“The People and the deer fused in my mind, an entity. I found I could not think of one without the other, and so by accident I stumbled on the secret of the Ihalmiut.”
I was reminded of this quote from Farley Mowat’s book, People of the Deer, when reading about the debate currently taking place over the impact of seismic testing on the marine wildlife in Lancaster Sound and, by extension, the northern communities that rely on that wildlife.
The connectedness of people with their natural environment, including the wildlife, is important and something you can’t put a price on. This was the message of Nunavut judge Sue Cooper and one of the reasons why she blocked a seismic study of Lancaster Sound. She states, “The loss extends not just to the loss of a food source, but to loss of a culture. No amount of money can compensate for such loss.”
Lancaster Sound is a body of water north of Baffin Island in Nunavut that is rich with marine wildlife. It is the home of narwhal, walrus, beluga whales, seals and polar bears and is an important migratory route. The abundance of life is so substantial there it has been dubbed the “Arctic Serengeti.” It is also an area that has yet to be explored in terms of its mineral and resource wealth.
That is the aim of Natural Resources Canada, which is interested in conducting a geo-mapping program in order to “increase our knowledge of the geology of the North.” This seismic involves firing an air gun underwater to gather data. This process, they say, presents very little risk to wildlife. The Inuit, however, disagree and argue that previous seismic testing resulted in death and hearing damage to wildlife, and caused whales to alter their migratory route.
Many important questions remain unanswered in this case, including: What is the scientific evidence of the impact of seismic on wildlife? Was the consultation process with the potentially impacted communities sufficient? And, what is the intended use of the geological knowledge obtained through this seismic testing?
What is interesting to me isn’t whether blocking the seismic was a good or bad decision. What’s interesting is that there was an acknowledgement of the larger philosophical concept that place matters—that individuals, communities and cultures’ sense of self is informed by their natural environment and you can’t impact that environment without impacting the people within it.
It is easy to forget sometimes that the value of the natural environment can’t be readily quantified in economic terms—although various solutions from Bentham’s utilitarianism to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness indicator have been attempted. The valuation difficulties are not easily overcome, as the case of Lancaster Sound illustrates. It is possible to conduct seismic testing to learn about the type, quality and quantity of mineral deposits on the bed of the Arctic Sea and assign a numeric value to it; but, is it possible to assign a price to the value of a preserved natural environment to the culture and identity of the Inuit?
Having a connection with nature is important for all people, not just aboriginals or northerners. A love of nature is one of the few things that unites all Canadians. For example, 98% of Canadians state that they view nature in all its variety as essential to human survival, 90% consider time spent in nature as children as very important and 82% say nature has very important spiritual qualities for them personally (Environics International, 1999).
This connection, or bond, with the natural world is especially significant for western Canadians whose psyche and character are informed by the expansive lakes of Manitoba, the broad prairies of Saskatchewan, the jagged teeth of Alberta’s mountains and the rhythmic ocean on British Columbia’s shores.
This means that whenever we disrupt the natural environment we need to be asking: what is the impact of a disrupted, polluted or otherwise unhealthy natural environment on our sense of self and community? Or, to put it another way, if you woke up tomorrow and the salmon stock had collapsed, the lakes were too polluted to swim or boat in and grizzly bears were extinct, how would that impact your understanding of what it means to be western Canadian?
As we search for the correct balancing point between economic development and environmental conservation as a region and a nation, we need to keep in mind that the natural world matters to our sense of self. Although both the economy and the environment are important there are some variables, such as identity, that you can’t readily put a price on. As Mowat notes, identity and nature are fused, they are an entity.