Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
A man in hip waders pulls specimens from the water to put in a bucket for future analysis.

Ignorance is not bliss

Throughout modern history, science has probed the complex environmental relationships of the natural world. By the 20th century, we had learned enough to hold an unprecedented respect for this world. Where once we saw little more than a source of food or raw materials for ourselves, we began to see much more. By the mid-1980s, this new outlook was heralded by a Canadian Geographic writer quoting the celebrated American naturalist Aldo Leopold:  “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’”

Effects of science and understanding on local species

Despite such progress, the path from scientific investigation to revised public attitude is not always clear. Journal articles and laboratory findings might not seem to have much to do with the fate of natural spaces. Nevertheless, this challenge can be met by turning some of those same spaces into living laboratories, just as researchers in northwestern Ontario have done. In a region near the province’s borders with Manitoba and Minnesota, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has set aside 58 small lakes for ongoing study.

Called the Experimental Lakes Area, this initiative has attracted international attention as an extraordinary attempt to study how water pollution or other factors alter the conditions for life throughout the entire body of water. The results have already shown how sensitive these aquatic environments can be to even the most limited changes in acidity or phosphate contamination.

Ecological reserves are another kind of large-scale classroom, where human intrusions are minimized to provide refuges for plants and animals. One such reserve profiled in the magazine encompasses the entire area of Triangle Island, off the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Researchers counting seabirds there in 1977 found some 360,000 breeding pairs of the Cassin’s auklet. At the time, those pairs comprised approximately 40 percent of the world’s total, a vital statistic for gauging the survival of this species.

Canadian Geographic retrospective

Acid rain fighter

By Peter Gorrie
October/November 1986

One standout article relating to the theme of science and understanding is a profile of Harold Harvey, a man with simple aspirations of being a fish biologist who ended up as the poster boy for acid rain.

Peter Gorrie’s “Acid rain fighter” ran in October/November 1986. It relates Harvey’s career from early attempts at studying fish in an Ontario lake, and when unable to find them, following the threads to discover why they were gone — acid rain. As he put it, “When something goes belly-up in the environment, it’s communicating something important to us.”

While at first concerns about acid rain and snow in the 1960s and 1970s were considered outlandish scaremongering, Harvey was able to turn the threats of the environmental issue into a credible argument through his solid science and impressive communication skills, leading to understanding among the masses.

In Harvey’s early studies, he did not have the instant data on weather patterns that people in 1986 could take for granted. However, when he started out there were things about acid rain that people did know such as some lakes had higher buffering capacity due to their composition. Thus some lakes were able to neutralize the acid from the rain. These lakes would have rock that contained carbonate or limestone. On the other hand, lakes with granite were extremely sensitive to acid.

By 1985, the federal government and seven eastern provinces agreed that acid rain was a problem. At that time, however, the effects of acid rain on human health were still largely unknown.

The environment: what have we learned?

By John A. Livingston
December 1989/January 1990

This was an essay by iconic Canadian naturalist John A. Livingston — familiar to many as the voice of the famous “Hinterland Who’s Who” television spots of the 1960s. Livingston’s “The environment: what have we learned?” used the magazine’s diamond anniversary to look back on high and low points in Canada’s natural history over six decades.

The author discusses the “dirty 30s” and writes that the failure of the crops had been a man-made disaster. He also comments on the unfortunate synergism that occurs when human-induced events and natural events coincide to produce disastrous results, such as drought and bad farming practices.

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring published in the early 1960s, is the inventor of environmental advocacy in Livingston’s view. This is in part due to her presenting her case in terms of the ecosystem rather than by of its parts. He also discusses the National Film Board’s Deadly Dilemma piece that looked at pesticide use in 1961 and how an episode of The Nature of Things focused on DDT use against the imported elm bark beetle.

While he did not give the country a gold star, he did acknowledge that there were some turning points, including the most ambitious environmental impact assessment of the era — the mid-1970s Berger Commission reviewing the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and its impact on the people and the environment of the North. The Commission’s work was groundbreaking in its openness and critical examination of the relationship between resource extraction and people who would be affected by that industry.

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