The Environmental State of Canada

Publication, Environment, Ben Eisen, Kenneth Green


Canadians care deeply about the quality of the environment and the protection of nature. A 2007 Decima poll showed that Canadians were more concerned about the environment than about healthcare. A 2009 poll from Nanos found that in the context of the potential prosperity from oil sands versus the potential environmental harm, most Canadians put environmental protection above economic prosperity. Even the current recession has not dampened Canadians’ ardour for environmental protection: An Ipsos-Reid poll in February 2009 found that 57 per cent of the public favoured aggressive actions on climate change despite the economic situation.

Canadians have a great deal to celebrate when it concerns their environment. Over the past 30 years, Canada has cleaned up its air and water, preserved ecosystems and timberlands and protected the soils that feed not only its people but also many others worldwide. This has occurred while Canada’s population and economy has grown strongly, and it has propelled Canada, a country of only 33 million, to the status of a global economic powerhouse with a standard of living that is the envy of much of the world. Of course, there is still more that can be done to protect and optimize the use of Canada’s mighty environmental endowment, but Canada is well on the way toward environmental sustainability.

Some environmentalists tend to downplay this progress and focus instead on particular metrics such as per capita metrics in order to maintain a sense of urgency and to support ever-stronger regulatory regimes. However, per capita metrics are the ultimate in one-size-fi ts-all thinking that ignores geography, natural resource endowment, cultural history, technological capability and the like. With regard to Canada, per capita metrics are particularly absurd: Canada is a large, cold-weather country with a population spread across a vast land area. The Canadian economy is also a powerhouse, ranking ninth in the world on the 2007 World Bank and IMF rankings of world economies. It is hardly appropriate to compare the per capita energy use of a person living in Edmonton with one living in say, Belgium or China or India for that matter. The per capita focus of many environmentalists refl ects a deep-ecology view wherein the underlying goal is a rock-bottom utilization of the environment by a human population kept as low as possible and whose wealth is distributed communally.

There is a better way to look at environmental progress. It acknowledges that human beings live in very different environments with different-sized populations and different cultural traditions, social institutions and available technology. It is a way that recognizes that human beings act to fulfill what psychologist Abraham Maslow called the “hierarchy of needs”, which includes the need for food, safety, family, esteem and self-actualization. In meeting these needs, societies first despoil, then clean up, and ultimately optimize their use of environmental resources in terms of physical resources such as timber, minerals and petrochemicals and in terms of using the environment’s ability to absorb waste such as air and water pollution. This is often called the environmental transition paradigm or sometimes the environmental Kuznets curve.

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