Cowichan: welcome to the limits of growth

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By Bruce Fraser

In the Cowichan region, we are still immersed in a culture that reveres growth. Growth in population is assumed, growth in economic size is pursued, growth in the consumptive exercise of wealth is held out as progress. This is now out of line with reality. Growth will be constrained by the decline in benign environmental conditions, and the carrying capacity for our “business as usual” social and economic arrangements will not continue at the same level under the forecasted climatic conditions of our region.

The climate projections for the Cowichan Valley Regional District should come as no surprise. The consequences of ignoring the anticipated outcomes of continued burning of fossil fuels, the deforestation of large proportions of the planet, the vast increases in domestic livestock and the accelerated consumption habits of a burgeoning population have come due.

The Club of Rome forecast these consequences in 1972 in its book, “Limits to Growth.” The forecasts, based on a scenario of “business as usual,” have been upheld by subsequent analyses of accurately measured real world conditions. For example in 2014, The Guardian updated the book’s concerns.

We now have a better idea of what this means globally: a warming climate, melting ice, sea level rise and acidification, volatile weather conditions, changes in large scale ocean and atmospheric currents and extremes of rainfall and drought that are challenging large portions of the globe. When this is scaled to the regional level where they can be observed directly by those affected the implications are immediate and severe.

We will face challenging conditions that will escalate over the course of this century:

  • Greater overall precipitation, mostly as rain
  • Greater concentration of that rain in extreme winter events followed by greater extremes of drought in the summers
  • Higher extreme temperatures in summer for longer durations and greatly diminished extreme low temperatures in winter.

It is the escalation of extremes that will most challenge our ecology, our water, our habitations, our economic interests and our health. We do not, for instance, have a grasp on how the seemingly positive potential of a longer growing season will interact with potentially negative changes in the availability and timing of the necessary water.

If such major changes were to happen slowly we could expect our resident ecosystems to adapt as the physical conditions gradually sorted out the species complexes that fitted the circumstances. When major changes happen rapidly, in evolutionary terms, ecosystems are more likely to be degraded through loss of keystone species, vulnerability to invasives, loss of soil vitality, or destruction by fire, pests, pathogens, landslides, floods and prolonged drought.

Ecosystems are resilient within the natural range of variation. The most difficult thing to anticipate, as the cumulative effects of climate change and the local human footprint gather their forces, is where the thresholds of viability lie. Unfavorable conditions can gradually weaken ecological foundations, but it is often the extreme events that push a system or a species over the edge:

  • Slope failures happen when the ground is oversaturated in a major rainstorm; forest stands are lost to catastrophic wildfire
  • Fisheries collapse when lethal temperature spikes occur in spawning grounds
  • Crops are eliminated when pollinators fall out of sync with plant flowering
  • Forest pests and pathogens proliferate without extreme winter temperatures

Human health follows this same pattern. It is the extremes of cold or heat, air quality or pathogens that cause spikes in pathology and take the already weakened.  Naturally occurring ecosystems and their human economic derivatives are all interconnected. Significant change in one area of the web will most likely affect many other areas and their complexes of human interests.

This is what concern for carrying capacity is all about. The climate projections show physical environmental changes proceeding on the early limb of an exponentially rising curve with escalating implications. The human projections for our region are proceeding on a rising curve of growth in numbers, occupation of land and economic consumption. These two rising curves are additive and together stimulate a falling curve of habitat viability for our human community and all of our fellow species. If we do not arrest the trajectory of these curves, they will eventually cross with devastating effect. Flood, drought, fire, extinctions, contamination, water insecurity, food scarcity and diminished human welfare ensue.

A carrying capacity that can support a given population at a level of desired comfort in perpetuity will only result from conscious design. We need to tailor all of our consumptions, infrastructure, resource industries, habitations, recreation, population, commerce, transportation, technology, energy generation, pollution controls to create resilience not continuous growth. This means

  • developing a sophisticated understanding of where the critical thresholds lie and capturing what is happening to the awful synergy between the rising curve of disturbance and our rising curve of human footprint
  • devising methods to assess when cumulative effects are approaching damaging thresholds and the means to ratchet back those effects before thresholds are crossed with finality.

This challenge will apply to every sector of human interest in the Cowichan region and we can only be successful if we are acting in concert, not working at cross purposes. Our future standard of societal progress must abandon the paradigm of growth. It must be replaced by a paradigm of self-sufficiency, resilience to extreme disturbance, meticulous attention to economic equity and a faithful stewardship of the ecosystems that underpin our carrying capacity.

Dr. Bruce Fraser is a former Shawnigan area director for the Cowichan Valley Regional District.

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