Susan Hannon’s cautionary tale (March 8 “Don’t follow Kauai’s example” letter) provides a stark picture of the downsides of thoughtless development — development that destroys the quality of life for visitors and residents alike.
If done with great social and ecological sensitivity, the quest to develop the local economy can bring about a better future for our island — providing good jobs for the plethora of talented and hard-working people we have here and have a hard time keeping here, owing to inadequate housing and lack of good jobs. But if development is done thoughtlessly, we can end up shooting ourselves in the foot.
That’s what evidently happened in Kauai. Just a few decades ago it was one of the most attractive places on the planet, and it is now overrun by development. And unless we are conscious of the negative outcomes that thoughtless development produces, it may well be that a similar prospect is in the offing for our island.
While the view over our harbours seems to be as idyllic as ever, looking a little more closely one sees some disturbing signs: thick clumps of waste-fuelled algal blooms in Ganges Harbour; gashes in the hillsides from loss of forest cover — the footprint of logging or of development of ridge-top homes; “staircases to the sea” all along our coastline, with little or no attention given to the degradation of the landscape, measured in terms of soil erosion; oyster beds closed to harvesting owing to persistent contamination; and it goes on.
Looking towards our lakes, they too gleam on a sunny day, but they also brim with excess algae, sometimes even toxic — the telltale sign of inflows of sewage and sediments. Soil erosion, lost forest cover, and other consequences of development are undoubtedly factors in the ongoing and seemingly now unstoppable deterioration of the health of St. Mary Lake — despite the endless studies and half-hearted attempts to remedy the situation.
The fundamental problem is not with development per se, but with our insensitivity to its consequences on our island’s limited capacity to be self-sustaining, on the landscapes we cherish, and to the community building that we desire.
Even under the Islands Trust, success in pursuing the “preserve and protect” mission has been all too limited over the past four decades. Why? The failure is not owing to defects in the mandate. It is owing to lack of authority and will and community buy-in to carry it out.
Will we fare any better under an alternative form of governance? That is difficult to say, but if experience elsewhere is any guide, the answer is likely no. There is no indication that a municipality will be any more successful in preserving and protecting our priceless heritage in nature and culture, which is in danger of moving ever closer to the tipping point.
What is needed is not necessarily a change of governance, but a change in attitude.
Winston Churchill once reportedly remarked: “Attitude is a small thing that can make a big difference.” I fervently believe that a change in attitude is our only hope for a viable future — not only for our island, but for the whole world beyond our shores.
We need serious reflection on the fundamental questions of what we truly value in life and how we can achieve it. Economic development can become a vehicle to reach our goals, but only once those goals, and the social values that guide them, are fully articulated in a way that makes us more whole: as a community of shared values and aspirations, with a deep sensitivity to the critical importance of sustaining the life that sustains us.
The writer is a Salt Spring resident, and a former science advisor to Statistics Canada, where he spearheaded the development of a statistical system for assessing the impact of human activities on the state of the environment.