Our relationship to nature is as interconnected as our relationships with each other.

If we want to ensure that industrial activities are incorporating (or, as an economist would say, internalizing) potential environmental impacts during the planning stage, an ecosystem approach is crucial. Today, I’ll show you why.

What’s an ecosystem approach?
It’s looking at things as a whole. For example, if you have a stomach ache, a good doctor won’t just ask you questions about what you ate. She might also ask you about whether you’ve had a fever or whether you have any allergies. The doctor looks at your heath with consideration of your whole body and how the parts are connected.

If we want to assess the impact of our decisions on our natural environment, we can’t simply look at the impacts on water only. And we can’t look at the impact of one project only. We need to consider all of the previous projects and add up the impacts. And then we need to look at how land, water, air and living things (including us!) will be impacted.

(Less than) Six Degrees of Separation
Do you ever find yourself thinking, “Wow, what a small world!” Usually, this happens when you discover a relationship between someone you’ve met and someone you’ve known a long time. I often find that the degrees of separation between me and a stranger are much smaller than six, particularly when I’m talking with folks who have similar interests.

Two weeks ago, Environmental Defence’s Nancy Goucher and I spoke at Sustainable Kingston’s first Lunch and Learn session and made a deputation to the Kingston Environmental Advisory Forum. At both meetings, I discovered that strangers had connections to someone I know well at the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

Similarly, you may have a strong relationship with a particular lake or river. What you may not know is that the lake or river may be connected with a lake or river that you don’t know. Let me show you how that works.

When I was a child, my family rented a cottage on Moore Lake every summer. Now that I have a family, I often drive past Moore Lake on my way to my parents’ home on the Drag River. During these trips, I tell my son stories about my Moore Lake adventures. When I was his age, I had no idea that Moore Lake was closely connected to Lake Ontario. How? Because the water from Moore Lake (located in the Gull River watershed) eventually flows into the Bay of Quinte, on Lake Ontario, via the Trent River.

Why we need to bridge the gap
Ecojustice is advocating for environmental law principles to be included in the proposed Great Lakes Protection Act. Why? Because we must consider the connectedness of our freshwater systems when making decisions that impact the quality and the flows. What’s happening near one lake, river, or wetland can have an impact on other waters downstream.

Everything comes full circle
Kingston is downstream of it all in the Great Lakes. And that brings me back to the recent talk in Kingston, where participants shared their water concerns. Some concerns were local issues — safe beaches and a shoreline plan. Others concerns were more distant, such as the proposed nuclear waste dump in Kincardine, Ont.

I immediately understood these concerns as being “connected” to water. What we do on land impacts the quality and flow of water. It also reminded me that our decisions about land use impact the homes of vulnerable plants and animals. We need to adopt an ecosystem approach to ensure that endangered and threatened species can survive. Such environmental law principles are clearly contained in Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, which was passed in 2007. The purpose of the legislation is to protect at-risk species and their habitats. Unfortunately, the government has broken its promise.

That’s why Ecojustice is representing Ontario Nature and Wildlands League in a legal challenge to the government’s decision to exempt certain industrial activities from the Endangered Species Act. Rather than giving industry an easy ride, we need to ensure any impacts to species are discussed and avoided during the decision-making process.

Effectively employing an ecosystem approach is at the core of both Ecojustice’s endangered species litigation and freshwater law reform files. Enshrining environmental law principles into our legal system is what we do.