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magazine / mj06

May/June 2006 issue


EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK

Environmental Scientist of the Year
Every litre of gas we consume, every bag of trash we generate, every metre of land we pave accelerates the velocity of environmental change. We can alter the course of that change by modifying our daily living habits. But how we modify those habits has to be informed by rigorous scientific research. Five years ago, Canadian Geographic and a number of corporate and government partners created the Canadian Environment Awards to recognize the work of grassroots activists across the country who are finding practical solutions to environmental problems at the community level, forcing public debates on development issues and scrutinizing the work of government regulators and corporate polluters. The finalists for 2006 are a dedicated and inspiring group; their profiles can be viewed at www.canadiangeographic.ca/cea.


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In addition to celebrating activists, this year we want to start singling out the valuable work of Canada’s environmental scientists. For Canadian Geographic’s first Environmental Scientist of the Year, the editors have chosen David Keith, a Canada Research Chair in Energy and the Environment at the University of Calgary, whose broad field of study is climate change.

Keith grew up in Ottawa, trained as a physicist and had a distinguished career in the United States before accepting a position at the University of Calgary in 2004. Writer Brian Bergman’s profile of Keith for this issue traces the career path that has made him an original thinker in the field of climate science and one of the world’s most accomplished energy-policy analysts. Keith himself says he is "interested in technologies and social solutions that could take a big bite out of the problem" of climate change.

That quote is the best and most succinct explanation of why we believe he merits recognition as our Environmental Scientist of the Year. Keith’s research addresses timely issues and, in collaboration with government, industry and environmental advocates, advances practical, cost-effective means of tackling those problems. If we ever manage to begin slowing the momentum of global warming, it will be in no small part due to the efforts of scientists such as David Keith.

During the course of our research into Keith’s life and work, we had the opportunity to meet his father, Anthony, who would most certainly have been a leading candidate for Environmental Scientist of the Year in 1969.

Anthony was a young graduate student in Wisconsin in the mid-1960s, studying the effects of the pesticide DDT on herring gull populations on Lake Michigan. At the time, British and American researchers were documenting the pernicious effects of DDT on wildlife, but Canada had not yet begun to do so. Anthony was recruited by the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1965 to set up a two-person pesticides unit. He and a technician worked with researchers and wildlife officers across Canada, monitoring orchard- and forest-spray programs and testing the eggs and flesh of fish-eating birds. At the time, they were virtually the only experts advising the federal government on the impact of pesticide use on wildlife. A mere four years after they started, they were instrumental in convincing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to ban, for almost all uses, the application of DDT to forests and crops in Canada. Today, 41 years later, DDT residues in the flesh of fish, birds and other wildlife have declined, and populations of species that had been driven to the brink of extinction by the pesticide are returning.

In a speech last fall, David talked about his father’s work on DDT and underscored how rapidly Anthony and his colleagues were able to move from research to a ban on an environmentally harmful chemical. Effecting change was much simpler then, he said, perhaps a little wistfully. Anthony agrees, although he recalls that they had their struggles with the Department of Agriculture, forestry officials and pesticide manufacturers. His frustrations stirred him to submit a critical essay, shortly after the ban was announced, to The Canadian Field-Naturalist.

"Despite the new legislation," he wrote, "there is, absurdly, no requirement that individual pesticide uses be justified ecologically, that their total benefits outweigh their environmental costs."

I hear echoes in that comment of a blunt-spoken son who is making his own contribution to the protection and conservation of Canada’s environmental heritage.

— Rick Boychuk

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