Environmental Collapse and Political Reform

by Lynn McDonald
(published in At Guelph 14 June 2006)

Earth Day came and went on April 22 with ever more worrisome warnings of species and resource depletion, global warning and environmental pollution. “Environment Week” is approaching, with Canada’s cancellation of its commitment to the Kyoto Accord and tinkering with Senate reform the federal government’s preoccupation. Why are we not acting on what we know we to be real, serious, fundamental problems concerning our health and indeed survival on this planet?

From ordinary warnings of decline there is now a “collapse” literature predicting environmental destruction on a scale to result in massive extinctions and societal collapse. Most of this writing includes recommendations for reform, how we can mend our ways and avoid collapse if we act now.

It is worth pondering the weight as well as the number of these contributions. Some were commissioned by respected organizations and draw on the work of leading scientists, e.g., the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, 1987; the Science Council of Canada’s Canada as a Conserver Society, 1977; and the Royal Society of Canada’s Planet under Stress, 1980. Some are by eminent persons, e.g., Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, 1962, and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, 1997, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Ronald Wright’s Short History of Progress was commissioned as the Massey Lectures for 2004. It optimistically gives advice for reform before it is too late: “We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones.” But if we do not we will enter “an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages of our past,” and this before the 21st century grows very old: “Now is our last chance to get the future right”.

Some steps have been taken in response to these warnings, for example “round tables” were established in Canada after Our Common Future. Tougher laws on pesticides were brought in by many countries after Silent Spring. The warnings on the thinning of the ozone layer resulted in controls over ozone-depleting substances. Acid rain was taken seriously enough to result in curbs on emissions in cars and power plants. But on the Kyoto Accord--only a modest first step for environmentalists--Canada never moved to action at all and seems now even to be abandoning its token commitment.

Jared Diamond in a chapter of his 2004 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, explains why people fail to take needed action, such as by failure to anticipate problems (e.g., rabbits brought into Australia), failure to notice when problems develop gradually (did anyone notice when the last tree went on Easter Island?), and the “tragedy of the commons,” that what is advantageous for some few (e.g., catching fish) becomes disastrous when pursued by many (depletion of the resource).

The key to any reform, in my view, is political change, although we need also to engage everything from our personal consumer habits, beliefs and values, to institutional change in the global economy. Wherever we begin change will inevitably involve the political process: legislation, taxes, subsidies and regulations are required to effect many of the things that have to be done. A consumer boycott cannot go far enough and corporations legally must serve their shareholders.

There are at least three great obstacles to political reform: vast private interests (meaning profits to gain in the here and now); technical (what to do is not obvious if we seek fundamental change and not just tinkering); and motivational (for political cynicism is so pervasive as to discourage people from even looking to the political sphere for solutions). People have heard that “government is the problem” so much that many spontaneously go one further to “all politicians are crooks.” Both become justifications for political apathy. Yet what are the alternatives? one dollar one vote instead of elections and governments responsible to the people?

Democratic control over decision making is itself a legacy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, achieved with years of struggle and sacrifice. “Sovereignty of the people” was subversive in regimes with divine-right kings. Universalism admitted everybody, regardless of race, religion and even (in time) gender, a radical notion when only the (male) nobility and great landowners had any say in political decisions.

Governments of course make mistakes, with short-sighted legislation and tax policies. In Canada we actually encourage wasteful energy use with subsidies for fossil fuel extraction and nuclear. Agricultural policy favours poor environmental practices. None of these measures of course came out of nowhere, but private corporations, local communities, unions, etc., demanded them and governments obliged.

The time frame for political decision making is all wrong. Governments are accountable to voters every four or so years in typical democracies. But the decisions that need to be taken to stop environmental damage and safeguard our long-term future tend to have immediate costs that make the action unpopular, to put it mildly.

No Canadian or provincial government heeded the warnings of declining fish stocks, documented over decades of overfishing. When the Kirby Report in 1982 called for substantial restructuring of the Atlantic fisheries it was fought. The jobs (created by government subsidies) were needed. A government that made a drastic reversal, in the long-term interest of future yields, would likely be defeated and any measures already introduced reversed.

Governments cannot act (for long) against the wishes of their constituents. It is not that “government is the problem” but that solutions, especially drastic ones, have to have concerted public support, or they will be undone. Governments on our behalf must lead in finding solutions, but we must look at changes in values and beliefs, and how we run the economy, as well as political change.

Lynn McDonald is University professor emerita in the Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology.