Healthy optimism

By Jenn Watt

Norman Yan had a refreshing message to impart on Saturday when he addressed Environment Haliburton’s membership during their AGM: there’s reason for optimism.

A career scientist who has worked on some of the conundrums of the last 50 years from acid rain to invasive species Yan has seen plenty of perplexing problems come his way. He’s seen resistance to change. And he’s seen action and resolution.

During the presentation Yan put up a slideshow that featured some of the accomplishments he’s seen. Humans have been able to fix some of the messes we’ve made. We’ve curtailed some pesticide use. We’ve seen the return of endangered species. And acid rain has been greatly reduced thanks to concerted effort by both American and Canadian governments to limit sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the air.

Yan’s point wasn’t that problems no longer exist rather he was pointing out that we shouldn’t despair.
It became obvious relatively early in Yan’s career that the way he had been trained to do things wasn’t working – at least to his way of thinking.

As a population ecologist he started out trying to determine how species interacted with their environment. It didn’t take long to surmise that it was almost impossible to know everything about the surrounding ecosystem and the multitude of factors that go into a species’ longevity.
Yan decided instead that he would focus on problem solving.

One example he gave to the group on Saturday was work done by him and biologist Andrea Smith. The pair worked on the question of whether our country was prepared for invasive species. They examined curriculum looked at laws and reported to Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.
Yan never thought when he went into biology that he would end up working on public policy yet that is where most problems must go to be solved.

After half a century as a working scientist often for the government Yan is still filled with wonder at the natural world and optimism that humans will come together to overcome climate change.
His optimism is contagious – and it is exactly the kind of outlook we need in order to contend with the largest environmental crisis of our time: climate change.

Yan quoted the late Canadian poet Richard Outram who said that the cardinal values of humanity are humility and hope (as opposed he said to arrogance and despair). With those two values we can take on the challenges our world presents to us.