Green thinking that makes sense

Once I managed to one-up David Suzuki on environmental matters. Chatting before a panel discussion, he said his kids reproached him for having a TV at his cottage. Man, I said, my parents' cottage didn't even have electricity. And I liked it that way. I bring it up not to taunt Dr. Suzuki (OK, maybe a bit) but to underline that almost all of us are environmentalists now. I credit the greens, though I wonder if they now want to help us do something practical. So I've been reading the recent David Suzuki Foundation report everyone's not talking about, "Sustainability within a Generation: A New Vision For Canada," by David R. Boyd.

Sure, the sponsorship scandal is more current. But one thing I detest about bad government, and will remember on election day, is that it distracts us from important stuff. Environment Minister David Anderson recently said "in the long term, climate change will outweigh terrorism as an issue for the international community." It's no reason to neglect terrorism, or Adscam, but if he's right that man is boiling the earth, we should discuss it. (And his government should produce a Kyoto Plan.)

Mr. Boyd's report has some encouragingly practical insights. For instance, one of his "potential policies" is to "encourage provinces and territories to phase in full-cost pricing (including environmental costs) for all water users -- industrial, commercial, agricultural, and municipal, along with water metering." In the same enlightened vein, he declares that: "The basic premise behind ecological tax shifting is that society should stop taxing activities it wants to encourage and start taxing activities it wants to discourage." And that "Perverse subsidies occur when governments subsidize environmentally destructive behaviour ... Canadians are penalized twice. First, Canadians pay for subsidies ... Second, Canadians bear the direct and indirect costs of ecological damage ..."

So far, so good. The whole idea behind free speech was, as John Stuart Mill put it, that "as mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase..." We don't seem to be doing very well: On most subjects the yelling is louder now than a hundred years ago. But it's nice to see that while the greens taught us to love nature, we taught them some economics.

Unfortunately, some things in the report give less cause for hope. I've been reading an apparently unrelated book, Risk: A Practical Guide for What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You, by Harvard University toxicologist George Gray and David Ropeik, who runs Harvard's Center for Risk Analysis. The authors have no right-wing axe to grind, but in discussing what you should really worry about, they stress that air quality in the U.S. has improved dramatically since the days when environmentalists were weirdos. Yet Mr. Boyd says "Canadian government data estimates that between 5,000 and 16,000 Canadians die prematurely each year because of air pollution." If so, the number should have been far higher 30 years ago and the statistics don't bear it out. Can we please agree not to do bad science? Or to ignore what's gone right and why?

Could we also deep-six the "precautionary principle" that you should never do anything that hasn't been proven absolutely safe? It's dealing off the bottom of the deck since everyone knows you can't definitively prove a negative. Besides, under the precautionary principle we would certainly refuse to adopt the precautionary principle, since it's impossible to prove it won't prevent some technological improvement that, on balance, is good for the environment.

Finally, let's lose the utopian tone. It's bad enough that Mr. Boyd wants us to "improve our quality of life while reducing energy and material use by 75 to 90 per cent from today's levels" within, one assumes, a generation. Such efficiency gains are just not possible: If they were, someone would have made them and got rich.

Mr. Boyd also quotes then-finance minister Paul Martin saying in 2000 that "We need to abandon the very concept of waste." Fine. You first. Start with government.

Mr. Boyd's flyleaf quotes former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency director William Ruckelshaus that moving "nations and people in the direction of sustainability... would be a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: the Agricultural Revolution of the late Neolithic, and the Industrial Revolution ... This one will have to be a fully conscious operation, guided by the best foresight that science can provide." Which falls into the "And after lunch, world peace" category of preposterously ambitious, insanely control-freak sentiments that do not help our mission one bit.

So there's still lots of room for bickering. But I hope we can agree on full-cost pricing of water, electricity and all our other utilities. Oh, and that when we do head out into the woods, we shouldn't take a TV.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson