Back to Blog


cumulative effects environmental impact assessment indigenous land use planning scenario planning Mar 14, 2018

You heard it here first, one of the biggest hashtags in your social media will soon be #CumulativeEffects    Cumulative Effects is a term that soon will be as common in our discussions as #ClimateChange. 

The Virtual Time Machine shows us that we are entering the Anthropocene, a geologic epoch where humans have become the dominant force of change and where the scarcity of natural resources is on the rise. This is driven by 2 key factors:

1.   Planet Earth is a system with finite (a set limit of) resources

2.   Humans are increasing in # and per capita resource consumption at unprecedented levels

Photo by Jayphen Simpson on Unsplash

When did this start? The arrival of the industrial age has increased our technology and power – improving our collective quality of life beyond anything ever experienced before in history. But we are now starting to realize that the patterns, processes and approaches we’ve been for the last 200 years or so since the industrial revolution won’t be able to serve our needs into the future. #BusinessAsUsual is not a hashtag that will sustain us. Sustained growth driven by consumption in a finite system is simply not possible. We’ll need a different way.

Here’s where a time machine becomes invaluable. Our future depends directly on our ability to use our unique gift of foresight. We are the only animals that are able to imagine a future that does not yet exist, and then reverse engineer the steps needed to be followed in order to get there. This systems understanding is in essence Cumulative Effects.  

Define Cumulative Effects

Simple answer, “you are what you eat”. Longer answer, Cumulative Effects are the outcome of multiple systems interacting across meaningful time and space.

If you Google cumulative effects, you’ll typically find a definition from environmental impact assessment legislation or practitioner guides that will lead you to believe they are something negative to be minimized or mitigated. That’s #BusinessAsUsual – and it’s inadequate at best because it’s only a portion of the story – and this is partly why there is so much conflict and argument over new land use developments – think #pipelines.

All things are connected. Indigenous people have known this for millennia. The transfer of thousands of years of knowledge of how to live with the land through oral stories has a common theme – no matter what indigenous culture – everything is connected. We live in and are a part of thousands of systems that are constantly changing and interacting and the world that we experience is the cumulative effect of all those interactions.

Photo by Deva Darshan on Unsplash

A month ago (February 2018, I had the opportunity to attend the Rotary International President’s Conference on the Environment and Peace in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The conference hosted Rotarians like me from all over the planet looking at how world peace is connected to our physical environment. When you think about it, the connections are obvious and well document historical time machines. Famine, drought, disease epidemics and even the demise of the dinosaurs can be connected to the integrity of natural systems that sustain us.

We live in a world of systems governed by the physical laws of nature. We cannot change these. Like the Law of gravity, 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics, etc. these are realities. We have to accept them and live with them. They tell us that sustained growth in a finite system is not possible. We know that every species of plant and animal has a maximum number they can achieve given their consumption demands. This carrying capacity known in the science world as ‘K’ and it is a limit. The theory is that any species that goes beyond it’s K will crash. For some species, this cycle is normal – like rabbits. Every 7 years the population peaks, followed by a crash and then a rebuilding. For other species, passing K has meant extinction.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Some would suggest that we are passing that line now because we are using up the resources that should be left for future generations and so a collapse is imminent. All indicators suggest that human population will continue to increase at exponential rates. If we maintain business as usual with respect to our consumption rates – then it seems inevitable that we will exceed the carrying capacity of the systems of the planet that sustain us, and experience a massive population crash. The earth will certainly survive that, but I’m not sure if we would.  

"Air is our greatest need.  If you go for 3 minutes without it, you are dead."

Air is our greatest need.  If you go for 3 minutes without it, you are dead. Our next most pressing need for survival is water. It varies, but general, if you don’t have water for about 6 days you are dead. If you are inhaling polluted air or drinking polluted water you will get sick and die – it will just take longer. Next up is either food or shelter. On average, people can make it 6-8 weeks without food, but then we are dead. Shelter requirements are entirely dependent on the climate we are in.

So its logical to surmise then that air, water, and food are the most important things we have. These life needs are available because of the energy that comes to us from the sun, which is captured by plants through a vital system called photosynthesis.

Our survival depends on the integrity of natural systems that are governed by the laws of nature, we live within them, not transcend them.

But we can change K. 

Economics, consumerism, political boundaries and technology – these are not natural laws, these are things we invented and these are the things we can and must change. Probably the most important thing we can do is reduce that big coefficient we call Consumption.  – and we can do it by using, adjusting and creating systems that result in the # we need to survive. This is how we will adapt to our changing world, remain resilient and continue to prosper.

Learn how by subscribing to the Virtual Time Machine Podcast on my website or you can subscribe on iTunes, Soundcloud or whatever your favourite podcast app is.

By the way, what is your favourite podcast app? Put your answer below so I can make sure The Virtual Time Machine is available there.