What Kind of Example Is Canada Setting?

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderIs any nation on Earth taking seriously the need for a true-cost economy, where we live sustainably in a steady state? I have been working with Randy Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network and executive director of Foundation Earth, on a report card to determine if Canada might be such a nation. The report card reveals whether Canada is setting the example for how to run a country sustainably in the 21st century, or following the path of maximal exploitation of natural resources (the path followed by most nations and urged by the World Bank, IMF, WTO, and growth-obsessed economists).

We chose to examine Canada in part because of its history of compassion and global concern. Canada also has abundant natural ecosystems, lots of land and fresh water, and a relatively small population. This combination of assets puts Canadians in a better position than most to set policies for achieving a sustainable economy.

The report card, scheduled for release in June by Foundation Earth, grades the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, on key actions and policies in economics, ecology, and equity. It will present grades in sixteen categories.

Canada has the potential to achieve high marks across all categories (in fact, the report card highlights initiatives around the world that show what can be done to earn high grades). But much to our chagrin, we found that instead of taking actions to enhance the health of people and the planet, Canada has been reverting to the crass and outdated ways of cowboy economics: “exploit now, answer questions later.” The Harper administration receives failing grades in most of the sixteen categories, while Alberta and British Columbia do only slightly better. Although Vancouver, Toronto, and other locales have undertaken a number of sustainable economic initiatives, the Harper administration is promoting overly exploitative projects in most areas.

Given the collapse of leadership in the U.S. on innovative ecological and economic policy, Canada could have emerged as a worldwide leader on the shift to clean energy. The nation could have rejected mega-extraction projects that pollute the air and water and damage or destroy forests, grasslands, rivers, lakes, mountains, and valleys.

Instead, Canada is following the U.S.’s lead and dropping the ball. For example, Harper could have extended British Columbia’s carbon tax law of 2008 to the rest of the country. Sweden adopted a carbon tax in 1991 with good results. Harper could have pushed for extensive solar energy in Alberta and Saskatchewan where cities such as Edmonton, Calgary, and Regina have equal or better solar potential than Rome, Italy. Germany and Denmark have shown that northern nations can lead the way on solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources.

To get a sense of the grades we’re compiling in the report card, here’s a rundown of four categories:

1. Climate Disruption and Pollution

On climate policies, Canada is ranked 58th out of 61 nations that the European Climate Action Network analyzed. Only Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kazakhstan ranked worse. This woeful ranking stems from projects like the Enbridge pipeline. Harper has pushed for this pipeline project that would carry tar sands oil across British Columbia to the port of Kitimat where supertankers would attempt to navigate difficult channels (and jeopardize the province’s magnificent northern coastline).

By removing protections from 99% of Canada’s natural water bodies, Harper has left 30,000 lakes and rivers vulnerable to corporate pollution. The Prime Minister has also sought to weaken water pollution standards and given permission to use more lakes as dumpsites.

2. Women’s Rights

When it comes to empowerment of women, Canada under Harper has fallen three places in the Global Gender Gap Index and now ranks 21st. Harper cut funding for the Status of Women department by 38% and closed twelve of its sixteen regional offices.

3. Rights of Indigenous People

In January 2006, Harper cancelled the Kelowna Accord, a historic agreement to clean up pollution that is poisoning First Nation people. The Harper government, along with some provincial governments, has systematically failed to respect indigenous rights and has cheered energy projects that severely impact the health of native people, their lands, and their waters.

4. Science-Based Decision Making

Reminiscent of an Orwellian state, Harper’s administration has eliminated scientific programs and refused to regard scientific findings on toxic contamination and the health of forests, fisheries, and oceans. Harper has led an outright assault on environmental groups, allocating millions to the charitable tax agency harassing these organizations.

Key institutions carrying out scientific work on the health of the Earth have been gutted and even shuttered, including the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in the High Arctic, the Experimental Lakes Area (an extraordinary 58-lake research venue in western Ontario), the national program on contaminants in marine mammals, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

All scientific research in the National Parks has been terminated, and Environment Canada has cancelled its work on climate adaptation by laying off all eighteen scientists in the program. Top experts on ocean pollutants, marine mammals, contaminants in the St. Lawrence River, toxic flame retardants, and endocrine disruptors in fish have been dismissed.

The report card on Canada under the Harper administration will inform people of these disgraceful changes. Canada is moving farther and farther from a sustainable economy and is now a record-setting polluter where the gap between rich and poor is widening; where women, First Nations, and conservationists are under major attack; and where energy and mining companies are given a blank check to pillage the nation and the planet.

Many have tried to influence Harper to do what’s best for the environment and the economy over the long run. If the saying is true that, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” then maybe it’s time to put Harper out to political pasture. Although with the policies he’s been supporting, he might have a tough time finding drinkable water in that pasture.

The Triumph of Fantasy over Science, Part 1

The Rise of Fantasy as the Basis for Economic Policy

by Rob Dietz

Two competing camps attract people from all over the world. One is Science Camp, and the other is Fantasy Camp.

At Science Camp, the counselors teach campers that we live on a single blue-green planet with finite resources. The curriculum at Science Camp focuses on figuring out how to conserve and share those resources. There’s a strong undercurrent of appreciation (maybe even reverence) for nature and humanity’s place in it — a desire to learn about and safeguard life on this planet.

At Fantasy Camp, the counselors educate campers to believe that humanity can circumvent natural limits. Campers are taught that our unstoppable ingenuity can overcome any resource shortages or manage any amount of waste generation. There’s a strong undercurrent of consumption — a desire to accumulate ever more power and stuff in an attempt to gain complete control over life (and even death).

This division of the world’s people into two camps is a bit crude. After all, some people can’t attend either camp, since they’re engaged in a struggle to get by on the meager resources available to them. Other people are so taken up by their jobs, ideology, or religion that they don’t pay attention to either camp. Still others may be in transit from one camp to another. For example, people learning the ins and outs of climate change, planetary overshoot, biodiversity loss, etc., might begin to disentangle themselves from Fantasy Camp and start leaning toward Science Camp.

Counselors and campers at Science Camp put a lot of stock in observations and facts. Facts like these:

  • When we extract and burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere. A higher concentration of carbon dioxide produces side effects (e.g., increasing temperatures and acidifying oceans) that threaten global climate stability.
  • When we convert forests, grasslands, and wetlands to farms, cities, and suburban sprawl, we decrease the amount of habitat available to non-human species, and we reduce the ecological richness of the landscape.
  • When we extract fish, trees, or other natural resources faster than Mother Nature can replace them, we collapse populations and sometimes cause long-term ecological damage.

Grappling with such facts can lead to clear-headed thinking about limits — recognition that we need to limit the burning of fossil fuels, limit the conversion of natural habitat, and limit the rate of resource extraction. Ecological economists are some of the most clear-thinking enrollees at Science Camp. They approach economic growth and ecological limits with practicality, seeking policies and institutions that enhance human well-being without overwhelming the capacity of planetary life-support systems.

In contrast, the people registered at Fantasy Camp, especially the neoclassical economists, tend to ignore, deny, or dispute facts that conflict with their pre-existing ideas about infinite economic growth. At the same time, they cling to tidbits of conventional wisdom that support their current worldview. Their refusal to incorporate facts into their thinking about how to operate the economy is especially dangerous because it feeds the consumptive frenzy that pushes ecosystems and societies to the brink.

When you compare the foundational principles of ecological economics to those of mainstream/neoclassical economics (see table), it becomes ever clearer that one has a strong basis in reality. The principles of ecological economics stem from the laws of physics and ecology instead of “truthy” assumptions about human behavior and markets. The logic behind ecological economics suggests a different policy path than the theories behind neoclassical economics.

Foundational Principles of Fantasy Camp and Science Camp

Neoclassical Economics (Fantasy Camp) Ecological Economics (Science Camp)
People are rational utility maximizers. They make decisions rationally (at the margin) with the explicit goal of improving their own lives and maximizing their well-being. Sometimes people behave rationally, and other times irrationally. Behavior is influenced by emotion, culture, circumstance, and many factors beyond rational self interest.
People consume goods and services to meet needs. Since meeting needs increases people’s utility (satisfaction with life), more consumption is better. Consuming enough is preferable to continuous pursuit of more, given the diminishing returns of additional consumption and the social and environmental consequences of overconsumption.
The goal for an economy is growth — continuously increasing production and consumption. Growth means more jobs, more consumer utility, more purchasing power. The goal for an economy is optimal scale — the size at which the rising marginal costs of growth equal the diminishing marginal benefits. Growing the economy past this point is counterproductive.
Value is determined by prices in the market. If something of value does not have a price, we should find a way to bring it into the market. Some things that have value are not priced in markets. We need to establish mechanisms beyond the market to recognize this value.

There’s one other big difference between Science Camp and Fantasy Camp. Science Camp draws many fewer supporters than Fantasy Camp. To make a positive economic transition, we need to orchestrate a reversal of this situation, and to do so requires us to address two questions:

  1. Why do so many people pitch their tents in Fantasy Camp?
  2. After decades of failing to attract people to Science Camp, what should we do?

Why People Favor Fantasy

As Bill Rees has noted, “If intelligence and logic were the principal determinants of economic policy, the primary goal would be to ensure that growth slows as we reach the optimal scale and that the economy not exceed this optimal size.” But given the struggle of ecological economics to gain ground on neoclassical economics, we can mostly eliminate “intelligence and logic” as driving forces that motivate people to decide which camp to enter. Indeed, three factors that have little to do with intelligence and logic are behind this.

1. The psychology of inclusion drives people to follow the in-vogue philosophy. Dan Kahan, a legal scholar at Yale University, defines the term “protective cognition” as a sort of automatic defense mechanism that people employ to dismiss scientifically sound evidence that poses a threat to their worldview. Like an immune system fighting off invading viruses, protective cognition works in people’s minds to repel invading facts that would require them to rethink their dearest beliefs. Kahan writes, “Because accepting such [facts] could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.” With so many people having internalized the concepts of unlimited economic growth and the triumph of technology over nature, protective cognition puts up a formidable obstacle to widespread adoption of ecological economics. It can take years of fact bombardment to begin chipping away at this obstacle.

Fantasy Camp counselors shouldn’t be setting economic policy.

2. Neoclassical economics has become entrenched in the culture. The way people approach daily living and interactions within the economy has become aligned with the neoclassical tenet of self interest (mostly by seeking high-paying jobs and adopting lifestyles of materialism). Neoclassical ideology permeates universities. With so many business and economics students, universities are churning out graduates who buy into the neoclassical approach. The degree of entrenchment came about because neoclassical prescriptions worked at a time when increasing material goods meant increasing well-being. As Herman Daly has pointed out, this was the case when the Earth was relatively empty of people and our stuff. We could extract resources and dump wastes without worrying about running out of supplies (of either inputs or waste absorption capacity). But that logic has become faulty, and even dangerous, as we have filled the planet with ourselves and our things.

3. They spin a real good story over at Fantasy Camp. The message of unending growth is enticing, as long as we disregard the Icarus-like consequences of being seduced by it. This message makes regular appearances in fantasy movies. For example, in The Matrix, Neo (the hero) says, “I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them… a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible.” Although this sort of message belongs in a movie theater, it seems to pop up even more often in the political theater. After Ronald Reagan cruised to Presidential victory over Jimmy Carter (whose message of conservation failed to resonate), he said, “There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.” This quote, which makes it seem like Reagan employed Disney’s top talent to write his speeches, is literally set in stone in a Washington, DC monument. Reagan’s message is far more compelling than something like, “Individual freedom is a cornerstone of society, but freedom of choice may be constrained by social and environmental limits to growth. Men and women need to take such constraints into account when deciding which dreams to follow.”

These three factors won’t go away on their own. To increase the prominence of Science Camp, we have to take concerted action. Part 2 will explore how to enroll more people in Science Camp and supplant fantasy as the basis for economic policy.

The Big Population Question

Should we be thinking about the number simultaneously alive or the cumulative number ever to live?

by Herman Daly

More people are better than fewer—as long as they are not all alive at the same time! Sustainability means longevity for the human race—more people enjoying a sufficient level of consumption for a good life over more generations—not more simultaneously living people elbowing each other off the planet. Nor does it mean a perpetual sequence of generations. Nothing is forever in the present Creation—both science and Christianity agree on that, and perhaps other religions do as well. Christianity hopes for a New Creation free from death, sin, and decay. Science is not in the business of hope, although scientism peddles cheap optimism as a substitute. I share the Christian hope, but also accept the scientific description of the present Creation and its subjugation to entropy and finitude. Economist Georgescu-Roegen criticized sustainability and the steady state economy as advocacy of perpetuity (or “eternal life for the species”) rather than longevity. Maybe some people confused the two, but it is a confusion easily corrected. As creatures of the present Creation we must do the best we can with what we have for however long it lasts, even while we may hope for the New Creation as an eschatological faith.

In the past “doing the best we can” seems to have meant a larger and larger population consuming more and more stuff. Now we see that too many people alive at one time, and consuming too much per capita, reduce the carrying capacity of the earth for all life. This will mean fewer people and/or lower consumption per capita in the future, and a lower cumulative population ever to live at a level of consumption sufficient for a good life. If our ethical understanding of the value of longevity (“sustainability”) is to “maximize” cumulative lives ever to be lived, subject to a per capita consumption level sufficient for a good life, then we must limit the load we place on the Earth at any one time. Fewer people, and lower per capita resource consumption, facilitated by more equitable distribution today, mean more, and more abundant lives for a longer, but not infinite, future. There is no point in maximizing the cumulative number of lives lived in misery, so the qualification “sufficient for a good life” is important, and requires deep rethinking of economics, a shift of focus from growth to sufficiency.

Given that the whole marvelous shebang is still going to end sometime, why make extraordinary efforts to prolong it, especially if, as the modern intelligentsia assures us, the universe and all life are just random events, as well as temporary? And if we have no idea of what a good life is, then we cannot say how much per capita consumption is sufficient for a good life. But for some of us faith in the love of the Creator and the promise of New Creation substitutes divine purpose for cosmic random, and saves us from despair over our repeated failures, as well as over the ultimate impossibility of preserving this Creation in the very long run. Like the first Creation, New Creation will be a miracle. It gives hope in the face of entropy and finitude, but does not solve our ethical problem of how to share the limited life support capacity of the present Creation among generations and species. Belief that the end of the world will occur soon, with lots of life-support capacity left unused (wasted), is a tenet of some fundamentalist Christians who consequently consider themselves exempt from the responsibility of Creation stewardship. Fortunately this view seems to be waning.

Most scientists will not be happy with talk about miracles, with hope in the New Creation. Yet when faced with the ultimate heat death of the universe, and the meaninglessness implicit (and increasingly explicit) in their materialist cosmology, some scientists seem to flinch, and look for optimism somewhere within their materialism. They invent the hypothesis of infinitely many (unobservable) universes in which life may outlive our universe. They were led to this extraordinary idea in order to escape the implications of the anthropic principle—which argues that for life to have come about by chance in our single universe would require far too many just-so coincidences. To preserve the idea of chance as reasonable cause, and thereby escape any notion of Creator, they argue that although these coincidences are indeed overwhelmingly improbable in a single universe, they would surely happen if there were infinitely many universes. And of course our universe is obviously the one in which the improbable events all happened. If you don’t believe that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, you can claim that infinitely many monkeys pecking away at infinitely many typewriters had to hit upon it someday.

Unfortunately the evidence for infinitely many universes, or monkeys for that matter, is nonexistent. Likewise, the only “evidence” that could be offered to support hope for a future miracle would be the occurrence of a similar miracle in the past. That of course would be the Creation itself. Science rightly tries to account for this Creation, as far as reasonable, in its own mechanistic terms, and of course rejects “miracle” or God as an explanatory category. Whether ad hoc postulation of infinitely many unobservable universes qualifies as a reasonable scientific explanation, I will leave to the reader’s judgment. But the working hypothesis of scientific materialism, however fruitful it has been, should not be sanctified as the Ultimate Metaphysics of Chance. Nor does adding Darwinian natural selection to Mendelian random mutation alter the picture, since the selecting criterion of environmental conditions (other organisms and geophysical surroundings) is also considered to be a random product of chance. Mutations provide random change in the genetic menu from which natural selection picks according to the survival value determined by a randomly changing environment. Such a Metaphysics of Chance precludes explanation of some basic facts: first, that there is something rather than nothing; second, the just-right physical “coincidences” set forth in the anthropic principle; third, the “spontaneous generation” of first life from inanimate matter; fourth, the creation of an incredible amount of specified information in the genome of all the irreducibly complex living creatures that grew from the relatively simple information in the first living thing (random change destroys rather than creates information); fifth, the emergence of self-consciousness and rational thought itself (if my thoughts are ultimately the product of random, why believe any of them, including this one?); and sixth, the innate human perception of right and wrong, of good and bad, which would be meaningless in a purely material world. Explaining these facts “by chance” strains credulity even more than “by miracle”.

Metaphysical humility remains a virtue for both science and religion, and longevity (sustainability) is a metaphysically humble goal appropriate for limited creatures in the face of ignorance and mystery. Whether we will in the long run have the courage to serve even that modest goal in the absence of eschatological hope remains a question. Christianity and science both recognize the fundamental limits of this Creation. Christianity offers ultimate hope in New Creation; science remains mute about that. Scientism, however, seeing no limits to this Creation, offers, instead of hope, the campaigning optimism of, for example, IBM’s call “to build a smarter planet” and NASA’s promise of space colonization—all in the service of a forever-growing population of simultaneously-living big consumers. Phooey!