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Trevor Hancock: Let’s govern as if we live on an island

One of the many things the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed is the extent to which we have become dependent on all sorts of products — from face masks to food — that come from away, as Newfoundlanders would put it.

One of the many things the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed is the extent to which we have become dependent on all sorts of products — from face masks to food — that come from away, as Newfoundlanders would put it.

So as we contemplate the need to plan a transition to a One Planet Region, we should think about becoming more self-reliant, a theme I will explore in this and the next two columns.

In our Conversation for a One Planet Region in September 2019, Rick Kool, a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University, gave a fascinating talk about the fact that we live on an island. If we were an island-state, he said — and there are 41 of them in the world — “we’d be the world’s 10th largest by area and 18th largest by population.”

But his key message was that we do not live or act as if we live on an island; we have seven regional districts, 37 municipal governments and about 50 First Nations communities, but there is “no Island government or system of governance, no Island Minister, no Island voice and no Island decision-making.”

Kool looked at some of the ways in which we are dependent on supplies and resources from away, starting with food. He estimated the 780,000 residents on Vancouver Island would need about 11,000 square kilometres of agricultural land for our food production, given our current high meat and dairy diet. This is more than 10 times the amount of land on the Island in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

He cited a 2011 report that found gross farm receipts for Island farmers in 2006 represented only three per cent of the estimated $5.369-billion expenditures on food on the Island. So in 2006, 97 per cent of our food came from away. (Interestingly, a 2006 government report found “B.C. farmers produce 48 per cent of all foods consumed in B.C.”) Clearly, we are a long way from being food-self-reliant on the Island, although we need to also add in the food we get from the ocean that surrounds us.

Turning to energy, Kool pointed out while we use about 6.5 million litres of liquid fuel every day, there is no hydrocarbon production on Vancouver Island, which means all our fossil fuels are imported. And when it comes to electricity, he added, while we can produce about 2,000 Gwh via Island hydro-electric generation, residential use alone is about 4,200 Gwh, with an unknown additional amount used by industry.

As a result, he noted: “Today, approximately 80 per cent of Vancouver Island’s electricity is delivered through underwater cables from the B.C. mainland,” adding that “if all the Island dams were working all the time, we might need only 60 per cent from the mainland.”

Turning to the issue of governance, he noted that the fact we live on an island goes almost entirely un-noted in municipal or regional plans. After examining available plans from the Island’s municipalities and regional districts, he reported, “there were only three examples of what I was looking for”: A reference to the fact we live on an island. Moreover, he added, “the term ‘electricity’ doesn’t show up in any of the CRD planning documents or strategies … neither does ‘gasoline’ or ‘natural gas.’”

And astonishingly, he noted, “no regional district addressed the impact of population growth,” other than to see it as “something that is as uncontrollable as the rain,” while few plans mentioned where waste would go and none mentioned our ecological footprint, the environmental impact of increased population or where food and energy will come from.

Kool concluded by stating we “have to be willing to confront ‘what is’: We live on an island with fragile and tentative tethers to the mainland and an ecological footprint that far exceeds our ability to provide.” While recognising that “not all problems are island-scale problems … in the absence of island-scale governance, no problems can be dealt with at an island-scale.”

And most profound of all, he suggested: “If we can’t recognize the ‘island’ reality of Vancouver Island, will we ever be able to recognize the reality that Earth, too, is an island?”

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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