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Let the scum burn!

July 4, 2012

A couple of years ago, my wife and daughter and I meandered across British Columbia by the voice of a GyPSy. GyPSy is a portable tour guide driven by satellite that plays through the car stereo. Packed with history and geography lessons, it should be worth course credit at any school. At a cost of $300 for two weeks, it was our best investment in the entire vacation. It not only kept us informed on our surroundings – it also freed my wife from searching for stops and sights along the way. That alone was worth the fee. We learned much about the formation of the Rockies, the wildlife, how marijuana is the biggest cash crop in British Columbia, and about the early development of the West, as focused by the search for railway passes through the peaks. We saw the location of the Last Spike. We saw the old growth cedars. We saw a train passing under itself in a grade-reducing circle through a mountain. We saw otherwise unmarked, yet beautiful, waterfalls just a short walk from the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper. None of these opportunities would have come to our attention without advance warning from the GyPSy. I recommend it without hesitation to anyone considering a drive through this region.

Of particular interest, we learned about controlled burns to forested lands in British Columbia. Long before logging became prevalent there, indigenous people conducted 'prescribed' burns to help regulate the growth of both plants and animals. They had good reason. For example, when the forests grew too thick, deer wouldn't come. The burning of forests promoted lush new growth that attracted deer and other targeted wildlife for hunters. More recently, patches of forest were burned to prevent the spread of disease or severe wildfires. While much effort has, in past, restricted both natural and controlled burns, in some places, this has resulted in greater damage to both forests and homes. If you exclude fire in the natural state, the minor 'reset' that it would bring kicks up a notch, and then another, and yet another, until you're faced with nothing less than a catastrophic reset. Trees were not meant to grow as old as some are allowed to grow. As usual, our efforts to control nature leave us… and nature… a loser. Natural fires are part of the give and take of nature. This give and take is central to my theme today. Nature is self-correcting without our intervention.

To my point, nature is most often in better shape without our intervention. By killing off wolf populations, for example, we've eliminated nature's doctor. Wolves target the weak and the sick among their prey, leaving the healthy to thrive. Notwithstanding our insistence to the contrary, nature knows very well how to manage and protect itself.

Lake Winnipeg, located in south central Manitoba, is the eleventh largest freshwater lake on the planet.

File:Lake Winnipeg map.png

Though only 12 metres deep (on average), its watershed covers almost one million square kilometres, reaching across four Canadian provinces and two American states.

The lake empties through the Nelson River into Hudson Bay.

Late one night last week, I watched an excellent documentary on CBC's Nature of Things, by David Suzuki, depicting the impacts of our intervention on Lake Winnipeg.

Historically, tourism and fishing have been key benefits derived from this lake. In recent times, the fish are bigger and more plentiful, bringing good times to that particular business.

Manitoba Hydro has damned up the lake in the north, creating what is described as the third largest reservoir in the world. As a result, water has been artificially maintained at a stable level. On first glance, this might be seen as a good thing. Stability is a good thing, right? Not necessarily. More on that shortly.

Two significant agricultural practices, in combination with the stable water level, have created an unsustainable environment for Lake Winnipeg. The fishery is at risk of full collapse. Tourism is already feeling the effects.

Agriculture has been a mainstay of the Lake Winnipeg watershed for as long as the region has been settled. It ranks among the world's top producers of wheat and other grains. Of course, bigger and better have been key watchwords for agriculture in recent decades. The trend is no different in the Lake Winnipeg watershed. One of the by-products of this trend has been the draining of wetlands in the reclamation of territory for agriculture. Another has been a dramatic rise in the presence of phosphorous. Here's the thing. The wetlands have not only acted as a sponge for excess water, preventing downstream flooding which, in itself, is now a perennial threat in southern Manitoba. The wetlands have also acted as a filter for excesses in agricultural fertilizer, such as nitrogen and phosphorous.

The oscillating water level in Lake Winnipeg has, in past, enabled a natural correction to imbalances in plant and animal life, such as algae. No longer oscillating… no longer so.

Excessive phosphorous in Lake Winnipeg has resulted in overgrowth of algae. This is great for fishing, as the food chain is rich for the fish… to a point. After that point, the algae content becomes way out of whack, collapsing on itself, sinking to the bottom of the lake, and sucks all the oxygen out of the lake in aid of the decomposition process. No oxygen… no life. No life… no fish.

What's more, the proportions of blue-green algae have risen from 30% to 90% in some measures, leaving parts of the lake overrun with toxins. By toxins, I mean, you can't swim there. Small animals have died within hours of ingesting lake water spoiled by the related cyanobacteria.

Complex systems are delicate constructs. Sometimes, a single piece removed brings the whole system tumbling down like a Jenga tower. This applies to nature's ecosystems and to market-based economies alike. Amass a collection of interdependent market-based economies, and the construct becomes even more precarious. Stir in an unhealthy portion of Ponzi bets that represent a game twenty times the size of the world economy… what's left is not a pretty sight.

Like the drainage of marshlands in Manitoba and like the disproportion of nitrogen and phosphorous, sub-prime mortgages and derivatives have spun our world into notched-up hyperspace, leaving little alternative but full collapse and a complete reset. Like the blue-green pond scum allowed to dominate Lake Winnipeg's ecosystem, another breed of scum have taken over the world markets. These people are now in a position to bring down the entire ecosystem. Lack of oversight, self-regulation (otherwise known as non-regulation), and a compromised government bureaucracy leaves us with little semblance of the free market that once was. I sense a Farley Mowat novel in here somewhere… "The Market Who Wouldn't Be."

Money levels artificially maintained inhibit the market's natural ebb and flow, and with it, the opportunity to cleanse itself of scum and toxins. Failure must be allowed. Imbalances must be allowed to correct themselves naturally. Artificial propping of the economy, in the end, does nothing more than enable weak performance to be sustained and tolerated. Nature must be allowed to take its course. The alternative is no more than a delay of inevitable collapse, and with it, an even more catastrophic impact when it finally kicks in.

Nature cannot be managed by unnatural means. It can only be accommodated, perhaps somewhat understood, and if we're very lucky, employed to advantage. Intervene against natural forces at your own peril.

Nature has clearly prescribed a 'burn' on Wall Street… maybe a burn 'of' Wall Street. This part of the equation is not disputed by many, if any, persons of sound reason. The great flaw in response to this prescription is the adopted notion that nature can be held back as by the touch of a single finger. Alas, it can not.

So far, our response to nature's call reads more like one of those pharmaceutical disclaimers in TV commercials. You know the drill… "this product will help clear up your pimples… we're obliged to tell you, however, that it may also lead to impotence, kidney failure, cardiac arrest, and/or death… but be assured that your skin will be in pristine condition when you're laid to rest." Or… as the old saying goes, "the operation was a success… the patient died, but the operation was a success."

I'm compelled to ask, "what exactly is the purpose of this so-called operation?" Are we hoping to defuse the IED, or just dance around it in a game of musical chairs until the music stops and someone else can be convinced to pick it up and take the blame when it explodes?

Where does this line of thinking leave me? Having walked through this exercise in analogy and metaphor, am I better equipped to make decisions? To protect myself and my family from what is surely to come? To position myself on the right side of the falling tree? I honestly don't know.

I am, at the same time, left to wonder. Have I got this 'natural/unnatural' scenario all wrong? Given that human society seems so uniquely capable of bringing on its own demise, I do wonder. I wonder if this periodic societal demise is, in fact, a natural event. If yes, the parallels between nature and our 'unnatural' creations may, in the big picture, be closer than I think. Is it our nature to experience ebbs and flows just like lakes and streams and wildlife populations and forests? Is it our nature to interfere with nature? I have to think about that one for a moment longer. Specifically, is it a natural course for scum to rise to the surface, overpopulating positions of power? Are all our outcries of protest no more than spitting into the wind of natural forces?

The answers to these questions may add no value to my little corner of the world… but I do wonder.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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