Recently, the Stephen Harper government managed to slip in another stab at environmentalists in what was otherwise a fairly mundane budget. Among the usual assurances of strong economic growth and environmental protection, the federal budget earmarked $8 million for checking whether the charitable status of organizations has been compromised by such radical political activities as letter-writing. Think what $8 million could have accomplished for the thousands of nature-focused organizations that struggle to find money for local stewardship projects. What could it have accomplished for environmental science and biology students working to discover more about the world around us? How much could have been done for scientific monitoring of wild animals and birds, as they struggle to adapt to changing habitats and climate?
The attack on environmentalists is ill-considered and serves the government poorly. Millions of people in Canada profess concern for the environment. They may not label themselves as “environmentalists”, yet if their local woodland, pond, or park is threatened, they are quick to protest. If industry pumps toxins into the air or water and children get sick, the public immediately finds their voice. There are tens of thousands of conservationists, naturalists, bird watchers, gardeners, ecologists, environmental scientists, fishermen, hikers, hunters, wilderness lovers, cyclists, horse riders, photographers, and other folk who have an interest in the environment, yet may not label themselves as an “environmentalist”. Many of these people sign online petitions, donate to environmental charities, and remember those charities in their wills. Where will the line be drawn? Is the Nature Conservancy of Canada an “environmental” organization? What about B.C. Nature, the B.C. Wildlife Federation, or the Canadian Cancer Society? The government needs to realize that in attacking “environmentalists” they risk alienating a wide swath of the general public.
Conservative policy advocates less government and more private or corporate control as the source of economic growth. Yet, increasingly in today’s world, the driver in job creation is innovation, whether in the private, public, or academic domain. Innovation comes from having an intractable problem to solve, often something that has to be mulled and chewed over and diverse opinions consulted. Many of today’s problems are rooted in environmental and health issues, including the big conundrums like finding ecologically-sustainable energy and food sources, protecting biodiversity in the face of growing human populations, and adapting to the effects of climate change. With a strong civil society, governments are able to legally set and enforce protective standards, a critical factor in such fields as food quality, air emissions, watershed protection, and disease control, to name only a handful. Besides creating jobs in the regulatory, engineering, and environmental science fields, such legal standards fuel creativity, as new ways to tackle old problems come to the fore. Pressure from interest groups is critical in identifying areas of public concern. Ironically, cutting red-tape and gagging environmentalists is more likely to dull innovation and diminish job prospects than improve them. In a laissez-faire society, innovation has no need to arise, because the richest or greediest will just take what they want from the commons.
In British Columbia, there are numerous examples of cooperative, innovative approaches to problem solving that have had good environmental, social, and financial outcomes. Pulp and paper mills responded promptly to pollution regulations, cleaning up their effluents to prevent dioxins and furans from entering coastal waters. The presence of whales and dolphins in Howe Sound in recent years is a testament to their efforts. Similarly, potato farmers stopped using a pesticide linked with bald eagle deaths from bio-accumulation (the eagles ate ducks that were feeding on left over spuds in winter fields) and eagle numbers in the Fraser delta rebounded to historic levels. The presence of whales, dolphins, and eagles in our communities has the additional benefit of helping local tourism. Similarly, after local governments set new waste disposal standards, households began efficiently sorting their garbage into recyclables, which are collected curbside or returned for refunds. Recycled goods are used to make a whole range of new products instead of cluttering up the landscape, providing jobs and tax dollars in return.
Cooperation is key to success. The Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust started with two groups that seemed to come from totally contrasting viewpoints: the Delta Farmers Institute, a long-established land-owner group, and the Boundary Bay Conservation Committee, which had taken the local municipality to court over a controversial land use proposal. Brought together over a common interest in the continuation of farming in the Fraser delta, the resulting formation of the trust has led to over 15 successful years of innovative farm management. Farmers plant crops that are beneficial to wintering and migrating wildlife and receive financial support from the community in return. Government agencies, academic institutions, private companies, and individuals are all able to contribute to such programs, which help both agriculture and wildlife prosper in a beleaguered near-urban landscape.
The federal government needs to tone down the rhetoric and take a much more nuanced approach to environmental activism. Those who care for the environment are not radicals and we are not out to bring down a country that we love. We just want to conserve healthy and bountiful natural landscapes for future generations to enjoy, just as we do ourselves.
Anne Murray is an independent writer and naturalist and the author of two books on the natural history of Boundary Bay—A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores or online from www.natureguidesbc.com.