Few places on Earth have been untouched by humans, according to a study in the journal Science. Satellite images taken from hundreds of kilometres above the planet reveal a world that we have irrevocably changed within a remarkably short time.
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Although industrial projects like the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline or the recently defeated mega-quarry in Ontario typically grab the headlines and bring out public opposition, it's often the combined impacts of a range of human activities on the same land base that threaten to drive nature beyond critical tipping points. Once those are passed, rapid ecological changes such as species extinction can occur.
For example, in British Columbia's booming Peace Region, forestry, energy and mineral leases and licences are widespread and often multilayered in the same area. As various industries have exploited these "tenures", a sprawling patchwork of large clearcuts, oil wells, dams and reservoirs, fracking operations and thousands of kilometres of seismic lines, roads and pipelines have come to dominate the landscape.
Today, more than 65 per cent of the region has felt the impact of industrial development, leaving little intact habitat for sensitive, endangered species such as caribou to feed, breed or roam. Degradation or destruction of habitat has convinced scientists that remaining herds in the region are no longer self-sustaining and are spiralling toward local extinction. First Nations, who have relied upon caribou as their primary source of food for thousands of years, can no longer hunt them. This is a clear violation of treaty rights.
This dire situation didn't happen by accident or because of a laissez-faire approach to resource and land management. Numerous industries in the area have been operating legally and according to rules and regulations set by government.
But legal experts, such as those at the nongovernmental organization West Coast Environmental Law, believe a root cause of the problem lies in laws about land, resource and water management that are "hardwired" to fail communities and the environment. The narrow focus of those laws enables industries to operate in isolation from one another.
B.C., for example, has developed numerous individual laws, like the Forest and Range Practices Act, Oil and Gas Activities Act and Mines Act, alongside the regulated industries they enable. But the province lacks a legal framework to proactively and comprehensively manage the cumulative impacts of multiple resource industries operating within the same area.
Because of this, WCEL and its First Nations partners are engaged in a multi-year law reform project that aims to overhaul the way we currently oversee and regulate cumulative impacts, ranging from declining water quality that may arise as a result of multiple industries using a common resource to emerging threats such as climate change.
A cumulative-impacts approach to governing resource development would upend the current management paradigm. It would focus on the management needs of the land, water, air and wildlife and the communities that depend on them first, rather than the resources to be extracted. In practical terms, this would mean that, rather than focusing on what we should take from nature to create wealth and employment, we should first consider what must be retained in nature to sustain both wildlife and the well-being of local communities — such as clean air, safe drinking water and healthy local food.
At a recent symposium on managing the cumulative impacts of resource development in B.C., numerous speakers — from First Nations to academics to business leaders — stressed that effectively managing cumulative impacts will require new institutions and governance mechanisms, even new legal tools. More importantly, it will require our leaders to adopt a more proactive and holistic way of thinking about the world — one that recognizes that far from just being a place to extract resources like fossil fuels, timber and minerals, nature is our home. Nature provides our most fundamental needs and dictates limits to growth and so its protection should be our highest priority.
Managing our massive, growing human footprint on this planet more sustainably will require leadership, much of which is emerging from First Nations peoples who are on the frontlines of the day-to-day realities of cumulative environmental change. We need to look at the big picture rather than individual elements in isolation.