By Celia Brauer
Where is Hollywood when you really need it?
While many of us spent the last few weeks celebrating the holidays, the fish and wildlife of the Lower Fraser Valley of British Columbia were hunkered down in their winter homes, oblivious to the fact that soon many of those homes were about to be paved over and polluted to—you guessed it—put up another parking lot. Joni Mitchell’s infamous song “Big Yellow Taxi” was written in 1970 about Hawaii. But it could easily have been about Vancouver, which 130 years ago was a temperate rainforest with old-growth trees up to 400 feet tall, wild creatures, and salmon streams.
It seems we have learned little since the felling of the first giant tree. The present local Avatar-like scenario involves the 30 percent of the land left undeveloped in the region and a megabuck expenditure called the Gateway Program. This will add more road and port infrastructure to the Lower Mainland—an area of 2.5 million people which includes Vancouver and other municipalities. It is being built “in response to the impact of growing regional congestion, and to improve the movement of people, goods and transit throughout Metro Vancouver”.
The provincial government intends to “reduce congestion-related idling” by building more roads, which is just about as prehistoric as expanding the port facilities to “improve the economy” by offering massive numbers of containers packed to the gills with consumables from Asia a quicker route to market. Never mind that Metro Vancouver got a brand new bridge last year. Or that we just spent billions upgrading the highway to Whistler. Or that the massive budgets spent since 1982 on two underutilized above-ground rapid-transit systems and one subway line could have paid for revamping the entire region’s transportation many times over. Or that the rest of our mass-transit options remain highly compromised, and single-occupancy car usage and gridlock continues to rise.
There are plans for a Gateway North project to build a pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to a B.C. seaport to fill supertankers for oil-hungry Asia. But that’s another story with the same old fossil-fuel dependent philosophy. It is all symptomatic of a voodoo economic myth these massive megaprojects create in the hearts and minds of our present-day politicians, who appear with giddy smiles and hard hats to cut ribbons on fancy new highways. Is this really a true story? Unfortunately it is. And all this next to Vancouver, whose activist history includes the stopping of a freeway in the 1970s, which led to a strong revitalization of the city’s downtown core.
Our sad tale is that the South Fraser Perimeter Road, whose purpose is to provide an efficient link to the expanded port, will cut through and negatively impact Burns Bog—the world’s largest domed peat bog, which can be seen from space. It is home to vast numbers of rare plants, birds, amphibians, and small mammals, such as the recently discovered Pacific water shrew. Construction and habitat loss will also affect the Fraser River and its millions of returning salmon, whose numbers have already plummeted. At least 140 watercourses will be affected and existing farmland will disappear. Single-occupancy vehicles will certainly increase, and no doubt industrial and residential development will follow.
“Homes Not Highways”, “Peatland Not Pavement”, “Farms Not Freeways”, and “Transit Not Truck Routes”, say the alternate signs that activists have mounted over those erected by a government that congratulates itself on its clever use of public money.
Recently at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, thousands stood up to riot police to protest and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations spoke their sad truths while world leaders dithered. The massive elephant in the room was once again the multiheaded monster of the Industrial Growth Economy. Most people agreed we need a new world vision, one where humanity works with the Earth rather than taking everything from it. The leaders, somehow, couldn’t see the forest for the trees or rather the skyline for the high rises. They seemed still to be stuck in the mindset of endless growth, development, and consumption. It hasn’t occurred to them that, if our economy pillages the Earth that feeds us all, then perhaps it’s time to change this value system.
We fought massive world wars in the 20th century for freedom. Was it the freedom to have a roof over every head and food in every pot? Or was it the freedom to have an SUV in every driveway and a flat-screen TV in every room? Have our brains become so polluted by too much processed food, television, and car travel that we have ceased to truly calculate the real value of wild ecosystems and positive human activities that work with the Earth rather than against it? How can we not see the true natural capital in a giant peat bog full of wild plants and animals and a rich river estuary before we scar the Earth with yet another road? How can we not see the inherent good sense in retaining local farmland and creating more transit options in a world with shrinking oil supplies?
Splat goes the owl onto the truck windshield. Squish goes the snake under a car’s tires. Zap goes the farmers’ field under a bulldozer. Bonk goes the head of a killer whale against the hull of a deep-sea ship. Poof goes the home of the Pacific water shrew and the western sandpiper. No fairy-tale ending for this tragic story.
Celia Brauer is a member of the Livable Region Coalition. She is a cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society and works as a volunteer educating the public about the lost natural history of Vancouver, watershed issues, and the state of our wild Pacific salmon.