Long before mainstream politicians were pitching voters on their environmental policies, the Georgia Straight was leading the country with its coverage of this issue. It has remained at the core of what the Straight has been about for five decades and is worth remembering as the Vancouver alternative paper's 50th-anniversary issue hits the streets today.
In 1968, the Straight quoted at length celebrated poet Allen Ginsberg’s prescient thoughts on the growing threats to the planet.
He noted that after billions of years, there has never been a “safe threshold of radiation”, including for young pine trees that were dying from it in the forests of Canada.
“The safe-threshold thing turned out to be bullshit, just a bullshit phrase,” Ginsberg declared in the pages of the Straight. “The safe threshold was always a myth and was put over by Time magazine and government officials as being some very considerable, reasoned judgment on the part of mature, responsible executives, who were just a bunch of bad guessers all along.”
He also talked about how the greenhouse effect would become irreversible by 2000, poisoning the atmosphere with carbon wastes and melting polar ice caps. It’s eerie to read those words today.
The Straight also covered local environmental issues in those days. In a 1969 cover story, the then Social Credit government was being ripped for its “misnamed” pollution-control board by the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation.
The big issue that week was the possibility of drilling for oil in the Gulf of Georgia, which migrating salmon pass through on their way to the Fraser River and their spawning streams and lakes. Try to imagine what might have happened if that had this drilling ever been allowed.
One of the Straight’s regular writers in that era, Stephen Brown, also covered the impact of oil pollution on ducks in Burnaby Lake. Six companies were allowing oil to flow into Still Creek or tributary ditches, Brown reported.
Nowadays, Burnaby is at the centre of perhaps the most significant contemporary oil-related controversy: the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Some things never change.
In 1971, one of the hottest issues in Vancouver was a plan to build a $40-million Four Seasons Hotel at the entrance to Stanley Park. Writing in the Straight at the time, alderman Harry Rankin called the scheme “baloney”, noting there should never be private projects in this location.
“Why must we be subjected to one shameful scheme after another by Council and politicians who are so obviously in the pockets of the real estate promoters?” Rankin asked.
Also in 1971, a young Straight journalist named Paul Watson reported on the massacre of seals on the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Watson went on to found the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, write five books, and lead the international fight against Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. In a recent unpublished essay, he described the Straight as “the anvil upon which the modern environmental movement was forged”.
“As an environmentalist for more than a half-century, I can attest that the Straight covered environmental issues at least two decades before the mainstream media bothered to notice that there was actually an environmental movement,” Watson wrote.
Part of the reason was that Watson regularly filed articles about his confrontations on the high seas with those who wanted to kill whales, seals, or other marine creatures.
Some of the early writers at the Straight were on the first Greenpeace voyage, to protest a U.S. nuclear test off the coast of Alaska. And the old issues include a litany of coverage about that organization, which was founded in a church basement in Vancouver and went on to become an international environmental colossus.
When Greenpeace cofounder and Straight writer Irving Stowe died in 1974, the headline on Bob Cummings’s article simply stated: “Earth Loses a Good Friend.”
“He never put himself ahead of the cause or tried to collect a reward in personal ego and fame for all the work he did,” Cummings wrote. “He was honest but never allowed that truthfulness to become a tool of hurt.”
In that era, Vancouver writer Daniel Wood wrote one penetrating article about dissension within the Greenpeace Foundation between those who were on the first voyage and those who were on the second. And it included some classic Woodian touches that became familiar to his readers in the following years.
“Both groups shared, I’m sure, the secret excitement that comes from being suddenly famous, from looking at this newspaper, that newspaper and knowing, KNOWING down there at skin level that—like a massage or making love—fame felt good,” Wood wrote. “And when combined with a powerful commitment to social change: Fame felt terrific!”
Another well-known writer who appeared in the Straight in those days was Donald Gutstein. In 1976, he wrote a detailed investigative article revealing how the UN Habitat housing forum was giving preferential access to business interests over authentic community groups and ordinary citizens. It wasn’t to be Gutstein’s last exposé in the pages of the Straight, as he later wrote about Stephen Harper, the Fraser Institute, and an Olympics-motivated land rush in the Sea to Sky Corridor.
Protests about visits by Trident nuclear-powered submarines also made the pages of early editions of the Straight, including a 1978 cover story in which these vessels were seen as a “life and death” issue.
In those days, there was a growing desire in the business community to mine uranium in B.C. That led to many demonstrations, which eventually forced the Socred government to impose a moratorium. This too was covered in the Straight, including a report of one man being struck by a flying piece of timber when a uranium drilling crew’s truck crashed through a protest barricade.
Famed anarchist writer George Woodcock offered his views on local environmental issues in a 1979 article. He noted that one cabinet minister, Rafe Mair, “was perhaps a little more aware than most Social Credit politicos of the issues at stake as the lower mainland, and particularly the Fraser delta region, is being staked out by land speculators and invaded by industry and housing”.
Mair, of course, went on to become one of B.C.’s leading environmentalists, later writing about this passion of his in the Straight and other publications.
When a recession hit B.C. hard in the early 1980s, the Straight turned its attention to music and movies in order to survive. Publisher Dan McLeod decided to give away the paper for free to boost circulation. But he never lost his passion for environmental issues.
When the company found itself on a firmer financial footing in the early 1990s, the Straight started covering environmental issues with a sophistication that exceeded what it was able to accomplish in its early days. Below, you can read a list of just some of the topics that were addressed from that point forward.
Martin Dunphy reports on the near extinction of the lingcod in local waters, which has since become a cause célèbre for marine biologists and conservationists.
Dunphy looks at the growth of Greenpeace from its humble Vancouver origins into an international organization with globe-girdling ships, hot-air balloons, hundreds of employees, and thousands of volunteers.
Ben Parfitt exposes how a public-relations firm called Burson-Marsteller, which had previously worked for a military junta in Argentina, crafted a campaign to rescue the beleaguered B.C. forest industry’s reputation.
Terry Glavin tells readers everything they need to know about the mysterious Fraser River white sturgeon. Two years later, he does the same thing in a feature about Fraser River green sturgeon.
Dirk Beck rips the lid off Alcan’s Kemano Completion Project, quoting federal fisheries scientists saying their career paths were blunted and their voices were silenced for criticizing sharply lower proposed water levels in the Nechako River.
Parfitt discloses that the parasite cryptosporidium is in the watersheds that provide drinking water to Lower Mainland residents. The same pathogen caused more than 400,000 people to become ill and more than 100 deaths in an outbreak in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The regional district eventually decides to invest in new approaches to filtration that screen out crypto and bans most logging from watersheds after the Straight continues to cover the issue.
Glavin quotes defenders of Brackendale’s bald eagles vehemently opposing a plan by Squamish council to build an airport.
Another of Parfitt’s epic and trailblazing articles concerns the rapid growth of the natural-gas industry in northeastern B.C. He notes that it has turned a large part of the province from a net carbon sink into a carbon producer. As billions of plants were destroyed by the industry, carbon housed in them escaped into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
Crawford Kilian’s cover story looks at the implications of global warming, including the possibility of crop failure and rising skin-cancer rates.
Charlie Smith reports on a plan by B.C. Hydro to sharply increase carbon-dioxide emissions from the Burrard Thermal power plant from 1.7 million tonnes in 1994 to 2.9 million tonnes in a pending upgrade. It prompts B.C. Energy Coalition policy analyst Dermot Foley to say B.C.’s signature on a federal greenhouse-gas-stabilization plan “is not worth the paper it’s written on”.
Nancy Baron chronicles a shocking decline in the number of songbirds in the Lower Mainland and around the world. “Songbirds’ problems multiply as their habitat disappears, forests are fragmented, and they are exposed to new predators—such as cowbirds and crows—for which they have no strategies to resist,” she writes.
Seattle environmental researcher John Ryan tells Charlie Smith that the B.C. economy is among the most polluting on the globe. “I’d say that British Columbians are world-class polluters, generating their own body weight in greenhouse gases every day,” he says.
Shawn Blore reports on unregulated pesticides being dumped into B.C. waters by salmon farmers, as well as outbreaks of diseases in Atlantic salmon introduced into B.C. pens.
Baron interviews UBC researcher Daniel Pauly and other experts about the systematic obliteration of fisheries around the world. “Using Ecopath, an innovative computer program, they constructed models of all the marine food webs: who eats what and how much,” she writes. “Then, for each species harvested, they determined its place within the web. Between 1950 and 1994, the levels of species fished had crept steadily downward, a sign of ecosystem exhaustion.”
Daniel Wood explains why an environmental catastrophe looms if residents of the region don’t recognize that the single-family house is an anomaly of modern history. He also reveals why continuing with this form of development will promote urban sprawl, consuming farmland and green space.
One of the early leaders of Greenpeace, Bob Hunter, returns to the Straight with a fiery piece about climate change. He points out that while tiny news items about this topic are hidden away in the mainly anti-environmental mainstream press, all 15,000 glaciers in the Himalayas are melting at a rate of 30 metres per year. “Of course, truth to tell, what we really need is an immediate planetary revolution to overthrow the fossil-fuel cabal and its political goons; then we can launch a global emergency mobilization to bring in the solar panels and wind farms,” Hunter writes.
Sixteen years before the Fort McMurray fire, Parfitt looks at the likelihood of more blazes in Canada’s boreal forest as the planet warms and the snowmelt diminishes. “Meteorologically speaking, B.C. is quite dry in the summer, typically because of an upper ridge that establishes over western North America from California all the way up to the Yukon. Now, this is speculation, but the upper ridge may be building earlier in the year or season and breaking down later in the fall than presently. So the increase in fire season will be most pronounced where this upper ridge is located,” researcher Mike Flannigan tells Parfitt.
Sarah Cox exposes how negotiations at the World Trade Organization could facilitate the approval of a Walmart store in South Vancouver.
Environmental researcher Will Koop tells Smith about the “strong connection” between the B.C. government’s changes to forest policy and timber companies’ donations to the ruling B.C. Liberals. “Now that they [forest companies] have a very dominant government—a very sympathetic government—they want to bypass public involvement and participation,” Koop alleges.
Alisa Smith makes a compelling case for introducing meters in people’s homes to forestall future water shortages. UBC water expert Hans Schreier tells Smith that although the regional government talks a lot about conservation, it fails to take aggressive action.
Parfitt files an intriguing feature about why raptors are thriving in urban areas. “They adapted to the changes we made and are flourishing. And that is where there is hope,” he writes.
In an article entitled “Underwater Real Estate”, Mitchell Anderson looks at how unprepared parts of the Lower Mainland are for “the one-two punch of increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels” as a result of climate change.
Anderson examines how Canadian media outlets are giving sustenance to the climate-change-denial movement by sowing doubts about the scientific consensus on global warming. The article, entitled "Trust Us, We're the Media", puts a UVic climate-change expert, Andrew Weaver, in the spotlight. “If there is a significant difference between the PR efforts of the tobacco industry and the fossil-fuel industry, it is size,” Anderson writes. “The oil, gas, and coal sectors make Big Tobacco seem positively puny by comparison.”
Parfitt writes “The Sin of Air Travel”, which reveals the effect that transoceanic flights are having on climate.
Roberta Staley delves into the consequences for marine species of massive amounts of plastics being dumped in the oceans. “Already, humans are exposed to an estimated 29,000 chemicals present in the environment through cosmetic additives, flame retardants, gasoline byproducts, pesticides, paint thinner, and dry-cleaning products, to name but a few,” she writes. “Now, it appears, we are also ingesting our chemicals—as an entrée.”
In "Fight Over Fish Lake", Andrew Findlay reveals that a mining company wants to turn a lake with an estimated 85,000 rainbow trout into an impoundment reservoir for toxic mine-waste rock. It creates an uproar, and the so-called Prosperity Mine southwest of Williams Lake is never approved.
Lisa Mickleborough writes a provocative feature noting the difference between animal-rights and animal-welfare advocates. And she questions why the welfare of cute, furry animals generates far more attention than the rights of all creatures to live a life free of being exploited, owned, or commodified by humans. “The outcry about the cat that got bagged and beaten in the Downtown Eastside suggests that it is somehow worse to torture an animal for sadistic satisfaction than it is to torture an animal for, say, taste—even if they are both equally unnecessary,” she writes. “It also takes the focus away from the pet industry, where suffering in puppy mills is rampant, and shifts the focus onto the ‘sick, malicious’ residents of the DTES.”
Chris Wood writes the first major newspaper feature in B.C. on hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, for natural gas—and the magnitude of water this process requires. “Gas companies like EnCana point out that additives make up only about one percent of the volume injected,” Wood says. “But if you do the math, that’s still 20,000 litres of concentrated chemicals per frack.”
Alex Roslin offers up a devastating exposé on Canada’s meat-inspection system. The situation is so bad that the Americans declared that the federal government wasn’t meeting U.S. standards for processed meats.
Matthew Burrows interviews four high-school students from Windermere secondary who’ve come up with a plan for an Earth Day parade in East Vancouver. “When we talk about tarsands, I feel a little bit ashamed,” Cassandra Ly says. “Our political leaders are not stepping up to the plate to talk about these issues.” Since then, the event has grown into an annual tradition on Commercial Drive.
Roslin reveals how Metro Vancouver’s proposed $470-million waste incinerator could expose residents to potentially toxic nanoparticles.
Daniel Wood explains why everything from shellfish to real estate is at risk of eradication as ocean temperatures rise and the water becomes more acidic.
“Ecological footprint” co-creator Bill Rees tells Burrows that it’s “unethical” and “immoral” for the Harper government to promote pipelines such as the Northern Gateway project.
Wood is back again with another major environmental feature, this time on how farmland is threatened by the expansion of port and road facilities in Delta. This industrial and commercial expansion is supported by the Tsawwassen First Nation, drawing a rebuke from the MLA, Vicki Huntington. "I’m tired of hearing about the First Nations as ‘protectors’ of Mother Earth," Huntington tells Wood. "They’re just repeating our mistakes!” The chief of the band, Kim Baird, responds with a lengthy letter to the editor, as does Port Metro Vancouver.
Gail Johnson writes a cover story about how intensive shrimp farming overseas is an environmental disaster because so many drugs are used in the production process that they cause antibiotic resistance. This leads shrimp farmers to turn to more toxic products known as phenicols and nitrofurans, which have been linked to severe illnesses in humans.
Daniel Tseghay examines whether Canada is prepared for the rising number of refugees displaced by the effects of climate change. “Extreme weather events like Typhoon Haiyan, the global reduction of fish stocks and staples such as rice and wheat, rocketing food prices that trigger unrest and social instability, disputes over dwindling water reserves—all these developments are putting pressure on people to migrate,” he writes.
Travis Lupick reignites the debate over whales in captivity, a story the Straight has covered for decades. His lengthy feature examines why the mortality rate is so high for orcas born in aquariums.
The Straight has given extensive coverage over the years to B.C.’s trophy hunt for grizzly bears. Wood looks at this issue through a business lens, making a strong case that the tourism benefits of keeping these animals alive outweigh any profits generated by the guide-outfitting industry by maintaining the annual slaughter.
Lupick examines where the so-called Sixth Extinction is playing out in B.C. “How seven billion humans are collectively warming the planet is an invisible but devastating example of what scientists increasingly agree is the beginning of the Anthropocene: a proposed epoch defined by Homo sapiens overtaking nature as the dominant force on Earth,” he writes.
Charlie Smith reports that the number of cycling trips in Vancouver rose 32 percent over the previous year. The City of Vancouver’s director of transportation, Lon LaClaire, points out that there has been a decrease in collisions involving cyclists as their number has sharply risen. “These young people behave differently than the young people of 20 years ago,” he says.
In a lengthy pre-election article on Straight.com, Smith poses the question: “What’s a B.C. climate voter to do?” It offers guidance to environmentally minded voters torn between casting a ballot for the B.C. Green party or the B.C. NDP in the May 9 provincial election.