Artists, poets and musicians make us feel, viscerally, how people destroy what they do not understand. Logic and observation led E. O. Wilson to conclude: ‘If people don’t know, they don’t care. If they don’t care, they don’t act.’
Whether you feel it in one of Drew Dillinger’s poems1 or visualise it from the sinuous beauty of mathematical equations, the song remains the same. Scientists are critical to the present and future of the biosphere and humanity, but if — and only if — we are free to communicate our findings to the voting public.
That is not the Canada I immigrated into. Rewind the tape to 1983. I am a young immigrant, ecstatic that my family has gained entry into the country. We all have mixed feelings; we love our home country of Mexico and are sad to leave it, yet we look forward to being part of Canada’s open-minded and science-loving spirit. The tape runs forward and not all turns out to be as advertised. Still, for the next 23 years Canada remains a damn good place, ruled by governments that, imperfect as they might have been, were not obsessed with burying science.
Fast forward the tape to 2006. Stephen Harper’s newly elected and still ruling Conservative Government hits the ground pounding punches in all directions. Almost immediately, the Conservatives begin to implement one of their many Machiavellian tactics that aim to turn Canada into a petro-state6,7: downgrade science as irrelevant to evidence-based decision making. Ever since, Canadian federal scientists have seen their programs slashed or buried. Those who manage to hang on to their jobs are strictly forbidden to speak about their findings to the media or the public8,9,10,11.
Imagine publishing a major paper in Science or Nature with strong implications for policies on climate change or other environmental crises, and being prohibited to write a press release about your findings, or even answer calls by journalists who came upon your paper. Imagine being a presenter at the International Polar Year conference in Ottawa and having a government ‘handler’ shadow your every move so that you do not, god forbid, slip into the unpatriotic act of speaking to journalists about energy policies that affect the melting Arctic and Earth’s climate. These scenes are not from a prequel to George Orwell’s 1984. They are the true experiences of top-notch Canadian federal scientists in the Medieval Canada of today.
A parallel tactic to muzzling scientists is to ignore them even if they do speak out. After Harper gutted Canada’s Fisheries Act, stripping away the legal obligation to protect fish habitat, Jeffrey A. Hutchings, President of the Canadian Society For Ecology and Evolution, formally asked the Fisheries Minister for the science justifying that decision12. Hutchings, a distinguished fishery scientist himself, never received a direct answer because, of course, there isn’t one13.
The Fisheries Act was gutted so that thousands of stream crossings by proposed fossil fuel pipelines would not trigger legally mandated environmental assessments that would slow down corporate agendas6,7. No wonder that, unlike many leaders of modern democracies, Harper has never appointed a Science Advisor, not even a fake one.
Canadian resource extraction policies certainly were imperfect prior to 2006. Havoc did exist before. The difference is that, back then, Canadian governments did not actively seek to convert the country into a petro-state where fossil fuels rule at the expense of democracy and science.
The downgrading of science by the Canadian government is a big deal not just to Canadians, but to all world citizens because much of the loss of evidence-based decision making, as in the gutting of the Fisheries Act and potential changes to the Species at Risk Act14, is about fast tracking new infrastructure for the extraction and export of fossil fuels. If built, that new infrastructure will commit us to many more decades of emissions and a future of perilous climate change.
I am well aware that my descendants and I will live and die in the Anthropocene15. No delusions there. And, if you allow me to digress, I will even say that acceptance of that reality has brought me peace and empowerment16.
Still, not all future Anthropocenes were created equal. We still face the choice between a fairly decent one, with lots of possibility for resilience17, versus different versions of true hell. We cannot let Harper and his Conservatives make us topple over the wrong side of the knife edge.
So I ask you, the international conservation biology community, to help us restore Canada from its regressive path back to the Middle Ages. One place to start is to write to Canada’s Prime Minister Office, copying your letter to opposition Members of Parliament18,19,20,21 and the NGO Evidence for Democracy.