Guest Blog: The following essay by guest blogger Lorne Fitch describes how one person has attempted to come to grips with our future by measuring the cumulative effects of all we do on the land. The piece was first published in the Fall 2020 Nature Alberta Magazine. Lorne’s previous essays posted here can be found by putting “Lorne Fitch” in the search box at the top of this page.
A Dangerous Man with a Dangerous Concept—Cumulative Effects
by Lorne Fitch
Copyright © 2020
Once, in a far-off land, in another time, a ruler had a vision of an impending famine. To prepare for this contingency he bought up all the grain in the surrounding area to feed his city. The famine comes to pass, his subjects have enough to eat but he discovers, too late, the grain is contaminated and those who eat it will go mad. The ruler summons his most loyal subject and gives him all the uncontaminated grain that exists. He admonishes him to only eat that grain. The loyal subject queries his ruler— “Why me?” The ruler considers the question and answers, “because you are young and we will need someone sane, when we are all mad, to tell us what we are.”
In present times, many have adopted the myth of constant growth, inevitable progress and inexorable economic advancement to the point they have gone similarly mad. To inject some sanity in a growth-focused world, “to tell us what we are,” is a dangerous, yet necessary undertaking.
Over time there have been some notably dangerous men and women who have confronted the status quo, toppled conventional thinking, debunked ideologies, and pried off our blinders. Copernicus and Darwin come to mind as do contemporary examples, such as Rachel Carson, David Suzuki, and David Schindler.
Dr. Brad Stelfox is another who, in the parlance of the 1960s, questions authority. He does it in an uncharacteristically subversive way, using data from industry, government and academia. The tool he uses is cumulative effects assessment, or CEA. Using years of data, Brad developed ALCES—A Land Cumulative Effects Simulator—to objectively measure and track land-use activities and their accumulating footprint.
We all talk about the future, maybe even believe there is one, but universally tend to think and act in the here and now. That’s why it is always a surprise when we run short on water, land, space and wildlife. It’s hard to add up the incremental, additive changes and losses, do the math over time and project that trend line into the future. When the future catches up with our present, we are deeply shocked, mortified even, with the limitations of our world. This assumes, of course, that we are able and willing to see how our past and present actions preclude options for the future.
That’s the mirror Stelfox holds up, showing our world isn’t limitless and our growth trajectory isn’t endless. We tend to see the world in snap shots— one well site, another subdivision, a new road or a cutblock appearing. We lack the skill to do the additive math of all these features transforming the landscape. Our memories are also imperfect about when all of these features snuck up on us, because we rarely look backward in time to see where we came from.
All effects, all land uses, are cumulative simply because everything accumulates and lingers both through time and over space. In a “tyranny of small decisions” a series of seemingly individual insignificant changes can accumulate to result in a significant effect overall. The cumulative effect of stressors in the environment from our land-use decisions may, in some cases, be more than the simple sum of individual stressors. The synergistic effects may be devastating to ecosystems and ecosystem function.
It becomes seductively easy to believe the way things are is the way they were meant to be. Such hubris leads to blindness. Unless we claw the security blanket of growth from our eyes it will prevent us from recognizing the truth of our situation— that we are walking a tightrope without a safety net. We remain fundamentally, inexorably dependent on intact natural systems with a high degree of integrity for our survival.
While we live in the present, we are affected by the past and inevitably head into the future. It would be of considerable comfort to know what the future brings. Rather than wait for it, to invoke choice rather than chance, we can direct the future with the decisions of today. CEA is one, of very few tools, that gives us the capability to understand today’s actions and the implications for tomorrow. If we wish to move forward intelligently, this can inform the pathway to tomorrow.
We all yearn to divine the future, to understand what it has in store for us. For most things that is a dream, caught up with fortune tellers, or fortune cookies. But our brains have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transport ourselves into tomorrow and then to reflect on what we find there. It’s called imagination. If nature has given us a greater gift, no one has named it. Our ability to simulate future selves and future circumstances isn’t perfect however. It’s a fragile and imperfect talent that leaves us squinting and straining to see what it could be like to have this, or go there, or do that.
But as Stelfox shows, the past can be a window on the future if we organize, systematically analyze and strategically use existing information. By using the information from the past, assembling it as a trajectory or as a trend, CEA can help us predict the future if we continue on one path, or another. The actions and decisions of today are extended forward, so we can see where the path leads.
We cannot plan well for something we cannot see, especially the future. CEA becomes a useful, pragmatic tool to provide factual knowledge allowing an informed choice to be made about future options. As a pathway to a sustainable future, this allows today’s decisions to be measured against tomorrow’s realities.
The process of modelling cumulative effects neither defends nor demonizes the status quo, often termed the “business as usual” case. As Stelfox says, “While there may be no inherent right or wrong in our decisions, there inevitably will be consequences”. What it does is allow us to see where the decisions of today will lead us. The opportunity afforded us is that of a different, perhaps better trajectory to be set for balancing ecological, social and economic goals.
Even though we build it everyday, the future eludes us. The greatest discovery in each generation is that we can alter the future by changing what we do today. The ability to simulate future circumstances, based on trends established, isn’t perfect but it beats guessing and it provides form to imagination. We need tools like this to make appropriate choices, rather than taking a chance on future circumstances.
Cumulative effects models can deal with skepticism, but not denial. There can be a tendency to dismiss the model when the results don’t correspond with an alternate view of the future. We all have different starting points from which our opinions about the future are formed. We may also have reasonable fears that manifest themselves in a variety of ways, especially if our view of the future is diametrically opposed to the results of a modeling exercise.
Sometimes messages about the future are unpopular because the listener perceives they will be affected in a negative way. Understanding what the future may bring introduces an aspect of change, from the familiar and expected to the new and uncertain. Those who want to do nothing and make no change can find enough uncertainty to avoid doing anything. The point of CEA is to inform change, while change is still possible, to exercise flexibility, alternatives and choice.
Brad is the first to acknowledge the science of CEA cannot give us all the answers. In fact, the most difficult questions, the most persistent problems and often the greatest challenges are not matters of science. They are related to values. It would seem the primary impediments to sustainable resource management are not a lack of evolutionary or ecological understandings—they are more related to social, political and economic ones. The problem is not that we do not know enough, but that we do not allow what we know to constrain our behavior.
CEA can tell us what is happening, or what will happen, but it cannot make us do anything about it. However, as Gordon Lightfoot intones, “If you plan to face tomorrow, do it soon.” The utility of CEA lies in seeking agreement on what future is desired, not through guesswork, but through the tools of science which include thought, planning and foresight.
Despite decades of progress, watershed planning for the East Slopes of Alberta is still in its infancy. This is a busy landscape that continues to get busier with a growing population demanding more from resource extraction, recreation and water supplies. Meshing these demands with a landscape which forms an essential water source for downstream water users, unique biodiversity attributes, wild space and stunning scenery is a task requiring more than maintaining the status quo.
What Albertans draw from the East Slopes is substantial—economically, ecologically, socially and personally. Yet, the rate of reinvestment isn’t proportional to the take and the signals of overuse are evident. Native trout declines are a message hard to ignore. Their plight is a signal that many of the values Albertans hold for the East Slopes are at risk. In some cases, like flooding, our land-use decisions pose a risk to downstream communities.
The East Slopes do not represent an inexhaustible supply of benefits for Albertans. We need to set ecologically-relevant limits and thresholds; without them we continue to spiral towards overuse. Investments need to be considered for restoration, especially where limits have been exceeded. Research needs, like better measurements of water quantity and quality, biodiversity and the effects of climate change require adequate resources. At the center is understanding and untangling the additive effects of every want and desire for the East Slopes.
First, we have to understand where we are, compare that to where we were (the historical benchmark) and assess whether our land-use trajectory will take us to a desirable future. Implicit in this is the sense we do not want to sacrifice attributes of the East Slopes in our present decisions that will have future, perhaps irreversible consequences.
Across Alberta, communities of interests are forging plans for the landscapes of the future. Fortunately, the Oldman and Bow watersheds have one of those initiatives, fostered by people who realize if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you and the final destination may be a surprise. The Alberta Chapter of The Wildlife Society and several funding partners commissioned Cumulative Effects of Land Uses and Conservation Priorities in Alberta’s Southern East Slopes to assist in an important dialogue on land-use planning for the Southern East Slopes of Alberta.
The results indicate cumulative effects present substantial risk to Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout in the Southern East Slopes, now and into the future. As native trout species are a surrogate, or indicator of watershed integrity this indicates issues with the combined level of past and present land use activity, and points to concerns with other species, like grizzly bears.
As a science-based assessment this provides an opportunity to better understand different management scenarios and clearly show expected outcomes. Preventing harmful future development, reclaiming temporary footprints, and managing access has the potential to improve trout performance in these watersheds. With different management trajectories, there is an opportunity to make a real change in terms of conservation.
Past cumulative effects exercises show the status quo approach (continuing to maintain land use pressures) is not favorable for future circumstances. Like a road, the future isn’t just a place we’re headed; it can be a place we get to create. Recognizing that, then a set of alternatives need to be posed and tested.
That is the essence of this exercise in the east slopes—a test of our ability to be good stewards of an essential Alberta landscape.
Douglas Chadwick observed about these tools that, “All are part of the challenge of learning as a modern society how to live the good life on earth without abusing the generosity of our hostess.” The work that Stelfox undertook to develop a method for measuring and tracking cumulative effects helps us with that challenge.
Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a former Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.
Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at email@example.com