Not too long ago I was about to join David Orton’s Left Biocentric discussion group of 40. His requirement was that I pledge my support for the 8 principles of the Deep Ecology platform, and that I submit a statement of my beliefs and a short biography. I replied that Deep Ecology’s principles met with my enthusiastic support and that I would submit a biography. But then I made an impertinent request. I said that if it was important to the group that I met their standards, it was equally important to me that they in turn met my standards. It was important for me to deploy my limited time and energy to the most central issue facing Canada—and the world---over-population. While there was so much in Deep Ecology that resonated with me, I found nothing that pointed directly and shouted loudly at the Elephant in the Room. I simply couldn’t afford to piss away precious time on admittedly fascinating theoretical discussions, which are clearly Orton’s forte. If the Left-Biocentrics wouldn’t commit themselves on this litmus test of green credibility, then I’m gone.
Orton replied that I was “rather arrogant” in making this request. While the Liberal Party, or the Conservative Party, or the NDP or the Greens are only too happy to confess to their outrageous population policy or lack thereof, Orton said that I would have to ask the group individually. Which of course I couldn’t unless I was accepted and I committed my self to them on blind faith. As for himself, if I wanted to know where he stood, then I should go to his website and read his scholarly articles. That was that. All I wanted was a simple yes or no. Is Left Bio-Centric dedicated to a policy of population stabilization for Canada, and all that that implies?
Well, it looks like I finally got my answer. In a recent article called “Reclaiming the Commons” (Spring 2007), Orton states:
“Canadian Greens need to look at the ecological carrying capacity of Canada, considering the habitat needs for all species, as well as humans, before we can form positions on emotion-laden topics like immigration and population. Tim Flannery’s 1994 book The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, which I highly recommend, does this kind of population capacity study for Australia. He comes up with “an optimum, long-term population target of 6–12 million” (p. 369), meaning that country is already overpopulated. Here in Canada we need to do similar work about what an optimum human population would be and situate immigration discussions within this.”
In other words, Orton comes upon a man bleeding to death on the roadside from a car accident. Instead of simply stopping the bleeding and patching him up, he wants to first hold an inquiry into how much blood volume he has lost and whether he can get up and start moving. We don’t know what Canada’s carrying capacity is yet. We may never know what it may be. Carrying capacity is not a static concept. For example, a study done by Mario Giampietro and David Pimentel placed the maximum US population at 200 million for a sustainable economy—two-thirds its present level. But they didn’t factor in declining fossil fuel production, which author Dale Allen Pfeiffer argues could necessitate the reduction of America’s population to half of its current level. There are so many wild cards---the strip mining of the oceans, toxins in the ecosytems, military and political upheaval. In 1975 the Science Council of Canada determined that our population should not exceed 30 million people. But they were largely focusing on diseconomies of scale, environmental time-bombs of growth were not so much anticipated then.
Orton is only one of a very long line of people to call for a look into establishing an optimum population level for Canada, a carrying capacity. But Ottawa has never listened. John Meyer of Zero Population Growth proposed it in the late seventies but no one listened. Professor Michael Healey of UBC led 23 academics in 1997 on a $2.4 million study into the environmental damage to the Fraser Basin wrought by population growth. Observing similar damage nationally Healey’s report recommended that Ottawa formulate a Population Plan for the country and that provinces comply with it. The report was left to gather dust and now 20% of the Fraser Valley is covered by buildings and 10 species of mammals exclusive to that region face extinction. The Population Institute of Canada followed suit with a presentation to a parliamentary committee in May of 1991 proposing the development of a Population Plan for this country. We still haven’t got one.
Meanwhile 70% of endangered species in Canada inhabit ecoregions under duress from the population growth of urban centres. Farmland continues to disappear at an alarming rate. How many people can our environment sustain indefinitely? What is our carrying capacity? Preliminary evidence, alarming evidence, suggests that we have long exceeded it. Assuming that carrying capacity could indeed be definitively established, until then, until that magical day when policy-makers wake up to the concept, would it not be prudent in the meantime to declare a moratorium on immigration, since two-thirds of all current population growth comes from this source and soon it will be the only driver of growth?
We don’t need to, as Orton suggests, “look at the ecological carrying capacity of Canada…BEFORE we form positions on emotion-laden topics like immigration and population.”…and only “situate immigration discussions within” what some lengthy government study finds to be “an optimum human population.”
We need instead to stop the car crash victim from bleeding NOW based on the manifest evidence of our own two eyes, and worry later about the definitive diagnosis and appropriate protocol.
David Orton is a brilliant intellect with a rare and valuable perspective, which I share substantially. But I fear that he is afflicted with that trademark handicap of great scholars—analysis paralysis. The ability to see the complexities of an issue can prevent one from seeing the urgency of taking quick, immediate and simple remedial action. Additionally, of course, Orton is also a political animal, a one-time Green Party in Nova Scotia. Telling the truth about population issues in Canada and deferring to political correctness at the same time is an impossible task. Too many bridges would be burnt. That’s my take on his hesitancy over immigration reductions.
What is depressing about Orton’s position is this—if even the best mind of the greenest wing of the environmental movement, Deep Ecology, can’t see the urgent need for an immediate freeze on immigration, who on the political landscape will?