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Looking before I Leap

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on September 16, 2015

A colleague – actually more than a colleague, a kindred spirit in this sustainability business – sent me ‘The Leap’ that’s now making the rounds and encouraged me to sign the ‘manifesto’. He assumed I would, and certainly thinks everyone should.

Although I’m fairly confident in my green credentials and I appreciate the Leap’s intent, I felt it necessary to explain my hesitance.

There is much in the Leap Manifesto that I like. Prioritizing Indigenous peoples, more ecologically based agriculture, provision of a basic annual income, more funding of public transit, a price on carbon and ending fossil fuel subsidies: these are all good things worthy of support.

There is however much in the Leap Manifesto that I do not like.

‘We call for an end to all trade deals’ might mobilize the troops, but if ever there were a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ this is it. Canada, one of the best-governed countries in the world, is plagued by internecine trade barriers between provinces. If we can’t figure out how to buy beer between provinces, what hope is there for global trade? Retreating behind fortresses might seem safer but always the poor pay the most when the barriers go up.

Higher income and corporate taxes is called for in the Leap. While not strictly opposed to higher taxes, especially on the wealthier, why would you call for more tax on the things we want to encourage like income, when any credible economist would argue that an increase in the HST is a much better approach? Plus maybe a graduated estate and land transfer tax.

The Leap opposes new energy infrastructure – ‘if you wouldn’t want it in your backyard then it doesn’t belong in anyone’s backyard’ might sound catchy but this seems to ignore those rational communities in Ontario opposed to wind turbines but welcoming of nuclear power. The iconic battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs often gets dragged out when talking about new infrastructure. Both were right and both were wrong; truth can be a shade of grey. New infrastructure rarely makes everyone happy, but we all benefit from it – and woe is us when it’s not there (the December 2013 ice storm in Southern Ontario provided a glimpse of our vulnerabilities).

‘Reckless energy privatization’ is argued to be a ‘fossilized form of thinking’. Again, whole libraries can be written about energy policy and best approaches. Suffice it to say, Canada’s mostly public electrical utility approach is not without problems. Still, today two billion people in the world lack access to energy. The world is about to triple its demand for energy (and the three billion new city dwellers expected in the next 35 years will still use less than a third the energy of an average Canadian). Arguing public or private power utilities in Canada at this juncture is more galvanizing than germane to the world’s energy problems. Canada should not just be a world leader in energy production, but also a leader in conservation and in sharing. Canada should emerge as the most powerful ally of the UN’s ‘Sustainable Energy for All’ initiative (a few more blogs would be needed to discuss nuclear energy and our addiction to car and airplane travel).

‘Reduced military spending’ is another one of those black/white sound-bites. True, the world would benefit from reduced military spending, but Canada is quickly losing favour with its allies for what they see as a shirking of our fair share of commitment. Evil still walks the world and heaven forbid we need to rely on our military to settle disputes, but heaven help us if we think the need might not be there.

Demeaning austerity is dangerous when deficit finance is probably the best way to diminish our children’s future and make environmental damage more likely. We need to immediately live within our ecological and economic means. Yes we need to ‘invest in our decaying public infrastructure’, but most of this was given to us by our parents, why would we saddle our children with the debt to fix it?

Probably the thing I dislike most about the Leap Manifesto is that it suggests a simple binary approach: sign or don’t. You’re either with us, or you’re not. There’s a feeling that people wrestling with sustainable development fall into two camps: the good guys – the signatories, and the others. The shades of grey are lost – glossed over with platitudes and black and white certainties. People who might disagree with certain approaches are said to be suffering a ‘fossilized form of thinking’.

Building a better world, with all the trappings of sustainability, is messy. There are good and honourable people in all of our political parties, in every industry sector. Yes we have done irreparable harm to our fellow humans and nature, and yes we urgently need to get out of this unsustainable way of life. The agitated frog in increasingly hot water is an apt metaphor. We do need to leap. But we need to look where we are leaping, and although not everyone will leap with us – we better make sure that the majority agree to leap together and do so with eyes wide open.

Now is the time for a ‘manifesto’ that brings Canadians together. The Leap is right in ‘starting from the premise that Canada is facing the deepest crises in recent memory’ and that Canada is not the place it could be. When Canada fully emerged on the world stage in the early 1900s there were about 45 countries in the world. Today there are almost 200 countries and the impact of our global agencies like the United Nations and World Bank is much diluted. Even those global corporations we love to hate are losing influence as growth shifts to emerging markets. Our politics, and many of our ‘big ideas’ are increasingly tailored to smaller and smaller factions. Far too many ‘solutions’ are driven by ideology (on both sides). Now is the time for pragmatism.

Despite Quebec’s flirtation with separation, the rest of Canada’s animosity toward Toronto, the demographic woes of the Maritimes, and the cyclical tribulations of Alberta’s economy, Canada’s strength is that we are still all in this together. We are the envy of the world. Not because we are great, but because we manage to muddle through together. We muddle well.

This is certainly not to say we are better than the rest of the world. Far from it – if there ever were a country that should be doing more with what it has, it is Canada. But when Canada does good and honourable things we almost always do them together. Canada is probably the only country in the world that can genuinely lead on sustainability by doing. The world desperately needs examples of people working together.

Let’s quickly agree on the metrics of sustainability for our cities, our provinces, our country, and our own lives. Let’s measure and better understand and communicate our performance. Let’s wrestle with the devil in the details, for there too is the angel.

Thunder Bay, summer of 2016 (a leap year), a boy and a girl stand high atop a cliff on Sleeping Giant (Nanabijou). Below is a roiling Lake Superior. The couple has been goaded into jumping. Together they step out, smiling. Unbeknownst to the clamoring gang at the base of the cliff, they took the time to measure the water’s depth, they know to point their toes and keep their arms outstretched to slow their decent in the water. They recognize the challenge but they also know that they are up for it. Let’s leap together.

Filed under: Sustainability 101