Environmental Warnings: Predictions of Collapse and What We Do About Them
The following 5 articles were written as background to explain the need for the JustEarth Coalition. They were not published as such, but many of the ideas were recycled into the (above) newspaper comment pieces. People are free to quote them, citing the website as the source.
Environmental Warnings: Predictions of Collapse and What We Do About Them
by Lynn McDonald
We do not lack for warnings of doom and gloom: environmental destruction on a scale to result in massive population decline, even the near or actual extinction of the human race (a good thing for the rest of the planet, we are told) and the disappearance of many other species. Observations of more limited environmental damage, such as soil depletion and deforestation, go back to ancient times. The variety and severity of the problems cited have only gotten worse with industrialization. To the now vast literature on ordinary environmental destruction there is a substantial and growing one on what is now called collapse. Most of this work includes recommendations for reform, how we can mend our ways and avoid the 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., theUnited Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report), 1987; the Science Council of Canada, Canada as a Conserver Society, 1977: and the Royal Society of Canada's Planet under Stress, 1990. 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. Despite its title it is an elegant presentation of failed, collapsed societies. Like the others 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. It suggests that if we do not we will enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages of our pas and this before the 21st century grows very old: Now is our last chance to get the future right.
This unhappy literature is worth revisiting in detail, but here my point is to get to the question as to why so little has been done in response to it. Some steps have been taken, for example round tables were established federally and provincially 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 (in time, we hope, to avoid massive extinctions from that environmental mistake). Acid rain was taken seriously enough to result in curbs on emissions in cars and power plants. The Kyoto Accord may be seen as a response to the warnings on global warming and climate change and show how paltry the human response has been.
Generally speaking, indeed, more and more toxic substances are being released into the environment, even as greenhouse gases have increased not decreased. Fisheries and oceans are more seriously threatened than ever before; population is increasing and biodiversity decreasing. The demand for more consumer goods in developing countries means ever greater demand on scarce energy sources in the near future, especially fossil fuels. This new production brings with it all the familiar problems of toxic emissions and wastes, and moves the world faster to the end of relatively easily accessible oil and gas. Nuclear power is being touted as a safe, clean alternative, despite its high cost (subsidized by the taxpayer), the lack of safe disposal of the wastes, and now the threat of terrorists recycling the wastes into weapons.
Jared Diamond in chapter 14 of his 2004 book, Collapse: How Human Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, lays out a number of reasons to explain why people fail to take needed action. There is the failure to anticipate problems (e.g., rabbits brought into Australia), failure to notice when problems develop gradually (did anyone notice when cutting the last tree on Easter Island? when there would have been few left at the end), and the tragedy of the commons or the dilemma that what is advantageous for some few (e.g., catching fish) becomes disastrous when pursued by many (depletion of the resource). His list, which goes on, gives a good start. Here I wish to pursue what needs to be done, using a Canadian perspective.
The key, in my view, is political change, although we need also to engage everything from our personal consumer habits, our 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?
Over the years I have been a university professor, member of Parliament, president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and an activist in environmental and church organizations. I have more scar tissue from women's movement work than from my years in politics and I can tell of deceit and skullduggery in many voluntary and professional endeavours. Life is not easy anywhere, but the political world is no worse than any other: laws and regulations can make it better. In fact elections are fairer and party politics more transparent and accountable now than ever before in Canada. Politics remains the only sphere where the good of the whole society takes precedence over that of corporate and personal interests.
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 some formulations) gender, a radical notion when only the (male) nobility and great land owners had any say in political decisions.
Governments of course make mistakes, with short-sighted legislation and tax policy. In Canada our tax policies actually encourage wasteful energy use, with subsidies for fossil fuel extraction and nuclear. Agricultural policy favours poor environmental practices, and the ruin of the East Coast fisheries was hastened by subsidies for overfishing. None of these policies of course came out of nowhere, but private corporations, local communities, unions, etc., demanded them and governments obliged. Deforestation and bad agricultural practices all over the world indeed have been encouraged by governments, but hardly alone!
What is wrong is that time frame for political decision making is so limited. Governments are accountable to the people every four or so years in typical democracies (our Parliament may go five years; some provinces now have terms fixed at four). But the decisions that need to be taken to stop environmental damage and safeguard our long-term future will likely have immediate costs that would 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 were needed, jobs which in fact had been created by government subsidies that encouraged the overfishing and wasteful use in the first place. A government that made a drastic reversal, in the long-term interests of the fishery and future yields, would likely be defeated and any measures already introduced reversed. Governments cannot act against the wishes of their constituents, certainly not for long. 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. Government on our behalf must lead in finding solutions, but cannot be the sole means. That is why we must look at changes in values and beliefs, our philosophy and religion, and how we run the economy, as well as political change.
The environment was scarcely mentioned in the 2006 Canadian federal election campaign. The Kyoto Accord came up in the leaders' debates and the NDP leader occasionally included the environment (briefly) on the list of concerns of his party. Environmental leaders complained but got no response. The Green Party said all the right things, but until we have proportional representation it has little chance of electing members, let alone forming a government.
What's wrong? In Part 1, I argued that the political process is essential for us to move to an environmentally sustainable way of living on planet earth. But the current time frame is all wrong. Future generations, those who will suffer most from our extravagant use of natural resources, don't have a vote.
We need to figure out some way to see that their interests are represented. Parents and grandparents put aside money to leave their children. But we have not yet mobilized this robust parental instinct to protect the environment for them, to leave them a reasonable share of the natural resources we have enjoyed. And time is short. Our prosperous lifestyle is fueled by easy-to-get petroleum, which will be finished in years, or decades, depending on how easy is defined--certainly not centuries. Yet this looming scarcity did not make it into the election campaign, nor any provincial election campaign, nor is it discussed in Parliament or the provincial or territorial legislatures.
In our political process petroleum instead is a subject of federal-provincial dispute. Albertans are still angry at Trudeau's 1970s National Energy Program, one environmentalists criticize for quite different reasons from sharing the profits with other Canadians. Bumper stickers rudely proclaim Eastern bastards freeze in the dark. Short-sighted as a prediction, surely, for westerners will freeze soon, too, at the rate we are using up this non-renewable resource. Instead of considering how to spin it out longer, to ration it for its most crucial uses, it is treated as a resource for making money. For those who point to coal or nuclear as substitutes for petroleum for energy production, how will they (and they are still both dirty and non-renewable) fly airplanes?
Let's check on values here: the vast majority of Albertans/Canadians claim adherence to some form of Christianity or Judaism. The scriptures that inform both great faith groups teach that the earth is the Lord's (see Psalms 24 and 51) that we humans are entitled to use the earth's resources, but are accountable for our use to the Creator. We are stewards, not owners. (The roots of aboriginal religion are stronger still on this point.) Yet religious values are virtually never raised in political debate in Canada to make this rudimentary point. Need I point out that, especially in Alberta, religion comes into political debate on other issues, notably abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage and capital punishment. Why not on this important matter of God's creation?
Environmentalists call for tax policy to help conserve non-renewable resources, and a carbon tax would slow down emissions of greenhouse gases. What party supports a carbon tax? Joe Clark's Conservative budget was defeated in 1980 for a proposed modest 4 cent a litre increase in the gasoline tax, justified as a deficit reduction measure. With it came an assurance that Canadian prices, which would rise, would not exceed 85% of American prices (presumably to encourage Canadians to continue to waste more energy than the Americans and slow the move to greater efficiency). It was an NDP motion, supported by the Liberals that defeated the budget. In the debate much was made of the desirability of lower prices of oil and gas, then roughly half what they are now. Governments in Ontario Liberal, Conservative and New Democrat have favoured subsidized electricity prices.
Alberta's 2006 projected surplus of billions of dollars has been greeted with envy across the country. Some commentators have noticed that this wealthy province thinks it can no longer afford the price of publicly funded health care, but who has noticed that this surplus comes from raiding the resources of future generations?
Let's look at how our mis-use of language keeps us from understanding the crucial point. We do not produce any fossil fuel, but only extract it. We should not claim any of the virtues of production (we did not stomp down the trees to make it). We should realize that the further away (the Arctic Ocean) and more difficult the extraction (tar sands) the more fuel is needed for the extraction and transportation. Fossil fuel extraction is like selling off the family heirlooms, we have been told, a good analogy. We are now selling off even more of the heirlooms simply to get at those stored further away.
The Kyoto Accord is intended not to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases but to reduce future annual increments of emissions, and we are not doing even that. The senior policy advisor of the Suzuki Foundation of Canada rejoiced in the decline of sales of SUVs, looking to an exciting period of environmentally responsible, right-sized cars for Canadians. (letter Pierre Sadik, 10 January 2006 Globe and Mail). Should we not at least be clear that even right-sized cars use up a non-renewable resource? Clearly smaller, more fuel-efficient cars are better than SUVs and minivans, but is this not the Titanic moving slower to the iceberg rather than faster?
To address the environmental problems we desperately need to will require change throughout our political system, including the Constitution. One proposal already under discussion perhaps takes us in the wrong direction: an Environmental Bill of Rights. How can we as people reasonably claim a clean and healthy environment as a matter of right? Isn't this the same human-centredness that has justified our greediness in the past? Perhaps we should look more at responsibilities and duties, and seek means of considering the rights of future generations, if not other species as well. Could not environmental protection go into the Constitution as a goal, to give higher status to those concerns? How about an Environmental Auditor-General, to report annually on how we as a society are managing the environment, akin to the (Fiscal) Auditor-General, whose reports are anxiously awaited, given great play in the media, and which have serious consequences for the people responsible. The data are now collected, but seem not to be used to guide policy.
I do not pretend to have the right specifics needed but can only urge that the process of exploration be engaged, with wide participation, of expert environmentalists and scientists, political scientists, public administrators, elected people, voters and the young. Surely this is a more important matter than Senate reform, the staple diet of Canadian constitutional discussion.
The governor general has special duties as head of the military, whose function is to protect the country's integrity. But what if the enemy is from within, our extravagant, careless and wasteful lifestyle? The governor general gives prominence to artistic achievements (the governor general's awards). Why not governor general's awards for environmental excellence, surely also worth encouraging and rewarding. Symbols count.
We need to ensure that the political domain remains in charge, so that better measures can be enacted--should we get the political will to do so. Many people want this domain to be more representative, via some measure of proportional representation, but that, while a good thing, is a comparatively minor issue. Much more difficult will be to prevent free trade treaties from overpowering environmental considerations. This already occurs when environmental measures are ruled illegal as impediments to trade. We risk losing control over the environment also when what used to be called public utilities, notably for water and electrical power, become private corporations, foreign owned or not. These are surely important issues and they are hardly considered in the political arena.
Along with measures to make it possible to listen to the voices of future generations, we need also to dampen the those speaking only for the immediate. We now have bills of rights which recognize human rights, a recent achievement and a good one, drawing on the values of the Enlightenment. Yet, thanks to judicial activism (don't blame the politicians), corporations have been given equivalent rights. Corporate free expression has been used even to justify cigarette advertising, the right being claimed with the same fervour as if political liberty were at issue. The recognition of corporate rights equivalent to human rights is a step backwards, and an impediment to action for the environment in the future.
Corporations, need we be reminded, have neither a soul to save nor a body to threaten with prison. We cannot appeal to their conscience or remind them of the needs of their grandchildren. They can make great profits while their employees are laid off. They leave the area they polluted with impunity, declare bankruptcy and avoid responsibility for the clean up. They use up non-renewable resources to make a profit, but, unlike us, they will never shiver in the dark when they are gone. Yet they have rights that the young of today and generations yet to come do not have, and indeed the wherewithal to deprive them of their future. It would take a constitutional change to get the priorities right.
Some of the measures we need to safeguard the environment require less difficult changes, like tax policy (a carbon tax) and stronger regulations (on specific pollutants). On some matters we need to begin by undoing the damage done by previous policies, nowhere clearer than in energy use in Canada. This is key because energy use affects everything else. We need to move to clean, sustainable energy sources, as every environmental organization and expert has long urged. But still our policies provide subsidies for fossil fuel extraction and nuclear reactors. Wind, solar and co-generation (using heat generated in industrial processes for electricity production) are still rare exceptions. Building codes have scarcely started to require energy-saving construction and siting, which, if implemented would foster much saving of energy sources. The knowledge exists; it is not being used. Creative political solutions have to be devised.
Consumers can help by favouring better over worse choices. But without tax policy and government procurement measures, without accountability as to the environmental implications of various choices, the dismal trends will continue. Experts can help by advancing new and better ways to use scarce resources, but without a responsive political system there is little hope that they will be put into place.
Two kinds of collapse literature can be distinguished: one of societies that actually collapsed, that is, all the inhabitants either died or left, or so few survived as to be recognizable; the second is of hypothetical collapse, projected by computer models manipulating estimates of population, supplies of food and other natural resources and pollution. From the actual collapse literature one of the most sobering facts is that some of the societies did very well for such a long time, so that its inhabitants could well believe that all was well. The lesson is that we the inhabitants of rich industrial countries, apparently prospering, could be in for a sudden collapse. The hypothetical literature contains models of rapid collapse, even after years of uninterrupted growth, for example the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth.
Computer models, however, are always open to contest so I will concentrate here on real-world examples, of societies known to have flourished, some for longer than industrial societies have existed anywhere on earth, to consider what lessons there may be for us today.
Some failed societies were always poor--the Norse in Greenland, for example, but even it lasted longer than Europeans have in North America. Others were large and complex societies with abundant natural resources and a high culture, for example, the Maya. For many readers of this dismal literature the saddest example is Easter Island, the one I wish to focus on here: the one that cut down all its trees, the one with massive toppled stone monuments. Easter Island was a small society (compared with Canada), but large enough to have had a complex political structure. Like us it had a rich resource base: abundant forests, fish, sea mammals and edible wild birds, although only poor land for agriculture. It was settled by Polynesians, it is estimated, more than a thousand years ago. For some hundreds of years it had a sufficient food surplus to pay for the carving and erection of hundreds of these massive monuments, average height 13 feet, average weight 10 tons. Hundreds more can be seen abandoned in the quarry.
Only in the late twentieth-century have archaeologists produced a plausible explanation for how this people without trucks, beasts of burden or cranes could have transported and erected these monuments. The great trees on the island were felled for the work, human labour pulling them from the interior quarry on great wooden logs to their place as political-religious symbols of authority. They were placed on the perimeter of the island, where the chiefs lived, facing inward toward their commoners.
No one knows exactly when the last tree was felled, the last boat built, the last porpoise caught, the last eggs gathered, the last wood fire built, in short the last good meal enjoyed in a snug house. There was civil war roughly in the 1600 and a breakdown in the political-religious structure, physically evident in the overturning of the monuments. When European explorers landed on Easter Island in the 1770s there was not a tree over 10 ft. high. The few survivors led a sorry life, reduced to rats and cannibalism for protein; they burned grasses for warmth. Geographer Jared Diamond's Collapse gives a detailed and moving account, Ronald Wright's Short History of Progress a shorter but also an eloquent one.
We of course think that nothing similar could happen to us, that we would see the signs of impending destruction and act in time. But how good are we at accurately reading the signs and responding? Our economic indicators give us the wrong information, gross domestic product increasing, for example, when there is a forest fire (paying the fire fighters increases income), totally missing the loss of the valuable resource base. We may even have encouraged the fire by forest management policy of putting out fires fast (in the interests of resource protection, but against nature's preference for occasional small fires to clear out debris and open up areas for regeneration).
Indicators in the oil industry include the greatly misleading term of peak oil, which experts tell us we have just passed. The number states the amount of new reserves found less the amount of oil extracted (aka produced). That we have passed our peak should be more than a humbling experience. The new reserves found are still those of a one-time product of nature; they cannot continue to be found indefinitely. It is not a matter of balancing new production versus use, as with a renewable resource--trees grown minus trees cut.
In Canada the province with the best current economic indicators is the one most dependent on a disappearing resource, Alberta oil, booming now with the tar sands. Its agriculture is also disproportionately dependent on production that is enormously costly to the environment, beef. It takes 16 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of beef, and the grain in turn requires fossil fuels in its production and transportation.
Was there an Easter Island Environment Society trying to fend off disaster? Did it hold meetings, issue warnings and plead for reason? Did an Easter Island Business Association ridicule its gloomy predictions as pseudo science and persuade its political rulers to listen to them instead? Did they point out how well the economy was doing, how bad it would be for jobs if logging were stopped? Did it assure the citizenry that technology would find alternative sources of wood? Did the media gleefully poke fun at the tree huggers?
The European social democracies seems to have done somewhat better on the environment than the undemocratic Soviet-type countries, or China (another, but more complicated matter). Having free, voluntary environmental organizations helps. But social democratic countries, while better on matters of social justice for today's citizens, still have the same constraints that more avowedly capitalist societies have. Voters, conservative or socialist, it seems, have preferred material prosperity for us now over prospects for future generations. All use the excuse that technology will provide other solutions (when the resources are gone). Undemocratic countries still have to provide jobs, and jobs now it seems almost everywhere prevail over the needs of the future.
The labour theory of value, notably as developed by Karl Marx and used to shape policy in the Soviet Union, can be seen as a major cause of the undervaluing of natural resources. When only human labour counts in the value of commodities (an extreme anthropocentrism), the result is the overuse of natural resources, waste and pollution. Democracy, for all its faults, gives us our best chance for environmental reform.
Jared Diamond's Collapse, along with the examples of failed societies, relates more cheerful examples of those that have learned to live sustainably on their land mass, or at least to act in time when disaster loomed. The political structures that produced these results were quite diverse, including both top-down impositions of reform and bottom-up decisions among relatively equal citizens who saw the problem and collaborated to deal with it.
What kind of political structure do countries like Canada need to take on environmental protection seriously? I would not presume to offer any answers but can only propose that this is an urgent matter to take on. Part 5 outlines three areas of focus for change, in politics, the economy and religion/culture. It will require our best ingenuity and a new level of co-operation and mutual aid to flesh out adequate measures in these different aspects.
Values shape what we bring to political and economic decision making: our goals and attitudes, our sense of right and wrong, our hopes and fears, what satisfies us or disappoints us and drives us to seek alternatives. Let us look at the dominant values of Canadian society from the perspective of environmental protection, how they favour environmental protection or unwittingly move us to environmental collapse.
Our guiding values draw on two major traditions: the secular eighteenth-century Enlightenment (science, reason, materialism, universalism, sympathy, liberty, sovereignty of the people, optimism and progress) and the dominant, Judeo-Christian religious tradition (love of neighbour, self-denial, a spiritual world of greater worth beyond the material, love, joy, peace). Of course the two value systems overlap in many ways, the universalism of the Enlightenment paralleling the religious teaching of God's love for all creatures, of being no respecter of persons, and the definition of one's neighbour being so broad as to include other, even inferior races and religions. Liberty and sympathy are valued in both traditions, if expressed differently. Islam is universalistic in terms of race, though not for gender.
The two sets of values each have positives and negatives, at least as they are currently understood, for the environment. With a little thought we could do better from both, drawing on and emphasizing the values that are conducive to respect for the environment, and rethinking those that are not. From the secular Enlightenment we have frankly materialistic goals. How otherwise when vast numbers of people lived in wretched poverty and it was realized that knowledge could be used to improve people's standard of living? We need now to use Enlightenment science to avoid and undo the negative consequences of this goal, so evident in resource depletion and pollution.
Our religious traditions teach rather different values, emphasizing spiritual well-being over material, and even warning of the dire consequences to our souls of material success. Unhappily these old-fashioned views are now largely ignored. Indeed a perverse gospel of success is in circulation, teaching that material success is the result (if not proof of) righteous living. This is quite a betrayal of the biblical foundations of both Judaism and Christianity (in any form). Where is religious fundamentalism when you really need it?
Enlightenment science and reason are crucial for the search for solutions to environmental problems. We need them also to monitor the evolving situation. Yet, valuable as they are we need to exercise greater caution in their employment. Optimism and progress have often been overstated in the Enlightenment literature--an understandable reaction, perhaps, in a period when people were fatalistic and medieval Christianity emphasized accepting one's place, however bad it was. But we have to be careful in all applied natural and social science. Indeed some Enlightenment leaders did teach such cautions, as did some nineteenth-century philosophers, but the cautions have often been ignored. Concern over unintended consequences must temper the values of optimism and progress.
The Enlightenment principle of sovereignty of the people, rejecting the divine right of kings, gave justification and energy to the democratic movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps we are too distant to those bad old days to appreciate what that principle of sovereignty achieved. And so we fail to understand what we are losing now as it is being infringed. For example, free trade agreements take away the right of the people's elected representatives to pass laws on their behalf for efficient delivery of services and environmental protection. The giving of human rights to corporations similarly has limited people's democratic rights.
Enlightenment theorists in the eighteenth century developed justifications for popular sovereignty over the received tradition of obedience to a monarch. Their arguments may seem antiquarian in today's world, but I suspect that something similar may be needed to recapture popular sovereignty lost to corporate rights. International trade agreements are the culprit now, not the sun king at Versailles, but the parallels are obvious.
People who attend church, temple or synagogue are accustomed to pray for many good things. Why not the environment and our care for it? The right sort of prayers, of course, not any, are needed. Florence Nightingale, an Anglican Christian of the nineteenth century, said she wondered why we prayed to be delivered from plague, pestilence and famine, when all the sewers of London run into the Thames. Anglicans today pray for good harvests, surely naively if not wrongfully, when our agricultural practices promote soil erosion and deterioration. We should not pray to escape from the natural consequences of our bad management of the land, sea and air.
The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham set out five criteria for extending sympathy to those around us, from narrow sets like our own families and nation to broader, even all humankind (including nations not at all like us) and greater yet to the whole sensitive creation (all animals of sense, a very large number). At a time when there were no laws against any ill treatment of animals, and when animals were barred from consideration because they lacked reason, Bentham pointed out the obvious that fact that, though they might not reason, they certainly felt pleasure and pain.
There is no reason why people of faith should not also feel sympathy to all creatures that share with us the capacity for pleasure or pain. Our religious traditions give even further cause for benevolent treatment of animals, teaching largely ignored nowadays. The Old Testament is full of admonitions for the care of animals, who are, like humans, meant to rest on the sabbath. But intensive farming does not permit holidays or rest, or indeed any enjoyable life for animals: productivity and profits count more. Animals in the Bible are accorded what philosophers call intrinsic or inherent value, that is they have worth in and of themselves, not just insofar as they are useful to us. We are entitled to use animals for food and labour, but limits are also specified. Biblical sources even have animals rejoicing and praising God and God delighting in them, too. Not much heard of today.
Biblical teachings on the care of animals in fact are quite explicit, much more so than the condemnation of homosexuality and gay marriage (not a clear matter at all, I understand), or abortion (killing is condemned, but how is capital punishment and war exempted, but not spermicides and early abortions?, matters never mentioned in scripture). Why don't religious fundamentalists picket farms where animals are treated cruelly, contrary to clear biblical admonitions? Some people oppose Sunday shopping for religious reasons (many others protested but gave up), but Sunday labour for animals seems never to be condemned.
An American organization of the religious right recently threatened a boycott of a magazine for advertising certain automobiles. I for a moment mused that this might mean a long overdue protest against excessive materialism, the waste of fossil fuels or concern over pollution of God's good earth. The objection alas was to the magazine making a positive appeal to gays in its advertising. Perhaps Rightwingianity would be a better expression for goals so clearly geared to a political-economic mind set, not a religious one.
What if the Christians and Jews of the industrial world revisited their holy writings to see what is taught in them about the care of creation? Stewards have to account to their employer for their acts. How can they and other faith communities foster effective accountability for our care of the environment? Surely this is a worthy challenge.
Part 5 - Points of Change: the Politics, Economy, Culture and Religion Needed for Environmental Preservation
The four previous parts of this series have argued that only fundamental change in our mode of government, the running of the economy, and what we believe (whether as secular philosophy or religion) will be enough to move us to a sustainable lifestyle on planet earth. Here we examine these three areas not with an aim at new knowledge (however helpful that might be), but how to use what we already know, to understand the obstacles that have prevented application of good research from the past. We lack neither warnings nor remedies, but action on the considerable set of them developed in the past.
1. Politics comes first, because without a more sensitive political apparatus the best ideas remain unimplemented. At the national level we need constitutional change, to enshrine the goal of environmental protection into the Constitution, and to make action towards it a matter for ongoing governmental responsibility.
The young of today, and their children and children, have no voice in the nation's business. We need to devise some way to represent their needs, seven generations in the future, as in the aboriginal model. Legal guardians are appointed to look after the money interests of minors. Could we not develop some equivalent to speak for the wider interests of the young and future generations?
War and preparation for war are major causes of environmental destruction. Not only is there obvious damage from bombs, land mines, agent orange, sunken nuclear submarines, etc., the resources devoted to war mean less to spend on health, education and environmental protection. All suffer from such a diversion, but the young and future generations especially. Hence a critical part of any program to protect the environment must include support for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and avoidance of war. Going to war should not be within the prerogative of the prime minister to decide.
There are many ways that non-violent conflict resolution can be advanced, including the active challenging of injustice, willingness for self-sacrifice (not suicide bombers but as active resistance). The heroism that war may bring out in people has to be channelled into action that promotes justice, peace and the living world. Solutions must be sought internationally, in relation with concerned citizens' movements and their governments in other countries.
Canadian environmentalists have put their heads together in conferences, books and brain storming sessions to produce an impressive range of practical measures to promote environmental preservation. We need to institute some way to track their results in actual practice. This is not to say that all should be implemented, but to argue for some political accounting. Governments, federal, provincial, territorial and municipal as appropriate, need to be evaluate these proposals and say how they could be put to use, or what better might be done as the case may be. Report cards on government have been a good starting point, but we need something with more teeth.
Just as governments must present a budget to outline their spending, they should have to present a plan for environmental remediation.
Governments cannot be much more virtuous than their citizens, so we cannot expect them to enact the most vigorous measures while people, the voters, are dragging their feet. But governments can promote consultations with citizens' and professional groups, can encourage pro-environment measures and give tentative approval to good ideas. Implementing radical change, such as a significant carbon tax, sustainable practices in agriculture, forestry and the fisheries, cannot be achieved without broad popular support. This in turn means that all kinds of intermediate institutions, such as science organizations, professional groups, unions, faith communities, etc., have to be involved, to help the dialogue between government and individual citizens (voters).
The (unelected) Senate of Canada is supposed to give a sober second look at legislation, and indeed it often has. It was established originally with a property qualification for membership, to ensure that senators would bring the right (pro-business) attitudes to their duties. Might a reconstituted Senate give focus to our most crucial concerns about property, the ongoing viability of our resource base? The original Senate was frankly intended to be a conservative force. What we need now is a conservation force, real conservatives.
The best mechanism to achieve this is not obvious. A start might be made with a Parliamentary committee with a mandate to consult widely. It could then come up with a framework for taking us through the really challenging rethinking required.
2. The economy. The distinction is simple: capital and interest. A company that has to sell off its assets to pay its employees' salaries and wages, and its shareholders' dividends will not long survive. We have to move from an economy that is using up its non-renewable resources at a perilous rate to one that lives off interest, a sustainable economy. Right now the perceived economic successes are those that make the most money, whatever the long-term damage they cause. A company that does not grow is expected to fail, however good its product, the life it affords its employees and the locale in which it operates, however beneficial it might be for our long-term survival.
How to get from here to there is not obvious, and probably some experiments will fail. But try we must. Different sorts and sizes of companies, non-profit corporations, co-operatives even (many have been tried and failed) have to make this switch. Tax policies may help, but propping up companies with products no one wants won't. Government purchasing policies, favouring sustainable companies might. Consumer preferences and boycotts can lend a hand. All this, in turn, presupposes some change in thinking, values, to be considered shortly.
The for-profit corporation arose in history at a particular time, bringing with it many advantages, but also proving to be hazardous to the long-term survival of human existence on the earth. Certainly corporations are not people and should not have human rights; they are a means to an end, created by people thinking of their own betterment, but who now have to think also of the infrastructure on which they live, the earth.
Substantial legislative change would be required to foster the emergence of sustainable corporations. The removal of corporate human rights would take legislation, possibly a Constitutional change. Again, as for political change, a process of creative re-examination of existing institution must be engaged and new models tried.
3. Values and lifestyle: culture and religion. Whether one's core values are secular or religious we need to re-examine them for how well they suit our long-term survival on planet earth, or God's created world, depending on your point of view. From the secular Enlightenment we have sympathy for the whole sensitive creation, which leads to the humane treatment of animals, rejection of factory farms for their cruelty and confinement, and a simpler lifestyle to foster those value choices. From the Judeo-Christian perspective this means a re-examination of long-ignored biblical foundations, the purpose of kosher foods in Judaism or eating in the lifestyle of Jesus in Christianity (very little, but kosher, meat, organic vegetables, bread and fish). The values of both Judaism and Christianity both take us in the same direction, and in fact overlap considerably.
So do they both lead to a preference for the spiritual over the material, time with family and friends to getting ahead, watching birds and playing games for fun, over professional sports and competition. Experts have even devised new ways to measure happiness that focus on these non-GDP activities. Again, as for so many other things that promote sustainability, the ideas are there, but they have scarcely been put to use.
Some of the psalms show a delightful appreciation of nature. In Psalm 147 God covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow upon the hills, gives food to the beasts and to young ravens. In Psalm 104 the Lord makes springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst.... The earth is fully of thy creatures.... Psalm 96 proclaims: Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice....let the field exult and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy.... So also do the rivers clap their hands, images sadly lacking in our mental repertoire today.
To move towards sustainable choices we need to change our basic vocabulary as well. We must stop using the words that justify the disastrous practices that are depleting the earth's resources: we should stop pretending to produce oil (when we only extract it) and we should stop referring to growth as a synonym for goodness and health.
There is no lack of practical advice from environmentalist leader on practical things that we can do to live more sustainably every day. David Suzuki's Nature Challenge is an excellent example for Canadians, listing the ten most effective ways to help conserve nature and improve our quality of life.
John Stuart Mill proposed a concept of cultural growth, within a stationary economy, i.e., better living with the same material resource base, an idea surely worth revisiting.
Human population growth that lessens biodiversity has to be seen as risky. Currently countries with no population growth, like Canada, see this as a problem and turn to immigration as a solution. Immigration may be a good thing, and certainly the welcoming of refugees is for many reasons, but more is not necessarily better, and raiding poorer countries for their best-trained citizens has its own negatives.
The secular values of optimism and progress from the 18th-century Enlightenment, argued by such thinkers as Auguste Comte in the 19th century (he the inventor of the term sociology), have also to be rethought. We need them still, I submit, to pursue the experimentation needed to develop a sustainable economy. But they too need to be qualified with scepticism, an understanding that unintended consequences can result from the most benevolent and apparently well-founded endeavours. Florence Nightingale, the British nurse and social reformer, and L.A.J. Quetelet, a Belgian statistician, wisely put forward these cautions in the 19th century. Nightingale herself is an excellent model, combining a deep religious faith (Christian) with a strong commitment to social science (she was the first woman member of the Royal Statistical Society) and a creative and bold advocate of such major reforms as public health care (using statistics to monitor actual results).
The changes needed to move us from environmental degradation and the loss of species towards sustainability go from our individual thoughts and desires, our beliefs and values, what gives us pleasure or pain, to the legal framework for corporations and political life, to the Charter of Rights and Constitution.
No one (to my knowledge) has yet devised a full set of requisites towards these changes, but much work has been done, alas languishing in reports, books and manifestoes. We need to change the whole framework, so as to facilitate concerted change in the various domains. To guide it we need a political strategy, which could start with a Parliamentary committee, a royal commission, task force, whatever. We need to combine representatives of the existing political structure with the best thinkers who can challenge it, the young who will suffer most the consequences of non-action, and those with the sympathy and imagination to care for more than their own species and the next bottom line. We probably need a referendum of the citizens for such a paradigm shift. Risky of course, for a good proposal (for environmentalists) might be defeated. But if a broad cross-section of the population cannot be persuaded, then we cannot succeed.