“... collapse occurs as a consequence of a long effort to freeze the system into one paradigm of development and management... The collapse of ancient societies has that character... It leads to a “poverty trap.”1 – C.S. Hollings
Interesting words on sustainability from “Buzz” Hollings, a UBC student and professor who became one of this world’s leading mathematical ecologists and environmental thinkers. Sustainability depends on understanding how “change” is linked to two concepts “diversity” and “resilience”.
The political “sustainability costume party” we have observed on the Sunshine Coast for the last couple of years, is radically different from actual environmental sustainability that has made life on earth possible - for millions of years. These master plans and OCP’s are narrow bureaucratic “freezing” management plans that show neither “resilience” nor “diversity”. They are therefore headed for a long-term failure that is likely to create an economic “poverty trap” for the average resident.
A Question of Diversity
Officially, and as with most things official, arbitrarily, 2010 is The International Year of Biodiversity.
Biodiversity is a strange concept in itself. It depends on what you have chosen to look at, and on what you have chosen to count. If you are counting bacteria, your kitchen sponge may have more biodiversity than your regional forest. If you are counting ecosystems or biomes, your region is less biodiverse than a southern biome. But that does not mean you should save your kitchen sponge and trash northern ecosystems. Some numbers aren’t everything.
For most people, biodiversity is actually a measure of “species richness,” the number of species that inhabit a given area – one should add “at a certain time,” but most people don’t realize we live in change. Nature changes all the time – something that most urban and suburban dwellers are apparently blissfully unaware of.
Most urban-bred environmentalists who relish talk of “pristine wilderness” never explain what state of “pristineness” they refer to. It’s a bit like that confusing hyperbolic claim real estate agents frequently make : “this home is very unique.” Do they mean it is less than, or more than, “unity”? Single things can only be “singular” and you can’t be more exclusive than that.
For a properly-trained biologist, biodiversity is actually a probability measure of a number of possible statistical conditions, an important one being the probability that a number of species will persist in one location. Given that that location constantly evolves, biodiversity is tied to resilience or durability. So unless one believes that some supreme being created the all creatures big and small once and for all time in seven days, evolution plays a rather large (statistical) role in how we view our relationship with Nature.
One of the nice things about evolution is that it allows us to lift blinkers that cause us to see life about us in tidy compartments, and consider the dynamic and constantly changing character of the relationships that has made life on Earth possible.
A Strange Paradox about Biodiversity
Plants, particularly the most humble we take for granted, can tell us a lot about ourselves, our evolution, and our future. Plant structure and evolution has made life as we know it today possible, shaped the biosphere, and the climate that made human civilization possible for the last, very short, 7,000 yrs.
Life, as most people know, started in the oceans and came out of the sea to colonize land. So, life has been around in the oceans for far longer. Given that 70% of the Earth is ocean, and that speciation in the oceans has had a considerable head-start (about 500 million years), it is quite paradoxical that 9 out of 10 species are found on land. The oceans are relatively impoverished.
The difference is really very recent, just 110 million years. The oceans were more biodiverse, until the sudden explosion of vascular plants (all those flowering leafy green plants with seeds and leaves, called “angiosperms.”) The explosion of flowering plants, resulted in more interactions and specializations with insects and more variety and complexity in environments, and more rare species.2
Just last month, somebody proposed an explanation for what triggered this explosion in biodiversity.3 Compared to their predecessors (gymnosperms, fern, conifers, etc) flowering plants quite suddenly increased the number of veins per square millimetre exponentially – that allowed them to use water and solar energy more efficiently. Greater control of water loss and more energy capture enabled them to create more relationships in more diverse conditions that led to more rare plants.
The “Poverty Trap”
The celebration of rarity made terrestrial life more resilient and sustainable.
Diversity is really the basis of life’s resilience in the face of natural disturbances, like changing climates that radically alter available resources. It is a basic proposition: the more diverse a system is, the more it can withstand environmental changes, because it can better adapt to changing states of equilibrium. On the other hand, when a system becomes more established it simplifies itself by favouring certain groups, it becomes more homogeneous , it becomes less diverse and therefore, less resilient. It becomes trapped in a poverty of states, species and options – it is in a “poverty trap.”
Needless to say, the reduced number of rare species and biodiversity makes ocean flora and fauna relatively fragile to acidification from increased CO2 - which has important negative climatic feedbacks for terrestrial systems. But that is another concern.
This is the paradigm that makes the difference between sustainability and un-sustainability. And that has some social and economic implications for us all.
Sustainability Success Rate
In British Columbia, given the proliferation of “sustainability” experts and consultants over the past few years, and the considerable investment our governments have made in this claimed expertise and resource one would think that, public environmental response would be mobilized by now. A good measure of this might be the public response to official outreach on a large-scale – such as, relatively painless, well-publicized programmes like “Earth-Hour,” supported and promoted by BC Hydro.
Figures may tell us something. Before the explosive radiation of “sustainability experts” in 2008, an enthusiastic 2% energy equivalent of BC’s population responded to the Earth Hour programme. Since the public appointments of government experts, in 2009 1.1% responded and in 2010, 1.04% participated. Public support has dropped off by 50% and dropping since the “sustainability craze.”
This is either a pseudo-correlation, or a very disturbing trend that goes beyond “a communication problem.” People vote with their feet.
It would not be fair to blame this on well-meaning individuals, who are, after all, “only doing a job,” albeit for personal profit and employment. It is, however, quite fair, and important to consider some environmental facts and learn from social history. Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, and Albert Camus, all wrote about the experience of social conditions and response under the plague. All wrote of the rise of professional quackery preying on public gullibility for profit, the alienation of the public, and the calamities administrative control, privileging certain social groups, brought.
I think, this is relevant.
The history of the plague, as an environmentally-driven social crisis, should be instructive, both for the social and political precedents it brings, and because it is a case of transient collapse of diversity and resilience. In all these accounts, official top-down intervention compounds the problem. It is individual initiative and bottom –up management that overcomes collapse.
The Unsustainable Top-down Sustainability
With forthcoming elections our elected officials – and the local press it pays with our tax dollars to support them- are currently moved to sing praises of their sustainability achievements. We should ask ourselves not just how reliable these accounts are, but whether the projects are as resilient as they claim to be.
The usual claims made that sustainable projects will “move forward for the benefit of the entire community,” are somewhat at odds with the apparent growing disaffection that these projects have caused, and continue to cause on the Coast. Setting aside the tremendous anger that “sustainability” plans have caused in Pender Harbour, where citizens are seriously talking of leaving the SCRD, or “bring out the guns” cited successes in Gibsons include the Harbour Area Plan, the Gospel Rock development and the Parkland development.
Their merits and social benefits, as presented by Mayor Janyk, are somewhat at odds with his promise to increase police presence. Unless RCMP are to be used to spearhead the mayor’s promised 2010 focus on “communications,” the need for more police reflects the reality of the dismal social fabric these policies are weaving.
In these projects, as in the Pender Harbour question, the question of social alienation is completely absent. While the projects are, in and of themselves, magnificent examples of Green engineering and sustainable engineering principles, they have been, and will continue to be, tremendously socially divisive. As such they are not examples of resilience, but of un-sustainability.
I believe that this is because they represent the social and economic interests of a narrow social group. They are representative of a form of “Green elitism”5 and therefore, are representative of a decline of social diversity which heads the Sunshine Coast for a type of social and economic “poverty trap.”
The projects – from the blue-box curbside to the Green Infrastructure planning, are regrettably all part of a narrow “green suburban” mentality which conflicts with actual real “sustainable rural values.” It is a very narrow and socially exclusive paradigm of development and management. It is very much part of the growing sub-urban nightmare of North America, and is neither really environmental, nor sustainable.
Unlike the evolutionary sustainability paradigm, official “sustainability” does not increase the number of interactions and relationships characteristic of real rural life. It reduces them. Actual rural life creates and fosters the rare creative dynamism of individualism.5 Government sustainability fosters and rewards urban conformity. As all forms of suburbia – it is a source of social homogeneity, alienation and repressed anger.
Setting aside the local controversies that have accompanied the siting of some of these projects, these projects target and benefit only a relatively affluent and increasingly narrow demographic group. As with the “sustainability filter,” it is a mirage of green suburbia, that has little to do with nature or natural systems – or anything really “eco-friendly.” They are in fact dependent on an energy-intensive macro-economy that parasitizes – and destroys- the local rural economy.
The infrastructure needs of these projects were indirectly borne by the average rural blue-collar taxpayer who has been the backbone of this community – and who is now about to be displaced. It is really a form of social parasitism. These projects will increase the tax burden on the founders of this community, if only because sub-urbanites are reliant on an ever-increasing need for costly services –such as curbside, which previous residents will be in a lesser position to afford. These are not the self-reliant people who built this community. This is a social-economic and environmental poverty trap, caused by decreased social diversity.
This so-called “sustainability,” provokes alienation, because it is in fact “a freezing” of relationships, that runs counter to an acceptance of, and adaptation to, intrinsic change. This is change that proposes less diversity. When Mayor Janyk reflects on the socially “attainable” geothermal housing at $400K , or developing a local energy corporation, one has to wonder how the beneficiaries of these privileges will repay the ordinary working people who made this ‘green elitism” possible, and how all this will pay for itself if it alienates the sustaining diversity needed to make it resilient?
1. C.S. Hollings (2009). “Collapse and Renewal”. People and Place 1:2.
2. E. Pennisi. (12 March 2010) “On Rarity and Richness.” Science 327: 1318-1319.
3. C.K Boyce, Tim J. Brodribb, T.S. Field and M.A. Zwienicki (25 February 2009). “Angiosperm leaf vein evolution was physiologically and environmental ly transformative. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B.
4. Michael Maniates (November 22, 2007). “Going Green? Easy Doesn’t Do It” The Washington Post.
5. For a substantial critique of this growing suburbanism see: Wendell Berry The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1977, and What Are People For? New York: North Point, 1990.