Browsing the archives for the Eco System tag.

McNamara’s Fallacy In Action

South March Highlands

The City of Ottawa has been warned by scientists, several times and in several studies, that TFD fragments the eco-system in the South March Highlands (SMH) and dramatically reduces the ability of the SMH to withstand change.

This warning is a well-considered and inevitable scientific conclusion, backed by years of research, that sadly cannot be scientifically quantified.  Questions like: How much further change can the SMH take? How much change is introduced by urban development? How long will the Conservation Forest survive, etc simply cannot be quantified.

So does that make the unmeasurable any less important to decision-making?

McNamara’s Fallacy

Robert McNamara  was Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War and was obsessed with making decisions based on only what could be measured.  He also had a predilection to prefer only information that fit into his metric-based world view.  This led to increasingly absurd decisions by the US Government for many years until they finally withdrew from the Vietnam conflict.

Sociologist Daniel Yankelovich described a process he called McNamara’s Fallacy to explain why some of us have a tendency to under-value what cannot be measured.  The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has also referred to this tendency the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness“.

McNamara’s Fallacy is a process having 4 steps.

  1. Measure what can be measured.  This is fine as far as it goes.
  2. Disregard that which can’t be measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value.  This is arbitrary and misleading.
  3. Presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t very important.  This is blindness.
  4. Say that which can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist.  This is madness.

TFD Fallacy

The Terry Fox Drive (TFD) extension is an excellent example of McNamara’s Fallacy in decision making.

Step1.  The City haphazardly commissions several piece-meal studies of the South March Highlands (SMH) area to identify existing ecological conditions and count species.  However, only easily studied vegetation is studied.  There are no comprehensive studies of fauna, insects and non-vascular plants.

Step 2.  Issues such as the size of eco-passages are ignored since the impact of the size on the effectiveness of eco-passages cannot be predicted (disregard what can’t be measured).   This leads to mitigation planned for TFD relying on experimental ideas whose effectiveness has no established scientific evidence at all (assigning an arbitrary value to them).

  • Instead emphasis is placed on having several smaller (measurable, so more must be better) passages instead of fewer, larger (more costly) ones. 
  • The location of these eco-passages is inferred from a 3-month winter study of wildlife movement because a summer study is too hard to do for the wide-variety of species affected.

Step 3. The long-term impact of losing ½ of SMH to development is never studied (too difficult to measure so don’t look at it at all).  The City has never examined its economic justification for TFD relative to its environmental impact (no cost/benefit analysis) because it is presumed that ecological value is unimportant (because it is difficult to measure).

Step 4. Councillor Wilkinson asserts that TFD can be ignored when promoting SMH as an NCC-owned wilderness park.  The the long-term effect of fragmentation of habitat and species kill-rate caused by TFD don’t exist (because they can’t be measured).

The reality is that the effect of TFD cannot be mitigated because it cannot be measured.  The very concept of mitigation depends on establishing an equal and compensating benefit to make up for the impact.  This is not possible when the impact cannot be measured.

Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle holds that where there is uncertainty regarding an approach that could cause significant harm, the uncertainty should be resolved before proceeding.

This principle is well established both in law and in medicine.  It is a statutory requirement in the European Union.  Perhaps it is also time for City Hall to apply it to the environmental assessment process too.

In the meantime, anyone that contemplates allowing TFD into the South March Highlands does so at great peril to the environment and to all the species that live in it.

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Acer Nigurm Requiem

South March Highlands

Sadly none of you, nor anyone else, will ever see the 200-year old Black Maple (Acer Nigrum) that was in the way of this road.  It was clear-cut along with a significant stand of tall White Pine (100 feet) and other Black Maples. 

The Black Sugar Maple is very uncommon in Ontario and is only found in southern Ontario.

Located at N45’15.231” / W75’55.492”, this unmistakable tree was originally surveyed by Daniel Brunton in 1992 and was identified by a photograph in a City-sponsored study as a significant feature in the NEA lands at that time. 

For it to be this age meant that it had survived the great forest fire of 1870 that devastated the Ottawa Valley.  Sadly it could not survive our City’s greedy feast at the federal pork barrel.

This ancient tree once stood over 75 feet tall, had a circumference of 10’9” (328 cm) and a diameter of 3’7” (109 cm).  A well known local botanist, Martha Webber, analyzed the rings to verify the age of the tree to be well over 200 years old and confirmed that it was perfectly healthy prior to being destroyed.

If not the oldest tree in the City of Ottawa, it would have been one of the oldest. The oldest trees in the Dominion Arboretum are date back only to 1889.

Old trees are important, not only for their heritage and historical significance, but also for their bio-diversity.  The genetic makeup of ancient trees includes disease-resistant chromosones that play a critical role in protecting the local eco-system.

A “younger” Black Maple nearby was also destroyed.  That tree had a circumference of 7’5” (226 cm) and a diameter of 30” (76 cm).  Ms. Webber verified the age to be well over 120 years old. 

This tree, as old as Confederation, was on the edge of the roadway, in perfect health, and could easily have been retained.  In fact the City has a by-law that is supposed to protect trees having a diameter of greater than 50 cm.

The City project staff responsible for this irresponsible act were well aware of this tree and had been instructed by the City Councillor, Marianne Wilkinson, to try to retain it.  Subsequent email confirms that the tree was destroyed without her authorization. 

If this is an example of how the City will protects it’s natural and historical heritage in a Conservation Forest, then the City of Ottawa must immediately transfer stewardship of its parks and forests to the NCC.  That trees of this value were so recklessly cut down – in a Conservation Forest is completely unacceptable.

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