Looking for a Well-Grounded, Long-Term Investment?

Field picture
Well, I have one for you … it’s called soil, and it’s a blue-chip investment, if ever there was one.

Today I released my report on the Environmental Commissioner’s Soil-Carbon Roundtable, entitled “Investing in Soils for a Sustainable Future”, held last year in Guelph. (Click for more information, to watch presentations or to download the report.) It is an intriguing document because it contains a good measure of both hope and of frustration.

Hope arises from its revelation of broad areas of consensus among experts and stakeholders, confirming our common awareness of the vital importance of soil organic matter (SOM) — not only to our food supply, but to our water, our air, our climate, our biodiversity, and our economy. (see “The Roots of Sustainability: Engaging the Soil Carbon Solution” in my 2011 Annual Report.)

Frustration arises, however, from the report’s lack of consensus on how to ensure that SOM levels rise and then stay high.  We run the risk, too common in Ontario these days, of simply letting the status quo continue, while failing to take bold action.

Other jurisdictions have recognized the fundamental connections between sustainable agriculture and food security, soil health and a healthy environment, and soil-carbon levels and climate change. In 2011, Australia introduced the Carbon Farming Initiative, which caps carbon emissions by industry, exempts agriculture from the caps, and then allows farmers to sell the carbon credits they acquire when they adopt management measures that sequester carbon, including those that build SOM.

Here in Canada, Alberta has an intensity-based cap on carbon emissions for its largest businesses – a cap that is reduced each year, therefore requiring constant improvement. One of the compliance options for these businesses is to invest in carbon offsets, which include no-till agriculture, a management practice that raises SOM levels in the dry prairie soils.

Ontario has its own unique soils, climate, and ecology, so we need our own made-in-Ontario soil-carbon policies and protocols. We must get past the arguments about what management practices and incentive systems work best and just get going on this vitally important investment strategy. We must quickly create (or adapt other jurisdictions’) measurement and  incentive tools, protocols, and programs, so that we can measure and monitor our progress. There are many innovative examples upon which to draw, so let’s get started.

Our farmers feed us, but they also have the ability to help us prepare for the future. Their work can mitigate climate change, build ecological resilience, sustain our natural environment, protect our water supplies, guard our biodiversity, and generally enhance our quality of life. However, to do all this they need our help. Like any investment, change always involves some level of cost and of risk. Since we will all benefit from these investments in soil, the costs and the risks should be shared, not borne by farmers alone.

Will Ontario weather the next big storm?

Memories from the destructive blow of Hurricane Hazel on Southern Ontario on October 15, 1954, still linger. Torrential rain devastated many communities. Bridges, roads and railway lines were washed out. Homes were flooded or collapsed from the force of raging water overflowing from swollen creeks and rivers. The biggest tragedy, however, was the loss of human life. More than 80 Ontarians lost their lives in this catastrophic event.

Hurricanes and severe storms are often described as rare and extreme events; somehow this suggests they are out of our hands and that it is okay to merely hope they won’t happen. Unfortunately, they do happen. I grew up in Timmins, and played in Town Creek. I recall the Timmins Storm of 1961 that ripped roads apart and drowned a family in their home. The Peterborough storm of 2004 overwhelmed the city’s storm sewer system and left most of the city under a meter of murky water. We are wiser to accept that these extreme weather events will happen and must be planned for.

Planning for severe storms will become even more important in the future under a changing climate, as the severity and frequency of such events are expected to increase. In my 2009/2010 Annual Report, I called on the Ministry of Environment (MOE) for swift, coordinated and decisive action on “Planning for Stormy Weather.”

MOE has recognized the need for a policy framework to support resilient municipal stormwater management systems. The ministry has also identified the need for updating existing stormwater management guidelines and for a concerted planning effort by a number of provincial ministries, municipalities and conservation authorities.

For this important planning work, we will be relying on the ongoing good work of conservation authorities. Conservation authorities manage flood control and prevention infrastructure and work closely with provincial, federal and municipal levels of government to prepare for and respond to extreme weather events. They deliver programs that prevent some $100 million in flood damages every year. To continue their important work on mitigating flooding risks, CAs will need adequate funding. For over a decade, provincial funding for these programs has remained steady at about $7.6 million per year, eight times less than the early 1990s. It is estimated that an additional $14 million per year is needed from the province.

More storms are coming our way; will we be prepared? Will we have the resilience to weather them?

Summer: a Good Time for Resilience Thinking

Sometimes friends ask me for summer book suggestions.  If you’re up for some big picture thinking, I can recommend The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer-Dixon. I admit, with “Catastrophe” in the sub-title, it’s not exactly escapist froth for the beach.  But having read it a few years ago, I find my thoughts coming back to some of the core ideas.  Among other things, Homer-Dixon offers a great introduction to the concept of resilience, and what it takes for ecosystems and societies to maintain resilience.

As complexity increases in systems, resilience tends to decline. Predictability also is lost as complexity rises and feedback loops emerge. This was a theme I also focused on in my 2008/2009 Annual Report, “The one thing you can expect from complex systems is the unexpected.”  Once you’re attuned to the resilience concept, you begin to see the implications everywhere, from the cyclical burning and regrowth of fire-adapted northern forests to periodic financial bubbles and collapses, to this past spring’s social upheavals and democratic renewals in a string of Arab nations.

Building Resilience where I observed that I returned to the resilience theme this past spring in my annual Greenhouse Gas Report Meeting Responsibilities – Creating Opportunities, noting the risk of a climatic tipping point in the nearterm.Even in southern Ontario we are seeing cities like Peterborough battered by repeated extreme storms, supposedly rare, one-in-100-year events, as I described in my 2009/2010 Annual Report.

We face a great challenge: to de-carbonize our global economy in the next 40 years in order to avoid this tipping point. This is a challenge that will require humanity’s full scope of creativity and exuberant experimentation.  It will also require resilience at every level of social organization.

Summer can be a good time for quiet reflection – preferably by a cool lake, a hammock slung under some big old trees.  That may be the very best place for us to re-imagine ourselves in a resilient future.

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The Prescience of Seuss

Last year I had a thoughtful read of Richard Heinberg’s book “Blackout – Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis.”  It’s a good and necessary read for those of us who seek perspective on the coming combined conundrum of peak fossil fuels and climate change.  There was something about his final chapter that has been haunting me.

On the face of it, the argument presented in that chapter is logical and persuasive.  He lays out three scenarios of policy and action that the world might follow in the next 30 years and projects and predicts the outcomes into the future.  Scenario One is coined “The Maximum Burn Rate” which he describes as a projection of   present consumption and depletion trends with no mitigating policies being implemented.  The outcome of Scenario One is predictably devastating, ending in the collapse of civilization which he terms “Blackout.”  Scenario Two is “The ‘Clean’ Solution,” governments make massive investments in technology to store carbon, introduce cap-and-trade, etc. so they can keep our current technological structure alive longer.  Although slightly more viable Heinberg lays out the arguments to show that by 2040 this course too ends in Blackout.  Scenario Three, the “Post Carbon Transition” a challenging restructuring of our energy use and economy, is the only option that leads to any kind of sustainable future for our society and, therefore, is the only logical path.

Of the three scenarios, Scenario Two is clearly a characterization of what the clean coal and other lobbies are proposing currently for the way forward.  Heinberg’s thesis is to show that this thinking is flawed and that only a much more radical set of policies rapidly applied will allow us to escape disaster.  Scenario One is provided as a business-as-usual reference case.  Heinberg implicitly assumes that no one would actually propose Scenario One as a way forward.

Yet that is what has been haunting me these months, even more so since the US mid-term elections.  It seems to me that the trajectory we are on is Scenario One.  We talk the Scenario Two talk, some of us propose or wish for Scenario Three solutions, but the Scenario Oners are clearly carrying the day.  As I pondered this it occurred to me that the name “Oners” might be a useful characterization of those that so vigorously pursue and defend this dangerous course.  But that name sounded somewhat familiar.  And then it occurred to me.  Not “Oners” but “Once-lers” were the entrepreneurial family that extirpated the Truffula Trees in the Dr. Seuss environmental classic book “The Lorax” from 1971.

For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, a quick précis of the book is as follows. (You can also watch the video here.)  The story opens in a polluted and barren land where a brave boy ventures to find the mysterious hermit called the Once-ler in order to hear the story of the Lorax.  The Once-ler, once bribed, narrates the tale that began long before with his arrival to this land which then was occupied by a rich forest of Truffula Trees brimming with wildlife.  Said trees had much economic value because they could be cut down and turned in Thneeds (a seemingly useless item that people thronged to buy).  A creature called the Lorax emerges from a stump to be the advocate for the trees and all the forest animals as the Once-ler recruits his extended family to establish an ever-expanding Thneed manufacturing complex.  The Lorax pleads with the Once-ler as the trees disappear and the air and water become polluted.  The Once-ler has some sympathy for the resulting loss of forest creatures but he is driven by the imperative that “business is business! And business must grow.”  At the climax of the story the Once-ler loses all patience with the Lorax and angrily lashes out at him yelling that he (the Once-ler) has his rights and he will keep on “biggering” his business, implying that the Lorax had no right to complain or interfere.   Just at that moment however, the very last Truffula Tree is felled and the Once-ler’s source of raw material is forever lost.  You will have to read the book to find out how it ends.  Suffice to say it is not a happy ending, but it does leave the reader with hope.

The startling thing about this childrens’ story is how accurately it presents both the flawed economic model that demands relentless limitless growth based on finite resources, and the way the Once-ler is so captured by the growth paradigm that he overrides his love of the forest and the creatures that dwell there.  He is not cast as an evil character but rather a deeply tragic one.  You never see the Once-ler’s face in this illustrated tale.  He is no one and perhaps everyone.

And so it seems that after 40 years we are living the Dr. Seuss story line in many respects.  The Once-lers are in charge and they have every intention of continuing to do what they do.  And just as in the book, some within the Once-ler community are angry and lashing out at those who point out environmental problems.  I just hope that doesn’t mean we are getting to the end of our story.

Gord Miller

Thoughts of kettles and consumption and such

Your kettle just broke.   It still boils water, but the plastic lever at the base of the handle that you press down to start the heating just fell off.

Close inspection reveals that that piece is not broken.  The problem is that a tiny pin that protrudes from the plastic molding at the base of the kettle that provides the pivot point just broke off.  At most, the pin is 2 mm thick.

Parts are no longer available for this model (if they ever were).  So, the functionality of the whole stainless steel kettle is compromised because of a tiny piece of extruded plastic.

Surely the pin could have been made of a bit of brass?  That would have increased the resilience of the device markedly, for a modest incremental cost.  Instead, the kettle becomes what … a landfill waste?  The Blue Box doesn’t take stainless steel so, short of a special trip in the car to a metal scrap yard, the trash seems to be a consumer’s only option.

Ah! Consumers, that’s what they call us, and that is the point with the kettle.  My mother’s kettle served her needs for over 40 years and as far as I know is still out there somewhere making tea for some lovely little old lady.  Mother didn’t consume her kettle, she bought a long service resilient tool necessary for the functioning of her household and it provided that service.

Today, we consume kettles.  We buy products with huge intrinsic energy and materials content, and we think nothing when they fail after a short life due to the most basic design flaws.  And then we happily toss them into the trash and run off to the box store for a replacement.

We constantly re-buy what we already own.  This is not the way it has always been.  This is not sustainable.  This is not the way of a society that has the resilience to rebound from – and continue to provide – an acceptable way of life.  One way or another, this will have to change.