Structural Faults and a Promising Ethic

by Ray Grigg

A discernible shift is taking place in environmental news. Many noteworthy items still document specific and localized affronts to species and ecosystems. But layered on these proliferating items of concern are now an increasing number of reports that describe structural faults in the global systems that regulate the normal functioning of the planet’s biosphere.

This is an ominous sign because it means that the cumulative effects of countless small environmental injuries are now causing major systemic problems. The nitrogen cycle is being disturbed by the massive application of fertilizer in industrial agriculture, abetted by the release of nitrogen-rich sewage and manure into waterways — all this is contributing to rampant algal blooms in lakes and hundreds of dead zones in the world’s oceans. The planet’s phosphorus cycle is being similarly disturbed. Plastics, so useful because of their near indestructibility, are being produced and discarded with such abandon that they have now become ubiquitous toxic contaminants, their micro particles beginning to taint the entire food chain.

The disturbed carbon cycle is one of the largest and most conspicuous of these systemic problems. Billions of tonnes of stored hydrocarbons in the form of coal, oil and gas are being burned to provide the primary energy for our modern civilization. The emitted carbon dioxide can be traced to the tailpipes of every individual car, each factory smokestack and all airplane flights. These emissions can be connected by simple and complex causal relationships to global climate change, extreme weather events, ocean acidification, melting polar ice, receding glaciers and rising sea levels.

In the human scheme of things, our civilization can tolerate the inconvenience of rising seas inundating Florida, Virginia, Venice or Bangladesh. Humanity can also live without snow leopards, tigers and white rhinos, just as we have lived without the passenger pigeon, great auk and dodo. But we will be sorely challenged by the radical alteration of our planet’s primary biophysical systems.

This awareness is beginning to alter the way we appraise the seemingly small environmental affronts we are forced to consider as our industrialized civilization crawls toward its uncertain future. BC’s ambitious LNG plans are supposed to enhance employment and revolutionize the province’s economics. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Kinder-Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline projects are intended to secure the profitability of Alberta’s tar sands by connecting its bitumen to BC’s coast and world markets. But these projects will also contribute to worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, to a warming planet, and then to such indirect effects as climate-inspired civil unrest, refugees, geopolitical tensions, the spread of diseases and even higher insurance costs. Cause-effect relationships mean that almost every local environmental issue now connects to global consequences.

These revealed connections are both enlightening and disturbing; the former because they provide a better understanding of how the natural world works, the latter because this understanding exposes complexities that can be overwhelming and almost paralyzing.

But this is the burden of knowing, the cost of lost ignorance, the levy assigned for becoming informed. Knowing opens the possibility for wiser choices that reduce the likelihood of us stumbling inadvertently into a disaster of our own making.

Our awareness of the vulnerability of entire ecosystems is a hopeful sign. An understanding of relationships allows us to foresee and avoid unwanted consequences, empowering us with the freedom to choose while encumbering us with the duty to make wise decisions. The liberation provided by knowledge always comes with the burden of responsibility.

This sense of responsibility may explain the frustration, angst and cynicism that is beginning to permeate our modern civilization. As we become increasingly aware of the serious damage caused by our lapses in judgment when attempting to manage the impact of our industrial and technological power, we find ourselves at a critical crossroads without a consensus on how to proceed.

We seem to have two opposite options. We can trust our questionable judgment and venture confidently into an uncertain future by investing even more of our destiny in the power that is already making us a destructive alien on our own planet. Or we can wilfully suppress our collective urge to control, subordinate our initiatives to nature’s imperatives and thereby entrust our destiny to the same wisdom that created us. But maybe these two options of control or submission can be combined by perceiving them as the contradictory halves of a paradox that we can only solve by using our ingenuity to live harmoniously within nature’s limits.

Given our character and our circumstances, this paradox seems to be a fundamental challenge we must recognize and confront. Until we have done so, we will lack the common ethic needed to reach a biological accord with a planet that we now occupy so wholly and so uneasily. The structural faults in our ecosystems are now warning us that the measures we have been using to guide our decisions are leading to environmental problems serious enough to threaten the stability of our biosphere and our civilization as we know it. The new and promising ethic we must discover will be forged and tested by the innumerable decisions we each make as individually conscious and thinking human beings.