Science Matters: Here’s To A Radical Canada Day!

Oh, Canada, what will become of you?

Although I’m proudly Canadian, my early memories are mixed. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, our government unfairly deprived my family of citizenship rights and exiled us to the B.C. Interior, even though we were born and raised here. But my love of nature flourished during that time in the spectacular Slocan Valley.

As a young adult, I moved to the U.S. for educational opportunities not available in Canada. Disturbed by overt racism in the American South, I eventually returned to my increasingly tolerant homeland. I preferred Canada, which to me meant Tommy Douglas and medicare, Quebec, the National Film Board and CBC. I’ve never regretted my choice.

Canadians have strived to move beyond inequality and intolerance to create an inclusive and caring society, where education, public health, social programs and enlightened laws provide numerous opportunities. We’re not there yet, but we’ve come a long way in our relatively short history as a nation.

We also understand our place in nature. Surrounded by the world’s longest and most diverse coastline, our mountains, forests, prairies, rivers, lakes, valleys and skies define us and instill wonder and pride. Canada is nature. And nature is life. We know this.

Lately, the tide has been turning. Instead of protecting the increasingly precious and threatened natural systems that keep us alive and healthy, our leaders are rushing to scar the landscape with mines, roads and pipelines to sell our resources as quickly as possible to global markets. From tar sands expansion to fracking, federal and provincial governments are blindly proceeding with little thought about long-term consequences. Continue reading “Science Matters: Here’s To A Radical Canada Day!”

Science Matters: We Can’t Ignore The Little Things That Keep Us Alive

David SuzukiScientists believe life appeared on Earth almost four-billion years ago, about half a billion years after our relatively young planet formed. It would be fascinating to see how life arose and managed to hang on.

If scientists were to invent time travel to take us back through Earth’s history, we’d see little life for most of the four-billion years. Plenty was happening but at a microscopic level as organisms worked out all the intricacies of survival: finding food and energy, evading predators, fighting off disease (even bacteria get virus infections), reproducing and eliminating waste.

Once those fundamental details were worked out, more complex cells arose by incorporating other cells within themselves to perform specialized functions like capturing energy from the sun (photosynthesis) or generating energy from stored molecules. The stage was set for the final blossoming of life into forms visible to creatures like us: multicellularity. Once an organism was made up of many cells, a division of labour was possible. Various cells specialized in movement, eating, digestion, excretion and reproduction. All of this occurred in the last fifth of life’s existence as seas and land filled with wondrous animals and plants.

It’s a magnificent story and we only know the barest outlines. We tend to focus on big life forms like trees, elephants and whales. That’s understandable. They’re often spectacular. But our bias toward the big and impressive overlooks the importance, and beauty, of what are often dismissed as “creepy crawlies”, such as worms, insects, fungi and bacteria.

Continue reading “Science Matters: We Can’t Ignore The Little Things That Keep Us Alive”

The Mystery Of Dead Bees

David SuzukiWhen a swarm of bees landed on a tree in their yard a few years ago, a David Suzuki Foundation staffer and her husband became accidental beekeepers. They called an apiarist relative who came over and helped them capture the bees, build hives and round up equipment. Now they’re enjoying fresh honey and wax and have developed a fascination for the amazing insects. Staff shared that wonderment when she brought honeycombs and tools to the office for an impromptu lesson on beekeeping and bee behaviour.

Bees are endlessly intriguing, and incredibly useful to us — and not just for honey and wax. If bees disappeared, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to grow much of what we eat. Bees pollinate crops ranging from apples to zucchini. Blueberries and almonds are almost entirely dependent on them. Some experts say they’re responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat. The economic value of pollination services from honeybees alone is estimated at $14 billion in the U.S. and hundreds of millions in Canada.

Bees are good pollinators because — unlike some birds and other insects that are after nectar alone — they also seek out pollen, which they use along with nectar to feed the hive. In the process, they transfer pollen from the male part of one flower to the female part of another, fertilizing plants so they can develop seed-carrying fruits. Wild bees and domesticated honeybees are both important pollinators.

In fact, research indicates wild bees may be more important for food-crop pollination than honeybees. That’s in part because a single species, such as honeybees, is vulnerable to mass disease outbreaks. According to the Guardian, wild bees also use a wider range of pollination techniques and visit more plants, and so increase chances of cross-pollination.

Sadly, both wild and domesticated bees are in trouble, and that means we could be, too. Causes of phenomena such as colony collapse disorder and other declines in bee populations are not entirely understood, but scientists are getting closer to knowing why bees are dying. Ironically, much of it relates to agricultural practices. Modern methods of growing food are killing one of our biggest helpers in food production.

Wild bees also face threats from climate change and habitat loss. A recent study published in Science found half the wild bee species in the U.S. were wiped out during the 20th century. That’s been partly attributed to “an increasing mismatch between when plants flowered and when bees were active, a finding consistent with climate change,” according to the Guardian. Continue reading “The Mystery Of Dead Bees”

Working With Nature Can Protect Us From Floods

David SuzukiNews of the devastating floods in Alberta hit Canadians hard. We’ve all been moved by extraordinary stories of first responders and neighbours selflessly stepping in to help at a time of great need.

As people begin to pick up their lives, and talk turns to what Calgary and other communities can do about disasters such as this, safeguarding our irreplaceable, most precious flood-protection assets should be given top priority.

The severe floods in Alberta used to be referred to as “once in a generation” or “once in a century”. As recent floods in Europe and India are added to the list, that’s scaled up to “once in a decade”. Scientists and insurance executives alike predict extreme weather events will increase in intensity and frequency. Climate change is already having a dramatic impact on our planet. Communities around the world, like those in Alberta, are rallying to prepare.

While calls are mounting for the need to rebuild and strengthen infrastructure such as dikes, storm-water management systems and stream-channel diversion projects, we’ve overlooked one of our best climate change–fighting tools: nature. By protecting nature, we protect ourselves, our communities and our families.

The business case for maintaining and restoring nature’s ecosystems is stronger than ever. Wetlands, forests, flood plains and other natural systems absorb and store water and reduce the risk of floods and storms, usually more efficiently and cost-effectively than built infrastructure. Wetlands help control floods by storing large amounts of water during heavy rains — something paved city surfaces just don’t do.

A study of the Upper Mississippi and Missouri Basins showed wetland restoration would have provided enough flood water storage to accommodate excess river flows associated with flooding in the U.S. Midwest in 1993. Research done for the City of Calgary more than 30 years ago made similar suggestions about the value of protecting flood plains from overdevelopment. When wetlands are destroyed, the probability of a heavy rainfall causing flooding increases significantly. Yet we’re losing wetlands around the world at a rate estimated at between one and three per cent a year.

By failing to work with nature when we’re building our cities, we’ve disrupted hydrological cycles and the valuable services they provide. The readily available benefits of intact ecosystems must be replaced by man-made infrastructure that can fail and is costly to build, maintain and replace.

Protecting and restoring rich forests, flood plains and wetlands near our urban areas is critical to reduce carbon emissions and protect against the effects of climate change. Nature effectively sequesters and stores carbon, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also regulates water. Forested basins, for example, have greater capacity to absorb water than clear-cut areas where higher peak stream flows, flooding, erosion and landslides are common.

How can we protect ecosystems rather than seeing conservation as an impediment to economic growth? The answer is to recognize their real value. The David Suzuki Foundation has evaluated some of Canada’s natural assets. This approach calculates the economic contribution of natural services, such as flood protection and climate regulation, and adds that to our balance sheets. Because traditional economic calculations ignore these benefits and services, decisions often lead to the destruction of the very ecosystems upon which we rely. Unfortunately, we often appreciate the value of an ecosystem only when it’s not there to do its job.

Cities around North America are discovering that maintaining ecosystems can save money, protect the environment and create healthier communities. A study of the Bowker Creek watershed on southern Vancouver Island showed that by incorporating rain gardens, green roofs and other green infrastructure, peak flows projected for 2080 from increased precipitation due to climate change could be reduced by 95 per cent. Opting to protect and restore watersheds in the 1990s rather than building costly filtration systems has saved New York City billions of dollars.

Intact ecosystems are vital in facing the climate change challenges ahead. They also give us health and quality-of-life benefits. Responsible decision-making needs to consider incentives for protecting and restoring nature, and disincentives for degrading it.

As Alberta rebuilds and people begin to heal from the flood’s devastation, it’s time to have a discussion about adding natural capital to the equation.

With contributions from Theresa Beer. Learn more at the David Suzuki Foundation.