Prospects For Sustainability

(I.) PROSPECTS FOR SUSTAINABILITY (University of British Columbia) :

Here is the Executive Summary:

The Problem of Sustainability in the Lower Fraser Ecosystem

This research project explored the prospects for sustainability in the settled portions of the lower Fraser River basin, an area of roughly 3090 km2, extending from the town of Hope in the east to Vancouver in the west. This is a rapidly changing ecosystem.

Population growth is nearly 2% per year. Ethnic character is in transition from predominantly European to predominantly Asian. Lifestyles are changing from rural to urban and the economy from resource based to service based.

The region is rich in resources. The Fraser Valley contains productive farm lands while the River and its tributaries are important spawning and nursery grounds for salmon. Yet, the expanding metropolitan area threatens to overwhelm the natural resource base.

The growing dominance of the urban environment means that the balance between local self-sufficiency and global inter-dependence is shifting rapidly towards grater dependence. At the same time, aboriginal peoples of the basin are demanding protection for their traditional ways.

The lower Fraser basin, thus, exemplifies all the social, environmental and economic problems of modern industrial nations. Defining sustainable options for such a dynamic and complex ecosystem presents formidable challenges but such ecosystems are also at the core of the problem of sustainability.

The Eco-Research Project

Twenty-three faculty from 20 different departments, schools, institutions and centres at UBC and more than 40 graduate students participated in our 4 year study of prospects for sustainability in the lower Fraser. The research also involved collaboration with the federal, provincial, regional and municipal government agencies.

The project was designed to build our institutional capacity to address complex, interdisciplinary problems relating to sustainable development, to resolve a range of technical problems of sustainable development in a rapidly changing ecosystem and to design policy options for sustainable development. We put together a multi-disciplinary research team and encouraged graduate students to undertake research that cut across traditional disciplines.

Our research was structured to address four fundamental questions related to sustainability: 1) What kind of an ecosystem do we have and how did it come to its present state; 2) What kind of an ecosystem do we want to have a generation from now; 3) What is feasible for us to accomplish; and 4) How (in terms of new policies and instruments) can we accomplish what we want?

The results of our research highlighted the extent to which the lower Fraser basin has already been transformed by human activities and showed that present trends in population, economic development and land use are carrying us ever further from sustainable configurations.

Research Results

A little more than a century ago the lower Fraser basin was a forest of giant trees with extensive swamps and wetlands along the river courses. Now the valley is primarily farm and urban land and the farm land is being progressively absorbed by the growing metropolis of Greater Vancouver.

These changes have resulted in considerable loss of ecological capability. The natural community was much more productive biologically than the farm and urban lands that have replaced it. The extent of the ecological transformation is illustrated by the regional plant community which, in the lowland areas of the valley, is now made up primarily of introduced species.

Rapid human population growth and its changing ethnic composition are creating social tensions and straining the physical and social infrastructure of the community. As an ecosystem, the lower Fraser basin is sustained at present only through massive inputs of energy and materials. The ecological footprint of the basin is at least 25 times the land area of the valley.

The ecological transformations that we observe in the lower Fraser basin are driven primarily by market forces but are also encouraged by governments that see natural resources as a source of revenue and development as a source of power.

Although the region is a desirable place for human habitation the stress of intensive human activity on the land, water and biota are becoming ever more evident. Urban streams are threatened by toxic substances in storm run-off from streets. Technology for controlling toxic storm run-off is generally not being implemented even in new construction.

Intensive agriculture and improperly functioning septic systems are overloading valley soils with nutrients and other chemicals leading to contamination of aquifers and rural streams. The consequences are loss of desirable species, poor water quality and public health risks.

Analysis of community and regional plans reveals that residents of the lower Fraser are anxious to preserve rural landscapes and quality of life although there is a dichotomy between rural and urban communities in willingness to accept high rates of population growth.

Polling of lower Fraser residents shows a high concern for maintaining environmental quality but also a belief that not much can be done to contain population growth and environmental change. Plans to manage growth aim at preserving an extensive and interconnected network of green spaces, creating compact and complete urban centres with a better balance between employment and population, and minimizing the need for extensive commuting.

Unfortunately, powerful interests often work to undermine these plans. The choices that individuals make are important to achieving sustainable development. Paradoxically, individual choices often conflict with strongly stated beliefs and values, as in the stated concern of a majority of residents over air quality and automobile use at a time when individual automobile use is increasing dramatically.

The Need for Policy Reform

Changes in policies related to population, land and resources, consumption and waste management are needed if we are to move toward sustainability. What is feasible for us to achieve is constrained by a variety of factors such as the geography of the basin, the history of development and institutions to manage development, international trade and market forces, and the values and value systems of basin residents.

An important unknown is the extent to which the emerging political power of aboriginal societies will affect patterns of development. Local decisions cannot bring our community to sustainability because much depends on decisions made elsewhere. Nevertheless, local decisions are critical to our future sustainability.

Tools for Policy Reform

To ensure that our research would be accessible to decision makers, we collaborated with government agencies in the study of a number of important local and regional problems such as non-point source pollution, urban stream rehabilitation, and the ecological impact of municipal by-laws. This allowed our results to have direct influence on decision making.

The approach was particularly successful with municipal authorities for whom we were often able to provide timely information on immediate problems. We also developed and elaborated three broadly based policy analysis tools: the ecological footprint; the social caring capacity; and a computer based scenario analysis tool, QUEST.

The ecological footprint is a tool for determining the land area needed to sustain the socio-economics of any defined community. Ecological footprint analysis shows clearly how dependent urbanizing regions like the lower Fraser are on extensive and unsecured land and resources distributed around the globe.

The heuristic of the ecological footprint is being widely applied in a number of international analyses of sustainable development. Social caring capacity is a tool for examining the social impact of policies that reduce material consumption. This tool is still in its formative stages but shows promise as a means to identify policy prescriptions that reduce the ecological footprint of a community while increasing the quality of life.

The computer model, QUEST, is a tool for defining and exploring future scenarios for the lower Fraser basin. Designed to allow decision makers to explore the interactions among policy choices and to highlight the trade-offs inherent in any attempt to change local socio-economic conditions, QUEST has generated a lot of interest locally and internationally.


The conclusions and recommendations presented here all derive from our broadly based research on the lower Fraser basin ecosystem. We did not, however, attempt to come to consensus on all recommendations. It seems doubtful that we could have reached consensus on some recommendations given their controversial nature and the diversity of views within our team. Nor was full consensus necessarily desirable, as there are many workable configurations of sustainable development.

The recommendations illustrate, therefore, the kinds of changes in policy and governance that will be needed if the lower Fraser basin, British Columbia, Canada and the world are to make progress toward sustainable development but they are not the only ways to achieve that end.

Many of the more general recommendations will look familiar as similar proposals have been made in the past but not acted upon. This does not reduce their relevance. Rather, our research has emphasized the fact that the problem has not gone away and it is high time that we faced up to it. Some of the policies that we recommend already exist but have not been implemented. Again, we emphasize that sustainable development cannot be achieved with policy placebos. Real problems require real actions. Deciding to postpone action on sustainable development is the moral equivalent to deciding that we don’t care about the health and prosperity of our grandchildren.

A Definition of Sustainability

We define sustainable development as development that is environmentally sustainable, economically viable and socially acceptable.

By environmentally sustainable we mean that changes to the ecosystem do not degrade its biological productivity, biodiversity or regenerative capacity.

By economically viable we mean that the human economy is capable of satisfying the reasonable material desires of the vast majority of its citizens.

And by socially acceptable we mean that the vast majority of the population is willing to live in accordance with the rules of governance.

Our analysis of the present state of the lower Fraser basin ecosystem shows that its present structure and the way it is changing are not environmentally sustainable. The ecosystem is being transformed into a configuration completely dominated by an urban metropolis, biological productivity is being diminished, biodiversity is lost and regenerative capacity degraded.

The economy is doing well in terms of providing high material standards to the majority of residents but an increasing number of citizens are marginalized in the economy. This suggests that the viability of the economy, in terms of our definition of sustainable development, may be short lived.

Social acceptability of the rules of governance may also be in jeopardy. Public apathy and cynicism toward the present systems of governance is widely reported and many communities and citizens are calling for more locally based decision making and more accountability of elected representatives. Rapid population growth and changing ethnicity are straining the bounds of social tolerance and contributing to dissatisfaction with present governance. Although these problems can be addressed without reference to sustainability, the growing need for policy changes raises the possibility of incorporating solutions that are more sustainable. Since all aspects of governance impinge on sustainability, all sectors of government must take responsibility for promoting and fostering sustainable development.

Immigration Watch Canada’s Commentary On “Prospects For Sustainability”:

The study particularly examined the waterways of the area. It used ecological footprint theory and research when it concluded that the population of this area required an area 25 times the size of this area in order to sustain itself. It pointed out that the population in the area was appropriating larger and larger parts of the Lower Fraser Basin for itself, and, as a result, displacing the natural ecosystem.

It made 44 recommendations in which it repeatedly made the point that in order for this area to sustain the environmental quality it possessed, all levels of government had to adopt one primary objective: make a transition to more sustainable forms of development. It stated that no level of government should be permitted to argue that sustainability is not its responsibility.

Very clearly, it pointed out that the federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration was not to exempt itself or be exempted from this requirement. (It pointed out in the report that immigration was responsible for a substantial part of the population growth in the Lower Fraser Basin. Consequently, immigration was responsible for a substantial part of the ecological displacement in the area.)

It implied in the report that the federal Departments of Immigration and the Environment are working at cross purposes. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration works in a narrow world where Canada is seen as an almost infinitely empty space just waiting to be filled with people. In contrast, the Department of the Environment works in an international world where large open spaces are vital to the health of all Canadians, all people on the planet and all ecosystems.

“Prospects For Sustainability” was one environmental study which had the courage to draw a connection between immigration (that is, population growth) and the environment. Others have not been so brave. In fact, many studies refuse to make any connection between immigration and environmental degradation.