Deforestation of Long Branch contributed to house building in Toronto

Long Branch (Toronto not New Jersey) was in times past covered with forests through which several small streams flowed into Lake Ontario. The animals in such an environment would have been great to listen to. Palaeo-Indian nomadic hunters in Long Branch once would have heard the great animal orchestra which Bernard Krause (see link in previous sentence) has described.

Most of the forest canopy is gone. Most of the streams now run underground. It would have been impossible, after the late 1790s, to keep the streams clean and aboveground once European settlers had arrived.

Since the last Ice Age, the shoreline near of Lake Ontario in the area of Long Branch has travelled some ways north, during the Glacial Lake Iroquois phase of the lake, and some ways south during the Admiralty Lake phase of this body of water. When the lake was at its lower phase, Etobicoke Creek gave rise to what is now an underwater valley.

The human presence dates back to the arrival of Palaeo-Indian nomadic hunters about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. During those years, successive waves of vegetation have colonized the area. Forests covered Long Branch in 1797, when Colonel Samuel Smith built a log cabin.

The European settler community that appeared starting with the colonel cleared out the forests. The flooding at the mouth of Etobicoke Creek dates from the time when the land was cleared.

The deforestation of Long Branch, as with deforestation elsewhere, is an apt illustration of instrumental reason at work. The trees were in the way; the means to cut them down were at hand; the work of clearing the land proceeded. Similarly, the subsequent engineering of the mouth of Etobicoke Creek is a familiar story, which has been repeated elsewhere.

It was much the same story across southwestern Ontario. As Alice Munro has remarked in The view from Castle Rock (2006), early settlers in Ontario were not pleased to see trees in their line of vision. It may be noted that there were exceptions.

I have the sense that settlers they felt they didn’t have much choice with regard to trees. They had a job to do; cutting down trees was part of their work.

Engineering of rivers

The straightening or engineering of streams and rivers, as in the channelizing of Etobicoke Creek, and the building of dams, serve as illustrations of instrumental reason.

In an article entitled ‘A short history of dams,’ in Water matters: Why we need to act now to save our most critical resource (2010), Jacques Leslie describes China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest dam. The dam is nearly one and a half miles wide, has a reservoir nearly 400 miles long, has displaced at least 1.2 million people, and has flooded large numbers of communities (13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages).

Leslie speaks of dams as the “ultimate expression” of the Industrial Age, built on the “impossible premise” that nature can be conquered. Initially, he notes, dams are providers of electricity, irrigated water, and flood control but the benefits are temporary, “while the damage they inflict on societies and landscapes approaches permanence.”

With regard to the Three Gorges Dam, Leslie notes that “Hundreds of factories mines, and waste dumps were inundated as the reservoir filled; now their effluents are combining with untreated sewage that continues to be dumped into the Yangtze River to create a festering mire.” The rising reservoir has set off landslides, changed the local climate, and led to problems at the river’s mouth and beyond.

That said, Leslie also refers to the strategic value of dams. The modern dam era was ushered in by the Hoover Dam in 1935. “Energy from Hoover, Grand Coulee, and other early hydroelectric dams transformed the America West, enabling the growth of such cities as Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix, and facilitating the Allied victory in World War II by powering the factories that built American warplanes and ships.”

The daylighting of streams enables them to emerge to be observed in daylight after years after they had been engineered, through what has been called the ‘conquest of nature’, out of their previous mode of existence.

Are technological solutions available for climate change?

It can be argued that instrumental reason drives climate change. Can instrumental reason, in the form of technological innovation, enable humanity to survive in the face of climate change? Some would argue that some problems in life do not have technological or technical solutions. Some would argue otherwise.

I’m reminded of comments by Harald Welzer in Climate wars (2012). He notes that as a result of climate change, some parts of the world will become more favourable for agriculture and more attractive as a holiday destination. The economic consequences will be variable as well. He adds (pp. 11-12):

“Naturally there are variations between branches of the economy: producers of renewable energy would benefit, while tourism would lose out. But all in all an immediate change in climate policy is thought to offer an economic opportunity for the West. Improved energy production, more efficient appliances of every kind, hybrid vehicles, biofuel, solar panels and much else promise a rose future. There is even talk of a ‘third technological revolution’, although this overlooks the fact that the first and second are the causes of today’s problems.”

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