What are governments for? – Science Matters

Photo: What are governments for?

We can’t rely on technological fixes, individual actions, or market systems to protect nature (Credit: Peter Blomert via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Aquatic Biologist Jeffery Young.

What purpose do governments serve? Some people think we could do without them, but that’s absurd. Even libertarians agree that some kind of police force and legal system are necessary to ensure that individual freedoms and property are protected, especially when conflicts arise over competing freedoms and property rights.

Others argue that the ever-expanding economy is our highest priority, and that governments should encourage this unending growth by subsidizing or promoting business and removing so-called regulatory red tape.

At its most basic, a government is there to protect its citizens. That’s more complicated than it seems. What rights do citizens have? Most democratic countries spell those out in their constitutions. Canada’s Constitution, for example, enshrines rights in a range of areas: fundamental, democratic, legal, equality, language, and so on.

As we begin a New Year, it’s worth reflecting on how well our government has looked after the interests of its citizens, and where we might be heading.

According to our Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we are legally entitled to life, liberty, and security in Canada. But how can we fulfill that right without protecting the necessary preconditions for life: clean air and water and productive soils to grow food? These all come from and depend on natural functioning ecosystems. We can try to clean up water that has been polluted or grow food in a lab, but those strategies will cost much more than protecting the ecosystems before they are compromised.

Natural functioning ecosystems (let’s just call them “nature”) supply resources that we all depend on to meet our basic needs and to survive. We need nature, including each other, more than anything else. We can’t rely on technological fixes, individual actions, or market systems to protect it. Unfortunately, the negative costs of damaging the environment and the benefits that nature provides are rarely factored into economic equations.

In that light, one of government’s primary roles is to protect nature. Arguments between the so-called political left and right are often summarized as the difference between wanting more or less government. But that misses the point of government.

Governments set priorities, many of them based on where they allocate money and resources. Successive governments in Canada have promoted the idea that a strong economy is the most important consideration and that to have prosperity we must put the interests of corporations above those of citizens. This is backwards.

While continuing to spend tens of billions of dollars on jet fighters, war ships, and campaigns to promote itself and the tar sands, Canada’s government is gutting resources from the programs and departments responsible for protecting our environment, as well as weakening policies and laws designed to conserve nature.

At the end of 2011, we saw our government trying to cajole other countries to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol during the climate change talks in Durban, South Africa. When no one went along, Canada became the first country to abandon this legally binding international agreement. Of course, our current government isn’t the only one that has failed to live up to the agreement’s requirements. Kyoto may not have been perfect, but in abandoning it rather than working to strengthen it, Canada’s leadership failed to acknowledge that dealing with climate change is essential to protecting its citizens, and those of the world.

We can only take this administration’s word that it will come up with a realistic plan to cut emissions and fight climate change, but the record of successive governments so far doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Let’s get beyond this false dichotomy of economy versus environment. If we look at economy as a way to provide for the health and well-being of citizens, then it’s there to serve the environment, of which we are a part, and not the other way around. Environmental protection shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to opportunity; it should be seen as an essential part of a healthy economy.

It’s up to all of us to ensure that the governments we elect to look after our interests protect nature because we depend on it for our very lives. That’s what they’re for.

Science Matters is published by The David Suzuki Foundation and has been re-syndicated with permission on thegreenpages.ca network since 2000.