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Harper’s attacks on environmental organizations unnecessary and counterproductive - RECORD opinion article

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has unnecessarily polarized the environment and economics.

By slamming environmental groups, weakening the environmental review process, and scrapping the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, Harper has not only threatened progress from Canadian environmental organizations, he has also damaged his own vision for a more economically robust country.

Canada needs a development strategy that respects both environmental and business needs.

At first glance, the environment and the economy sound at odds, a dichotomy that Harper eagerly exploits. Yet how many economic sectors depend directly on environmental conditions? Agriculture, forestry, energy, fishing, insurance, tourism, transportation and so many others are intimately reliant on the natural conditions that underpin their functionality. Manufacturing, service, banking and even high-tech sectors become indirectly dependent on the environment when we consider our interconnected economy.

So, what is the worry? The United Nations Environment Program’s 2012 Global Environmental Outlook clearly demonstrates that global environmental conditions are deteriorating across all categories, from land use to water scarcity, from climate change to deforestation, and from contamination to species loss.

According to our own environmental indicators, Canadian greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, nearly a quarter of our species are sensitive or at risk, and key areas of the country consistently struggle with water availability, including southern Ontario.

Canada is blessed with abundant natural resources and a vast land mass, but even we are not immune to the long-term stresses that already impact other areas of the world.

Trying to pull away from a false dichotomy is not easy. How do we try and incorporate the environment into the business case, when it was the rationale behind the business case that caused many environment problems in the first place? After all, every company will select its shareholders over the environment if forced to choose.

There is a large body of literature that has sought to revisit classical economics in the context of modern environmentalism. Resource, environmental, and ecological economics are three streams of thought that seek to integrate these two seemingly divergent paradigms. They are not conclusive, and it is unlikely that they will offer Harper an epiphany. Such research nevertheless demonstrates ways to avoid false polarizations by including environmental factors in everyday decision making. In other words, it is doable.

It is important to start with a vision of where we want to go, and then develop a strategy to get there.

Chad Park, the executive director of The Natural Step, a non-profit environmental education organization, calls this “backcasting.”

Why not create a vision for an economy that is carbon neutral, which limits resource waste and recycles used materials? It is ambitious but inspiring, and that is exactly what drives innovation. Better yet, the appetite already exists. A 2010 survey by Accenture found that 93 per cent out of 700 global CEOs thought sustainability was key to future business success.

If environment and business are not at odds, and employers clearly desire more effective sustainability strategies, Harper’s Conservatives should start listening. Anything less is ideological Puritanism that, in the long term, undermines the very goals it strives to achieve.

As Governor General David Johnston has stated: “Our desire for a modern economy and our duty to a sustainable environment are not mutually exclusive — they are mutually reinforcing. Indeed, one requires the other.”

Mat Thijssen is a recent master of arts graduate from the Balsillie School of International Affairs, where he focused his research on environmental policy and global security.


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