“Science is the best tool for building sound policy to adapt to, and mitigate change and to protect the environment and Canadians.... Without sound scientific information, how will the government evaluate the effectiveness of green technologies or build northern infrastructure or develop our energy industry, or assure water supply and clean air?”1This pointed question by Gordon McBean, Chair of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS), to the six-year absence of new funding for climate change research in the latest Conservative budget, is relevant for all levels of government, and parties. As with the AVRO-Arrow project of the late 1950’s, Canada is currently home to some of the world’s best climate research, yet political shinannegans are already causing this talent to leave the country.
One cannot simply blame a party, or a government. Governments merely shape their agenda to public information and pressure – regardless of the quality of information. This budgetary cut merely highlights the more deeply-seated general contempt in which science is held by the general public, political parties and government.2
This is a serious problem for both democracy and for the state of the environment, both of which are in my view, inextricably linked.
Anti-science perspectives promote irrationalism and pseudo-science which are fundamental to fascism and other totalitarian ideologies. Regrettably, environmentalism shares with extreme social conservatism, a well-documented dark irrationalist and fascist past that is often conveniently overlooked.3 (I confess that I never feel comfortable in venues that promote “paganism” and environmental issues, or in crowds chanting slogans.)
Climate change is essentially a problem of limits. The environmental, social and economic questions it raises are all questions of economic and environmental systems that have overshot their “carrying capacities.” The central social question that we face collectively, is how we will respond to these limits. 4
As climate change impacts continue to amplify, the general environmental situation will require that the public make informed choices on these limits. As Dr. McBean’s question indicates, how we collectively respond to these limits will largely be conditioned by public reaction to “sound scientific information.” Clearly, if science is politically gerrymandered by private interests assuming authoritative scientific expertise, the resulting discredit to science will make it impossible to start an intelligent dialogue, let alone address the challenges posed by climate change.
My interest in this question began in 1986 in response to an analysis of the problem by The Worldwatch Institute. Lester Brown pointed out that the most likely scenario to planetary degradation would be political inaction followed by a suspension of normal democracy and the imposition of an environmental “Marshall Plan” in the first part of the 21st century, a point still held by pessimists such as Jorgen Randers who heads Norwegian research.5 My hope has always been to avoid this through reason.
The recent process that has led to the official closing of Pender Harbour landfill, should serve as a cautionary tale of things to come. By failing to come through with a direct consultation with the people of Pender Harbour, basic democratic principles were violated by SCRD directors, and actively supported by Zombie environmentalists who authoritatively misrepresented basic science to the public. The outcome has been socially divisive and discrediting to environmental science and our future.
Short Primer on Democracy
What we know about modern democracy, comes largely from the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, which were fundamental to the framers of the American and French constitutions , and to whom we owe the legacy of The Bill of Rights. Both these authors drew heavily on the writings of “the father of modern history”, Thucydides, who chronicled The History of the Peloponnesian War, and together with it, the various ideas the warring Greek States had of democracy.
One of the well-known passages is a short rebuke to young aristocrats who would abuse democracy and who feel it is unfair if it does not allow their interests to overrule the will of ordinary people. In this passage the Syracusan general, Athenagoras, sets out the basic principles of democracy:
“Some will say that democracy is neither wise nor fair, and that the ones with the money are also suited to rule the best. But I say first that the people [demos] is a name for everyone together, and oligarchy only for a part; and next while perhaps the wealthy are the best guardians of money and the wise take the best counsel, the many [tous pollous] when in audience judge the best, and in democracy these groups both separately and all together have an equally fair share”.6
Decisions are to be taken by the many, guided by professionals (the wise), not by a few. The essence of democracy is to trust in the wisdom of the people.
Athenagoras’ rebuke is as fresh today as it was around 410 BC. When SCRD directors reject a petition signed by more voters than turned out at the last regional election, and deny the people a right to a referendum on an important question, they set themselves above “the many” and usurp the privileges of an oligarchy.
Neither money nor power of elected office gives anyone a right to oligarchic privilege. Democracy is of the people, and only by the people. That has been known for 2,500 years. An oligarchy, even at SCRD, is at best, “friendly fascism.”
I have been asked – and declined - many times to intervene in the Pender Harbour landfill debate, because of my general background in freshwater biology, and as the Vice-Chair of the Canadian ISO committee on water quality sampling, in which I understand my peers consider me to have special expertise in several areas of the field of water quality.
My position in this matter, which I have stated many times both in public and in private, has two aspects: 1) the Pender Harbour landfill question is a matter to be addressed and resolved by the people of Pender Harbour, and 2) because I have not been contracted to, and have not carried out necessary tests and experiments to give a professional opinion, I have no particular knowledge of the water situation at, or related to, the Pender Harbour Landfill.
My first position is based on the assumption, however naive, that SCRD staff is obligated to fulfill its professional obligation to maintain a disinterested position and preserve the right of all parties to neutral and sound scientific information, and that democratic process would be respected. The second is a matter of simple honesty and professional ethics.
1. The Central Question
The case itself was made murky by the nominal positions taken by the parties. The landfill site had reached capacity, therefore the question was not really whether to close, or to leave open the site.
The actual question was twofold: whether to close the landfill and transform it into a Transfer Station for waste compaction within an intensive trucking infrastructure proposed by SCRD staff, which have a vested and conflictive interest in waste management cost recovery operations of the Sechelt landfill, or to progressively de-activate the landfill and transition towards a `Zero Waste` Resource Recovery Park operation.
Either way, the existing field was reaching its carrying capacity, and had to be “closed” in one way or another.
2. The Real Options
The real options were therefore not: either close the landfill or leave it open, as represented by competing parties and SCRD staff. There were really four options not three, one of which SCRD staff deliberately, and perhaps disingenuously, refused to acknowledge. Upon de-activation of the existing field, there were 4 options:
1. business as usual and a new large expansion
2. business as usual and a smaller expansion
3. business as usual transformation into a Transfer Station for single stream compactors
4. transformation into a Resource Recovery Park and multi-stream recovery.
Both Options 3 and 4 present a potential reduction in contamination risks. However, only Option 4 is consistent with SCRD’s stated “Zero Waste” objectives.
Option 3 presents a NIMBY “out of sight and out of mind” response. Option 4 is the recognized option of Zero Waste International, in which local communities assume responsibility for their waste. Option 4 is responsible environmentalism.
Why Option 4 is not a consideration in consultants’ reports, is best understood in the light of the the limited Terms of Reference imposed on the consultants by SCRD, which explains the many references in the Sperling Hansen report to the consultant’s concern that the 3 options presented are not supported by Pender Harbour residents.
As I followed debates from June 2009, Options 1 and 2 were never really considered by anybody. Option 3 which is hardly environmental or sustainable, since it is energy intensive, - and potentially hazardous, was the position supported by people with property interests, or friends thereof, who presented themselves as “Concerned Citizens for Sustainable Waste Management” (CCSWM), and SCRD.
3. The Environmental Red Herrings
As I pointed out above, I could never make statements on water quality without having direct knowledge to substantiate my assessments of the facts. Moreover, if I had a personal stake in a situation, as a professional, I would be obliged to recuse myself and not present an opinion.
In a repeat of the kind of irresponsible and unsubstantiated authoritative pronouncements made by members of the SCCA in 2007 which earned the SCRD a well-deserved “judicial spanking” in the Chapman Creek debacle (Western Forest Products Inc vs. Sunshine Coast Regional District acting as a Local Health Board) none of the usual scientific caution seems to have applied, and no effort was made by SCRD staff to restrain this.
Let me outline a few of the liberties taken, largely to promote fear and concern in the general public.
- While it is a fact that all landfills are contaminated sites that pose a risk to surface and groundwater acknowledged in all reports, none of the reports indicate that the Pender Harbour landfill posed an unusual risk.
Contrary to public statements made by CCSWM, they all confirmed that the surface water treatment at Pender Harbour was functioning and met water quality objectives.
- Claims were made, early in this debate that the landfill site was contaminating wells miles away. As far as I know, this information was strictly speculative, since no testing was ever carried out to substantiate these claims, and it was not made by an independent professional. As such these claims did not meet basic factual criteria, though they were publicly supported by SCRD staff.
It should also be noted, that if true, these claims cast doubt on the validity of current water testing programs and the professionals who carry them out. In this regard, it is surprising that, given the concerns it supported politically, according to its website, SCRD which bears the legal responsibility, never carries out any deep groundwater testing, and may have been negligent in this regard. And if not it was negligent in its duty to equanimity and to present sound science, not “hearsay.”
- Contrary to claims made by these environmental concerns, closure of the site does not in any way remove the long-term risk. What is in the ground will continue to be a contamination risk. As anyone can read on the National Water Research Institute website 7 “The slow release rate causes it to take years to thousands of years to move through the groundwater flow regime...”
Existing and past landfills are an ever-present problem for generations to come, that cannot be simply wished away. The most irresponsible, un-environmental and unsustainable thing one can do is to take an “out of mind and out of sight” approach.
- In this respect, converting the landfill into a “Transfer Station” does not in and of itself reduce contamination risk. Risk reduction is a matter of technological design and aftercare practices, applicable to any option. Customary references to “the precautionary principle” are therefore completely out of place. (All 4 options were equally technologically precautionary .)
Possibly the worst instance of landfill contamination to surface and groundwaters in Canadian history was from a “Transfer Station” at Smithville Ontario (1978-1985). Clean-up is still ongoing and currently exceeds $55 million.
These, and other, authoritative speculative statements made by CCSWM, and tacitly approved by SCRD staff, to reach a political objective, have apparently little substance in fact or science since they are not substantiated by appropriate testing. It was fear-mongering. It was not sound science.
If CCSWM have a valid case, and are serious in their proclaimed environmental health concerns, and if the risks were indeed as real as they have publicly and authoritatively represented them to be, then it is incumbent on them to take a page from the Smithville contamination experience and hold the SCRD to its obligations and due diligence.
Not to do so, would be a public admission of deceit.
If the claims were vindicated, this would possibly require all contaminated soils to be removed from Pender Harbour to the Swan Hills facility in Alberta, all groundwaters pumped and treated, all local deep and shallow wells tested, and new drinking water sources supplied.
A Fishy Parable on Unsustainability
The red herring catch that has accompanied this zombie environmental venture, was made somewhat smelly by the oligarchic behaviour of the Area directors. As is common with most environmental advocacy groups, well-funded, smooth, but vacuous communication replaced the substance of science – though it was paraded as science. This experience in how apparently environmentally concerned individuals will face the looming problem of limits imposed by climate change is a harbinger of failure.
The environment has a cost we should all be willing to pay for – if we are serious.
The environment and science are not fictions to play with for political advantage. Limits cannot be addressed by people whose environmental solutions are to remove the problem from their backyard and put it out of sight and out of mind. Such half-truths destroy the credibility of both genuine environmental concerns, and by extension, of the science that supports them. It destroys credibility and alienates the general public from public participation. These are real social and environmental costs that our directors did not weigh in their short-term balance sheets.
This self-serving sham environmentalism does more harm to the environment, and is more corrosive of the social and political values whose preservation is essential to our future, than climate change itself. It is a portrait of unsustainability and self-complacency, diametrically hostile to the spirit of free inquiry.
A regional government that tramples democratic principles, supports half-truths, and unsustainable environmental solutions cannot claim to be progressive, and is no different from a government that effectively denies climate change. Both destroy our means to address its challenges.
1. http://www.cfcas.org/pressrelease5Mar10e.pdf (8 March 2010);
2. See also Professor David Colquhoun’s various writings on the ongoing decline of scientific literacy, http://www.dcscience.net/
3. The history of ecology and environmentalism is also littered with the intellectual debris of Nazi vitalist theories, which influenced, amongst other Conrad Lorenz, See: Anna Bramwell (1989) Ecology in the 20th Century – A History. Yale University Press.
4. Johan Rockstrom et al. (2009). “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.” Nature 421:472-475; Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green 338 pages.
5. See Limits to Growth (2004) page xvi.
6. Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War Book 6 chapter 3. See Arnold Gomme , Anthony Andrews, and Kenneth Dover 1945-1981. A Historical Commentary on Thucydides. Oxford.