It’s been quite a couple of weeks for the sustainability movement in Canada, since Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s comments about “environmental and other radical groups” and their opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline project.
The unfortunate result of the government and media’s framing of the pipeline issue is that we are presented with a false choice: save the economy or save the environment. It is an age-old myth that many people have been working hard for years to overcome by promoting the idea of sustainable development. We should not have to choose between jobs and the environment. As a native Albertan with many personal and professional connections to the energy industry, an academic background in commerce from the University of Alberta, and now a role leading what some might call an “environmental NGO” based in Ottawa, you would think by this framing that I would be very conflicted: Am I on the side of the economy or the side of the environment? But I am not conflicted.
Instead, these recent developments have made it clearer than ever to me that Canada needs a national energy strategy (not program!) that includes a compelling vision of a sustainable energy future. My view is that there are very few people (even in the energy industry in Alberta) who wake up every day with the intention to do harm to natural or social systems. Unfortunately, our system has evolved with some inherent “design flaws” that make this harm the natural outcome of our economic activity. But it need not be so—we know what the design flaws are and we can work to design them out of our system.
This is essentially what sustainable development is about, and thousands of organizations around the world—including large and small businesses in every sector—have been working on it for years. Similarly, very few people (even those radical environmentalists) would disagree with the notion that we need a vibrant economy that generates jobs and wealth—now and all the way through the much needed transition to a sustainable future.
If we stretch the timeline out far enough, most people would probably even agree on the most important elements of such a vision. We all want a good future for our children and grandchildren: good jobs, in vibrant economies, in strong communities, in a healthy environment. And we know that the energy industry will be a vital part of that future, since we will need energy to achieve it.
With a vision of the energy system that we desire for the future—one based on sound scientific fundamentals that tell us what sustainability really requires of us—we could then evaluate projects and initiatives for how well they serve as a stepping stone toward that energy future. In that analysis, we could assess how flexible and adaptable the initiative is to accommodate changing circumstances, and, yes, what the return on the investment is.
In the absence of a compelling and broadly shared sustainable energy vision, we are left to evaluate projects based on a list of pros and cons that have no other context and which inevitably leaves us stuck in trade-offs. And that leaves us all vulnerable to a descent into angry name-calling as we each begin to resent the views of those “others” who don’t see the pros and cons the same way we do.
Surely, we can find a way to make the public dialogue a respectful and mature consideration of the best way forward for the country, instead of a polarizing debate about hidden agendas and ulterior motives. At The Natural Step, we call it backcasting. Others might call it common sense: a radical idea whose time has truly come.
Chad Park is the Executive Director of The Natural Step Canada, a non-profit sustainability organization that delivers leading consulting and education services. He was recently honoured as one of Canada’s Clean16—the 16 individuals in Canada who have done the most to advance the cause of sustainability and clean capitalism. For more on The Natural Step Canada, please visit www.thenaturalstep.org/canada.