Environment vs Economy: Resolving the Dichotomy

 By Andrea Smith

Learning to live within the limits of our planet is one of the biggest challenges facing humankind. Yet, we often forget how tightly our economy is linked to the environment, and how essential a healthy environment is for a thriving and robust economy. Our capitalist system is based on the idea that ongoing consumption and economic growth are necessary for development and progress. But the environment, which ultimately provides the goods and services to fuel our economy, is finite and cannot sustain endless extraction and exploitation. So how can we square this circle?

The Muskoka Summit on the Environment (MSE) is a biennial event that provides a forum for the public to explore and debate pressing environmental and societal issues with leading thinkers in the field. This year’s MSE focused on the theme “Economy vs. Environment: Resolving the Dichotomy” and was held at Bracebridge’s Rene Caisse Theatre May 8-9th to a sold-out crowd.

Over the course of two days, 300 participants heard six speakers from across North America discuss the dangers of treating the economy as independent of the environment. The speakers explored how to fully value the environment, both for the many goods and services we gain from it, and also for its own intrinsic worth.

Robert Sandford, a water policy expert from the University of Saskatchewan, began the Summit by documenting how climate change is dramatically altering the global water cycle. Rising atmospheric temperatures have led to instability in the system, resulting in more frequent and severe extreme weather events worldwide, including floods, droughts, and heat waves. Even the polar vortex we experienced this past winter can be linked to climate change, because the melting of the Arctic ice (which Sandford referred to as ‘earth’s refrigerator’) has caused the jet stream to meander further south, trapping arctic weather over much of central and eastern Canada for long periods. Sandford emphasized that these hydrological changes are here to stay and are already having profound cascading effects on all aspects of the economy and society, including agricultural productivity, the energy sector, the real estate industry, municipal governments, and human health and well-being. He urged us all to show “courageous and relentless citizenship and brave leadership” to solve the problem through good science, timely local action, and a recognition that we cannot “get rich now and smarter later”.

Elena Bennett, an ecologist from McGill University, spoke next about her research in Quebec on linking landscape planning with biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as food, freshwater, recreational opportunities and flood control. She described how landscape configuration, especially the connectivity of forest patches in an agricultural setting, affects biodiversity and the provision of numerous ecosystem services.  Bennett concluded that we need to recognize that ecosystems provide a multitude of services to human society, and that we should incorporate this complexity into land use planning.

Kai Chan, a sustainability scientist at the University of British Columbia, introduced the idea of small-planet ethics, which teach us to treat the planet as we do our house and home, and to view environmentalism as a social justice issue. Our current behaviour has widespread effects worldwide. When we purchase tropical lumber, we contribute to devastating landslides in Haiti and Indonesia, and when we burn oil and gas we contribute to rising levels that threaten low-lying islands. Since we are all complicit in causing environmental damage through our consumer actions, Chan advocated for a system of shared stewardship, in which we offset that damage directly by building the environmental cost of consumer products into the purchase price.

The first day of the MSE culminated with an evening address by renowned wildlife artist and conservationist Robert Bateman, who lamented our fixation on convenience and consumerism. The current environmental crisis has its roots in our philosophy of economic growth and consumer greed, according to Bateman, and we have been living in a bubble created by cheap energy. That bubble won’t last much longer, and we can either let it burst catastrophically or let it shrink gracefully. Bateman suggested that we need to make three key philosophical changes.  First we need to recognize that taxes and government are not inherently evil, but are essential parts of civilized societies. Governments need revenue to protect the environment and provide jobs. Countries with the lowest taxes and least government are the most barbaric (think Somalia). Second, we need to stop promoting economic growth. Third, we need to celebrate the joy of nature and human relationships.

The second day began with a presentation by Daniel Simberloff, an ecologist from the University of Tennessee. Simberloff criticized the recent trend toward the commodification of nature, in which environmental value is based purely on what goods and services nature provides to us.  Such an approach can be problematic for many reasons. For example, ecosystems can be important to humans in ways that are not easily measured economically, such as through cultural traditions and aesthetic appreciation. Additionally, environmental valuation creates a slippery slope, where some ecosystems might be ranked more important than others, and some ecosystems ranked as redundant and expendable. Simberloff also suggested that viewing nature through an economic lens means we fail to recognize the intrinsic value of ecosystems and non-human species. He believes that we need a fundamental shift in societal values if we are to have a truly sustainable environment, based on an acceptance of the environmental limits to growth.

The final speaker of the Summit was York University’s Peter Victor, an ecological economist. Victor traced the historical roots of our current belief that economic growth is necessary for development and progress. The concept is relatively new in the field of economics, only gaining traction in the 1950s. While growth is now the overwhelming paradigm guiding government policy worldwide, its long-term viability is increasingly questioned as environmental impacts accumulate and energy and resource shortages become reality. Victor demonstrated that rising GDP has not led to increased happiness, nor eliminated poverty, brought full employment, or protected the environment. He presented an alternative economic model that could yield these benefits through a low or no-growth economy. While such an approach may sound radical, Victor outlined a number of concrete steps that could be taken by governments to move in this direction.

The MSE ended with a lively panel discussion moderated by Paul Kennedy, host of CBC Radio’s Ideas. Kennedy has supported the MSE since it began in 2010, and this year he noted that the biennial event was on its way to becoming the environmental equivalent of the international Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Kennedy asked the speakers to identify who should have been at the Summit. The response was overwhelming: politicians from local, provincial, and federal levels.  Kennedy added one more suggestion: Farley Mowat, who recognized long ago the folly of separating economy from environment.

Kennedy broadcasted a one hour special on the Summit, with excerpts from the speakers’ presentations, panel discussion, and individual interviews, on June 4 on CBC Radio One’s Ideas.

A communique was developed by speakers, organizers and participants summarizing the main ideas explored at the Summit and is available here.

Andrea Smith is a local ecologist and chair of the 2014 Muskoka Summit on the Environment organizing committee.

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