By: Peter Denton
We live between two basic truths about the choices we make: the society that lives for today at the expense of tomorrow has no future, but the society that lives for tomorrow at the expense of today will not survive to enjoy it.
Clearly, if we want both to survive and have a sustainable future, we need to find a third option, but it is not the one picked by the Trudeau government. You can’t have your pipeline and cancel it, too.
For example, take the proposed carbon tax. By itself, it will not move our society far enough or fast enough toward a sustainable future, but it helps. In addition to somewhat increasing costs for everyone, if it is spent only on reducing greenhouse gas emissions it will generate a new government revenue stream and encourage opportunities for green investment, both of which are needed to leverage the kind of changes we must make.
People need to stop driving so much and so far, especially by themselves, but that requires alternatives that fit the cultural as well as the ecological circumstances.
Redesign a transit system in Winnipeg around light rail — for free — that connects to suburban areas regularly by electric bus, and provincial greenhouse gas emissions due to transportation would plummet.
Pay for that out of the money that otherwise would be wasted on underpasses and bridges, by moving the transcontinental rail lines outside the city. Reap the health-care benefits of having people living more actively in a city with better air. Fund the free transit out of the carbon levy and put extra taxes on those who actually use the roads, and the necessary cultural shift will happen, too.
This is what responsible governments looking for a pragmatic third option would choose.
A couple of years ago at a national energy forum on Parliament Hill, I was asked what role I sawfor government in changes toward a sustainable future. It was amusing to say — in the Commons Reading Room in the Centre Block — that the jury was still out onwhether government could do anything useful or not.
Some of the MPs bristled, while the audience chuckled, but too often the choices politicians make are lacking in wisdom, chasing the wind of popular opinion or caving in to the lobbying of social or economic elites. It is no surprise that people who are comfortable today don’t want much of anything to change.
By not having (or listening to) the wisdom it needs to make those better choices, governments oftenmake the problems worse. Sometimes the government just needs to level the playing field and step out of the way, instead of propping up the status quo.
For example, all levels of government subsidize the fossil-fuel industry and our highcarbon society to the tune of billions a year. Yet every dollar spent on such subsidies is another nail in the coffin of our future.
Instead, make the industry pay its own way — like small businesses have to — and invest that money in renewable energy and low- or no-carbon alternatives. Focus development on areas dependent on oil and gas revenues, which must decline rapidly if we are to have a sustainable future— not just in Alberta, but in places such as Newfoundland and Labrador or Cape Breton, which many people had to leave to find work in the oilfields.
Create sustainable, long-term and local employment — not short-term, shiny jobs in a construction industry where the more new things we build, the worse it is for the planet. Don’t make people choose between clean water and oil revenues. Invest in what people need to have healthy food choices, rather than spending more and more money on treating them when they inevitably get sick.
Most importantly, focus on the local. In a climate-changing world, distance means danger. Local sustainability is the only kind that makes sense for any community, wherever it is. Whatever comes from away — or is sent away — is vulnerable to forces beyond our control.
We need to live close to home, to make the wise (and perhaps unpopular) choices that will provide for today while laying a timely and sustainable foundation for tomorrow.
The government that can do these things without playing politics or following the ideological voices in its head, the government that listens to thewisdom of the elders — of all traditions — deserves our strong support.
Otherwise, all veiled threats to the contrary, the protests at Standing Rock, N.D., will be a minor warmup to what will happen when people realize they are being robbed of their future to maintain the privileges of a few.
Peter Denton is the author of Live Close to Home (2016) and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.
This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on Dec.15, 2016