems. The ‘despair’ she mentions could be our emotional response to ominous climate change facts. She is known for her haiku “Instructions for Living a Life” – “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”]

“You do not have to be good or walk on your knees for 100 miles through desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about your despair, I’ll tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on: the sun and clear pebbles of rain move across the landscape, over prairies, deep trees, mountains and rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers herself to your imagination, calling to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting— over and over, announcing your place in the family of things.”

Name Give Away by Phil George (Tsimshian 1975).

[A poignant, painful remembrance of residential school days and the importance of his/our birth or initiation name that references ‘beings in nature’.]

“My teacher gave me a new name again. Yesterday it was Peter. Today it was Phillip. Still I don’t know what they mean. She never even had a feast or give away. ‘Two Swans Ascending from Still Waters’ must be a name too hard to remember.'”

In conclusion: you undoubtedly have your own favourite ‘Deep Ecology’, ‘Eco-Self’ poems that inspire and ground you in the Great Inter-connecting Web of all Beings. Do bring or send them to share with the Council, especially one’s you’ve written. Please recommend your favourite poets and books.

 

How to Have Enlightenment, Power (and Money) with Resilience Stories

Easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

by Dan Kingsbury

1.

It’s quite strange to be here on this planet with you, don’t you think? I consider it equally strange that, as much as I know about our world, I can never really know you or any other person for that matter. Yet we can relate and have a connection. Rather than the proverbial “us and them” I can change the way I think about the things I know, change the meaning to what I think about you/them, or more precisely, I can transform you by how I know you. With that food for the soul in mind and with these stories I’ll share the real return, the beauty and time, and where to find it to begin each day.

Imagine a still mountain lake reflecting its shoreline to the sky; as above, as below. In the mirrored image off the lake you might, maybe for the first time, have an “awakening” when you notice the trees appear taller towards the midpoint of the lake’s reflection, showing you directly the curve of your home planet against the skyline. And much more because you are here, observing this view! And these thoughts and words are the memory of it I use to deal with the mystery of it – we are all somehow a part of all this! The reality is there is no fixed world “out there”. This world is in constant change and it appears that there is no getting out alive. And it also appears that there is no purpose to evolution without us.

The natural environment is what has been worked out by hundreds of millions of years of evolution from which we emerged only about 2 million years ago. We became conscious of who we are, with a past and a future, only in the last 70,000 years. And that’s the problem – we have a past that is poorly remembered. We’ve already forgotten that we’ve only been writing our stories for 5,500 years, .03% of the time we’ve been hunting and gathering. So, if we are so privileged why is it that we have a future that we all know is far from certain?

Fortunately, we’re primates and we can mass together like no other animal mostly because we have an imagination, a certain fiction or relative reality that we can share. Similarly, because we can and do change the way we think about things, things can and do change. This is because whatever you think about expands. It’s up to you. Surprisingly simple, isn’t it?

During this speedy-time we call a life time, a time when we are all going around the sun at the same speed, in the same moment, it’s endlessly fascinating how each of us experiences time so differently, hardly free and equal. But we’re missing the sum of the whole life journey for all that we are doing with the day-to-day of our busy lives, typically having no time to experience the “being-ness” in the landscape, mostly because we are so fascinated to a fault with its working parts, i.e. us. Unfortunately, we don’t reflect well off a lake and we don’t see ourselves in the lake’s image and so we think we’re separate, and landscape is just something we cross to get to the other side. Of course, when we do so we also miss the opportunity for a rather profound relationship with our landscape.

We are more than the individual self. We are our collective self, we are Homo sapiens. And we are The Breaking Wave (Song) and all we absolutely have is this moment in time. Time is speeding up for us humans; we live fast but we all come from a childhood full of imagination. Even if you don’t have any imagination now, you did have when you were a kid – and that is so important to know, to access. This is because imagination is a useful resource to being resilient with your life time, to being alive in a world threatened by humans, by who we are, makers of war and carbon-based climate change. This means that with imagination that even if you don’t like your “story” or what it might be doing to destroy the natural world around you that sustains you, then you can change your “story.” It’s easy, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3… Plus, all you need is love.

2.

There is a new story available now that I’m invested in, it is out there and it is another connection, another part of the inter-connection of life, of “being.” Imagine that this new connection or new relationship with another “being” is your landscape or your environment seen differently, seen with imagination and awakened eyes. No matter where you are you can connect to “it,” it’s presence can easily be felt at both sunrise and sunset with the light. This is where the mystery and magic is, with the light unfolding into the darkness, layer by layer, to bring on a new day or to ebb out its presence again at the twilight hour. There is no judgement, nothing you can’t be with and there is no suffering in this light. Rather, quite the opposite in fact, and yet this realm of darkness is not an apposing force and is merely something the light grows into or from, not unlike a seed in the soil. There is a need for both before any thoughts can be had (thank goodness!).

I am talking here about the primacy of the landscape on our blue dot planet we call Earth, and the infinity of the Universe that is nourishing and sustaining us on this landscape. Imagine the landscape as a “being,” one that we can relate to as we enter every day when we leave our house and go from place to place, to work or school. For most of us this is “dead time,” a time experienced between your house and wherever. The opportunity is to imagine you are entering a landscape whose sense of time is different from yours, much longer in years than is humanly possible to know, and yet it has a certain presence that is revealed somehow in its “being,” it’s kin to the soul.

Imagine how the landscape transforms from granite and ice into a subjective holder of interconnectedness and nature. It’s landscape that tells you to be mindful and present, not to be “on time,” but rather to relate to time as either in-or-out of presence within the sanctity of the moment. Changing time opens up, “awakens” is another way of “knowing.” This is one of the reasons why travel is so popular, it changes time. Knowing this, you would probably like to be spending more time with your landscape’s “being,” traveling or not. It’s easy and you don’t have to go far, the landscape’s presence can be accessed through the power of prayer or meditation. You can access it and bring it within to hold a place of quite and stillness, like the environment or landscape can do for you when you are “out there” – if you let it in. If you know how to listen to the silence and be with stillness, you can literally transcend time for the beauty in the moment, and eventually you come to learn that this too shall pass, and that’s OK.

3.

The point of this story is to bring the “out there,” the being-ness of the landscape and its presence inward, “in there” so that it becomes a place to come from and go to when you go about the busyness of your day whatever the activity (maybe even investing, it doesn’t really matter). That’s my resilience story, an imagined partner whose language is silence and solitude, not desolation lost, cynicism, resignation, anxiety or depression. Within the landscape, wherever you live, it’s a question of beauty, if you can see it. If you can “awaken,” or transform your use of meaning and patterns to see it.

This is an invocation to extend your relationship to your home environment, this is an invitation to have an ancient conversation with your landscape beyond your usual sense of time, to fetch the spray of “being” found between the stone and ocean. Won’t you be there beside me? It calls us home. “The warm glow of a campfire, a cool drink from a mountain stream, this is what makes me wise” (Dad’s Song) in a land (Where the Mountains Meet the Sea); these are examples of songs about our Pacific NW landscape, or place, or connection, and they touch my heart.

4.

If the landscape is a memory and a story then it has a certain reality, a being-ness on a different time scale than our own, and once seen it is as useful as the lighthouse to restoring confidence to the navigator getting tossed around by a busy life. Landscape is useful too, like a song’s offering, towards restoring what’s unseen, but not unknown in who we are. Consider for a moment what climate change brings along with the loss of the sea ice, the loss of the way of life that is maybe 12,000 thousand years old for the Inuit people of today. And then, consider the importance of the restorative narrative, a story that articulates the resilience that their landscape holds for them, and that their daylight brings to them… and then consider the hopelessness and despair seen in Inuit young people’s suicide as their way of life is literally melting around them (https://vimeo.com/109830144).

Holding the blood in the snow and the Arctic glow is part of the resiliency in the needed restorative narrative held in both landscape and song. Captured in the preceding 2-minute video an Inuit Elder says how important it is “for our young people to know where they come from,” or have a “place” or landscape or natural environment to come from, or go to. This Inuit throat singer (https://vimeo.com/109709510) knows her voice is most at home in this bleak landscape, “out there” where the outlook is far from certain. Our singer holds on, it seems, sensing “the being” in the landscape, in nature, and all that “it” represents as she renews with restorative resolve what comes with the daylight, the melting sea ice, in her lament song, at least the Daylight Remains. Bringing-in the possibility of taking-in the silence and solitude “out there,” taking-in the “being-ness” of the landscape and using it in our time of climate change is a resilient narrative. Using your imagination to garner connection to our environment “out there” and as a “being” that you relate to is key. Choosing to relate to it for human evolution to survive is wise. Is it time for the love tribe, Homo empathicus or Homo deitus to arrive?

5.

It follows then that, as an inspired and responsible Elder, I aligned my choices for investment to on those companies supporting a sustainable future and to those businesses that are keeping us all connected and/or fed. Of course, a 21% infusion of value would all by itself be thought of as resilient, particularly if that return is in money or gold.

Is it more than that, my one-year return on my life time? I mean, we all make meaning of a 21% return, but it doesn’t mean anything unless we agree or disagree on what it is that creates a shared relative reality. This is the imaginary construct of money, beauty and time and stories like environmentalism or evolution. I use it to hook your mind to show you the mystery behind my resilience story, how I get beauty and time, environmentalism and evolution, with or without the money and endless fascinations. That said, the mystery is in how I got there, which presumes I’m here!

Imagine that you are the place where the Universe is conscious of itself. When doing so, how important is how I made 21% last year anyway? Consider that we are all separated by our minds, our biographies, and that we are more than the stories we keep, we are a part of what the landscape provides. We are also our ability to know, we are the knower and if we know this then we can be the observer too, and not stuck in the drama of our lives and times. Of course, this takes some imagination, keeping your imagination active is a resilient characteristic. Giving names to places like fields and mountains personalizes them, creates a story in the landscape, deepens relationship. First Nations people have a relationship expressed with “All My Relations” such that they use personal pronouns for animals so that, for example, when coming upon a set of new tracks in the forest one might ask, “I wonder who (not what) it was that goes there.” They see the land and the animals as part of who they are, different, not separate. Imagine that!

6.

We choose other things to learn from and be with, we don’t usually give ourselves time with our landscape. Yet, your environment gives you rhythm, stillness and some sense of solitude. All you need to see its beauty is to look. There is an invitation to look and use. Use it to go within and start your day with your landscape by being in peace and living in ease. This is metaphorically a place where you have never been wounded (yet, it’s not that you haven’t experienced pain and suffering and illness) and somehow “it” let’s you know or feel as if you are seen or have come home. Imagine that! It’s a resilience story, it has beauty in it and if it finds you, and you like it, it will grow on you and become your resilient story too.

Now you know how my resilience story helped me make money last year, I invested in the sustainability of the environment and the connection of people. Along my way I found my return in my interdependence with landscape and with others.

Now go lose yourself in your own landscape and comment in the comments section if you want to know the specifics on how I made 21% last year in the stock market, or if it really matters, or……?

Enough said.

 

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.

 

 

 

Coping with a changing world

[global, change, psychology, pessimism, optimism, attitude]

by Stan Hirst

I spent an hour or two idling along the Ambleside sea-wall this past week. Ships at anchor in a placed bay, azure blue sky overhead with the proverbial scudding white clouds, a pair of bald eagles fishing just off-shore (one fish from 30 dives, and I thought I was a lousy angler). It was the sort of scene that people would pay money to come to. Come to think of it, they do.

So why, I pondered, did I keep obsessing about negative things? Like the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Upper Levels just a few hundred meters from where I sat. Like the burgeoning numbers of people on the once idyllic seawall, detracting from my perception of communal quality with their milling and thronging, pushing and shoving, babbling in incomprehensible languages.

It’s a matter of simple psychology I have recently learned from the Great Fount of Wisdom (sometimes known as the internet). Apparently we humans are mentally and neurologically structured to be a gloomy lot.

Consider this – a British newspaper recently surveyed the U.K. population and found that 70% of Britons think the world is getting worse. Only 5% think it is improving. Now compare this view with Bill Gates’ 2017 report to the World Economic Forum:

  • poliomyelitis has almost been eradicated as a scourge of children across the globe (because of the incredible efficacy of the polio vaccine and the concerted efforts of national governments to get people inoculated;
  • some 122 million children’s lives have been saved over the last 20 years. Since 1990 the number of children dying before their 5th birthday has been cut from 12 million down to less than 6 million by investments in community health in developing countries;
  • some 300 million women in the world’s 69 poorest countries used birth control in 2016 — a jump of 30 million from 2012. Contraceptive use, one of the most effective methods for breaking the poverty cycle and ensuring economic and social empowerment of women, is higher than it’s ever been.

I see two lessons from this. One is that a viewpoint depends very much on where you’re sitting. My carping about BMW’s on the Upper Levels is a world away from a Bangladeshi family’s satisfaction in not seeing their children afflicted by some awful poverty-induced condition. Second is the now –established truth that people are predisposed to think that things are worse than they actually are, and to overestimate the likelihood of calamity.

Why do we do this? One reason is that positive gains are typically measured by data, which most people abhor, despite their pathological attachment to smartphones and other digital devices. People typically rely on the recollection of examples to assess whether something is better or worse than before. On top of that, we are hard-wired in our befuddled brains to remember the bad things rather than the good ones. Ask an Albertan farmer whether wheat prices are more likely to increase or decrease next year. Chances are very high he will say “decrease” because he is apprehensive about that. The true answer is that there is almost an equal chance of an increase or a decrease (check Stats Canada).

Our modern media emphasize the negatives because they garner more attention and therefore sell better. When is the last time you read a news headline proclaiming that “609,000 aircraft land successfully in Canada“? That’s a true statement (again, check Stats Canada). Compare that to the 2013 Vancouver headline “Fatal B.C. Plane Crash Blamed on Pilot’s Loss of Control” which, I would hazard a guess, thousands of Vancouverites would easily recall.

Pessimism has unfortunate political consequences. Voters who think things were better in the past are more likely to demand that governments turn back the clock. The best example is in the U.S. where polling statistics revealed that a whopping 80% of Donald Trump’s supporters thought life has grown worse in the past 50 years. We are all now living with the regrettable political outfall from that sentiment. Amongst Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 60% believed that most children were destined to be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tended to believe the exact opposite.

Although its sometimes difficult to countenance from public behaviour, it seems that people are growing smarter. In the early ’90s James R. Flynn examined IQ test scores for different populations over the preceding 60 years and discovered that they increased from one generation to the next for all of the countries for which data existed. This “Flynn Effect” is attributed to better nutrition over the years, to the spread of education, and possibly to improvements in environmental quality, e.g. the removal of lead from gasoline. BUT, a closer look at Flynn’s findings show that IQ scores increased only for the problem-solving portion of the intelligence tests. They remained pretty much constant for verbal intelligence.

Steven Pinker, the Canadian-born Harvard professor of psychology, holds that humankind is now experiencing a “moral Flynn Effect”. As people grow more adept at abstract thought they find it easier to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes. He believes this is one reason why society has grown more tolerant. It may seem counterintuitive to state this, considering the daily TV offerings of racial and religious violence in the U.S. and Europe, but the world is actually safer than it used to be. Globally, wars are smaller and less frequent than they were a generation ago. Statistics show that we all overestimate how much terrorism there actually is. The average European is ten times more likely to die by falling down the stairs than to be killed by a terrorist. Analysts with nothing better to do tell us that children’s nursery rhymes are 11 times more violent than television programmes aired in prime time.

As a crusty old Elder maybe I should just belt up and put up. Of course things change continually. Careers die, so do loved ones and relationships. Children show up and grow up. Positive changes need adaptation just as much as negative ones.

We don’t seem to notice or pay much attention to small or expected changes; it’s when we are caught off-guard that we react negatively. The best response might be to firmly convince ourselves that millions of changes are going to happen in life – some good, some not so good, so we should just roll with it. Even Einstein said it – “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”.

Elders know that life can be difficult to navigate in our ever faster-moving society. The only real survival tool we may have is to learn at our own pace and to deal with the changes going on around us. I hear the younger generation counselling me to chill out and go with the flow. That’s probably the most comfortable way to deal with the future, so I’ll do it.

 

The B.C. salmon farming conundrum

An overview

by Stan Hirst

The 21st century has brought the planet an extraordinary share of environmental conundrums. Think ozone layer, climate change, outbreaks of vector-borne diseases and dumping of plastic litter on a global scale.

What makes them “conundrums“? Several reasons, but the stand-out is the underlying conflict between two very different systems. One is our social addiction to widespread exploitation of natural resources to support our burgeoning populations and lifestyles. The other is a desperate attempt to conserve what is left of our natural ecosystems and to protect them against increasing, often overwhelming, levels of exploitation. The critical element in this conflict is that the two processes – exploitation and conservation – are promoted by two different segments of society with widely differing philosophies and views on ecosystem resources.

British Columbia has its share of these, plus a few more like the proliferation of fossil fuel pipelines, increasing incidences of forest fires, and the pervasive loss of productive agricultural lands. One conundrum, however, has a particular regional west coast theme – the proliferation and impacts of marine-based salmon farms.

Marine salmon farming began in B.C. on a commercial basis in the 1970s. Most farms were initially sited along the Sunshine Coast and on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The 1980s saw expansion of the industry into waters near Campbell River, Sayward and Port McNeill. As the industry became established it adaptively managed its operations and upgraded pens, equipment and technology through the 1990s and on to the present.

Today, about 75 salmon farms are in production along B.C.’s southern coasts. An estimated 76,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon are grown annually. B.C. salmon farmers grow 60% of all salmon raised in Canada, the production contributing approximately $1.2 billion per year to the province’s economy and accounting for about 5000 jobs, most in rural coastal areas. Farm-raised Atlantic salmon is now B.C.’s highest valued seafood product and the province’s top agricultural export (sales over $400 million in 2015) going to 11 countries (85% to the USA and about 15% to Asian markets).

Shortly after the arrival of open-net pen salmon farms in B.C. (mid-1980s), sockeye salmon populations, in particular the famed Fraser River runs, began to decline and have continued to do so for most of the past 20 years.

A diverse and vocal lobby of aquatic ecologists, conservationists, salmon fishermen and First Nations coastal communities have pinned much of the blame for the declines of wild salmon on the siting of salmon farms. Many open-net pens holding very dense numbers of Atlantic salmon and other species lie in close proximity to the traditional coastal migration routes followed by wild sockeye and chinook runs.

Marine and estuarine water currents flow freely through the pens, allowing wastes, chemicals and pathogens to move freely back and forth. Specific concerns mentioned frequently by fish-farm opponents include:

  • the ease of disease transmission and sea lice infestations from captive to wild fish;
  • conflicts between salmon farms and marine mammals like seals and sea-lions;
  • pollution from large and concentrated volumes of manure released from fish pens into the marine environment;
  • escapes of non-native fish, and the displacement of local fishermen;
  • concern for B.C.’s wild salmon fishing, a $1.4 billion growth industry.

Opponents further point out that research in the United Kingdom and Norway has also identified declines of wild salmonids in the presence of farmed salmon pens.

Additional objections to the marine farming of Atlantic salmon have followed. One concern is the impact on stocks of other marine fish which are harvested as a source of feedstock. For a farmed salmon industry the size of that in B.C. an estimated 6 billion forage fish need to be harvested to bring one crop of farmed salmon to harvest. By one estimate 19 of the top 20 global forage fish stocks have been fished to near depletion levels for the manufacture of feed for farmed salmon.

More recently, health concerns have been raised regarding the composition of farmed salmon as a human food source. Whereas wild salmon eats other organisms found in its natural environment, farmed salmon is given a processed high-fat feed in order to produce larger fish. The result is that farmed Atlantic salmon have double the fat and saturated fat contents of wild Pacific salmon, and can absorb marine and other toxins in the high-fat content flesh.

Naturally the well-organized and well-funded interests which own and manage B.C.’s salmon farming industry have reacted to the allegations with vigour.

On the fish disease transmission issue they point out that viruses present in B.C. farm-raised salmon are all naturally occurring in the Pacific Ocean, are not harmful to fish and are not a risk to human health. They concede that, since farmed fish are kept in very high densities, some viruses pose health risks to farmed salmon. Farmed fish health is consequently monitored regularly by farm company veterinarians and by federal and provincial agencies.

Specifically, they point out that:

  • thousands of screenings of wild, hatchery-raised, and farm-raised salmon have been completed in B.C., Alaska and Washington State, none of which has confirmed the presence of any exotic fish viruses or diseases;
  • salmon producing members of the BC Salmon Framers Association have developed a viral outbreak management plan to provide a quick and decisive industry-wide response if a virus of concern is ever detected in any B.C. salmon farm.
  • farmers participate in viral monitoring programs run by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) .

Since the early 1990s the Fraser sockeye returns had become increasingly unpredictable and by 2009 returns had reached low levels for the third consecutive year. Consequently the fishery was closed that year. It was generally conceded that fishing alone was not the cause of the decline. Levels of concern and political intensity reached a point sufficient to spur the federal government to action. They chose the classic bureaucratic response to a difficult situation – they appointed a commission of enquiry. On November 6, 2009 the Canadian Minister of International Trade announced a federal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. This became known as the Cohen Commission after its head, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen.

The Commission sat for 133 days of hearings, considered 573,381 documents (98% from the Government of Canada) containing more than 3 million pages, held 133 days of hearings, heard 892 public submissions and from 95 lawyers, granted standing to 21 participants and groups, generated 14,166 pages of transcripts, produced a 1191 page final report, and ran up a tab of $26 million dollars. It generated 75 recommendations of which 11 related to reducing impact of salmon farms on wild sockeye stocks.

Out of this huge mass of information, accusations, counter-accusations, analysis and reviews Justice Cohen drew the conclusions that “the potential harm posed to Fraser River sockeye from salmon farms is serious or irreversible. Disease transfer occurs between wild and farmed fish, and I am satisfied that salmon farms along the sockeye migration route have the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to exacerbate endemic diseases that could have a negative impact on Fraser sockeye stocks”.

Justice Cohen put forward 75 recommendations on dealing with the declining Fraser River salmon fishery. Eleven of these dealt specifically with the relationships between wild salmon and salmon farming (available in abridged form at this link). As of the end of 2016, i.e. a little over 4 years since acceptance of the Commission report, DFO has reported implementation of 9 of the 11 recommendations, some progress on one (prohibition of salmon farming in the Discovery Islands) and disagreement with one (mandate of DFO to promote salmon farming).

So where do we stand now, after nearly 40 years of penned salmon farming along the B.C. coast? I would say squarely in the middle of the conundrum.

On one side: the salmon farming industry in B.C. is now well entrenched federally and provincially, economically and politically. Failing any major financial, economic, political or ecological change, it will continue to operate as an important agro-industry.

On the other side: none of the major concerns expressed by conservationists, salmon fishermen, First Nations, scientists and anglers on the issues surrounding net-penned salmon (impacts on wild salmon, marine pollution, impacts on marine ecosystems, suitability as safe seafood for humans, etc.) seem to have been satisfactorily resolved.

Maybe we’ve arrived at an “I’m right and you’re an idiot” phase?

I look forward to some enlightening Elder resolution………

 

 

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