Thursday, August 19, 2010

ALECC 2010, plenary #1

Well, that was a seriously entertaining session!

Even as a conference organizer, not everything that happens at a conference falls within the field of your prior knowledge. This evening, I'd been expecting a few minutes from Ross McCurdy, COO of CBU's new Centre for Sustainability and Energy and Environment (as he's been a strong local supporter for this conference), as a prelude before my introduction of our two keynote speakers, Mi'kmaq elder Albert Marshall of the Eskasoni First Nation and Dean Bavington, CRC in Environmental History at Nipissing University. Our energetic local host Afra Kavanagh said beforehand that it was going to be about twelve minutes, but instead Dr. McCurdy wound up delivering a genuinely interesting lecture that ran close to twenty-five minutes.

Bad news? Mais non, because it mean that there were some really quite wonderful points of connection between what became in effect three opening lectures.

Dr. McCurdy's position, quite clearly, is that if we're going to overcome the climate challenge, anything goes. Here on Cape Breton, they need to figure out how to address the urgent local environmental issues (such as rainwater accumulating in the estimated 3200 kilometres of tunnels for coal mining), they want to model ways to respond generally to climate and sustainability issues, and they want to contribute to global efforts to overcome the climate challenge, which might include actions as drastic as seeding the ocean with iron to promote algae growth, which would in turn fix carbon into the algae, which once deceased would fall to the ocean floor as basically a mat of carbon.

Albert Marshall's view is a little different. He recognizes (as a more or less official Mi'kmaq position) that development is needed and in some measures inevitable, but he thinks it needs to occur in a collaborative vein. Nature has to be understood as a subject in its own right, roughly the Mother Earth model; nature has to be understood as both spiritual and physical at the same time, which he sees as anathema to science. The goal, as he puts it, is not to save the environment, but to save the human species, which includes saving a place for us to live richly and fully and in collaboration with a healthy environment.

And then there was Dean Bavington, who argued forcefully that science is to blame for the Newfoundland cod fishery's collapse, and that science simply cannot be trusted to (in Vandana Shiva's terms) use the entire planet as an experimental vessel. The oceans cannot be seeded with iron; cloud formations cannot be vastly manipulated; forests cannot be converted whole hog to biomass: it's unconscionable, given what we know about the failings of the scientific management in Newfoundland. After all, in 1992 cod fishers went to sea with an alleged sustainable yield of 185,000 tons -- and caught roughly zero fish, because there were't any. There has been no commercial cod fishery since then, either, and there aren't enough in the water now to permit one, fully eighteen years later. In the 1970s Canada managed to extend its sovereignty to the 200-mile limit because of international respect for its scientifically managed cod fishery, except that less than 20 years later, the science said there were still enough cod that 185,000 tons could be taken and still leave enough as a breeding stock: that's 9,750,000 individual 20-pound cod fish, intended to represent only a small percentage of the total available fish, except that it turned out there were in fact approximately zero cod in the sea, including what now seems to have been a virtually nonexistent breeding stock.

As I said afterwards, in remarking that we'd run out of time and thus wouldn't have a Q&A period, these three speakers left us a whole lot to think about. I know I'm fiddling with my presentation to account for the session, and I'm guessing I'm not the only one!

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