Innovation, Science, Environment: Charting Sustainable Development in Canada, 1987-2007

Innovation, Science, Environment: Charting Sustainable Development in Canada, 1987-2007

Glen Toner and James Meadowcroft (eds.)
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press
2009, 256 pages

Twenty years ago, a confident nation strutted onto the global stage, ready to inspire a new era of sustainable development. But then Canada slipped into the gutter – muddling through at home, obstructing action abroad.

What happened? Politics was obviously a factor: deficit reduction distracted the Liberals, an addiction to tar sands sidelined the Conservatives, and neither party embraced their own rhetoric. But this book looks elsewhere, portraying (if only by inference) a federal system mired in inertia. More optimistically, the authors suggest ways of getting beyond this morass. Yet by defining their analysis in very narrow terms, while neglecting crucial elements of policy, they hint at another factor behind Canada’s sad record: a failure of imagination – not least among sustainability scholars.

Several chapters set the scene. James Meadowcroft and Glen Toner, the book’s editors, provide a helpful overview, asserting the continuing relevance of sustainable development. David Runnalls, president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, presents a personal view of Canada’s loss of momen- tum. Ann Dale, who teaches at Royal Roads University, diagnoses Canada’s record as a failure of co-ordination, to be remedied through national strategies. Mark Winfield, a professor at York University, sketches the political obstacles to sustainability and the prospects for evidence-based approaches. Roger Gibbins, CEO of the Canada West Foundation, examines regional environmental tensions and pitfalls.

These chapters provide useful ideas and insights regarding Canada’s sorry record. But they also share a similar affliction. Too often, these authors invoke that mysterious substance known as “political will” to explain past failures and future prospects. One is reminded of the natural philosophers who once invoked ether to make sense of phenomena they could not, in the absence of chemical knowledge, otherwise explain. But this won’t do. It really is time to take this substance apart and examine more critically the relations between knowledge, values, interests and government initiatives.

Several authors have more success examining specific initiatives. Laura Smallwood, from Carleton University, considers the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. Burdened with assessing federal progress on sustainable development, the commissioner has built a reputation for unbiased advice, but also for being unable to promote sustainability strategies as anything more than paper-pushing. These strategies have also perpetuated the fable that sustainability is mainly about the performance of the government, and not the impacts of its policies on Canadian society.

Serena Boutros, an economist with Natural Resources Canada, reviews the history of the National Round Table on Environment and the Economy (NRTEE). Now more than 20 years old, the NRTEE is one of the last survivors of the many round tables that were once expected to enable experts to hammer out consensus on sustainability. Its survival in an unreceptive Ottawa has required bal- ancing contradictory roles: encouraging research, working within the system, or catalyzing social change. In another chapter, Lillian Hayward, also from Carleton, examines the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). In spite of funding challenges and other crises, the IISD has become a respected source of research and ideas. Its success reflects an entrepreneurial spirit – and independence from the federal government. Taking a break from the book’s federal focus, David Wheeler, best-known for his work with The Body Shop, and Annika Tamlyn, from Dalhousie University, examine business sustainability initiatives and the consequences of foreign ownership.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this book is a pervasive contradiction. As several authors stress, sustainable development requires radical change. Yet the book perpetuates a limited vision of governance, focusing on the federal government, while neglecting provinces, municipalities and civil society. In practice, Ottawa defers to the provinces, avoids urban issues, and lags behind public-interest organizations in credibility and capacity for defining the public agenda. Yet the book acknowledges this only indirectly, by demonstrating the near-inconsequentiality of Ottawa, and the huge missed opportunity this represents.

Even within its federal focus, the analysis suffers from self-imposed limits. Essential aspects of the Ottawa system are neglected, such as the hyper-centralization of policy-making in the Prime Minister’s Office. (Runnalls comes closest to noting this, but only to tease. He won’t tell the “gory story” of how the PMO suppressed Canada’s report for the 2002 Johannesburg conference.) Instead, the image of government here is remarkably nai?ve. It appears to be an institution that, at least in theory, is driven by knowledge, formulates rational policy, exercises care and foresight – in short, acts as a wise overseer of the nation’s affairs. Some proposals are similarly detached from reality. For example, one author suggests that experts be assembled to hammer out binding national plans for transportation, water and energy security, and other priorities – ignoring both political realities and the limits of technocracy.

Meanwhile, actual policies for climate change, biodiversity, water quality and other critical issues escape serious analysis. This likely reflects the authors’ preference for process over product. It may also reflect a desire to be polite. But the result is that dishonest games, such as recent climate programs and “voluntary” regulations, get off with merely being labeled “aspirational.” Initiatives of doubtful effectiveness, such as BC’s carbon tax, or federal efforts to “increase awareness” and “build capacity” similarly escape critique. The desire to encourage progress, however slight, overwhelms careful analysis.

Effective policies will always face major obstacles, including competing priorities and fleeting public attention. But to focus so much attention on Ottawa is to seek innovation in a system designed to snuff it out. Of course there must be a federal role in sustainable development. But finding this role demands a realistic awareness of how the environmental landscape has evolved and an imaginative embrace of the creative opportunities this presents.

Stephen Bocking, a regular contributor to Alternatives, teaches environmental and resource studies at Trent University. As part of a January 12, 2010 panel discussion, he will be debating the role of ecology along with Thomas Homer-Dixon and Robert Gibson. Visit for details.

Originally published in Alternatives Journal’s Subscribe to Alternatives Today!

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