The epidemic psychosis of our time is believing we have no ethical obligation to our planetary home.
— Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth
It seemed like a good idea at the time. The time was 1912 when the Chilliwack Progress, the newspaper serving the rapidly growing town of Abbotsford, British Columbia, and the adjacent Fraser Valley, published an editorial reflecting the opinion of many of the region’s farming, ranching and development interests. Their opinion was that “The (Canadian) Dominion (and private) lands in and around Sumas Lake (in the heart of the valley) are useless and unsuited for homesteading.”
What should be done?
“The reclamation of these … lands would be a great boon (as the) now useless lands … would be rendered fertile and productive.”
Specifically, the federal government should drain Sumas Lake and its intermittently flooded, surrounding lowlands to vastly expand a small, flat area known as the Sumas Prairie. Public pressure mounted, funds were allocated, and a century ago engineers indeed “drained” the lake. The fact that this displaced Native Americans who had lived for millennia along the water’s edge was ignored at the time and soon forgotten by everyone except their descendants, who speak of it to this day.
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But, along with the fate of the Native people and the ecosystem that supported them, a bothersome technical issue was also ignored, or at least any voices of caution raised against this particular bit of “progress” were overruled. The problem was, the surface of Sumas Lake was lower than the level of the nearby Fraser River, the longest in British Columbia, and water invariably flows downhill. So, technically, the lake wasn’t drained, but had its water pumped out, drying the fertile lake bottom and surrounding lowlands. The pumps, of course, had to remain in place, because whenever the Fraser overflowed, Sumas Prairie had to be pumped anew.
But this minor annoyance was overlooked. Although some pumps had to run more or less continuously — and more of them ran during wet periods — nature had clearly been conquered, and the land was settled. By 2021, Sumas Prairie and the Fraser Valley accounted for 50% of B.C.’s dairy and poultry production, feeding some 5.5 million people. It’s also home to about 3,000 permanent residents and countless migrant farmworkers.
During the century that humans were enjoying the fruits of progress in Sumas Prairie, a rapid and dangerous change in the earth’s climate also progressed. Barely understood by all but a handful of the world’s scientists when Sumas Lake was being pumped dry, barely measurable until the late 1950s, carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion entered the atmosphere at an accelerating pace, engendering the “climate chaos” we are now seeing all around us.
Those two forms of progress converged dramatically in mid-November, when rainstorms dumped more than a month’s worth of water in 48 hours on the B.C. region. The resulting flooding left 18,000 people stranded, with the area around Abbotsford and Sumas Prairie hit particularly hard. There, an evacuation order included 121 dairy and poultry farms. Thousands of animals died; one rancher lost 40,000 chickens, and entire herds of dairy cattle were destroyed. Although rescue efforts are underway, many more animals are expected to die, and those that are rescued are often sick and must be euthanized. Additionally, hundreds of homes and farmsteads and millions of dollars in infrastructure are ruined.
Going forward, if we choose to take lessons from this and similar calamities worldwide, we’ll need to begin at the most fundamental level, and change our basic attitudes toward nature. We must entirely abandon the “control nature” paradigm and quickly adopt the “work with nature” paradigm. We must challenge every idea, held by ourselves or others, that nature exists to give to humans without their giving back at our ecological house.
Philip S. Wenz writes about the environment and related topics. Visit his blog at firebirdjournal.com.