“Nature is constantly changing and you have to realize it”

Is our planet headed for a catastrophe that threatens humanity? Several trends show that the situation is not as bleak as some have claimed. In his essay Repenser la conservation de l’environnement, published this spring, André Desrochers, professor of ecology, conservation and modeling at Université Laval, tries to show the more political than scientific nature of the environmental establishment’s discourse. It offers a decidedly modernist approach to environmental challenges. Forêts de chez nous spoke to him.

our forests : In the news, there is a lot of talk about the consequences of climate change and ecological crises, which are estimated to be catastrophic. In your work, it seems that you do not share this pessimism. What gives you confidence in the future?

Andre Desrochers : Catastrophic predictions have not been proven for several decades, so I have skepticism today. I recognize that we have environmental challenges, but there are solutions. A few species at risk, such as the Quebec scallion, have survived thanks to recovery programs that have been very successful. When we roll up our sleeves, we do great things, but if we are pessimistic about saying that it is too late and life on earth will be destroyed, this attitude takes us away from action. If we warn people about a problem, it should at least be scientifically based. This is not always the case.

FCN : In your book, you explain that administrative boundaries affect the fate of a species depending on which side of the boundary it is on. If the Canada-US border were the St. Lawrence River, would the status of certain species be different?

AD : There is a difference between the biological status of a species and its legal status, which involves boundaries. For example, certain species of reptiles and amphibians whose range extends slightly into southern Quebec would have protected status here, whereas they are more abundant in the United States. This is a well-known problem among specialists and creates dilemmas. Does a “frontier” species deserve protection, or would it be better to allocate resources to a species that is here but rare elsewhere? Let’s take the case of the black duck. It is a common bird in our lakes and forests. However, almost half of the population of this species nests here. We are somehow responsible for this species. On the other hand, significant funds are devoted to the Chorus frog, a small amphibian found in the extreme southwest of Quebec, but which does well elsewhere. The decision will ultimately be political, not scientific. Science does not make value judgments. However, some present political issues as facts, which undermines the credibility and effectiveness of conservation.

FCN : You address the issue of the precautionary principle, which is widely used by governments or environmental groups against various projects. What is wrong with this concept?

AD : As currently applied, the precautionary principle is one-sided. We tend to be extremely cautious about option A—which is to give the project the green light—but pay less attention to the risks associated with option B, which is to do nothing. For example, if a logging project in a private forest is not authorized, there is an economic cost to the promoters and the community. We return to the good old analysis of comparative advantage. We must not forget human needs in the equation.

So, going back to our logging project example, the precautionary principle comes down to wanting to protect species associated with old-growth forests. The project will be refused due to prudence or will be authorized only if the developer proves that there is no negative impact on these forests. But it is almost impossible to demonstrate the absence of an effect on something. The burden of proof is completely reversed.

Conservation of the black duck causes little passion among environmentalists.  However, it is estimated that half of its global population nests in Quebec.

Conservation of the black duck causes little passion among environmentalists. However, it is estimated that half of its global population nests in Quebec.

FCN : In your book, you write that “a dug pond or a cleared area that today’s purists consider useless may be jealously guarded by tomorrow’s purists.” Can you explain your point?

AD : We have a short memory. In Europe, for example, industrial sites that once had no ecological value are now natural parks that people love passionately. Here we have Phragmites invading our wetlands and which we are fighting against. Who’s to say that in 2150 this species won’t be threatened by disease or pests, and future generations won’t try to save it because their views on phragmites have changed?

FCN : It’s the same with protected areas, right?

AD : Nature is constantly changing and you need to understand it. If a forest is home to a given species of animal today, it is not certain that that species will be there 50 years from now. Should we maintain the same ratio of plant species in the forest as it has historically? Science says nothing about it. If one day the amount of white spruce in the forest is reduced from 15% to 0% due to climate change, so be it. Some argue that the environment is necessarily more resilient because it has more species. This is not always the case. Take the ombrotrophic peat bogs in Quebec where peat is harvested: these environments are very species-poor. If we pollute this environment, other species will take over and this ecosystem will deteriorate.

FCN : While some people advocate shrinking the economy as a savior for the environment, you’re more likely to advocate ecomodernism. Describe this concept.

AD : Ecomodernism is promoting modernity to help the environment. Instead of hitting the brake, you need to hit the accelerator to innovate. I admit that it is quite a controversial concept.

In rich countries, we see that people care more about the environment and make laws to protect water and air. and it works. Air quality has improved in North America. Global forest area is relatively stable from year to year. It is increasing in rich countries but decreasing in poor countries like Indonesia because they have very immediate problems.

For the private forest, ecomodernism in particular involves GPS-supported delimitation of logging areas to move towards precision forestry to limit waste or even the development of new machines that have a smaller footprint and that have longer arms. It also embraces the circular economy, which transforms what was once waste into a resource.

FCN : Climate change brings its share of challenges for forest owners, such as new invasive species. How can they hope to mitigate the impact?

AD : I would say owners have to juggle the changes in their environment. Instead of trying to fight them, they can use them as leverage to see if they can create new products with the money that comes in. If a homeowner learns that his sugar maple will eventually replace other types of wood, he may try to preserve the species, which is very energy intensive, or he may try to figure out how to benefit from it.

Collected comments have been edited for brevity.

Rethinking environmental protection
Andre Desrochers
Laval University Press
251 pages

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of the magazine our forests.

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