Endagered butterfly may be sign of collapsing ecosystem
January 8, 2002 Page A14
When the canary falls over in the mine, it's bad news
for the miners. The monarch butterfly occupies a similar
role in nature. If it disappears from North America, many
other species, animal and plant, may follow. That should
concern anyone worried about Earth's imperfect health.
The monarch is endangered. Its fate, discussed in some
detail in a new report by an environmental commission
set up as part of the North American free-trade agreement,
tells us that much more should be done to ensure that
human beings do not inadvertently destroy this continent's
ecosystem, and by extension its long-term economic vitality.
But there are also some good-news stories, and they deserve
underlining, in part because they affirm that answers
do exist to pressing environmental problems.
The main problem, of course, is the appetite of wealthy
North America. North Americans are now buying as many
gas-guzzling trucks and sport-utility vehicles as cars.
Even last year's higher gas prices didn't stop the trend
to the bigger and thirstier. Bigger vehicles, urban sprawl,
the spread of coal-burning factories -- all contribute
to greenhouse-gas emissions, which lead to the warming
of the planet.
The immediate benefits of all this consumption are obvious:
higher living standards, including longer lives and lower
infant mortality. But the commission directs us to environmental
damage that we might not wish to see.
Global warming could lead to higher sea levels that would
flood southern Florida up to 50 kilometres north of Miami,
and create "unimaginable" results at the Bay of
Fundy, where the tides are already high. North America
now has at least 235 threatened species of mammals, birds,
reptiles and amphibians. The loss of the monarch butterfly
and other species could distort the continent's living
systems, changing the course of evolution.
Natural disasters such as the ice storm that hit Quebec
and parts east in 1998 or the Mississippi flood of 1993
are already becoming more frequent, partly because of
human pressures. Widespread deforestation, for instance,
removes a watershed's ability to absorb heavy rains, leading
to floods far downstream.
The challenge is to continue growing economically without
destroying the natural resources that underlie our long-term
economic health. But how? Give up those muscular four-wheelers
and revert to subcompacts? That's not likely to happen,
however desirable it might be.
But there is enough good news to suggest environmental
degradation is not an inevitable byproduct of growth.
A focus on water pollution led to a cleaner Great Lakes
system, with some of its once-threatened species re-establishing
themselves. Pollutants that create acid rain have been
reduced. More parks are being created to preserve natural
landscapes. Businesses are beginning to find that clean
development can pay.
And Canada, Mexico and the United States are working
together more often on environmental projects. That's
crucial because species such as the monarch butterfly
live in a global village. The monarch is threatened by
coastal development in California, deforestation in Mexico
and pesticide use on milkweed leaves, its food and breeding
ground. Any solution must be a continental one.
Still, the bad news overwhelms the achievements. Canada
has no law protecting endangered species; it introduced
one in 1996, but the bill never passed. Another bill is
pending. And the country has yet to set out concrete steps
to limit carbon emissions, in keeping with our commitments
under the Kyoto protocol.
Governments, like individuals, tend to postpone making
the hard choices until the moment of crisis is upon them.
The message from this intrinsically conservative commission
is that the moment is coming nearer. "We stand on
the edge of a global cataclysm," it said in reference
to planetary warming.
The monarch butterfly, and the rest of us, can't wait
much longer for practical measures on endangered species
and other critical environmental issues.