Geographical scale: a key consideration in assessment of economic development impacts on our ecosystems
by Josef Kuhn
As a geographer, an ecologist and a Suzuki Elder, I was prompted to write this blog post by the recent posting “Big-Picture Thinking Required to Protect Nature” by David Suzuki and Faisal Moola on the David Suzuki Foundation web site.
Big-picture thinking is certainly needed, especially if the cumulative impacts of human activity, existing and proposed, are first documented at the local ecosystem level. However, there is no validity in talking about the big picture if the smaller ecosystems within are not adequately considered. I refer to ecosystems in this context because experience has convinced me that these systems – local, national and international – must be considered at both the ecological and economic levels, something big governments rarely do.
Having worked for many years with First Nations people struggling to protect their traditional territories from ecological damage, I am convinced that the best local ecosystem information can be developed by indigenous and other caring people who live in close proximity to and/or care about the ecological and economic health of local watersheds or other ecosystem areas they recognize.
In the process of economic development planning and related impact assessments, government workers and decision makers, and the citizens they act for, should be aware of the geographical patterns of the changes that are occurring. This is especially true at the scales that will be most affected by the decisions they are making. Understanding the patterns and processes of change is essential to the understanding of ecosystem and individual human health. With responsible support from government programs, NGOs and universities, our young people today have access to the technology and the skills to develop local geographic information system (GIS) models and then work with the higher levels of government to develop the big pictures needed for good provincial, national and international decision-making.
GIS maps with supporting photography and other documentation can provide truth-based representations of proposed changes to the landscape, water, air and biota. This is a very different form of information from the ‘spin’ and untruths that so often accompany development proposals produced by industry proponents. Their efforts are focused primarily on generating profits for investors and special interests. The broad generalizations by these proponents and their government supporters about benefits and the sustainability of their planned actions, which they call ‘development,’ have no credibility without good ecosystem and human health impact assessment at the local level. Tragically, we have been letting them get away with this for decades!
In 1971 I wrote a paper, published by the National Academy of Science in the U.S., on Environmental Mapping: An Ecological Methodology for Forest Highway Impact Assessment. Many other science and planning studies were reported around this time in the U.S. and Canada, and others followed showing the practicality of the GIS approach, especially when linked to good local participation. The tools for fact-based planning, assessment and decision making have been available for around half a century now and should not be ignored by any level of government.
There has developed in North America a seriously misguided concept that governance, and the decision-making authority that goes with it, should concentrate its deliberations and decision making power at the highest levels, i.e., provincial or national levels, rather than at the local community level. Government revenues from natural resource extraction are controlled and directed to provincial and federal land use planning, natural resource management and environmental protection programs.
Indigenous peoples and other local communities have supposedly given up to the ‘higher levels’ of government their human rights to self determination, especially in the area of environmental stewardship in the places where they live. Local stewardship of lands, waters and natural resources is simply not workable in Crown ministries with their corporation-driven macro-economic view of the world.
We should all ask ourselves why it is not needed,. Do we really believe that higher levels of government, because they act on behalf of larger numbers of people, have better information, a better understanding of land and water use, and which natural resource management decisions are most beneficial to people?
We should not stand by as big government usurps the power over land use and natural resource management that was exercised by local communities and tribes for most of human existence. The resulting environmental and human health tragedies are reported almost daily in our media. They are also well documented in human history.