Dead canaries or dead frogs


There’s a funny little scene in Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth. It’s a cartoon of a frog in a pot of water on a stove. The narrator, Gore, tells us that if we turn up the heat slowly the frog will just sit there until it boils alive. But if we turn up the heat quickly the frog feels the shock and jumps out of the water immediately.

The point of the cartoon of course is the fact that we’re the frogs—and our planet-pot is heating up very slowly. Ergo, we’re not being shocked into turning off the heat.

This is something that happens at the local level too. For example, if a community suffers the loss of a major industry, as mining operations have done across northern Canada, the citizens are aware and mobilized to offset the effects. Community action plans are put in place, government funding is sought, new industries are courted, relocation plans are made for displaced workers and so on. The Town of Atikokan, Ontario is a good example. When the iron mines shut down in the 1970s, the Caland Ore Company launched a full-out transition plan that eventually led to the building of a thermal generating plant in the town and brought new government money into tourism to support Quetico Provincial Park.

The mine was the canary in that town’s immediate future. When a canary that big dies, everybody notices. It’s a lot different when communities die a little at a time. That kind of death is more like the frog in a slow-boiling pot. A downtown building disappears here, a small business goes bankrupt there, but overall life remains about the same.

This story has been repeated all across Middle America, and here at home in New Brunswick as well. One only has to look at the boarded up factories and warehouses, the empty lots where stores used to stand, the nature parks that used to be farms, empty waterfront lots that used to house wharfs and canneries to see the remains of yesterday’s economy.

All of these thoughts lead me to a single thought: the future is not what it used to be. The old future used to be hover cars, scheduled flights to Mars, never-ending technological advances and exponential growth of glistening cities rising to the sun. The new future is depletion of fossil fuels, climate change and severe weather, species extinction, global over-population, rising pollution from the developing nations, freshwater shortages and as a result of these, the real possibility of pandemics and war.

As frogs in the slow-boiling pot, it’s difficult for those of us living here to see what’s going on in the rest of the world. If we notice anything at all it might be a small reduction in the numbers of tourists visiting the area, a sawmill closure or a cutback in a service from a cash-strapped Provincial government. Nothing too dramatic.

So at the local level it becomes rather difficult to identify and assess the impact of global trends and to take real action. Ideas around sustainability automatically become too large and too remote to deal with. As bad as it is to say, it would actually be easier if a factory closed without warning, or the tourists stopped coming altogether. Then we’d get it.

Because now that slow-boiling pot here in Charlotte County is starting to heat up. St. Stephen is entirely dependent on distributing government services and manufacturing candy and fibreboard. St. Andrews is overly-dependant on summertime tourism. At the same time we’re exporting our brightest youth, importing retirees, and becoming more dependent on government infrastructure projects—including a new highway to speed traffic past our doorsteps even more quickly.

There are some silver linings. The recent government investment in upgrading the NB Southern Railway is one, even if it won’t replace the track that was torn out from St. Andrews. The Bell Aliant commitment to bringing fibre optic cable to the residential doorstep in Fredericton and Saint John is another. One can always hope that this initiative would go province-wide. And the $70+ million new reconstruction of the St. Andrews Biological Station is great news—especially if it brings a renewed commitment to ocean ecology and sustainability.

The real problem is the fact that the federal government, as generous as it has been to our region, is not a bottomless source of funds. And the world is changing rapidly in ways we’d rather not consider. The biggest game on the global table is fossil fuel, and since we’ll soon be running low on the stuff, everything we do or think about will be ruled by the loss of cheap energy.

That means our Wal-Mart shelves will have fewer goods from China as transportation costs rise. Our dinners will have more expensive ingredients. Our tourists will be either paying a lot more to get here, arriving from places located much closer to us—or not arriving at all.

Seen from the outside, meanwhile, our local planners appear to be caught in a 1980s time warp. Many of them still seem to be chasing the “growth and progress” model. Sustainability to them means “economic sustainability in a globalized economy.” And while that may still work over the short term, the fossil fuel math is working against it. Without cheap energy globalization as we know it is over.

The real development task is planning the post fossil-fuel economy. That means much greater focus on developing regional skills and local capacities, the very things we’ve all been vigorously deconstructing for nearly five decades. We’ll need more regional food production, cheaper modes of transportation, better sources of alternative energy, ways to manufacture things on our own and repair things instead of throwing them out.

But it’s very likely that we won’t make these moves until something very dramatic happens to kill the canary. Should we go the other way, ignoring this new future simmering on the stove, it’s going to really suck being the frog.

As you know, in the movie Al Gore rescues the frog from the slow-boiling pot. We should be so lucky.


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