Ecosystem is a way of thinking about how an environment is shaped, a way of thinking about the forces impinging on the system, about the flows into and out of the system, and about the processes transforming one into the other. We can think this way about the boreal forest and we can also think this way about Canada’s largest metropolitan area. As Toronto grew, it became known as the Greater Toronto Area, or the GTA. The interactive area that wrapped around the west end of Lake Ontario was known as the Golden Horseshoe. The much larger area that now functions as a megalopolis is becoming known as the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

7 – 1: The Greater Golden Horseshoe has expanded around the Niagara peninsula all the way to the border. Here, from the Niagara River, we can see to the north across Lake Ontario to the skyline of Toronto and suburbs to the east.

The Greater Golden Horseshoe is included as a ‘special place’ because explaining in broad-brush strokes how this ecosystem functions exemplifies how the role of natural processes can be almost totally displaced by human-generated forces that do not fully duplicate the natural processes. The effects of transboundary economics and politics on the Peace-Athabasca Delta and its peoples illustrated an early stage of this replacement. Now, in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (the GGH), we will see the nearly complete transformation from natural processes to economic, political and policy processes governing an environmental system by technological interventions. “Discovering Natural Processes”1, the title of our earlier book, is no longer a key to understanding the ecosystems of the GGH but recognizing those processes that have fully or partially dislodged the natural processes may be necessary to manage systems such as the GGH.

The GGH is the most populous urban region in Canada, including, at this writing, 25 municipal regions and over 5 million people and expected to add another 2.3 to 4 million by 2020. The GGH extends from Lake Scugog in the east to Hamilton in the west, north past lake Simcoe virtually to Georgian Bay and up the Niagara escarpment to Caledon. The GGH wraps around the west end of Lake Ontario to include Hamilton and the Niagara peninsula all the way to the USA border at Niagara Falls.

First, when thinking about ecosystems, it is important to recognize that the notion of an ecosystem is a concept, not a place. It is a system that is ecological. A system with inputs and outputs and internal processes converting one into the other. An ecosystem is not a piece of geography. An ecosystem will be difficult to analyze unless it is realized that the system may be composed of various components scattered in space and in time but all influencing those inputs and outputs and the processes connecting them.

An ecosystem can be at any scale. It can be a single acorn with all the inputs from the oak tree, all the forces and all the insects and bacteria and fungi affecting the acorn and all the flows of acorn products out into its surroundings. But we could just as well define our ecosystem of interest as the whole oak forest, which then would be the whole mosaic of patches of oak scattered across the landscape and interacting to keep each other viable. This would be a landscape-scale ecosystem.

7 – 2: Patches of degraded land in strategic locations are handed to conservation agencies such as the Toronto Region Conservation Authority to remediate and protect. But degraded behaviour of taxpayers makes the task difficult.

7 – 3: The Rouge River.

As with many other focal points, many citizens’ groups wanted a piece of the action and had their own agendas for action, adding to the difficulties of degraded environments and impacting behaviour of excessive users

Here, for the GGH, we are considering an ecosystem large enough to include a great city, intimately connected to the Great Lakes, with inputs and outputs connecting across a province and into other nations. The ecosystem of the GGH is global.

In this part of southern Ontario, dominated by metropolitan Toronto and the GGH, many people are concerned with protecting residual remnants of semi-natural southern Ontario habitats.

What are the forces controlling the environment of these remnants under the regime of strong economic and demographic development? What controls the ecosystem of this part of southern Ontario? The focus of this discussion of the ecosystem of the GGH will be mainly the residual ‘natural’ areas and, thus, will clearly be a partial view. The GGH is the environment of over 5 million humans and their urban cohabitants. We will not investigate many important functions of the human environment in this discussion.

7 – 4: Nature trails do little for nature when badly used. Politics and funding are among the pressures pushing conservation programs and infrastructure increasingly toward supplying amenities rather than moving back toward natural or semi-natural systems.

7 – 5: As natural systems become more difficult to achieve, conservation targets are lowered. Users adapt and pressures for higher achievements fall away.

Large settlements originated for several reasons, such as group protection and ease of transport, but there was an ecological-economic reason also. The root of the ecosystem relationships of metropolitan areas such as the GGH began in the ancient Sumerian civilization. The fundamental interaction was simple. A group of townspeople could specialize as artisans and create goods that were needed by the settlers in the surrounding region. That created wealth. The settlers in the surrounding region were farmers and stockmen and could provide food to the townspeople. As the artisans in town created wealth, money could be substituted for manufactured goods and towns could exchange money for food from farmers. An ecological-economic system was set up at the very beginning of towns and cities. The rural settlers did the maintenance work on the ecosystem that produced food for all and the townspeople paid for that ecosystem maintenance by their creation of economic wealth. This fundamental work loop2, linking ecology and economics, still exists and it still requires the rural areas to do ecosystem maintenance for the urban centres.

But the work loop has been extended beyond the simple exchange between the city and its rural surroundings. “Outsourcing” now forms trade loops between the GGH and countries scattered over the globe. The forces of consumerism in the GGH may be directed by complex political-economic interactions that are not under the control of the administrators and policies in the GGH. Global-scale adjustments would be required to deliver effects in the GGH.

When the priorities of business and economics spread into the environment surrounding a city, the residual natural habitat becomes fragmented and remnant patches are widely separated. We would risk serious misunderstandings if we were to ignore the forces that are crossing into those remnants from their surroundings. Even with our best efforts at protecting habitat remnants, forces from the ecosystem outside the remnants cross their boundaries and exert critical effects within those remnants.

The Hutchinson Memorial Forest at Rutgers University in New Jersey was set aside and safeguarded more carefully than most remnants. It was a pristine 60 acre native hardwood forest. It was fenced and entry was carefully controlled. This forest has never been cut, never grazed and its last fire was in 1711. Clearly an above-average remnant. Yet the Hutchinson Forest was invaded by Norway maple, a European invader, by tree-of-heaven, an Asian invader, by Japanese honeysuckle, gypsy moth, and many native species that normally occur only in unforested habitats. Even without considering air pollutants, climatic changes and many other external forces that undoubtedly crossed its boundaries, it is clear that a much larger-scale ecosystem was affecting this carefully secured patch of forest.

What are the driving forces of the ecosystem of southern Ontario that contains those remnants of natural systems that so many are fighting to preserve? Because the ecosystem of the GGH is part of the ecosystem of all of southern Ontario, and of the Great Lakes basin, including the United States, we see easily that there will be many forces crossing into and out of all these arbitrarily bounded systems. But they are systems. Ask anyone who lives or administers in them and they will list many dependencies that interact to form each system.

So as a means of depicting the ecosystem of the GGH, we might look at the most powerful and influential forces affecting the functioning and the future of the ecosystem of southern Ontario. Fundamentally, the ecosystem of southern Ontario is driven or powered by a flow-through economic system. Consumerism generates the major forces affecting the environment of the GGH, the ecological system in which any remnants of natural systems are imbedded.


Consumerism may be illustrated by its advertising:

“Owner Linda Elfassy’s carefully curated boutique is stocked with all manner of saucy covetables. Among them, leather jackets from Alpha Industries (makers of U.S. military coats), silk dresses from L.A. line Sweeties, and mini-chalkboard pendants from designer D-licious (for the fickle, you can re-doodle your look with every wear)”.

Toronto Life, February 2007.

The separable forces generated by the consumer-based economic system include: energy flow and conversion, business forces, urbanization, motor travel and transport, farming, and resource extraction.

These forces are directed by: land use planning, taxation policy, landowner stewardship, policy for groundwater and for surface waters, transportation policy and industrial agricultural policy. All these driving forces are shaped by internal, decision-support systems for: business executives, tax policy formulators, municipal planners, transportation engineers, agribusiness executives, engineers, construction executives, etc.

Technical training, such as engineering or business school, does not equip graduates to deal with values which, other than the monetary, tend to be interdisciplinary. Rapid metropolitan development also is a poor process for developing an interdisciplinary set of values to guide technical judgements. Consequently the major forces controlling the environmental system of the GGH lack a system-wide set of values when those forces are being generated and are taking effect. The technological substitutes for the displaced natural forces lack an integrating force comparable to the organizational force of an ecosystem. Global-scale perspective and high level abilities for synthesis will be needed.

Focussing effort and resources on remnant habitat patches is, in essence, arbitrarily selecting bits of a much larger ecosystem without paying attention to their surroundings and to the forces impinging on them from those surroundings. Conservation management for such remnants becomes very similar to gardening or farming. In both, humans try to carry out all the system maintenance with much-diminished assistance from natural processes. We contract for all the cultivation, seeding, feeding, watering, and outstandingly, all the weeding. Keeping out all those invaders. In natural ecosystems, natural processes, sometimes called ecosystem services, do all maintenance work. In semi-natural systems, or semi-dominated systems, we try to keep enough natural self-maintenance processes functioning so that we can afford to do the remainder of the system maintenance.

We can easily visualize doing all the maintenance on a single farm field or a small garden and, falsely, we extend that notion to very large environmental systems. But we have found repeatedly that we cannot do all the work necessary to safeguard the integrity of systems even as large as a small town. Water supply and sewage treatment are easy examples. Faced with that difficult realization, we must decide between amenities and convenience, on one hand, versus maintaining the natural processes for long-term system maintenance, on the other.

Under duress we commonly sacrifice the natural processes, thus taking on more work that we must do if the integrity of the system is to be preserved. There are many easy examples of the trade-offs: municipal garbage management is required instead of natural decomposition of wastes; transporting milk from afar is required so we can build subdivisions on the traditional dairy farms area; a seaway into the centre of the continent enhances trans-Atlantic trade but allows importation of exotic species into the Great Lakes. There is much more knowledge about invasive species than is being considered or applied.

Fundamental ecosystem processes have been displaced by the metropolitan development of the Greater Toronto Area, and to a major degree by the entire GGH. Primary food production by the “Green Magic” of capturing sun energy and storing it as food products is the most basic.

After World War 2, more than half the dollar value of Canadian agricultural production was accomplished in a fifty-mile wide strip between Montréal and Windsor. At the same time, Toronto was supplied with all its needed milk products from an area of dairy farms just outside the city, especially to the northwest.

7 – 6: Soft fruit production on the Niagara peninsula gives way to high value crops of vineyards and greenhouses.

7 – 7: Our diet must change from apples to wine or we must truck in the apples.

That area is now the development centred on Brampton and its eastern and western suburbs. Milk products must be transported from much farther away, in some cases across provincial and national borders. Rather than try to insert some agricultural production into the urban mosaic, as has been done extensively in Europe, our consumer economy substitutes excessive transportation for detailed planning.

Similarly, another combination of fundamental natural processes, decomposition and recycling, also has been allowed to fail. Wastes generated by the GGH have gained much prominence by following the same default — substitution of transportation for a malfunctioning local process. The failure of decomposition was more complex than simple spatial displacement. The consumer economy at the root of GGH development has steadily distorted the natural process of decomposition and recycling by inserting an ever-expanding suite of difficult materials into the waste stream. Many come from offshore and many are exported from the GGH as difficult wastes. Where once the waste stream was totally decomposable by natural processes into products that could all be recycled into nutrient feedstocks for the process of natural production, wastes are now a mix to be feared. Modern waste is toxic to the natural processes of decomposition and a source of even more toxic end products threatening water, air and living things. Again, in some cases, the problem has been shipped elsewhere, as if the recipients were not part of our system. Complex wastes, such as electronic gadgets, have been sent to China where some component materials can be recycled as feedstocks for industrial production. The remaining, nasty, difficult components simply become the problem of the Chinese. Failure of this basic natural process has far-reaching effects that expand the decomposition process of the Greater Golden Horseshoe to the global scale.

7 – 8: If food production is not sufficiently profitable, highly productive land becomes substrate for subdivision development.

This location is near the old “Fruitland Road”.

7 – 9: Greenhouse crops must have very high value to afford hi-tech industrial greenhouse operations.

But we adapt. We always do. Economists have pointed out that any environment has a capacity to absorb wastes and, until we reach that capacity, we are not getting full economic value out of an environment. So we can work right up to that limit. And then what? Invoke new transportation policy and a combination of private and public funding to pay the cost and move the garbage out of the GGH ecosystem? Wrong. The very act of moving the garbage somewhere puts that place firmly into the GGH ecosystem. The chemical or mechanical production of the waste, whether in factory, business or home, the costs in resources and the economic costs of handling and treating the waste and the severe impacts of the transportation of the waste all must be taken into account. Full-cost accounting, including natural capital and all resource costs, would be only prudent. The ecosystem will consider all costs whether we do or not.

After much ‘development’, the question of system-wide forces affecting the environment may be raised by politicians such as Ron Kanter3 and David Crombie4. Later still, citizen’s groups such as Ontario Nature5 may take up the questions. The City and provincial agencies responsible for the metropolitan area are following those earlier leads in large-scale remediation efforts such as the Toronto waterfront revitalization project and the Oak Ridges Moraine project.

7 – 10: “Just in time delivery” rationalizes our actions in allowing transportation policy to overpower policies that could protect natural processes that are fundamental to sustainable futures.

Remediation efforts try to assume some of the costs of systems maintenance but the system’s ecological integrity has been degraded or destroyed completely. Natural processes have been functioning poorly or have been eliminated for a long time. Without functional natural processes, the actual structures of an ecosystem decay or disappear. System structures such as soils, plant species, animal species, habitat furniture such as stumps, snags and topographic features must be brought back before remediation can proceed to restoration of vital ecological processes.


“It is impossible for urban conservation agencies to separate conservation management practices from amenity provision.

The establishment of self-sustaining aquatic communities will improve environmental health on the waterfront. Aquatic habitat restoration will increase aesthetic quality, recreational opportunities, public health and safety and the desirability of waterfront spaces, acting as catalysts for considerable social and economic benefits.”


As community development grows close to the waterfront in places such as Port Union, massive shoreline restoration projects are removing environmental damage left by industry. Remediation by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) is ecologically thoughtful but clearly also is aimed at providing amenities for the dwellers of the adjacent new housing. Because the storm water drainage from earlier, less well-regulated housing cannot be brought to current standards, storm water outflows cannot be integrated into the shoreline restoration and must be left as outstanding aberrations. Upstream storm drains are an example of the environmental debts from the past and demonstrate the impossibility of remediation of some fundamental environmental processes. The dog-walkers appeared in this shoreline restoration almost before the sod was down. So did the Canada Geese but the value of this remediation of ancient damage to the Lake Ontario shoreline awaits future judgement. Adaptation to changing lake levels must be left for the future.

7 – 11: As part of a billion-dollar waterfront restoration program, a shoreline restoration project at Port Union has protected the lakeshore from encroaching housing.

Residents and their dogs clearly asserted their ownership of this new public park before its completion

7 – 12: Shoreline remediation at Port Union has replaced scars of earlier industrial impacts with garden-like shoreline designs — this location. But further east, new industrial impacts are still being delivered.

How will the new ‘hardened’ shoreline design be adjusted as lake levels change?

Elsewhere along the waterfront, the TRCA is transforming industrial dumping areas at the end of the Leslie Street spit, now known as the Tommy Thompson Park. This historical dumping ground for dredged and industrial wastes is being rebuilt as lakeshore wetlands. Wetlands are being built from scratch on top of an accumulation of industrial wastes, with a long-term view to creating and restoring 500 hectares (1235 acres) of marshes. Fill is trucked in to cover the “brown” soils. Tree stumps, trunks, brush and many other things are brought in as ‘furniture’ for the de novo marshes. Rafts are built for tern nesting sites. Banks are constructed for bank swallow nests. Native plants are given a start in what will be a long struggle against the weedy exotics left from the area’s industrial past. It is a construction site, yet many tolerant native birds are using it, despite the trucks and bulldozers, and devoted TRCA staff are there to guide these hopeful colonists.

7 – 13: This construction site is building a freshwater marsh on top of a retired industrial toxic waste dump on the Leslie Street spit, now becoming the Tommy Thompson Park.

7 – 14: ” Stumps and logs from new housing developments are used as ‘furniture’ for wildlife in this new marsh.

The sharp-edged earth bank in the left background was built as a nesting site for bank swallows. They used it in its first year!

A remediation program in Toronto’s urban High Park illustrates programs started by volunteer stewardship. This program is aimed at restoration of natural processes, rather than technological supplements substituted for natural maintenance processes. With the knowledge from volunteer research that the vegetation community of High Park originally was a form of black oak-tall grass savannah, a group of citizens seized an opportunity presented by a strike of city works staff. The strike halted grass mowing in the park and the volunteers convinced the city that mowing could be permanently stopped in most of the park in order to allow some return toward the historic grass and oak savannah. The citizens, in co-operation with the City, provided several types of remediation in the park, including planting cultivated specimens of the original savannah species. They realized that the park could not be an island ecologically.

Unless a surrounding buffer was provided, aggressive exotic plants, such as garlic mustard, would quickly invade the park and their work to restore the oak savannah would have less chance of success. They offered additional seeds of the original species native to the park to homeowners in a large area surrounding the park and encouraged and helped them plant these in their home yards. In a brilliant stroke, they educated the surrounding public and increased the buffering capability of the area around the park.

Citizen-city co-operation in restoration of natural processes reached a peak when controlled burns were applied to simulate the role of fires in maintaining an oak-grass savannah. In a city park!

7 – 15: Supported by the research of a citizen’s group, the City adopted management programs to restore the original oak savannah of High Park.

7 – 16: With good ecological information and great care, controlled burns are being used to foster black oak–tall grass savannah in a park in the core of a city. On a provincial or broader scale, this is a miniscule and expensive venture but philosophically, it is a major change from lawnmower parks.

City stewardship used heavy construction methods to convert the intensively managed and human-dominated Grenadier Pond into a less managed wetland. In a process similar to the construction of wetlands on the Leslie spit, materials and ‘furniture’ items were bought in to help form a designed version of a natural wetland. Remediation was the intent. Naturalizing the tamed pond. But the jargon of modern nature management fails to describe the process. Amenities for urbanites certainly are gained but eventual results and their importance to the provincial, national and global environments await future judgement.

7 – 17: In Grenadier Pond, near backyards of too-close houses, logs have been added as wildlife ‘furniture’.

Cormorants were not the target but our restructuring of the Lake Ontario fish fauna has made them unavoidable just like the other ‘native’ weeds, the cattails taking over the shallows here.

Our economic and political desire for trans-Atlantic shipping into inland Great Lakes ports of two countries was combined with engineering skills in the 1950’s to produce the St. Lawrence Seaway. Directly and indirectly that post-war flexing of our technological muscles has almost completely restructured the fauna and many natural processes of the Great Lakes. Our piecemeal responses have illustrated our human capacity for adapting to changes in our environment that later are found to be errors. The introduced exotic fishes of the Great Lakes, such as the Pacific salmon, have been turned into commercial enterprises that are so valued economically that they are now untouchables — sacred fish.

Food fishes and invertebrates at the base of the Great Lakes food chains have been strongly affected by the Seaway. A prominent example is the importation of zebra mussels, probably as larvae in bilge water, and their subsequent population irruption in the Great Lakes and their spread to many inland lakes. Zebra mussels are filter-feeders and their huge populations soon filtered out much of the organic particles and live plankton from the water. Many expressed delight with the resulting clear blue water. But that clear water could no longer support the food chain that fed walleye and other native fishes. Cottagers were left with both fewer walleye and clogged water intakes.

7 – 18: Pacific salmon brought into the Great Lakes by sports fishers have been developed into a thriving business. They also have been part of a distortion of the fish fauna and the ecology of the lakes that may be irreversible.

7 – 19: The economic investment and potential of the Pacific salmon fishing business in Lake Ontario apparently is given higher value by society than is a sustainable set of natural processes in the lake.

While they filter out particles of organic matter, the zebra mussels also accumulate botulism toxin, which is passed along to the round goby, a predator fish that eats the mussels. The zebra mussel-eating goby is also an exotic invader from Eurasia. Native diving waterfowl that eat the gobies die by the hundreds from the botulism toxin. The invasion of these and several other organisms have distorted the fauna and are upsetting the structure of the food chains in the Great Lakes and other neighbouring lakes.

Although usually considered unfortunate accidents of biological geography, in the final analysis these events have been caused by our decisions to value economic processes higher than natural processes. We are allowing one new exotic species into the Great Lakes each year. We have assumed that we were able to take over more and more of the processes necessary to maintain our environment in a state that suited us. Repeatedly, we fail to predict the complexities of the outcomes of our political-economic decisions. But we adapt easily, with little care for the future.

Outdoor Canada, in its 2007 Fishing Special, published a guide to 79 hotspots for fishing in Canada’s cities. For Toronto, eight hotspots were recommended. Carp were the target in three of those hotspots, Pacific salmon in three, steelheads in one and brown trout in two. All exotics! Native pike got five mentions, perch, bass, crappies and catfish each got one. Once again, we have adapted to accept lower quality ecological outcomes and have refused or are unable to make the effort to restore the original higher quality environmental features.

Carp are invaders brought by settlers from Europe as ethnic food fishes. They escaped and succeeded in many degraded, warm water habitats. Carp have degraded many spawning and nursery habitats of native fishes.

Pacific salmon were brought by sports fishing groups from the Pacific, released, and raised on both sides of the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, the introduction was supported and was rationalized on the grounds that the salmon would control the burgeoning population of alewife. Alewife is a saltwater fish that migrates to freshwater to spawn but they also can survive as landlocked populations in fresh water. They entered the Great Lakes through the old Long Sault canals, before the Seaway, and moved through the Welland canal to the upper lakes. As long as there was a large lake trout population, there was no concern with the alewife. When the lake trout were severely reduced by the sea lamprey invading through the Seaway, combined with commercial fishing pressure, huge numbers of alewife appeared and exerted both predation and competition pressures on native fishes.

Conservation agencies together with sports fishing groups followed the oft-repeated mistake of seeking other exotic predators, the Pacific salmon species, to control the exotic alewife that had invaded earlier. These salmon have taken up the niches of the native lake trout and of the native Atlantic salmon, both species that we are now trying to restore to the Great Lakes at great cost. Pacific salmon are now running up Great Lakes rivers and streams, attempting to spawn and taking over habitat from other native fishes. We drove the Atlantic salmon to virtual extinction in Lake Ontario by blocking its spawning streams with small mill dams during our pioneer phase of development. Now, some believe, we have a prosperous, and untouchable, alewife-Pacific salmon industry. The final irony is that alewife tissue contains an unusual concentration of the enzyme thiaminase which destroys the endocrine thiamine. Thiamine reduces Pacific salmon reproduction and by feeding so heavily on alewife, salmon suppress their own reproduction. So this constructed exotic-exotic, alewife-salmon combination is self-sterilizing! Pacific salmon populations in the Great Lakes are maintained only by constant re-stocking.

Sports fishers brought brown trout from Europe because our stewardship of the native brook trout habitat failed. Brown trout tolerated degraded habitats better than brook trout. The brown trout grew to larger size more quickly in the warmer and less pure waters with lower oxygen content and they could be found oftener and in more places than the declining native brook trout. A favourite place to fish for large brown trout is in the warm water outlets of the cooling towers of electricity generators along Lake Ontario in the shadow of Toronto.

Steelhead are sea-run rainbow trout from the Pacific coast. In their native habitat they run up rivers from the sea to spawn. After transplanting, again on both sides of the Great Lakes, they adapted to do without the sea and still run up the rivers to attempt to spawn. We adapted to the steelheads taking over habitat from our native trout. Political pressures of anglers even convinced the government to produce hatchery-raised steelheads to maintain the Great Lakes population. Now, steelheads are the basis for a small industry as fishers from the GGH elbow each other for spots to stand in the rivers where the steelheads run each spring.

7 – 20: Steelhead also were planted by sports fishers and these exotic fish have adapted to degraded streams that the native speckled trout cannot tolerate.

Steelhead runs are widespread and common in the degraded streams of urban and industrial areas.

7-21: Duffins Creek. Steelhead habitat.

As long as a flow through the economy seems evident and is politically supported, no one insists on a cost-benefit analysis of the taxpayers’ supplements for something such as the steelhead or the Pacific salmon industries. A full-cost accounting would need to include more than just business income versus the public costs of maintaining these businesses. Full-cost accounting would also include the other costs of maintaining environmental processes that once were accomplished by no-cost natural processes but now must be accomplished with considerable technological cost. A full-cost accounting would evaluate the reduction or loss of native species. How can we put a value on a native species or a natural process?

As realization of the difficulties caused by the degradation or elimination of natural processes from the environment spreads, some remediation programs are starting to replace band-aid conservation management. An example is the cooperative program of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority to remove the barrier effects of dams along the Humber River on fishes trying to ascend the river to spawn. Outright removal of dams is prevented by historic dependencies on the dams for power, for water, for property maintenance and for aesthetics.

7 – 22: Every dam on the Humber River has been modified to allow fish to move upstream. The first dam on the Humber has been ‘notched’ although the high water here hides the notch. At the far shore, there is a trap to remove the lampreys and prevent their upstream movement.

Instead, dams are modified to allow ascent by fish. Some modifications allow movement by fish that can jump low barriers, others also allow non-jumping species to move upstream. Along with historic economic dependencies on the dams, their role in preventing upstream access by lampreys, and the modifications of the water runoff patterns by landscape changes in the watershed are additional constraints that prevent full restoration of natural processes and species relationships.

7 – 23: Targets of the fish laddering of the dams on the Humber River were mainly imported exotics.

A great deal of money is being spent on projects with the stated objective of environmental remediation in GGH. In terms of budgetary planning for provincial conservation of ecological systems, it is fair to ask: could we accomplish more if those funds were used outside the GGH for conservation of ecological systems that are not so severely degraded? Where could we gain the most in ecological terms?

In terms of planning models, would it make more sense to give up on natural processes and natural structures in the GGH, devote the GGH to accommodating a consumer-driven economic unit, and do our farming and our nature conservation in other regions? The Netherlands has given serious consideration to this model. Residents of the GGH would need to travel to a “nature region” to obtain their nature-related amenities. Dog walking, and city parks would have to be removed from the list of “environmental expenditures” and funded for what they really are — amenities for urban dwellers.

7 – 24: This dam on the upper Humber at Palgrave required a spiral by-pass fish ladder. Mark Heaton of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources devised several low-cost designs for fish ladders on the Humber.

Remembering that a fundamental reason for the GGH and other Canadian urban developments is the creation of economic wealth, we must look at economic relationships to get a complete picture of the ecosystem of southern Ontario. Earlier we saw how the exchange of manufactured goods and services for food and rural services was a foundation for urban development. That relationship is now considered to be mature and sophisticated. How is it working? Commonly, to answer that question we look at an index such as the Gross Domestic Product. But the GDP is a poor indicator of ecosystem functioning and gives a distorted view of the health of the economic system.6 Distorted because the economic flows that are totalled to calculate the GDP include all the expenditures caused by degradation of both the ecological and the sociological systems. For example, all the security and human costs resulting from 9/11 were added into the GDP, raising it and therefore, indicating that the economic system became healthier.

Similarly, all the costs of conservation management and environmental remediation are added in, saying that the need for them is a good thing. Toronto’s waterfront revitalization will add over one billion dollars to the GDP. Yet this is all repairs of past mistakes. To evaluate the real, net, economic gain from a city, we need full cost accounting where costs caused by damage and negative effects are subtracted and only economic flows caused by positive actions are added in.

To do such an assessment would require placing values on the natural wealth7 as well as the economic wealth. Assigning monetary value to natural wealth is one way. But how well can we do that? How can we put dollar values on all the benefits that urban dwellers need and receive from the natural wealth of the region surrounding their city and from their city’s entire ecosystem?

It is simple for something such as cottage real estate and associated spending. But how can we assess the real total value of a drive in the region to enjoy the coloured leaves of autumn? Even more subtle, how can we put monetary value on the utility for an urban dweller of simply knowing that woods and waterfalls and other natural wealth is still out there and provides periodic spiritual alternatives to the norms of high-density urban living? To assume that we can put a monetary value on every kind of wealth, including spiritual renewal, seems a poor bet. But to pretend that natural wealth has no value in assessing the health of our economic system is to accept even more completely the processes that are displacing the natural processes in the ecosystem of southern Ontario. The citizens of the GGH, of other urban ecosystems and Canadians in general need to consider which forces they wish to allow to control our urban ecosystems and spread beyond. Rather than allowing changes that do not consider consequences to the functioning of our urban environments, the effects of all proposed changes to system forces should be articulated in terms of ecosystem processes and subjected to critical decisions.

7 – 25: The Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment, coming together here, are provincial-scale landforms that shadow the area of the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

This brief essay cannot discuss all the characteristics of the current urban ecosystem of the GGH. As mentioned earlier, for this and any other ecosystem, the system boundary is arbitrarily set according to the task at hand. Boundaries for the GGH ecosystem could be set at the limits of the metropolitan area, at the boundaries of southern Ontario, somewhere in the lake states to include the Michigan garbage dump, or large enough to include the sources of winter strawberries and citrus. Ultimately the sun must be included because it is the source of energy for the production of all foodstuffs eaten in the GGH. There is an easy experiment to illustrate the fact that the GGH depends on its surroundings for ecosystem services. Imagine dropping a huge, transparent plastic bowl over the GGH to seal it up. How long would it take before the observers, looking in from outside, would see ecological, economic and sociological chaos within? What would go amiss first — garbage, air quality, water quality, sewage or lack of food?

The dependence of human settlements on ecological services from their supporting ecosystems has been evaluated by a method called “ecological footprinting”. This approach was pioneered at the University of British Columbia by Professor Bill Rees and his colleague and student, Mathis Wackernagel. Human ecological footprinting is the opposite of the plastic bowl experiment. Footprinting looks at how much a human settlement, or a nation, requires in goods and services from the ecological productivity of all sources anywhere on Earth.

7 – 26: Watershed boundaries such as the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment are boundaries only for surface water flow. They are permeable to people and can be assumed to have production of amenities as a primary function. This may not be good land stewardship.

7 – 27: This promontory of the Niagara Escarpment near Speyside was named ‘Rattlesnake Point’ because Massasauga rattlesnakes could be found here. They could be found along the escarpment from here to Terra Cotta.

But no longer.

Currently, in any year, humans use more ecological products, such as food, and ecological services, such as cleaning the air, than can be provided by all the ecologically productive areas on earth in a year. Our rates of use of ecological goods and services require the productive capacity of more than one earth.

It would require all the ecologically productive capacity of 1.2 planet earths to satisfy current human consumption of ecological goods and services. Projections indicate that by 2015 we will need 1.6 planets8. How can that be? There is only one earth! We must be living beyond our ecological means. Beyond our means and well beyond the means of many of the other species that share this planet.

We are temporarily able to live beyond our means by using up our ‘’natural capital” 7. Rather than just taking the harvestable production, such as the wood produced annually by a forest, we are taking the whole forest and eliminating all future annual wood production from that forest. Rather than taking just the sustainable harvest from ocean fishes, we are taking the breeding stock and fisheries are failing. Because there is no substitute for the natural process that we have called “green magic” there is an absolute limit to what our ecosystems can produce. Continuing to increase our demands for ecosystem products and services, beyond the capability of our ecosystems to meet those demands, can only result in destruction of our natural capital. It is comparable to a manufacturer destroying his own factory.

7 – 28: Human impacts on Rattlesnake Point and similar landforms have been light relative to most other areas surrounding the GGH. But every house in the woods, with a family, cars and their dogs and cats, reduce the quality of the habitat for many wild species and increase the probability of invasion by ‘weedy’ exotic species.

Under global pressures, Canada’s relatively young economy has been changing rapidly. Within memory for many, the limitation on our economy was from lack of human-made capital, such as factories and transport systems, but no longer.9 Herman Daly, a pioneer in new economic thinking, noted that the global economy “… has passed from an era in which manmade capital represented the limiting factor in economic development (an ‘empty’ world) to an era in which increasingly scarce natural capital has taken its place (a ‘full’ world).”10 Daly’s insight makes clear that not only are there ecological dangers in continuing to erode our natural capital, such as our forests and our fisheries, but also, reductions in our natural capital are now the main limiting factor in our economic future.

Canadians do better than most; our individual demands are nearly as high as anyone else but our land offers more ecological productivity. The amount of ecologically productive area needed to fill each Canadian’s demands for ecological goods and services has been calculated. So has the total ecologically productive area in Canada. By dividing the area we each need into the total ecologically productive area that Canada supplies, we find that we use only 0.53 to 0.90 of what our land can produce. But note that our personal behaviour, as consumers, has not given this advantage. Only the size of our country and the richness our heritage of natural wealth has dictated the favourable index for our ecological footprint.

For comparison, our neighbours in the USA use from 1.31 to 3.24 times the ecological productivity their land. However, projections indicate that Canadian demands will more than double our ecological footprint by 20158. That increase in demand for global resources will be driven mainly by the product of the increasing number of households multiplied by level of affluence. GDP is a measure of that affluence. Consumerism is a result of that affluence. Some would argue the inverse; that affluence results from consumerism. No matter, consumption is the deadly fate for our resource supplies. And degree of affluence must be sustainable to be an advantage.

That imbalance between the demand and the supply of ecological goods and services will be reflected by the ecosystem of the GGH. Because fundamental natural processes such as food production by green plants, and decomposition, recycling of wastes, cleaning of air and supplying clean water are being undervalued and displaced from the GGH, they will be increasingly moved away from the population centre. Transport and other technological supplements will be substituted for locally functioning natural processes. The GGH will reach further to fill its needs for ecological goods and services. But the total global ecological capacity is incapable of filling those needs; by 2015 we will need almost two planets. Simply modifying the GGH ecosystem by global expansion to claim the ecological productivity of other nations by monetary exchange will not save us. Global expansion of the ecological supply lines of the GGH will reduce the ecological productivity of the only earth that we will have.

The ecosystem of the GGH is global and is governed mainly by economic and political driving forces that are dictated by our personal and societal behaviour, primarily affluent consumerism. Realizing that economic and political processes in the ecosystem of the GGH have overpowered natural processes is the first step toward thoughtful reconsideration of our relationships to our environmental support system.

1 Discovering Natural Processes: Beauty in Nature’s Ways, by Jeff Amos and Gray Merriam, Penumbra Press, Manotick, ON, 2005.

2 Environment, Power and Society, by H.T. Odum, Wiley Interscience, New York. 1971.

3 Space for All, by Ron Kanter, Queen’s Printer for Ontario, Toronto. 1990.

4 Regeneration, Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, Queen’s Printer of Ontario, Toronto. 1992.

5 Smart Growth, by Linda Pim, Ontario Nature, Toronto. 2005

6 Life, Money and Illusion by Mike Nickerson, Seven Generations Publishing, Lanark, ON, 2006.

7 Natural Capitalism, by P. Hawken, A. Lovins and L.H. Lovins, Little Brown, Boston. 1999.

8 Driving the Human Ecological Footprint, by T. Dietz, E.A. Rosa and R. York, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Vol. 5, pp 13-18, 2007.

9 Eco-Economy, by Lester Brown, Norton, New York, 2001

10 The Future of World Forests: Their Use and Conservation by K. Ramakrishna and G. Woodwell (Eds.), p.79; From empty-world economics to full-world economics: a historical turning point in economics by Herman Daly, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1993.

Image Sources — Chapter 7

Image Photographer Location
1GMQueenston Heights, ON
2GMRouge River Park, ON
3GMRouge River, ON
4GMRouge River, ON
5GMRouge River valley, ON
6GMNiagara Peninsula, ON
7GMNiagara Peninsula, ON
8GMNiagara Peninsula, ON
9GMNiagara Peninsula, ON
10GMMilton, ON
11GMPort Union, ON
12GMPort Union, ON
13GMTommy Thompson Park, ON
14GMTommy Thompson Park, ON
15GMHigh Park, ON
16GMHigh Park, ON
17GMHigh Park, ON
18GMPort Credit, ON
19GMPort Credit, ON
20GMPort Hope, ON
21GMDuffin’s Creek, ON
22GMHumber River, Toronto, ON
23GMHumber River, Toronto, ON
24GMHumber River, Palgrave, ON
25GMMono, ON
26GMMono, ON
26GMRattlesnake Point, ON
27GMRattlesnake Point, ON

GM – copyright © Gray Merriam