Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION


If only Carly Rae could write an earworm for Lake Winnipeg

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Burrowed deep within the temporal lobes of every human brain resides a bunch of neurons known as the auditory cortex. On Sept. 20, 2011, this highly sensitive and critical region came under attack by the uncontrolled release of a particularly virulent little earworm known as Call Me Maybe, the diabolical creation of Mission, B.C.'s Carly Rae Jepsen.

Jepsen, from all accounts, is a perfectly nice human being. But this diminutive Canadian has co-authored of one of the most insidious songs of all time, an earworm that managed to burrow into the brains of hundreds of millions of human beings by the middle of 2012.

If Call Me Maybe were a software virus, Bill Gates would have hired some thugs to raze every building in Jepsen's hometown of Mission, B.C., just to send a message about even considering to write a similarly infectious song in the future. If Call Me Maybe was a biological agent of some sort, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control would lock in her inside an isolation unit.

Nonetheless, millions of us will turn on a TV tonight to hear it again at the Grammy Awards. This is not because we are masochists. This is because we are suckers for awards, which seem to light up all the pleasure centres of our brain, which govern feelings of reward and motivation.

Intellectually, most of us understand the stupidity of awards. The assignation of awards for music, movies and TV shows is at best an arbitrary endeavor. Awards obtained by governments and businesses are only valuable in showing off which governments and businesses fill out awards applications. Even the vaunted individual awards such as the Nobel Peace Prize has been sullied by recipients such as Henry Kissinger, who bombed Cambodia, betrayed Iraqi Kurds and supported brutal regimes in Indonesia, South Africa and Chile, among a laundry list of misdeeds. (And yes, I mentioned that just for the gratuitous pleasure of placing Carly Rae Jepsen and Augusto Pinochet in the same column.)

But even though we know awards are pointless, we can not help but pay attention to them. Psychologically, we all recall being little kids who strived to considered special for some reason. Socially, we watch awards shows to find out whether our own tastes are validated by other people, especially official bodies of some sort. And neurochemically, finding out one entity has risen above a field of others feeds our information-seeking addiction, as our brains are hard-wired for pattern recognition.

This is no exaggeration. If you care at all about movies, the pleasure you will experience when your learn, say, that Zero Dark Thirty has won best picture at the Academy Awards should result in a rush of dopamine in certain parts of your brain. This is the same pleasurable sensation that causes us to compulsively hit the refresh button on our webmail, Twitter or Facebook pages in the hopes of finding a new message. We have a biological need to learn things, not because the thing in question is important, but because the act of learning it -- for a brief, mini-orgasmic moment -- quite literally makes us feel good.

It may very well be that Carly Rae Jepsen really does deserve "song of the year" for co-authoring the evil that is Call Me Maybe. The point, which was obvious a few paragraphs ago, is that the award does not make it so.

Likewise, Lake Winnipeg may very well deserve to be the recipient of the award for "threatened lake of the year," handed out last week by something called the Global Nature Fund. But the sad state of Manitoba's largest lake requires no validation from an environmental organization few residents of this province knew anything about before a few days ago. In fact, Lake Winnipeg is among the world's most threatened lakes in spite of the flawed logic at the heart of the Global Nature Fund's own argument.

Lake Winnipeg, which became the 10th-largest freshwater lake in the world after the disastrous decline of Africa's Lake Chad and Asia's Aral Sea, is one of many in the world that suffers from eutrophication, which is an artificial elevation of dissolved nutrients.

Too much phosphorus and nitrogen from a variety of sources causes algae blooms, which on their own are unpleasant. Excessive amounts of algae prevents light from penetrating into the water, disrupting the feeding and mating habits of lake-dwelling animals as diverse as snails, fish and birds. The thickest blooms of blue-green algae may also clog up fishing nets, drive away tourists and on rare occasions emit neurotoxins. But what's even more important is what happens when the algae dies.

When any organism in a body of water decomposes, the chemical reactions require oxygen. Massive amounts of dying algae create low-oxygen "dead zones" that some larger organisms cannot tolerate. The fear is Lake Winnipeg will eventually become so inhospitable to multi-celled life, it will undergo what ecologists call a "trophic cascade" -- the collapse of the entire food chain, from the largest pelicans down to smallest gastropods.

Reversing eutrophication is difficult for a large number of reasons. For starters, the lake's natural nutrient filter, the massive wetland known as Netley-Libau Marsh, has lost much of its natural vegetation due to high water levels in recent decades. Manitoba Hydro argues against any notion its regulation of the lake has contributed to this loss of vegetation, noting correctly it does not create the floods that appear to be occurring more frequently. But Lake Winnipeg regulation has reduced the natural variability of the lake -- and with it the low-water years when vegetation used to regenerate.

Reducing the addition of nutrients to the lake is also immensely complex, as Lake Winnipeg drains a massive area of North America. The million-square-kilometre drainage basin encompasses large sections of Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Manitoba, Minnesota and northwestern Ontario, as well as a few corners of Montana and South Dakota. All the cities, towns, farms, factories, cottages and boats from the Rocky Mountains to the Canadian Shield contribute nitrogen and phosphorus into the lake. No single sector of the economy or political unit can be blamed for the health of the lake. All must be involved in its cleanup, but it's hard to get people in Edmonton or Atikokan to care about what happens in the middle of Manitoba.

Amazingly, the Global Nature Fund took a look at this massive, diverse and decentralized drainage basin and drew the opposite conclusion about Lake Winnipeg. "That this huge Canadian lake is faced with problems similar to those of lakes in more densely populated countries is hard to believe," the organization states as part of its "threatened lake of the year" decision.

In reality, Lake Winnipeg is messed up entirely because the Canadian Prairies are sparsely populated. Not many people live around the lake and not many people see it. So not many people care about what happens to it.

As well, the diffusion of the responsibility for its cleanup provokes a negative reaction when the Manitoba government attempts to single out any of the contributors to nutrient loading. To date, the province has gone after low-hanging fruit such as the hog industry and the City of Winnipeg. Hog producers constituted one segment of an agricultural sector that was responsible for 15 per cent of all phosphorus loading into the lake a decade ago, according to the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium's State Of The Lake report in 2007. The same report found the City of Winnipeg was responsible for six per cent.

Every serious academic argues for a unified approach to fixing Lake Winnipeg that places the responsibility on absolutely everyone in the basin. The Global Nature Fund singled out "nutrients in agricultural run-off and sewage discharges."

Obviously, Lake Winnipeg is in a very sorry state and drawing attention to its ecological health is a notable goal. But an award is only of fleeting interest. It briefly titillates us and causes us to wonder why the Selinger and Harper governments do not do more.

The answer is we will all have to change our lifestyles and livelihoods in order to reverse the eutrophication of Lake Winnipeg. And by all, I mean seven million people, including approximately six million who live outside Manitoba's borders.

That is a message that nobody wants to hear. What Lake Winnipeg needs is a way to wind up inside the heads of unwilling recipients. If ever there was a job for Carly Rae Jepsen, this is it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 10, 2013 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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