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Expired · 11th October 2010
Ray Grigg
Most of our environmental problems do not occur suddenly. They arrive slowly, building gradually, stalking us with a creeping inevitability. A behaviour that we consider normal becomes an occasional inconvenience, then a frequent irritant, then a persistent problem, and then an unstoppable finality. The momentum of tradition and habit dulls our awareness to the forewarning of imperceptible change until – as so often happens – the outcome that we do not want cannot be avoided.

If we lived in a static world that was not being constantly changed by our human enterprises, the pervasive equilibrium would not provoke environmental concerns. But we have combined nearly 7 billion people with an unsettling process we call progress. In the euphoria of constant transformation, most people forget that we are remaking and reshaping our surroundings in ways that are not always beneficial to ourselves or to the natural world with which we are committed to co-exist.

An awareness of this incrementalism is one of the distinctive characteristics of environmentalists. Like everyone, they want healthy lives, safe communities, clean air, pure drinking water, nutritious food, plentiful natural resources, beautiful surroundings, natural places, abundant wildlife, and so on. Unlike others, however, they respond earlier than most to the gradual ecological deterioration that is transforming our planet. When do ominous signals become a meaningful pattern? When do strange anomalies become a worrisome trend? When do rare exceptions become a dreaded inevitability? Incrementalism provides critically important insights to almost any environmental issue we can name.

If we notice fewer butterflies or songbirds in any given year, does this identify a problem? If the trend continues, does this constitute a warning? If sinking populations of butterflies and songbirds happen concurrently with collapsing numbers of frogs, turtles, fish, caribou, elk, grizzlies, primates, tigers, leopards, rhinos and thousands of other animal and plant species, should this register alarm? At what point in a gradual process do individual events coalesce into a pattern that warrants our concern and remedial action?

The difficulty with assessing incremental change is that every individual event can be explained away as an exception, rationalized as an irrelevant anomaly – until Grand Banks cod or bluefin tuna reach the brink of extinction. Then, if commitment and possibility allow, we attempt the arduous and costly process of trying to fix what we failed to recognize was slowly sliding toward disaster. So we have salmon hatcheries and recovery programs for sea otters and Vancouver Island marmots. Similar efforts exist for condors, pandas and orangutans. A plan to save tigers from extinction will cost $85 million per year. Replanting the millions of hectares of BC trees eaten by the mountain pine beetle is a monumental repair job necessitated by the unanticipated consequence of gradually warming winters. And in a double irony for BC, the risk to wild salmon created by the growing prevalence of open net-pen salmon farms has its origin in our historical abuse of the wild fish for which the farmed fish are supposed to be a substitute.

Incrementalism is mostly the history of unanticipated consequences, our failure to recognize the ultimate effects of our behaviour. Name an environmental problem and, with rare exceptions, it is moving toward a condition we would rather avoid. Like the birth of a single child or the draining of a marshland, no individual event seems to be a cause for concern. Each is barely noticed in the moment-by-moment passing of the present. But put many such events together on a regional, national or global scale, and we have too many people, habitat loss, resource depletion, water shortages, soil erosion, excessive garbage, desertification, deforestation, toxicity, rising sea levels, ocean acidification.... The list keeps getting longer.

This illustrates another difference between environmentalists and others – they notice the meaning of the moment. One more coal mine, whether it be the Raven proposal in the Comox Valley or the Quinsam expansion in Campbell River, is one more step on a path leading to a trouble. If we are to reverse global warming, then each individual contribution to rising carbon dioxide levels is actually and symbolically important. Only when the damaging effects of incrementalism enter our consciousness can we reverse the foreboding that seems to shadow our age.

Climate change illustrates the difficulty of this undertaking. Any individual weather event can be dismissed as an anomaly of no general significance. The horrific damage of Hurricane Igor in Newfoundland, the extraordinary flooding in Saskatchewan, the droughts in Russia, the record heat waves elsewhere, or the recent and unprecedented deluges for Northern Vancouver Island and the Bella Coola area can all be rationalized as meaningless exceptions if we don't recognize the patterns hidden in incrementalism.

We know from historical precedent that our consciousness and our ability to act in the interests of ourselves and our environment operates in a very clear and predictable way. Like emergence in Systems Theory, gradual change is absorbed by the containing system with barely noticed effects until suddenly – like a pot of water over a low stove heat – the whole system dramatically reorganizes itself in response to the imperceptible accumulation of heat.

The same dynamic applies to ecological systems also applies to our collective psychology. But, because we humans seem to be more complicated and less predictable than our physical world, we can't predict when this emergence of a new consciousness will happen. But it will happen. Incrementalism guarantees it.