How Urbanization Changes Environmental Policy

An urbanized environmental policy neglects environmental issues outside of cities.
Published on November 15, 2007

The political dominance of Canada’s cities has major consequences for environmental policy, especially outside of the cities. Canada’s political elites focus on urban environmental issues, both real and imagined, and as a result, the costs to the countryside are becoming more apparent.

Traditional environmental policy (in the old days we called it conservation) dealt with the use and management of natural resources. From water to wildlife to forestry, the issues revolved around methods of harvesting, resource sustainability and quality and issues of ecosystem management. Although these issues could affect all Canadians, they were largely issues for the countryside.

There were often intense disagreements between the users of the resource (anglers, hunters, commercial fishermen, miners, farmers, trappers, loggers, and the like) and the public sector scientists and resource managers who were charged with ensuring the wise use of natural resources.

This made sense then and still makes sense today, especially when one considers the geographical dominance of the countryside, i.e., there is more country in Canada than there is city. The economic dominance of Canada’s resource industries has put paid to the notion Canada has moved beyond being a “hewer of wood and drawer of water.” Our rural resource economy is carrying the entire country (just check out our loonie!), and the last time I looked, there were not many mines or oil fields in cities!

Urbanization has serious consequences for rural people. Not only does their political influence diminish, but also they and their resource economies are increasingly at risk from urban-based, environmental policies.

Urbanization creates a disconnection from the processes that put food on tables, gas in vehicles, and shelter over heads. Many urbanites obtain their environmental information from television, a medium that is more interested in drama and conflict than in reality. A bit harsh you say? I give lectures to urban audiences, and the naivety about the countryside is breathtaking. When I show a picture of a new clear-cut forest (the usual barren landscape) followed by a picture of a 20-year-old clear-cut (the never-filmed vigorous young forest), people are surprised at how attractive the young forest is. When I ask how many have seen TV pictures of new clear-cuts, they all raise their hands. A similar query about old clear-cuts elicits no show of hands. Forests grow back. Period.

Similar examples exist in agriculture, trapping, hunting (especially seals), and mining, whereby these activities are carried out within the bounds of environmental sustainability, and yet the pressure to eliminate or seriously curtail them continues to increase. Usually at this point in the discussion an activist will jump up and ask, “Don’t you care about the environment?” or the person will cite an example of a bad practice that caused a conservation catastrophe. These types of objections hide the urban belief that ANY resource harvesting is automatically bad for the environment. Rural people think that any conservation problems that arise are fixable.

Rural people view the world through a much different lens. Whether it is harvesters in the field, stacks of logs at a paper mill, the local smelter’s smokestack or racks of lobster traps at the edge of town, rural people experience natural resource use every day, and the renewal of natural resources is also a part of their world. Thus, the rural world view tends towards use and stewardship as opposed to the urban view, which emphasizes no use and regulation.

The urban focus has shifted policy away from real and pressing natural resource issues to those of air quality and climate change. I will not debate Kyoto here, but I was struck by a comment from a glum Environment Canada policy maker who noted, “I guess we’re the Department of Air Quality these days;” and this at a time when air quality is actually quite good over much of Canada. This urban focus means that immediate environmental issues such as water management, soil health, and biodiversity conservation are relegated to the back burner. The proposed cutbacks to the Canadian Wildlife Service’s migratory bird programs indicate a move away from programs of interest to hunters and rural people to programs that deal with climate change. Notwithstanding the public polling on climate change, reducing carbon dioxide emissions will not improve wildlife management, clean up a single waterway (e.g., Lake Winnipeg) or save one species from extinction. Canada is responsible for a mere six per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, so we could shut down the entire country and still have done nothing. Air quality is important, but Canada must not sacrifice the rest of the environment on the altar of climate change.

Canada’s big cities have the vast majority of seats in Parliament, and the cities tend to dominate environmental policy making. Issues of concern to the countryside tend to fall by the wayside. It is time to restore and enhance traditional conservation policies; this is how one delivers the environment goods.

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