Background Paper to the Declaration of the Environmental Justice Coalition

by Lynn McDonald

How bad is the environmental crisis? Might climate change simply be the result of periodic cycles, not greenhouse gases?

We believe that the problems are serious, and that they have been well documented for some time now, from an abundance of respectable sources. The warnings range from the collapse of entire societies to specific local problems. Moreover, most of this writing includes recommendations for reform, how we can mend our ways and avoid calamity if we act vigorously and soon.

Some of these studies were commissioned by respected organizations and draw on the work of leading scientists, e.g., the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, 1987; the Science Council of Canada’s Canada as a Conserver Society, 1977; and the Royal Society of Canada’s Planet under Stress, 1990. The reality and harm of climate change is the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Some of this work comes from 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, commissioned as the Massey Lectures for 2004.

Warnings of serious environmental harm go back to the mid-nineteenth century, notably with George P. Marsh’s classic Man and Nature, 1864. Documentation continued to grow in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. Books and courses are available on “environmental history”; textbooks on “environmental issues" give reviews of the literature and much on the “philosophy of the environment” also provides overviews of problems. Lester Brown’s State of the World annual reports date from 1984.

We note that environmental deterioration long predates industrialization, which accelerates the process. The literature documents problems in all kinds of societies, hunter-gatherer, agricultural and advanced industrial. There is a sizable literature on environmental problems in the former Soviet-bloc countries, which share industrialization with western capitalist societies, but top-down decision making and centrally organized economies.

Environmental organizations issue “report cards” on the issues they track. Their websites provide excellent, accessible information. Some governments publish (and put on a website) their “environmental audits.” We note that the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery was well predicted in government reports decades before it actually happened. We invite any sceptics to examine this abundant and available work for themselves.

What has been done about environmental problems and why is this not enough?

Canada was a major participant in the World Commission on Environment and Development and embarked on the first stage of follow-up on its recommendations. “Round tables” were established in the 1980s with participants from government, private corporations and activists, but as yet without any serious implementation as a result. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to the ban of certain pesticides and increased regulation. Some bird populations recovered, but species loss is far worse now from a host of problems, including pesticides but even more so from loss of habitat.

Warnings on depletion of the ozone layer resulted in the establishment of controls over ozone-depleting substances. Acid rain was taken seriously enough to prompt curbs on emissions in cars and power plants. But on the Kyoto Accord--only a modest first step towards the reduction of greenhouse gases--Canada never moved to action at all and seems now even to be abandoning its token commitment. Indeed emissions are greater now in Canada than when the accord was adopted.

It is all too clear that generally environmental problems are getting worse, that remedial measures so far have been too few and inadequate, that our political institutions seem to be incapable of controlling the forces for ever-greater production and sales, and voluntary efforts entirely inadequate to the scope of the challenge.

What kind of political change is needed?

We do not know the answers in terms of specifics, but we believe that a profound change in our democratic political system is needed (also in the economy and culture, to be considered next). We propose a process of fundamental rethinking of principles, an environmental Enlightenment.

Perhaps some historical context will help. The democratic institutions we enjoy--notably the vote, governments responsible to their citizens, human rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law, are the result of long struggles. The notion of sovereignty of the people (as opposed to the divine right of kings), the various freedoms we enjoy (from free speech and religion, sexual orientation and the right not to be tortured), race and gender equality, were all subversive ideas in the past. Democracy has given a voice to the oppressed, so that now everybody of adult age in our society has a vote. Democracy has taken us a long way in the achievement of social justice, but climate change and environmental deterioration pose a new level of challenge. Far from advocating recourse to a “benevolent despot” we urge a revision of these institutions to make them responsive to the issues of today.

Those most harmed by our over-use of resources, the young and especially future generations, obviously have no say in our practices. Clearly this is an ethical issue: what right have we to use up nonrenewable resources, and leave them with polluted oceans, air and soil, and radioactive wastes to monitor? What right do today’s Canadians have to use up the last good quality oil to extract and process oil out of the tar sands, wasting river systems and devastating the environment in the process?

There are similar ethical issues with the over-use of resources in industrial countries, with the consequence of increased pollutants and global warning. In Canada our use of resources in the industrial south causes harm in the north.

We might consider that at the individual level we do give protection to those who cannot speak for themselves. In the case of a minor child without parents, for example, a court will appoint a guardian to look after his or her interests. We provide for the transmission of private property to future generations, in Canada without even any estate tax, so keen are we to favour our descendants with such material benefits. But we have no adequate means for transmitting public property--land, air and water--to future generations. (The establishment of protected parks and conservation areas is a good step in this direction.)

How to revise our political and economic institutions so as to take into account the needs of future generations is the urgent question. Without specific solutions to advocate we urge a process of rethinking to this end, to engage experts and ordinary citizens, all ages, political persuasions and occupations, each to bring the benefits of their experience and vantage point.

How do we move to sustainability in the economy?

Again, we do not presume to know the answers, but rather point to work already done or underway and to suggest a process of rethinking. Our Common Future gives general principles and some specific examples. Certainly we must stop doing what is known to be harmful, e.g., tax subsidies and exemptions that encourage the wasteful use of resources and discourage more efficient, less polluting industries. Reform in energy use is crucial, for it is a factor in all areas of endeavour (agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, housing). We suspect that a carbon tax is an essential for such a gas-guzzling country such as Canada. Instead of subsidizing fossil fuels and nuclear power we must encourage the switch to renewables, energy efficiency and co-generation. A moratorium on the tar sands in an urgent priority.

Better regulation of pollutants of all kinds is needed, on which there is already considerable expertise both in government and the voluntary sector. Advertising to create the illusion of environmental health must be banned.

As to the nature of business activity itself much new thinking is needed. We urge that business people themselves engage the process: how to make their business activities sustainable and environmentally friendly. Voluntary corporate audits to this end and ethical investment criteria are indicators of good will and concern, but far greater change is needed. We ask business people to consider what new kind of business institutions would better look to the interests of their grandchildren?

Culture and philosophy: how can we better think through the issues of environment and sustainability?

Again we can only indicate directions and suggest strengths from the past to assist the process of reformulation. There is much indeed in both the secular philosophy that has shaped our modern values, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and the dominant faith tradition of the West, Judeo-Christianity, that is favourable to care for the environment. From the Enlightenment there is the concept of the “whole sensitive creation,” and notions of intrinsic value in all species, and later field naturalism and ecology. John Stuart Mill’s “stationary society,” which would grow in terms of culture and enjoyment, but not materially, is an early version of the “sustainable society.” Teachings that “the earth is the Lord’s,” that people have the right to use the land, but as stewards, accountable to the Creator, surely provide direction for resource use. In the Talmud Jews are obliged to assist in the “repair of the earth,” Tikkun Olam.

The teachings of many (if not all) faiths proclaim very different values from our current more-is-better materialism, emphasizing spiritual well-being (love, joy, peace) over the material, and even warning of the dire consequences to our souls of material success. 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.

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 God “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 full of thy creatures....

We invite members of all faith groups to explore their own roots for guidance. We ask philosophers and ethicists to give guidance with their perspectives.

We ask all people to use language that will facilitate a clear understanding of what is at stake, to avoid the euphemisms that cover up environmental harm. We should thus insist that oil is “extracted,” not “produced,” that nonrenewable resources are never “developed” but rather used up or depleted. We should revisit the notion of a “booming economy” when it depends on selling off a nonrenewable resource. A company that paid its profits and salaries by selling off its assets would not be considered a success: why should such language be used for a whole industry? More deeply we should stop confusing our “needs” with “wants,” recognize that once necessities are provided for that more is not better, and that material growth does not result in greater happiness. We must realize that the lifestyles to which we have (very recently) become accustomed are not sustainable, and that we continue them at the cost of health and well-being (as evidenced in increased forest fires and respiratory diseases), especially for future generations.

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