Wellington Times, September 4, 2015
As we embark on yet another leg of the journey to spare Prince Edward County’s rugged south shore from the scourge of industrial wind turbines; as we prepare for the final legal battle that will weigh the destruction of an endangered species against the hunger for profit by a well-financed developer and the political avarice of Kathleen Wynne’s provincial government, it is worthwhile, I think, to consider once again the test this community, its migrating birds, its rare habitat, its Blanding’s turtles, whippoorwills and alvar are being asked to meet.
Serious and irreversible harm. In regard to human health, the test is whether the project will inflict serious harm—a slightly lower, if no less absurd, test of precaution and prudence. But let us return to the notion of serious and irreversible harm. This is the test to be considered at the Environmental Review Tribunal reconvening today in Demorestville. You will recall this same panel, consisting of Heather Gibbs and Robert Wright, sat for 40 days in 2013, hearing dozens of witnesses and examining more than 180 pieces of evidence. They concluded that the test for human health—serious harm— hadn’t been met. I contend this is a fault of the test, rather than the evidence, but let us set that aside for time being.
Gibbs and Wright, both experienced and respected adjudicators, concluded, based upon the evidence before them, the risk to the Blanding’s turtle—an endangered species— and its habitat was too great and that the developer’s proposed plans to lessen the potentially devastating impact to the turtle were insufficient and untested.
The Tribunal concluded that the project would indeed cause serious and irreversible harm to the Blanding’s turtle, so it revoked the developer’s permit to build the project.
Decision rocked the wind development industry
Their decision rocked the very foundation of the wind development industry in Canada. It sent lawyers across the country scurrying to understand the impact of this panel’s decision on billions of dollars of projects. Until the moment Gibbs and Wright’s decision was rendered, the wind industry could rightfully believe its path was clear. After all, the government of Ontario itself was handing out permits to “harm, harass and kill” endangered species.
The only hurdle in the developer’s way was that it not cause “serious and irreversible harm.” In practical terms, this signalled to the wind industry that Ontario had abandoned protections for its natural assets—enabling them to race through the regulatory process with little scrutiny. The province’s convoluted and misguided ambitions for green energy were worth more than the fragile existence of birds, animals and a few unfortunate citizens whose health would deteriorate and whose homes would become uninhabitable. As for the wind industry—it wasn’t going to worry about the moral ambiguity of a government promising to pay them handsomely for the next 20 years.
Let us return to consider the words “serious and irreversible harm.” In and of themselves, the words are meaningless. Without context of time and capacity who alive can make a determination of “irreversible harm”? How could we know that? The weight of all science and knowledge could not tell us the destruction we cause today is irreversible.
In Massachusetts, Harvard scientists have successfully implanted the DNA from a wooly mammoth into living elephant cells, thus moving closer to the prospect of reviving this long-extinct animal. While a fascinating and intriguing scientific endeavour, it helps to underline the absurdity of Ontario’s test for the protection of endangered species.
Put simply, if we can bring back an animal that has been extinct for 3,000 years—no amount of harm we can rain down upon an endangered species is irreversible. All we can know is that irreversibility is a risk. We cannot know it as a certainty. It defies logic and human experience to pretend otherwise.
Harm at Ostrander Point outweighed the benefits
Gibbs and Wright made the assessment that the risk of irreversible harm outweighed the potential benefits of the project. That is their role. As humans. They made an impossible test, human.
Our species is too destructive, too self-absorbed and too short-sighted to tolerate, in good conscience, such a low and insignificant threshold of protection for other species as “serious and irreversible harm.”
Many people around the world became apoplectic with rage last month when a Minnesota dentist shot and killed a lion in Zimbabwe. Cecil’s ugly demise became an emblem of many things—human cruelty and domination, thoughtless incursion into untamed habitats, exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, wildlife as trophies—to which many responded.
Yet if that dentist were an investor in the Ostrander Point industrial wind project, Ontario’s provincial government would happily issue him a permit to cover his office walls with the heads of Blanding’s turtles.
They do this in the name of saving the planet.
When we all sang along with Joni Mitchell to Big Yellow Taxi in 1970—a song underlining the tragedy of
modern society willing to pave paradise—few could have predicted it would be this generation overseeing its destruction—though not for parking lots but, ostensibly to save the planet. It turns out paradise was always expendable—as long as our motives seem pure.