Terry Glavin's great green heresy
Ric Caveless, The Vancouver Sun
WRECKED OR RECOVERING: The fate of the North Pacific environment is at the
heart of the debate between Terry Glavin and Dr. David Suzuki.
It has been almost 30 years since a ragtag crew of hippies from Vancouver's
Kitsilano neighbourhood chartered a salmon seiner, rechristened the vessel
Greenpeace, headed north from Vancouver to protest nuclear tests on Amchitka
Island and changed the world.
We all recycle now. The big auto manufacturers are marketing hybrid
electric-gasoline cars. We expect our governments to foster only
"sustainable" development, and green politics of one sort or another has
revolutionized much of the developed world.
On Canada's West Coast, the ideas that gave rise to so many environmentalist
movements persist in shaping politics from San Francisco to the Queen
Charlotte Islands. In boutiques along West Fourth Avenue, you would think
there were by-laws prohibiting the merchandising of anything not
biodegradable. In grocery stores, anything vaguely organic commands premium
prices. In bookstores, it is hard to find any view of the world contrary to a
single, almost theological conception: Four legs good, two legs bad.
But there has been some serious trouble in the West Coast's great temperate
rainforest paradise lately, and it is coming from a most unlikely source.
Terry Glavin has provided much courage and comfort to environmentalists over
the years. When not writing books and a regular column for the Vancouver
newsweekly the Georgia Straight, the former Vancouver Sun reporter writes
reports for groups like the Sierra Club, Ecotrust Canada and, until recently,
the David Suzuki Foundation.
Mr. Glavin's most recent book, The Last Great Sea: A Voyage Through the Human
and Natural History of the North Pacific, has won critical praise -- but it
presents a picture of history and ecology in the North Pacific that is wholly
contrary to the dreary litany of abuse so often recounted by environmentalist
thinkers. Mr. Glavin believes much of the hopelessness that confronts the
public in the face of environmental disruption is a consequence of fin de
siècle anxiety and the collapse of Old-World views. He also insists the seas
are not dying, that aboriginal people caught just about the same number of
salmon every year as the 20th century's fisheries did, that the Pacific's
whales and seals and dolphins are doing fairly well, and that everything is
not going to hell in a handbasket.
If Mr. Glavin is right, there are a lot of people lugging around Gore-Tex
backpacks full of ideas that are bunk -- or at least beyond their prime, like
so much stale trail mix.
The nerve centre of Canada's green orthodoxy is a bright aerie above Kitsilano's condominiums and fitness salons, located above the bustling Caper's organic food market on West Fourth. The David Suzuki Foundation is a ferny, ergonomic place filled with fit, young foot soldiers -- 33 full-time staff -- who run an organization with a $5-million annual budget dedicated to getting out its message with professionally designed public-awareness programs. Their efforts are backed by the philosophy and star power of the celebrated scientist-turned-crusader after whom their workplace is named.
David Suzuki is probably as responsible as any living person for the way many environmentalists think about the world. In recent years, as Mr. Glavin points out, he has become perhaps best known as one of the world's leading proponents of what is, in essence, a doomsday scenario.
As Dr. Suzuki is fond of reminding us, half of the world's Nobel prizewinners warned in 1992 that "human beings and the natural world are on a collision course," and perhaps a decade was all that remained before the planet would become "irretrievably mutilated" by the human species. In a similar vein, the Worldwatch Institute called the 1990s the "turnaround decade." Dr. Suzuki called it humanity's last chance to change its suicidal direction.
The 1990s have come and gone, but Dr. Suzuki continues to argue with ever-greater conviction that the apocalypse awaits us unless we all make radical changes in the way we think and act as a species. His seminal 1997 work, The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, sets out what these changes should be.
For one, he says, we must completely reorganize human society into "vibrant, increasingly autonomous and self-reliant local groupings of people that emphasize sharing, co-operation and living lightly on the Earth" -- with a capital E. We should mobilize scientists to help us regain an understanding of the sacredness of the planet and our ancient bonds with animals and plants. Ultimately, we must return to our rightful place as children of Gaia, "the mother of us all."
In the meantime, there are other things we can do, and the foundation prides itself on providing policy-makers with ready-made solutions to the problems of climate change, fisheries collapse, the evils of salmon farms and so on. The foundation is also proud of its media prowess, touting the fact it is mentioned in an average of 100 Canadian news reports every month.
The foundation employs seasoned political operatives, such as former NDP MPs Jim Fulton and Lyn Hunter, to help stay on-message, even when the message is pedestrian -- take the bus, shop locally, reduce, re-use and recycle, or simply "don't buy so much stuff." The foundation also lends its name to a series of titles published by Greystone Books, the most recent of which, curiously, is The Last Great Sea.
What is unexpected about Mr. Glavin's book is the portrait it paints of the North Pacific: There are no dire warnings of ecosystem collapse, and the book does nothing to illustrate the handbasket-to-hell principle. In the North Pacific, Mr. Glavin claims, things are actually getting better in several ecological respects.
Following the carnage of the whaling industry, the last century began with about 2,000 grey whales in the region and ended with 22,000. Elephant seals numbered perhaps 2,000 in the early 1900s; today there are some 120,000. Only 10 years ago, Asian fishermen were setting enough drift nets every day between Hawaii and the Aleutians to circle the globe at the equator, inadvertently killing 500,000 seabirds and 50,000 marine mammals every year. The United Nations shut them down in 1992.
Another focus of Mr. Glavin's book is the recent sea change in scientific thinking that has resulted from the discoveries of oceanographers and marine biologists that suggest there is no "sacred balance" in the North Pacific. The ocean, they say, consists of several ecosystems that undergo dramatic changes every few decades, all on their own, in a poorly understood oscillation that has been going on for probably tens of thousands of years. Many of the apparent collapses in certain fish populations may in reality be part of that oscillation, and not solely a result of overfishing. While it is true humans continue to wreak destruction in ocean ecosystems, "the world," Mr. Glavin insists, "is not coming to an end."
All this is a far cry from the sort of message the public picks up from well-funded environmental groups, but Mr. Glavin lives a fair distance from Kitsilano's tapas bars. In a cozy pub at Miners Bay, not far from his cedar-sided house on Mayne Island, about a 70-minute ferry ride from the Lower Mainland, Mr. Glavin holds forth.
"Here's the deal," he says, taking a deep haul on his cigarette. "I'm not saying David Suzuki is wrong in what he believes. Christ, I'm not competent to. But I do believe in the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins." He points to a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his upper right arm. "And I adamantly refuse to write the eco-pornography that dominates environmentalist writing on the West Coast."
The "deal" is a term one often hears from Gulf Islanders, and Mr. Glavin sprinkles it throughout his rants. It can be used generically, as a synonym for "thing," but it can also mean something larger and more important such as when he explains his views on the Makah whale kill last year. "That deal wasn't about conservation. It was about religion. The people who got upset by it deserve respect for their beliefs, but it was about values and sentiment and things like that. I just think we should be honest about these things, and personally, I'm not going to wet my pants just because some unemployed logger from the Neah Bay reserve wants to put a pointed stick into the side of a whale."
Mr. Glavin suggests the response to the Makah whale kill may prove a watershed in a wholly new approach to environmental issues emerging on the West Coast. In a surprise move, Greenpeace refused to join the antiwhaling chorus, and the conservationist group Ecotrust, a network of activists from San Francisco to Alaska, distinguished itself by openly supporting the Makah. Ian Gill, president of Ecotrust Canada, says he is opposed to a resumption of industrial-scale whaling. "But at the community level, I think it is the height of arrogance for environmentalists to tell aboriginal people, who have been shut out of the mainstream economy for more than a century, how they can or cannot earn a living from the abundance of nature. Killing whales is not a conservation issue, it is a social issue. The challenge to environmentalists in this new century is not to stop things -- anyone can do that. No, the new call to arms is surely about starting an economy that values conservation of our [natural capital] over its liquidation. That doesn't mean we stop cutting trees or catching fish or even killing the occasional whale."
The Suzuki Foundation did not take a position on the Makah, though its executive director, Jim Fulton, admitted: "Personally, I am against the killing of whales."
Back on Mayne Island, Mr. Glavin explains the "deal" about his rejection of the Suzuki world view.
"I don't want to leave the impression that I'm challenging anything David believes. I think he's dead right when he says human beings have become involved in the very membrane of the bloody planet. But what I'm saying is environmentalists have their dogmas too, and when you get yourself outside those arguments, you start seeing different things."
Right or wrong, Mr. Glavin has gone "off-message" with the Suzuki Foundation.
If Mr. Glavin's message departs from Dr. Suzuki's, it is an irrefutable truth that Dr. Suzuki and his foundation have played an important role in alerting policymakers and the public to the crisis of the planet's declining biodiversity, and the contribution fossil fuels are making to global warming. Arguing that humanity is living through the greatest mass extinction of plant and animal species in 65 million years, Dr. Suzuki has done more than any other Canadian to spur action to preserve biodiversity around the planet, and his foundation is at the forefront of pressing for government action on greenhouse gases. However, Dr. Suzuki has been bitterly disappointed in recent years as Canada has failed to take significant steps to address these "big picture" environmental threats.
To be fair, Dr. Suzuki does not appear to be shying away from contradictions. Not long ago, he hosted a public forum with Mr. Glavin and others at the most appropriate venue imaginable -- the recently earthquake-proofed auditorium at Kitsilano High School. But it was painfully obvious the two were at odds.
Dr. Suzuki winced in displeasure as Mr. Glavin ran through a long list of Pacific fish species, sea mammals and seabirds that have undergone spectacular recoveries in recent years. One such revival is in the harbour seal population along British Columbia's south coast. The seals have multiplied so rapidly in the past few decades they now eat an amount of fish every year that equals the weight of the human population of Burnaby, a major Vancouver suburb.
When Dr. Suzuki appears on television nowadays, he still delivers his message in short, professional sound bites, but a new, more strident image has begun to flicker across the screen, an image of a man made angry that the world isn't listening to him, even as he cranks up the volume. Humanity is in great peril, he is saying. We live under leaden skies, wallowing in a toxic stew of our own making, concocting a suicidal cocktail from human greed and wilful ignorance -- a message that stands in direct opposition to Terry Glavin's good news from the North Pacific.
Alex Rose is a Vancouver freelance writer. His book, Spirit Dance at Meziadin: Joseph Gosnell and the Nisga'a Treaty, will be published early next year.
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