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SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, COMMUNITY VOICE,
AND THE ENVIRONMENT
J. Robert Cox
President of the Sierra Club
October 20, 1995
I am delighted to be here tonight to join this conference on "Cape Breton in Transition: Economic Diversification and Prospects for Tourism" and away from the toxic atmosphere of Washington, D.C. I want to thank Professor Carol Corbin, the Louisbourg Institute, the Fortress of Louisbourg, the University College of Cape Breton, and Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation for their sponsorship and encouragement of this gathering.
By way of introduction, I will say only, in noting the Scottish heritage that is part of this diverse land, that another Scotsman, my predecessor, John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, sailed past this lovely island on his way to the Sierra Mountains of California. Born in his struggles there in 1892 to protect and preserve Yosemite Valley, Muir's Sierra Club has grown to become one of the leading advocacy groups of the U.S. and Canada in the fight to protect wild places of the Earth and the communities where we work and live. And it is for this latter reason that I am so honored to participate with you in this conference.
I want to address the theme of the environment and the prospects of tourism by placing both in the larger context of the debate now occurring, globally, over alternate pathways to development and the role and future of local communities in this debate. For it has been the growing awareness that global economics are on a collision course with the very life systems that sustain us that has now centered this debate on questions of sustainability.
So, let me do three things: First, let me sketch, briefly, recent indicators of our currently unsustainable path, as contrast to, and context for, urgent thinking about "sustainable development, community, and the environment." Second, I want to try to illustrate the principles of sustainability by contrasting the dramatic, but different, experiences of two (small) countries with whom I've had experience recently--Nepal and Bhutan. And finally, I want to introduce the idea of a "restorative economy" now emerging in regions very much like Cape Breton.
First, it is sometimes helpful to ask about what is "sustainable development," by contrasting it with our present unsustainable course with the planet both ecologically and economically. Four indicators leap at us:
1. depletion of world fisheries;
2. loss of biodiversity;
3. chemical contamination of our communities and of ourselves; and
4. global climate change.
Surely for this conference, the first trend is dramatically self evident, but eastern Canada is but part of a larger trend. Most of the world's population--like Nova Scotia--live within 80 kilometres of the world's oceans. These regions provide fishing, recreation, tourism, industry, and mining. Nevertheless, we find that:
--17 of our major ocean fisheries are now being fished at or near their capacity. As many as 9 of the world's major fisheries are in actual decline.
--Until 1988, world-wide oceanic production increased by 128%, yet, more recently--from 1988 to 1993--our ocean's productivity actually decreased by 9%.
--Water quality in coastal regions is now seriously impaired; we, increasingly, are witness to increased health threats, blooms of toxic algae, and aqua culture die-offs.
--Finally, alteration of the physical habitat of coastal areas has proceeded in pace with over-fishing, dredging, dumping, drilling, and harmful methods of trawling; indeed, the shift from traditional, community-based fishing methods, as a reality of the globalization of markets, to corporate fleet trawlers has altered local economies from the western coasts of India to the estuaries and bays of California (Lubchenco, 1995).
In sum, over-fishing, mismanagement, and disease have combined to cause unsustainable pressures on this living eco-system and the resources it provides to human communities.
We are--as a human species and despite our illusion to the contrary--dependent on an infinite, rich mosaic of plant, animal, insects, and a diversity of eco-systems for vital goods and services. Yet, just today's Globe and Mail carried another story on the growing crisis of the world's biodiversity: Over 1/3 of the world's fresh-water mussels are found in the U.S., and these are now facing mass extinction. Nearly half of the 300 native species of mollusks in these waters are in trouble. And while there is wide variation among biologists in estimates of species extinction--from several hundred to several thousand extinctions annually--there can be no question that we are playing, rather carelessly, with the threads that weave the tapestry we call "Creation."
And, I must add, that I watched last week as a committee of the U.S. Congress voted to end protection for the habitat of endangered species under the legislation that had served as a model for world conservation--the Endangered Species Act. The committee apparently acted on the intriguing logic that, while we might wish to save a species of fish, we can now drain the lake in which it swims.
Third, chemical contamination of our communities and the life systems (soil, air, water) that nurture and sustain us. Most frightening, at least to me, has been the 3-year reassessment of dioxin (considered by many scientists to be our most lethal chemical substance) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report raised new concerns not only about the lower-end threshold (contaminants below which, we had thought, carried no health risk) but the ability of dioxin particles to penetrate areas of our bodies we thought safe. So small are these particles that we now speak of transgenerational effects, when dioxin contaminants in the mother's system pass through the placenta lining and into the fetus.
Dioxins, however, are but one advance party of an assault wave of chemicals now released daily into the air we breath, the water we drink, on the skins of the vegetables and fruits we eat, and in the soil in which our children play. Taken as a whole, persistent bio-active toxic contaminants have lowered males' sperm count by 50% (Carlsen, et. al., 1992).
Finally, Global Climate Change, though to speak of a one degree celsius increase in global warming may be a hard sell in Cape Breton in February. Nevertheless, disturbing new evidence has now deepened science's concern over the degree of, and rate of, global warming from the so-called greenhouse gases--particularly by carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides. The scientific consensus--which has always been stronger than talk radio would lead us to believe--has deepened in important respects.
A recently released report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of independent scientists, reports greater confidence in the computer models that predict the warming trend and its likely impact for world agriculture and habitation. And, new fissures in the ice shelf of Antarctica, where none had been predicted before, where none were thought possible, now convince prominent scientists who had opposed predictions of global warming, that the trend is, in fact, already underway and may be occurring at an even faster rate than many had thought.
Meanwhile, I regret to say, my own country seems to be taking the lead in undoing what environmental progress has been made in the last 25 years. The 104th U.S. Congress, which convened in January, has moved quickly to repeal, in the House, the heart of the Clean Water Act, to re-open our ancient forests to massive logging, and, through the arcane rules of our national budget, to prohibit our Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing key provisions of the Clean Air Act and public health standards for toxic chemical discharges into our waterways. Finally the Congress proposes to sell much of our western public land and to open Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Much of this is beyond the purpose of this conference. I mention this for two reasons. First, growing awareness of these mega-trends has begun to challenge root assumptions of national government development planning and is opening a window for new thinking. Your own House of Commons' recent Report on Sustainable Development and the Environment is but one example. A similar effort is now underway in the U.S., with President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development.
Second, recognition of unsustainable pathways alters the context for local communities' own planning and, I shall argue, introduces bottom-line, absolutely critical criteria of ecological integrity for any development plan.
SUSTAINABILITY: BHUTAN VS NEPAL
If past pathways are "unsustainable" development, then what is "sustainability"? In 1987, as many know, the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development gave new prominence to the phrase "sustainable development" in its report entitled Our Common Future. Sustainable development is "development which meets the needs of the present without endangering the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
But many believe there must also be a healthy dose of humility and prudence in interpreting and carrying out such a definition. A sustainable action should, for all practical purposes, be one that can continue forever. But there can be no long-term guarantee of sustainability because many factors remain unknown or unpredictable. The moral is: "be conservative in actions that could affect the environment, study the effects of such actions carefully, and learn from your mistakes quickly" (National Environment Comm. [Bhutan]).
A sustainable society--a more inclusive term than sustainable economies per se--envisions three goals, what I call the three "E's":
--economic prosperity; and
Foremost, a sustainable economy cannot proceed apart from environmental integrity. A sustainable economy is renewable in that it uses resources no faster than they can be replenished. That is self-evident in logging, fishing, and mining--as Cape Breton Islanders know all too well. But it is also true with resort, tourism, and retirement communities when growth results in urban pollution, congestion, and an increase in local property taxes.
Indeed, recent studies suggest that strong protection of the environment and community public health are not only not in conflict with economic sustainability, but a vital condition of it. For example, the Institute for Southern Studies' "Green Index" notes that states in the U.S. with strong environmental regulations also have strong economies and/or more sustained economic growth. And MIT's study of job creation in different sectors of the U.S. economy found that environmental regulations have consistently produced net job growth over the past several decades. Conversely, the headlong pursuit of extraction, production, and consumption without restraint is, as economist Herman Daley reminds us, a sure formula for scarcity and economic decline.
Economic prosperity, then, can only be practiced, in the long term, on ecological integrity. Nor can development proceed in ignorance of intact communities, and their relation to history and their environment.
For many years, I have worked with village communities in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal, which most know as the location of Mount Everest. Exotic images still persist of Rudyard Kipling's "strange sights" of Katmandu, Shangrila, and the rooftop of the world.
The Himalayan peaks do still inspire, but the faces of those who terrace its mountainsides or migrate to Katmandu tell a different tale. Once sealed from the rest of the world, Nepal opened its borders in the 1950s and has pursued a course of virtually unregulated and unplanned tourist growth since. The result has been both a blessing and a curse: hundreds of thousands annually invade Nepal--trekkers, climbers, souvenir hunters, art dealers, and more.
Yet while gross annual income from foreign capital climbs, Nepal has also experienced severe social and ecologic dislocations; trekkers' demands for hot meals on rural trails and showers in remote villages has led to deforestation in many districts, depleting villagers' traditional sources of fuel. And swelling populations in the countryside placed added demands on the small plots of arable land, sending new immigrants into the cities.
Katmandu today sits under a thick cloud of smog from growing traffic congestion of its narrow streets; brown-outs of electricity are a daily phenomenon; sanitation systems (where they exist) are often overwhelmed; and religious paintings and statues from Hindu and Buddhist temples--part of the cultural capital of this ancient land--increasingly disappear into the black market of international art brokers.
Meanwhile, from across its eastern border, Nepal's neighbor, Bhutan, has looked with growing alarm at Nepal's pollution, social disruption, and loss of cultural identity. A Buddhist Kingdom with strong traditions of stewardship for the land, and intact communities, Bhutan has chosen a different path to "development." What Buddhists call the "Middle Way": investment in economic growth and social services, but within a clearly articulated context of protection of the country's agrarian culture, environment, and religious heritage.
Though educated in the U.S. and Europe, Bhutan's ministers and planners have avoided the myopic fascination with western commodity culture and our billboard sense of aesthetics. Thus, foreign investment, though encouraged, must also be accountable to community standards and priorities: education, clean industry, health services, strict land-use zoning and ambient standards for air and water quality.
What critically differs from Nepal's experience is Bhutan's firm insistence that the Bhutanese people themselves first articulate their vision of what values, characteristics of their culture, and images of the future they wanted to preserve. Bhutan today is building toward its future with prudence, respect for its heritage, and a commitment to a sustainable and environmentally just society.
So, is this simply a Himalayan fairy tale, not replicable in our western, free-market economy and consumer culture? It may be, but there is also very suggestive and encouraging evidence that sustainable pathways are possible. I want to turn now to an area closer to home--culturally, economically, and environmentally quite similar to Cape Breton.
In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, unemployed loggers and community development workers are beginning to speak of a vision of "restorative economies." This region is becoming a laboratory for alternate pathways to development in the aftermath of decline in forestry and fishing. With its natural resource base--though abused--and its spirit of respect for the environment, there is an exciting atmosphere emerging there.
What is a restorative economy? According to Chris Daalen, one of its local proponents, a restorative economy is "one which respects the physical carrying capacities of a place, which protects the rights of future generations of all species, and which uses inhabited lands in [a] careful, respectful spirit . . . . It is equitable, inclusive, and supportive of all members of society. It is accountable to communities, both human and ecological. [And] it has far reaching implications for the design and practice of business, politics, and social cohesion" (Daalen, 1).
Among those implications are three worth mentioning in the context of this conference: The use of public sector training programs for the restoration of the natural resource base, the concept of "value-added" manufacturing, and what is called full-cost accounting.
First, restoration of the natural resource base.
I noted this morning in the first panel, discussion of the Brown Report that calls for certain clusters built around public sector investment, high-tech information industries, and tourism. I would argue that, from the experience of the Pacific Northwest, there are additional ways to look at public sector investment in addition to the relocation of jobs say for example from Ottawa and Halifax to Cape Breton and other areas.
The Pacific Northwest has depleted many of its salmon streams as a result of disastrous forestry practices. In Washington state, public sector investment is placed not only in retraining dislocated loggers and salmon fishers, but in targeting that investment so that the training goes toward restoration of the natural resource base itself. Therefore the investment acts in a synergistic way with not only tourism, which depends upon the natural resource base, but also with the community college system, which has now built in new disciplines of specialization and experience in restorative economies. David Brower, my predecessor and friend on the Sierra Club Board of Directors, has argued that restoration schemes are part of the future of sustained economies in many communities that have entered what is now being called a post-extractive stage of their history.
Second, value-added manufacturing means we move beyond mere extraction (logging, fisheries, agriculture) to enhancement of value before export from the region. Such a principle assumes that to be sustainable, development should provide local benefits and be labor intensive rather than capital and resource intensive.
The Pacific Northwest, however, currently ships raw logs to Japan, not only by-passing local mills, but missing the economic opportunities to add value to the wood product before exporting it outside the community. One community is making sounding boards for pianos: a high quality component that brings revenues into the community even as it requires less extraction from the forests to make the product. Such an approach also has the advantage of nurturing labor-intensive, decentralized, local economies such as the approach taken by the small, community-based economic development agencies on Cape Breton Island in the past few years.
Third, full-cost accounting. The wealth and productivity of industrial nations are typically measured in GNPs--Gross National Products (in Canada GDP, Gross Domestic Products)--figured as the result of produced, finished products. Not counted is the cost of depletion of those resources required to produce finished products--trees cut; fisheries depleted; minerals mined; and air, water, and soil sacrificed as waste repositories for chemical and toxic by-products of this process. Full-cost accounting, as urged by new economists such as Herman Daley, would "count" the expenditures of a community's natural resources as well as its financial investments--its debts as well as assets.
To move to a vision of a restorative economy--modeled on the community's vision and values of its own future--requires a hard look at the prevailing structure of tax, fiscal policy, and other economic incentives that now drive development.
The Canadian government has already, ostensibly, committed "to conduct a comprehensive baseline study of federal taxes, grants, and subsidies, in order to identify barriers and disincentives to sound environmental practices" (Commissioner, 17). Such a focus on subsidies and tax reform is critical to a successful linkage between environment and a sustainable pathway to development. Yet, the Sierra Club of Canada has questioned whether the Department of Finance is the appropriate agency or is capable of undertaking such a review and has supported instead the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development in the House of Commons, the creation of a new Office of the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development (Commissioner, 11).
Elizabeth May, Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada, testified before the Standing Committee last year on the importance of such an office and the "comprehensive review of federal taxes, grants and subsidies." A commitment to identifying barriers to sustainability in such fiscal instruments and subsidies, she stressed, holds the promise of materially changing the way that decisions are made:
You're not only pointing out how you can protect the environment, but showing--which nobody in this government now has the power to do--how you can decrease the deficit, increase employment, protect the environment, and move us to sustainability at the same time through rational and intelligent policies (22:23; quoted in Commissioner, Report 18).
Relatedly, we have proposed that each department of the Government of Canada (under the existing authority of each Minister) conduct a sustainability assessment for all new policies and programs.
Obviously the decisions we take today have implications for the next decades, if not centuries. Often the things we're doing now, of course, are taken in complete ignorance of what the impact is going to be down the road. [22:21]
It's important to mandate [therefore], through the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, that each department [be] forced to go through [a] self-assessment to produce an environmental impact statement for new programs and policies. [22:23] (Commissioner, Report, 19).
Where, then, does all of this leave us? From discussion in the conference of the Brown Report for Cape Breton to examples of unsustainable pathways and voices that are too often unheard; from visions (still vague) of restorative economies, to review of fiscal barriers, certain core principles of a sustainable society continue to surface. They are:
1. a valuing of living ecosystems;
2. community participation and ownership of any vision of its future; and
3. an integration of environment, economy, and equity in planning models.
Above all, a valuing of living ecosystems. The primary goal of the planning of any region or nation simply must be ecological sustainability; all else depends upon the healthy functioning of such basic systems to life itself:
--the ability of air and water to filter contaminants;
--of soil and native vegetation to recycle nutrients;
--and the gene pools of diverse communities of plants and animals to survive, unimpoverished by extinction and loss of biodiversity.
To continue to spend our economic capital (nature's resource) is a bankrupt path; to continue to consume resources and generate waste without limit is to foster environmental degradation and, therefore, economic and community decline. We have no alternative than to value living ecosystems.
Second, community participation and ownership of any vision of its future. Well before particular proposals are accepted or corporate hunters begin their search for firms to locate there, a community must ensure opportunities for its members to articulate its own vision and values, what traditions and characteristics of communal existence it wishes to preserve for future generations.
And, to do so, we must create the civic spaces and forums in which all members of the community can find a voice and whose voice and vision are heard by others. This conference on "Cape Breton in Transition" has been a model of such a discursive space, and I think we should applaud the immense planning efforts by Professor Corbin and others; they have thus far today ensured openness, inclusiveness, competence, and a commitment to the long-term interests of Cape Breton Island.
Third, and finally, an integration of environment, economy, and equity. If we respect these first two principles, then our guide can be neither a statist, nor a completely unregulated market approach; it is instead, to borrow the Bhutanese phrase, the "Middle Way" of industrial and corporate accountability to the community and its vision and criteria.
Although we are only beginning to envision what this will look like, it includes at least these characteristics:
--incentives for lending and investment in smaller-scale community ventures;
--labor-intensive vs. capital-intensive investment;
--local control and community input to the extent possible;
--return of capital (and profits) to the region and the community;
--and sensible, environmentally-sensitive land-use planning and zoning.
These, by themselves are not so much a model for economic management, but a civic and normative commitment; something of a promise or ethical pledge to future generations and to our neighbours.
Three weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining leaders of the world's major religions in Istanbul, Turkey. Our purpose was to explore what (if any) common ground existed among government ministers, environmental leaders, industrialists, and religion. As we sailed from that ancient city westward to the Isle of Patmos, where St. John, according to the Biblical narrative, received the Revelation of a new Heaven and a new Earth, we discovered more in common than I suspected we might.
Respect for the Earth is in fact taught in all of the world's great religious traditions. As we tried to discern the meaning of John's insights--1,900 years later--I could not help but be moved by the depth and passion of those from Eastern Orthodox Churches, from Islam and Buddhism and Judaism, of a shared sense of stewardship as dwellers on the living Earth.
It was clear to me than and remains so now, that a vision of sustainability cannot be, foremost, an economic vision; but must be nurtured and sustained by those cultural, communal, and moral characteristics that give value to our lives. History, contrary to early Marxist thought, is never over determined, our fate given, but will be made by those who are now engaged in the life of Cape Breton, lying by the seas of this fragile, beautiful planet.
Carlsen, E., et. al. 1992. Evidence for decreasing quality of semen during past 50 years.
British Medical Journal. 305: 609-13.
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. 1994. Report of the
. House of Commons, Ottawa, Canada.
Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Daalen, Chris. (n.d.) A Vision for a Restorative Economy in the Northwest. Unpublished
paper. Aberdeen, WA.
Lubchenco, Jane. Living Resources/Ecological. Paper at Symposium on "Revelation and the
Environment: Religion, Scientific Knowledge, and Environmental Concern," Sept. 22-25, 1995, Isle of Patmos, Greece.
National Environment Commission [Bhutan]. 1993. Toward a National Environmental
. Royal Government of Bhutan.
Strategy: A Background Paper for Bhutan's National Environmental Strategy
by the Louisbourg Heritage Society
© Louisbourg Institute
Extracted from the Proceedings of the Cape Breton
in Transition Conference, October 20-21, 1995