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Harm reduction action is needed for biodiversity and climate change in an era of warning fatigue

June 20, 2019
By: 
Craig Stephen
CEO
Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative
Professor
Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan
Clinical Professor
School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia

With the publication of both the United Nations regional assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services and Canada’s 2019 Changing Climate Report have come more proclamations on the dire state of our global life support systems. As with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the many reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, readers of these reports were again reminded of humanity’s dependency on the world around us as well as our role as negative agents of environmental change. But we have heard all this before. And for a long time. The 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, Aldo Leopold’s 1949 Land Ethic, George Perkin Marsh’s 1864 warning of humanity’s impacts on nature, Zeno’s please for humanity to live in agreement in nature in 450 BC and the holistic perspective of health espoused by many aboriginal communities all speak to the need for reciprocal care – to take care of each other, our communities and our natural environments. Creating awareness that nature is not inexhaustible and that there are severe implications to our consumptive lifestyles is necessary but apparently insufficient to reverse, manage or cope with the environmental impacts of an exponentially growing human population.

Being aware of and understanding a risk does not inevitably lead to actions. Lack of experience being impacted by a hazard, lack of trust in authorities and exposure to false alarms reduce willingness to act on warnings. It is no surprise that repeated proclamations of impeding environmental doom without concomitant personal experience of impacts are creating future warning fatigue. On top of warning fatigue comes a growing sense of hopelessness from being overwhelmed by warnings and not knowing where to begin. The era of 24-hour news access has been characterized by a predominance of warnings with little advice on solutions, or more specifically, on actions an individual can take to make things better. This is disempowering a generation who sees too many problems that are too big and too complex for them to find ways that their own actions can make a difference. Risk managers need to balance providing too few warnings such that individuals cannot form an attitude about a threat with too many warnings that will lead to inaction and apathy.

Eliminating anthropogenic climate change or stopping biodiversity exploitation and destruction are goals that are unlikely to be met in the near-term. The range of complex interacting influences and the constantly changing conditions necessitate new approaches that are attentive to the inter-species and inter-generation implications of policy decisions. There is, in my view, little capacity within government to take a whole-system’s view. Pandemics planning, for example, has adopted a whole-of-society perspective but fails to account for the non-built environment. As witnessed in the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, policies are in place to advocate for ecosystems approaches to management, but it is no one’s job to build socio-ecological bridges between the human and non-human aspects of problems.

The pervasive uncertainties and simplifying assumptions that plague policy questions on how to protect the Earth and society from an ever-increasing list of mega-threats create a gap between what science provides and what society demands. Scientific advances, changes in technology or regulatory changes needed to eliminate hazardous situations can take considerable time to be achieved. Too often the harms prevail and action on shared goals are delayed due to challenges in securing the required new knowledge, regulations, or technology. Cross-sectoral policies and processes are needed to inspire actions to incrementally reduce harms across species and generations through non-judgemental strategies by better exploiting current skills and knowledge to live safer, more sustainable, healthier lives.

Governments need to develop a harm reduction philosophy as a foundation for environmental action. Harm reduction is most commonly associated with public health actions against persistent problems such as addiction and homelessness. Adapting harm reduction to our addictions to fossil fuels and unsustainable lifestyles may provide new tactics to overcome entrenched perspectives and inaction to ensure progress on shared goals. Harm reduction works by reducing the more immediately harmful consequences of an activity through pragmatic, realistic programs feasible under current conditions. It promotes relationships, structures and processes to make gains towards safer situations by incrementally reducing the negative health, social and ecological consequences to individuals, communities, and ecosystems, without relying on elimination of the hazard. Most importantly, in a time of warning fatigue, harm reduction processes may help find multidisciplinary pathway to overcome barriers to action, foster collaboration on shared goals and reduce conflict by targeting social and organisational factors that influence actions and opportunities to prevent, mitigate or cope with harms. Waiting for certainty and complete consensus is no longer a policy option.