The St. Lawrence Great Lakes are the heart of North America, central to its history, and the core of its development as the industrial heartland of Canada and the United States. However, we have acquired a debt over the past four centuries through the exploitation and abuse of natural resources. Only in the last century did we recognize threats to the sustainability of these irreplaceable resources and rally to their defense. Now the unrelenting demand for further growth in population and the economy, along with laisser-faire governance, has made this an uphill struggle.
During the decades of the 50s, 60s and well into the 70s conservation of natural resources was well supported, and cooperatively pursued by most governments and businesses. To be working in this field was gratifying. Although environmental issues of that time were often local, more obvious and more amenable to remediation than today’s problems, nonetheless, the prevailing mindset was positive, forward looking and sincere.
From the 80s environmental issues increased in scale and complexity – half of North America affected in one way or another by acid precipitation, chemicals toxic at extremely low concentrations for very long lifetimes, and the emergence of global climate disruption. The additional scientific challenges were met head on, but governance was changing and eventually cast a chill over environmental protection. Although some progress has been made on Great Lakes problems – phosphorus controls, bans of the worst contaminants, waste management infrastructure, minimum tillage and integrated pest management in agriculture – overall there were usually two steps back for every step forward.
Regrettably, business interests are gaining greater control over government policy and programs. At the present time in Canada and until recently in the US governments grew more and more antagonistic to their own scientific staffs. They became blatantly hostile to pro-environment groups, branding some as illegitimate radicals. The socio-economic paradigm, with business at the center, leads us to environmental, social and economic crises that expose the flaws in our society. The trust we place in governments to govern by democratic principles in the best interests of its citizens is deteriorating. When a crisis strikes leaders are more likely to ask how they should fine-tune the economy than to ask how the crisis should change our values and priorities. Most governments are inclined to isolate single issues and interpret them politically, thus overlooking opportunities to follow a principled ecosystem approach to management. The ecosystem approach is a paradigm in progress, and, in practice, it is jeopardized by current economic planning and governance.