Friday, February 16, 2018

Cities in the Time of Climate Change: Green is the Colour of Resilience

I currently live in Toronto, Canada, a city of three million people and 13 percent green space (with 2.8 hectares of city-owned or operated parkland per 1,000 people). Known for its conservative politics, Toronto—like many North American cities—is in a headlong collision course with change. I’m talking about climate change. Climate change will change everything. Toronto is going to get “hotter, wetter, and wilder,” says Blair Feltmate of the University of Waterloo. The liberal community of Vancouver, where I raised my family, can expect more of what it already gets: dry summers and wet winters. Just more.

What does it mean to us?

Urban Toronto
Over 80 percent of Canadians live in cities, disconnected from the natural world that makes up over 90 percent of our country. Mixed boreal forest occupies over 40 percent of Canada’s diverse wilderness and a third of the world’s boreal forest. But we don’t live there. For eighty percent of us, our ecosystem is urban height and sprawl. When we encounter urban trees or small parks, we aren’t experiencing anything remotely natural.

We don’t understand or appreciate what the natural world is or does (for us) by simply being: the life-giving flow of water vapour, tree aerosols and gases that we breathe in with every beat of our hearts; the communication and vibration of pure wildness that contributes to our physical and mental health—from smell to sight to touch and sound; the recursive oscillation of polarities that spark all life—from lightening to the soil beneath our feet; or the natural succession—from colonization to expansion to death and regeneration—that invigorates and defines all that ever and will live.

North American boreal zone
Why would we? We’re not ecologists, scientists, or activists. That’s someone else.

Ecology is the study of environmental relationships. We didn’t learn it or experience it in our homes, locked within a dense row of houses or on the tenth floor of an apartment building from where we commute to and from work. With the exception of some indigenous schools (which teach respect for the spirit of wildness), we certainly didn’t learn it in our schools.

We have no idea what the natural environment is.

And if we can’t even recognize it, how can we understand its functional role in the intricate well-being of this entire precious planet?

Bramble Cay melomys
It is no wonder then that most Canadians—though we may intellectually accept climate change and its effects on this planet (because we’re smarter than some)—likely do not viscerally understand or appreciate why and how it will drastically change our lives. For most of us, climate change—as with Nature—is something that is happening to someone else, somewhere else. From those far away calamities to the quiet struggles no one talks about. We hear and lament over the flooding in Bangladesh or the Maldives. Or the wildfires in northern British Columbia. Or the bomb cyclones of the eastern seaboard. 

Meanwhile, the polar bear struggles quietly with disappearing sea ice in the Canadian arctic. The koala copes quietly with the disappearing eucalyptus. Coral reefs quietly disappear in an acidifying ocean. Antarctic penguins silently starve with disappearing krill due to ice retreat. And while jellyfish invade the Mediterranean, UK seas and northeast Atlantic, the humble Bramble Cay melomys slips quietly into extinction—the first mammal casualty of climate change.

So, those of us who are enlightened speak of climate resilience and adaptation. We arm our cities with words like green infrastructure, stormwater management, urban runoff control, flood mitigation. Ecological literacy. But what are these things to us? They are tools, yes. Good tools to combat and adapt to the effects of climate change. But will they create resilience? I think not.

Resilience comes from within and through a genuine connection with our environment. Tools, no matter how proficient, are only as good as how they are used based on intention from a deep understanding. It isn’t enough to achieve the How of things; we must embrace the Why of things. And that comes from the heart. We must feel it in our hearts. Or it won’t work. And we quite simply won’t survive.

Marq de Villiers wrote in his book Water that water has become imperilled “not through the deliberate actions of evil men, the corporate rapists of ecological fantasy, but through the small doings of many—far too many—ordinary people, doing things in the way they have always done them. That’s where the real danger lies.”

Greenpeace blames Coca Cola and Nestle for the plastic garbage islands littering our oceans; but how did those plastic islands get there? who bought them and then threw them out without a second thought where they were going?

Canada's boreal forest
The answer lies with us, the ordinary people. With the choices we make every day. With the language we use. With the respect we give. With our heartfelt gratitude for this beautiful and still bountiful country we live in that gives us the water we drink and the food we eat.

Canadians celebrate our multi-cultural heritage. We pride ourselves in our tolerance and welcoming nature. Our national anthem speaks of our land. Our national symbols embrace nature with the maple, beaver, caribou and loon. Yet who of us knows the habitat of the loon—now at risk, by the way (climate change will impact much of its breeding grounds). Who knows what the boreal forest—which makes up over half of our country—is? How it functions to keep this entire planet healthy, and what that ecosystem needs, in turn, to keep doing this? Who understands that we all live in a watershed with an associated water cycle and what consequences water diversion, removal, squandering or pollution will have on it?

Rosedale Ravine, Toronto
Ecology isn’t rocket science. Ecology is common sense. Ecology is about relationship and discovery.

Open yourself to discovery. Go find Nature, even if it is in the city. Connect with something natural, green and wild. Find the wonder of it.

Find something to love.

When you do, you will find yourself. And that is where you will find resilience.

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