The ordinary citizen assumes that science knows what makes the community clock tick; the scientist is equally sure he does not. He knows that the biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be fully understood.  – Aldo Leopold

BC has changed governments, but the main problems and the environmental concerns that previous governments generated remain unchanged. Over the past seven months the NDP/Green coalition has moved to address concerns with the grizzly trophy hunt, and they have begun discussions towards a re-assessment of the “professional reliance” model. The larger questions, which are tied to the economic model and the future of the province’s energy needs regarding Site C and the Kinder Morgan pipeline, continue to be unresolved. They are part of a larger emerging global problem associated with climate change, and the growing concern with the impact of fossil fuels on the sustainability of the biosphere.

It is becoming increasing clear that in spite of the goodwill expressed at the Paris COP 21 in November 21 2015, no substantial progress has been made, even – and especially- by its most prominent supporters. In practical terms, this year’s conference, Bonn COP23, has proven as ineffective at addressing a deteriorating global environmental situation as all its predecessors.1 There are no effective binding commitments to address the central problem which remains: an unsustainable economic model based on endless growth and endless consumption. That the assumptions behind the 1987 Brundtland Report (Our Common Future) on sustainability that have governed economic and environmental thinking for the past three decades, were either misleading or ill-founded is evident today by the outcomes detailed in a series of reports that have been released this fall. These reports detail everything from ocean warming, insect collapses to general species decline. Notably, after 25 years since the initial identification of a critical situation in the making, the “World Scientists Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice”, accentuates the failure to heed the first warning issued in 1992.2 The gist of the 1992 warning is worth re-iterating:

These concerned professionals called on humankind to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.” In their manifesto, they showed that humans were on a collision course with the natural world. They expressed concern about current, impending, or potential damage on planet Earth involving ozone depletion, freshwater availability, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones, forest loss, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth.”2

That the 1992 warning has gone largely unheeded, and that the window of opportunity to re-dress an apparent failure and take serious action to curb our impacts is fast disappearing, is becoming an increasingly inescapable conclusion. On an almost weekly basis, reports from around the world continue to build a disturbing picture of a progressive dismantling of ecosystems. Just today we have the politically controversial conclusion of David Attenborough’s career indicating that glossy naturalist programs may have given the public an exceedingly false re-assurance of the human impact on a very fragile planet.3

The largely uncontrolled cumulative impacts of production and consumption, endless demands of a growing human population, the general resulting decline in freshwater and marine resources, the decline in vertebrate species and the correlated increase in atmospheric CO2 and global temperatures, were predictable 50 years ago with Limits to Growth, forecast again 25 years ago and realized today. The series of graphs in Figure 1 from the second page of the 2017 Warning to Humanity leaves little doubt about the state of the planet, and where we seem to be headed.

It is in the context of our priorities that we need to weigh the so-called intractable questions of Site C and Kinder Morgan. Can we really afford to continue to make the economy the determining factor in our decision-making?

Although there is a commitment to resolve Site C’s future by the end of December 2018, whatever decision is taken will be potentially fractuous. It will pitch two opposing and unreconciliable visions of the reality about us and the resulting sets of values. This deserves discussion, because although pundits, politicians and journalists have extensively discussed the merits of these projects in economic and in general ecological terms, the real stumbling blocks are cultural and spiritual.

In this respect perhaps the most significant legal decisions in BC since Tsilhquot’in vs B.C.(June 2014) have been the refusal of the Supreme Court of Canada to even hear The West Moberly and Prophet River Nations appeals against the construction of the Site C dam,4 in late June of this year, which was followed by the extremely s adverse ruling this month (November 1) against the Ktunaxa Nation with regards to the development of the Jumbo Ski Resort. This ruling came as a shock to many in the legal community. The ruling is extremely significant because it runs counter to Tsilhquot’in. It creates a precedent for the interpretation of Tsilhquot’in because it favours development and business interests over cultural interests. The Ktunaxa opposed development in the area of the proposed resort, because they considered it to be a culturally essential sacred site. Seven of the nine judges ruled that: “In short, the Charter protects the freedom to worship, but does not protect the spiritual focal point of worship.”5 The logic is that while the right to belief is protected, places essential to the maintenance of those beliefs are not. As is customary in legal decisions the logic is cast as being “reasonable,” and therefore seeks to align itself with “reason” and science.

This is extremely significant because whereas New Zealand and Indian courts have granted rights of personhood (and therefore the “sanctity of personhood” ) to rivers,6 and Bolivia and Peru have granted legal rights to Planet Earth,7 Canadian courts are unwilling to accord spiritual standing to a place, let alone personhood. (For reasons that will be alluded to below, it is highly unlikely that the current configuration of the US Supreme Court would differ in opinion from the Canadian Supreme Court.) The essence of the Jumbo Glacier Resort vs Ktunaxa Nation is that economic rights trump cultural rights. It also explains why the Supreme Court refused to hear the Moberly and Prophet River Nations’ appeals against the construction of Site C, presenting arguments on the basis of cultural importance of the area to be flooded.

In this respect, the Supreme Court’s decision in Jumbo Glacier Resort vs Ktunaxa Nation differs very little from President Trump’s recent rollback of the Bear’s Ears and Grand Escalante National Monuments , and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In most of these cases, Mr. Trump has elected to disregard the cultural and spiritual concerns of First Nations residents who have petitioned for the preservation of spiritual sites that they deem to be culturally significant to their identity. In this regard, the rationale behind the Canadian Supreme’s Court’s decision is no different from that of the Trump administration: spiritual and cultural identity must give way to economic lust.

For earth scientists and environmental biologists, the disturbing point in this decision should be that it was given under the cover of “reason” and “reasonableness.”

It is extremely germane to this discussion to note that at the heart of the ongoing controversy in the United States, wilderness is also considered to be culturally and spiritually significant to non-aboriginal Western culture as a simple matter of “American heritage”. And this is even more so as we come to place these concerns within the reality of the ongoing global biotic collapse. Letters opposing the opening of large areas of national monuments to economic development by former secretaries of the interior, Bruce Babbitt and Sally Jewell,8 written to appeal for restraint and sanity have stressed the cultural and spiritual significance of to the American people. Babbit is quite explicit:

“He is a vandal in our midst, coming in person to lay waste to the land. This theft of our heritage should awaken us to the damage being piled up across our public lands…”

This has to be of concern to environmental scientists, because while what we do is riveted to the “scientific method,” there is also a long-standing, if often unacknowledged, spiritual dimension to the science of ecology. Practitioners are always torn between the materialism of Gifford Pinchot and the spirituality of John Muir. Aldo Leopold who is often touted as “the father of North-American ecology” always speaks of the soil as “an organism” and was always torn between the grandeur of evolution and grandeur of wilderness. Writing in Sketches here and there between 1935 and 1946, he realized the threat to both evolution and wilderness values in the spectacle of economic depradation, which has only accelerated since:

“Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down in the last analysis to intellectual humility. The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the land assumes that he has already discovered what is important; and it is such who prate of empires, political or economic, that will last a thousand years. It is only the scholar who appreciates that all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting point, to which man returns again and again to organize a durable scale of values. It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise.”9

Judgements like Jumbo Glacier Resort vs Ktunaxa Nation , really bring out the obligation to acknowledge the significance of cultural and spiritual dimensions in science. And, as Aldo Leopold indicated, that is a scholarly enterprise for which we no longer educate the scientists we train in universities.

Energy projects such as Site C, LNG development and Kinder Morgan pose difficulties for core assumptions that characterize a nested complex of larger global cultural and economic narratives. Central to these problems is the tacit –if facile and erroneous –assumption that the world is just a collection of facts, and that the facts can be manipulated at will. The fallacy of this all-too-frequently held assumption was the concern of much of the writings of the late Karl Popper (1902-1994).

Cultural narratives create filters through which we collectively develop our regional visions of the reality about us. The world about us is a marvellously complex phenomenon that exceeds our physiological perceptive capacities and our personal cultural baggage. These are areas of discussion for which scientists and not least of all, environmental scientists are largely unprepared, unless they have a background in cultural geography. Site C, LNG development and Kinder Morgan are practical economic questions which pose cultural and environmental problems, which can prove intractable, if we do not fully incorporate cultural, rather than strictly economic, considerations.

The consideration that the phenomenon exceeds our cognitive capacities is nothing new in the contemporary history and literature of science. In biology, we often appeal to J.B.S. Haldane’s 1927 remark:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.10

As I recall from my previous life as a historian of science, it was Rabbi Akiba who put it best in a twelfth-century commentary of the Talmud. To paraphrase: he suggested that the Creation was like the Milky Way, a magnificent unfathomable assemblage in which each star contributes something essential. Each culture only gets a tiny fragment of whole, and the only way to understand the whole is to respect each part. If only one part were to dominate, it would be like a desert sun and annihilate the diversity that makes the whole possible. If the Milky Way loses a star it is forever lessened. Whether we want to listen to the twentieth century scientist or the twelfth-century mystic, the message is the same: humility and tolerance are cornerstones of science and spirituality, of reason and of wisdom.

Science and spirituality are products of cultures. As Karl Popper has argued, science is not just a collection of testable facts, it is a series of perspectives on the world that share a testable method of ascertaining facts or constants, all of which have to be falsifiable. (If it is not falsifiable, it is religion, not science!) To anyone who has lived in more than one language, or has had to translate and operate in different languages working with colleagues from different cultures, attitudes and interpretations vary between cultures. They enrich the learning experience, only if we take pleasure in learning. We share different approaches to a common reality. Largely because of their shared cultural origins, contrary to popular thinking, there is more in common between Western science and Western spiritual traditions than one might believe. In point of fact, one (science) has grown out of the other. As the terrific work that climatologist, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, does indicates, there may be less of a gulf between religion and science than one is often led to believe. Navigating tolerance and respect on both sides of a divide is always a productive experience.

We will all agree that we are all heirs of Newtonian science. With Newton, modern science came into being, and has dominated all our thinking, and reliance on the scientific method. It is Newton’s description of gravitational forces that has put astronauts into space. Regrettably very few people have read the original text of Newton’s Philosphia Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Since Latin is rarely taught to contemporary scientists, very few have access to this text. Yet, if every science student in North America had the ability to, and were required to provide a freelance translation of the first pages of The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, chances are that we might graduate more mystics than scientists. (And indeed we sometimes have in Einstein and Capra). The introduction has alchemical overtones. Like Genesis, it struggles for words to bring order out of an initial chaos. As is well-known, Newton devoted the greater part of his life to alchemy. What is less well understood is that for Newton science was not a pursuit separate from alchemy. Newton remained an alchemist throughout his long life. (A point that should best not concern astronauts about to blast off into space….)

As a matter of humility, it might behove us to remember that physics and chemistry arose out of magical mystical traditions, just as botany, biology and ecology arose out of the “theory of signatures,” which is the basis of traditional Chinese medicine which Western Science currently endeavours to accept, as Chinese cultural hegemony grows. Why Chinese traditional medicine should be considered respectable, while Western Medieval medicine and homeopathy are not, has more to do with economics and cultural acceptability than rationality or testability.

Practical questions become intractable when reason operates without wisdom. There is hubris in the recent “World Scientists Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice”. As New Zealanders and other nations have recognized, even if we are unable to quantify it, the land has a spiritual dimension that antecedes its economic value and gives it personhood. Without that tacit recognition we can only further exacerbate a process which is diminishing biodiversity as I write these words, and which is endangering life on this planet.

In BC recognition of cultural priorities that conflict with economic intentions underlies almost all our major environmental problems. The fish farm tenures on Vancouver Island and the Central Coast which the NDP introduced in the 1990’s under the Harcourt government are currently being challenged by First Nations as part of their “territorial claims” with occupations of fish farms.11 To understand the protest and the values that drive it, one really has to return to the legal process that shaped “territorial claims” in the Delgamuukw v British Columbia (1997) decision. The decision brought into Canadian law new concepts of “property” and “territory”, in which “spirituality” and “cultural significance” redefined the relation between cultural groups and geographical places. The issues determining the tenure are therefore not primarily governed by the science of aquaculture, or its ecological impact on wild salmon populations, for which we can find arguments on both sides, but by the spiritual dimension of the integrity of the territory, of which wild Pacific salmon are a part, and Atlantic salmon are not.

Similar considerations govern how First Nations view the impacts of development on caribou, the development of Site C and the potential impacts of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, both through the territories it will cross and through the oceans that will be affected by tanker traffic. In all this the determining factor is whether one wishes to prioritize support for an unsustainable economic model which appears to endanger this planet, or whether one wishes to endorse cultural and spiritual values that are largely at odds with the practices and everyday life of the postwar consumer society.

The contradictions inherent in these considerations are manifest in the recent 5-4 decision of the City of Saanich decision to rescind the EDPA (Environmental Development Permit Area).12 The EDPA was perhaps Canada’s most progressive development by-law. It was largely derived from the findings of the Canadian Garry oak ecosystem recovery team to protect one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems, and was therefore based on the soundest science available. Saanich is a core area and is home to many endangered species. Although only 5% of Saanich properties were within the EDPA, and 52% of the EDPA is on public land (parks), development restrictions on private property created a firestorm of opposition from developers and landowners inconvenienced by everything from development restrictions, inconveniences posed by falling acorns and leaves, to covenants limiting property re-zoning to increase lucrative property sales. These same landowners whose homes will be graced with the spirituality of First Nations art, have little regard for the spirituality of endangered species in their own backyards. That highlights the “spiritual and cultural disconnect ” that pervades our post-modern culture. It is really of note that Saanich, which voted Green and is represented by a Green MLA and MP, is a focal point of opposition to fish farms and tanker traffic, and yet prioritizes economic opportunities over endangered species.

BC has yet to develop an “Endangered Species Protection Act” which both the Green Party and the NDP made a central promise in their campaigns. It is to be hoped that what was lost to economic interests with the rescinding of a municipal by-law, will be re-introduced and re-enforced in a provincial act prioritizing cultural and spiritual values bolstered by sound science.


(First published by The Bulletin of the Canadian Society of Environmental Societies. )

  1. Kevin Anderson UNFCC presentation
  2. ;
  8. ;
  9. Aldo Leopold. (1949) “Wilderness”. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Oxford, 200.
  10. p.286
Loys Maingon

MA, PhD, MSc, RPBio, Aardscan Biological and Environmental Ltd.