Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Down to Earth EnvironmentalismDown to Earth Environmentalism

Down to Earth Environmentalism

What might the change of government mean for environmental policy when all the parties offer varying shades of green utopianism?

John Hiemstra
12 minute read

“Canada is back!” echoed in the halls of power at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP 21) in December 2015. Alongside other countries, Canada fought for stronger environmental values in the Paris Climate Agreement. Due in part to Canada’s leadership, all 195 countries that are party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change endorsed the final agreement.

The Paris Climate Agreement is being hailed as a significant step forward by many environmentalists, politicians and media pundits. Once governments have ratified it back home, the agreement will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by eventually shifting economies away from fossil fuels to renewable energies. It will also limit and mitigate some of the negative impacts of climate change.

The drive to re-establish Canada’s environmental reputation was initiated by the newly elected Liberal government. The Liberals, along with many NGO representatives, asserted that Election 2015 marked a robust recovery of environmental values. Canadians wanted a healthy and safe environment and voted for a political leader who promised to work for ecological sustainability. The Trudeau government immediately set out to reverse the dismal environmental record of the Harper government and further advance the environmental values of Prime Ministers Jean Chretien (Kyoto Accord) and Brian Mulroney (Green Plan).

At least, this is what our cultural and political elites claim. But is Canada really back? Do Canadians increasingly value the environment? Can we expect major improvements in environmental practices, resource policies and ecological sustainability? The recent national election campaign is an obvious place to judge whether Canadian environmental values are indeed being strengthened.

Election 2015

As the longest campaign in history, Election 2015 presented voters with many opportunities to raise and debate environmental degradation and sustainability. According to a number of measures, Canadian environmental values played an important role in the election.

Midway through the campaign, for example, environmental issues registered as the second most important for Canadian voters. Vote Compass, a civic engagement application, found that 11.3 per cent of voters ranked the environment second only to the economy (36 per cent).

Just before election day, a remarkable 80 per cent of 632,005 Vote Compass respondents wanted government to do more to reduce GHG emissions. A majority in every political party supported more government action on climate change. The Globe and Mail’s analysis of the final party platforms placed “energy and the environment” at the top of its list of issues. Certainly, these measures indicate that environmental values were registering strongly in the 2015 election.

Doubting Environmental Values

A closer look, however, reveals that campaigning hardly focused on environmental values at all. Other than with the Green Party, environmental issues did not feature prominently in the campaigns of leaders compared to other issues. The campaign occasionally dealt with climate change, reducing GHG emissions and the upcoming COP 21 negotiations. A few times, debate touched on energy questions, including fossil fuel pipelines, tanker bans on British Columbia’s north coast, and the National Energy Board’s controversial decision-making process. When rebuilding Canadian infrastructure surfaced in the campaign, environmentally sound transit was only briefly mentioned. Science-based decision making on environmental policy hardly got any campaign time.

In fact, voters and leaders were largely silent on a host of key environmental issues. In Alternatives Journal, billed as “Canada’s environmental voice,” Andrew Reeves argues that voters should have discussed the following issues: species at risk, decarbonizing Canada, the industrialization of agriculture, our role as a “global exporter of agricultural products,” forests as both ecosystem services and resources, sustainable cities, Canada as the 10th highest energy user on Earth, the impacts of mining both locally and downstream on ecosystems and human health, and multiple threats to the “global atmospheric commons.”

The 2015 campaign showed that Canadian environmental values are neither strong nor, obviously, growing stronger, as suggested by most of our self-congratulating elites.

Multiple Environmental Crises

The weak role played by environmental values in the election is all the more striking and puzzling in light of the constant, almost daily barrage of media stories on local and global environmental degradation. In the last months alone, media stories have addressed issues such as endangered and disappearing species, erratic and extreme weather events, population growth, shifting climatic zones, industrial pollutants, hazardous waste, pesticides in agriculture, the disruption of ecological systems, mining waste, the loss of forests and biodiversity, and new tropical diseases. We face multiple and massive environmental problems. Certainly, these issues should have provoked more, and more intense, electoral debates.

The same is true of climate change. In a year that broke the world heat record, we might have expected climate change to top election campaigning. Even more so because climate change is inextricably linked to the economy—the top election issue for voters.

Why is climate change an economic issue? It involves the excessive liberation of carbon, which has been buried underground as hydrocarbons for millions of years. When burned to drive our economic processes, hydrocarbons release GHGs that change the atmosphere’s chemical composition. This alters its heat retention properties, producing climate change. The government defines climate change as “a long-term shift in weather conditions. It is measured by changes in a variety of climate indicators (e.g., temperature, precipitation, wind), including both changes in average and extreme conditions. Climate change can be the result of natural processes and/or human activity” (Government of Canada, “Facts on Climate Change”).

Why did voters downplay climate change in the campaign if our environmental values were strengthening and the economy is issue number one?

The Ecological Question

An even more stunning and puzzling question is why environmental values were so weak in the election when society is facing an even larger, looming problem, namely the ”ecological question.” Like the 19th century “school question” or the later “social question” in which the industrial revolution produced widespread poverty and social breakdown, the key question facing Christians in our times is the ecological question. The ecological question incorporates the threat of climate change, but involves much more.

As briefly stated in the article “Theological Document on Land” (Oikotree Global Forum paper), the ecological question includes four tightly interlinked features: (1) Humanity is overusing many of creation’s renewable and non-renewable resources. (2) Humanity is overusing creation’s ability to absorb and disperse waste and pollution. (3) The extent of human overuse of these capacities is now so serious, on so many fronts, that it is progressively diminishing and destroying creation’s capacity to produce renewable resources and absorb waste and pollution. (4) The rate at which humanity is overusing natural resources, dumping waste and creating pollution, as well as the rate at which creation’s capacity to provide these functions is diminishing, are now increasing exponentially.

Basically, our current way of life is threatening to weaken and increasingly diminish the very creational possibilities on which it depends. The drivers of these alarming trends are population growth, continued growth of developed economies and the addition of poor economies to the Western economic style. That said, the richest one billion of humanity, wherever they may live, are responsible for a disproportionately large share of the material, energy and resource consumption causing the ecological question. I should also note that this comprehensive statement of the ecological question hides important variations in the rates and intensities of each of these four features, on local, regional and watershed-level scales, and also by type of resource and activity.

Flawed Assessment

In view of today’s truly frightening environmental threats, why were environmental values such a low priority for voters? Part of the answer lies in how society understands and measures values. Based on contemporary social science, we pay attention to only a fraction of our society’s environmental values. This occurs in two ways.

First, we measure environmental values by how much voters talk about environmental issues. How do they rate issues in opinion surveys, or which issue has the most influence on their vote? This assumes environmental problems can be isolated as distinct issues in contrast to other economic, cultural, social or political issues. We then measure how much voters value each issue. This produces a seriously flawed account of environmental values, however, because as we are increasingly recognizing, cultural, economic, environmental and other issues are deeply interconnected. They simply cannot be understood or addressed in isolation.

Second, we measure environmental values almost exclusively based on individual preferences and attitudes. This assumes that values are entirely articulated by, and detectable in, the behaviours and attitudes of individual voters. Individuals are seen as the only true source and reservoir of values, whether motivated by the brain (reason) or heart (emotion). While there is an important kernel of truth to this assumption, it is a seriously flawed way to measure values. Worldviews and values, including environmental values, are also structured into our social architecture and deeply influence our perspectives and action. But structural values are simply not included in opinion analyses.

To grasp the true character and full power of Canadian environmental values, therefore, we need to examine not only individual voter attitudes or issues—or some collective values we fabricate by aggregating individuals’ values—but also the environmental values structured into the architecture of society, according to Michael Van Pelt, President of Cardus.

A Lesson From the Oil Sands

Disclosing the environmental values built into social architecture is extremely difficult because they are so normal to us that we can barely recognize them, if we recognize them at all. When we do examine the values built into our social architecture, we soon realize that many of these values fundamentally conflict with environmental stewardship.

My current research focuses on conducting a cultural-philosophical reading of the oil sands. At one crucial moment in my research, the environmental values entrenched in our social architecture came crashing into my consciousness. I was reading a scientific article on water use in the oil sands. In the official publication of the American Chemical Society, “the world's largest scientific society,” Stephen K. Ritter lamented and proposed solutions for water use in the oil sands industry. He stated:

Chemical & Engineering News, Sept. 5, 2011, Vol. 89, No. 36

An element of fatalism jumped out of this description. Energy need and economic processes are simply a given and left unquestioned. This assumption is, remarkably, one of the most often repeated statements in the vast oil sands literature.

At the same time, I had also been researching energy consumption. There I read that 70 per cent of bitumen is refined into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for transportation. Furthermore, the literature showed that the very architecture of our society demands dramatic consumption of fossil fuels. High energy demand is built into transportation systems, global economic trade, the structure of urban and suburban living, industrialized agriculture and our excessive consumerism. Since our social architecture demands huge amounts of energy, it simultaneously asserts environmental values. After 50 years of oil sands mining, for example, there are 182 square kilometres of toxic tailings lakes and growing. Government and industry have still not adopted a workable, cost-effective plan to get rid of them. The second biggest dam in the world (by volume of material) holds back Syncrude’s Mildred Lake tailings basin. But there is no alternative; we must mine the oil sands.

When I brought these two observations together, they immediately sparked another possible solution. If we reduce our structural demand for energy, perhaps we could also slow down rapid oil sands development and thereby reduce their environmental impact?

Architectonic Analysis

As you read this solution, you may already be shrugging and dismissing it. The chemistry author was just acting normally, you may say. And in this case, normal means “there is no alternative.” In contrast, I argue, the values built into our social architecture produce, in part, this aura of normalcy.

But what is it in our societal structure that does not allow the alternatives I suggested? While there isn’t space to tackle this fully, here’s the gist of my argument. The environmental values implicitly built into our socio-economic architecture assume the double disembedding of the economy.

First, as the chemist assumed above, the economy is disembedded from society. Society is structured as a free zone in which autonomous individuals may live as they wish. Here, people consume, travel, live suburban dreams, trade globally and engage in consumerism in order to maximize their free choices. In turn, the economy is compartmentalized from society and simply takes any and all individual demands as given, provided you have the power (money) to back up your choices. The market economy, as currently structured, restricts itself to efficiently supplying demand. It does not, nor may it, question this demand. Industry may not look behind the curtain to question the legitimacy of sovereign consumer demand. Thus, oil sands producers get on with efficiently supplying energy demand and never ask whether society really needs more oil.

Why not ask? A sort of wall of separation is erected between the economy and society that is inspired to protect the values of individual freedom and autonomy. Individual consumer demand is walled off from powerful producers by the doctrine of consumer sovereignty. No one may interfere with, or second-guess, the free, rational choices of individual consumers in society.

A Second Form of Disembedding

The second form of disembedding involves the separation of both the economy and society from nature. Anthropocentric values have structured our socio-economic system so it is treated as a realm of freedom that floats above the realm of natural necessity. We trust that human rationality and science have so mastered nature that we can count on it to supply every need. Society draws resources out of nature and counts on it to absorb waste. But we have no systematic way of ensuring that our socio-economic system does not overuse or destroy nature.

If serious environmental issues arise from our economy, we simply make technical adjustments to it. We add resource economics on the input side of the economy, for example, and environmental economics on the output or pollution side. But our commitment to free autonomous individuals does not permit us to question the double disembedding of the economy and society from nature. Even if this practice generates a host of environmental problems such as climate change and the ecological question, we dare not reject the double disembedding of the economy because it protects our core systemic values, namely human freedom, independence and mastery.

The Extraterrestrial Urge

So, what are the environmental values shaped into our social architecture? Ironically the blockbuster movie The Martian offers a dramatic hint of contemporary environmental values. The astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is stranded alone on Mars and must grow food to survive until he is rescued – if he is. Fortunately he is a scientist; doubly fortunate, a botanist. Although the challenges are enormous, Watney ekes out a crop of potatoes in a shelter secured from the hostile planet’s environment. Initial success leads him to proclaim that he is “the first guy to grow crops on Mars.” When the shelter explodes, the cruel Martian environment freeze-dries the farm, wiping out all the crops. The subtext of the movie is clear: humans have developed the science to fully understand and master the Earth, and eventually we can and will do the same extraterrestrially.

But perhaps the environmental values in our social architecture reflect an extraterrestrial urge that does not master but rather destroys. Terrestrial refers to being “of, on, or relating to the earth” while extra is a prefix referring to outside or beyond. Have we devised socio-economic architecture that assumes humans can freely transcend the bonds of nature?

Let me rephrase: today we are profoundly ambivalent about being human creatures that are totally embedded in the Creator’s good creation. Our social architecture compartmentalizes different sectors in a way that presumes we have no responsibility to each other or to the laws and norms of any Creator.

This is not surprising since philosophical liberals see law and norms as restraints on freedom, and thus they design institutions to make humans fully free. Just as John Locke, in the Second Treatise, saw the invention of money as a means to escape or transcend the limits of natural law, our social architecture is designed to separate us from and transcend the limits of nature.

In contrast, Scripture sees God’s laws and norms in creation not as restraints but as conditions for freedom. They guide us to walk in paths of flourishing, wholeness and blessing for all creatures. Laws and norms guide us to be fully at home on Earth. Creation flourishes and provides abundance when humans live in harmony with God’s good intentions.

Facing a Forked Road in Solidarity

In closing, let me identify one more critical problem with environmental values, in addition to the problems of issues and individual preferences. Values, writes the Canadian Christian philosopher George Grant, are a distinctly modernist idea. They are seen as purely human creations in time that do not relate to anything transcendent, whether the Judeo-Christian Creator or Greek ratio. Rather, values are merely the fleeting expressions of autonomous individual wills.

In this light, are the environmental values of Canadians growing stronger? If we mean the autonomous individual will to value the environment is growing stronger, then perhaps. Certainly, this is the type of value built into the Canadian social architecture. If the movie The Martian is correct, then strong wills, herculean power and scientific knowledge may yet reconstruct the barren Martian landscape into farms and turn Canada into a flourishing paradise.

If we mean environmental values as human responses of justice, stewardship and sustainability to the Creator, then Canada is not really there yet. We need to admit that Christians share fully with non-Christians in the environmental failures of our times. Thus, all humanity stands in solidarity before the dynamic revelation of God that identifies our failures, argues the Christian philosopher J.P.A. Mekkes. But this revelation also invites all humans to respond to Christ by renewing our environmental values and restructuring our social architecture. These are the environmental values that Canadians ought to debate in the next election.

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