|The Idea: A proposal to reinvent Canada as the model for a post-industrial, perhaps even post-civilization, society.
Ever since I wrote about Canadian conservationist Peter Brown’s prescription for creating a society built on respect for all life on the planet, I’ve been thinking about how Canada might serve as a model for such a society. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about first steps in getting there from here. Now, with the federal government mired in scandal and a disreputable Bush-adoring opposition so desperate to exploit the situation that they have jumped into bed with the separatists and jeopardized the continuance of Canada as a nation, I thought it might be useful to think positive and draw a picture of Canada as a model for the world, rather than the embarrassment the politicians of all stripes have made of it lately.
As a reminder from the earlier post, here is Brown’s 14-point plan for migrating economic, political and social systems to a new, sustainable and responsible stewardship model:
- Assess the current state of the three basic rights — the right of bodily integrity (freedom from injury and undue confinement), the right of moral, political and religious choice, and the right of subsistence (to make a decent living and hence provide for the basic needs of life).
- Inventory the current state of productive resources, capacity to rebound to natural, sustainable levels, and capacity of ‘sinks’ to absorb human activity.
- Compile an overall biological survey of ecosystem health and robustness.
- Design and construct new institutions to protect the commonwealth, modeled after Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons analysis of effective common pool resource management structures.
- Introduce new regulations and incentives (emphasis on the latter) to extend and entrench the three basic rights.
- Replace GDP with GPI and other, broader and more credible measures of well-being.
- Redirect central banks’ fiscal and monetary policy to incent effective stewardship instead of growth.
- Restructure tax systems to tax ‘bads’ instead of ‘goods’.
- Create national Councils of Stewardship to supplant Councils of Economic Advisers.
- Create incentives for good-stewardship substitutions e.g. grants, tax changes, short-term subsidies, that could, for example, lead to the elimination of the need to raise animals for food.
- Grant legal standing to future generations and other sentient species, so that actions can be launched on their behalf.
- Implement cosmopolitan education: teach stewardship, tolerance, and educate and fund research on good-stewardship substitutions for existing activities.
- Promulgate an international declaration of stewardship acknowledging our responsibilities and also the need for all people to take action to significantly reduce both human population and levels of consumption.
- Create an annual report of our stewardship and trusteeship of the planet.
And here are the seven duties of government he lays out under such a model:
- duty to preserve and enhance the well-being of all
- duty to discharge its obligations impartially
- duty to uphold the three basic rights
- duty to prohibit wasteful use of resources
- duty to address crises of scarcity
- duty to respect the virtue of commerce to optimize the production and distribution of necessities of life
- duty to protect the commonwealth undiminished for future generations
Here’s what I think we would have to do in Canada to implement this plan, unilaterally, as a model for other nations to follow:
- Canada has done an exemplary job of protecting the three basic rights, at least for humans [afterthought — I take that back, just thinking about how the colonists of this country have treated First Nations peoples]. Those rights, however, are under constant threat from right-wing US administrations, which have unapologetically kidnapped and exported Canadians to countries where they are tortured and murdered on the flimsiest suspicion of anti-American inclinations. Canada needs to take a much harder line with the US in dealing with such unconstitutional and extraterritorial actions. The previous US ambassador to Canada, for example, who defended such outrages and swore they would continue, should have been expelled from Canada. The three basic rights have not been extended to non-human creatures in this country, but I’ve argued elsewhere that our mistreatment of animals and destruction of ecosystems will not be rectified by according them ‘rights’.
- When it comes to Canada’s record of stewardship of ‘its’ natural resources and minimizing the negative impact of human activity on the environment, however, Canada’s record is nothing less than an international disgrace. Canada has destroyed and exhausted marine resources over which it claims sovereignty (the fishing industry in Canada is essentially gone, except for the abomination of fish-farming). It has clearcut millions of acres of forests and utterly destroyed the habitat of countless species in the process, ruining at the same time much of Canada’s potential as a site for eco-tourism. It has diminished virtually all of its agricultural land to non-sustainability, in part by allowing untrammeled urban sprawl and in part by exhausting the soil by over-farming or mis-farming to the point that the industry is now completely dependent on oil-based fertilizers, toxic chemicals and massive government subsidies. Agriculture has also caused the building of devastating dams and other destructive irrigation schemes that along with agricultural runoff have seriously strained and horrifically polluted Canada’s fresh water supplies, and it is now in the vanguard of a reckless expansion of genetically manufactured crop experimentation with no regards for the consequences on man or on our ecosystems. Our record on air pollution is no better, with government, mining and petrochemical industries among the worst polluters of air and water on the planet. In accordance with Brown’s seven duties of government, we must institute a complete moratorium on the destructive exploitation of ‘our’ natural resources, and move quickly to replace all such activities with small-scale, sustainable resource activities, limited to meeting Canadians’ own needs, and cease all resource exports until we are able to demonstrate that such resource activities meet standards of responsible stewardship and sustainability. This means repudiating the disastrous NAFTA agreement.
- The other industry which has wreaked havoc on Canadian ecosystems is the so-called ‘development’ industry. The only way to stop sprawl is to place a moratorium on new land ‘development’ and require that all new construction take place on sites that have already been ‘developed’, through use of brownfield reclamation and intensification and restoration of abandoned, misused and underused sites. This will require that Canada take steps to end net population growth, which several European countries have successfully achieved. That means that net Canadian immigration needs to be limited to the net decline in natural population. This will be a hugely unpopular restriction, but without it we cannot hope to prevent sprawl from turning Canada into an endless urban desert by the end of this century.
- Canada is over-governed, due to multiple levels of government with overlapping responsibilities, which are constantly fighting with each other over share of tax dollars. At the same time, ironically, it is under-regulated. The Canadian economy is effectively controlled by foreign corporations which own the majority of our productive assets, control the development of the majority of our natural resources, and yet provide a small minority of our employment and export most of their profits to their head office country. It is absurd to believe that a country can possible be responsible for its future when it has only a minority interest in its own assets. At the very least we need to require foreign owners to sell back a controlling interest in our country to Canadians. But I would go further and, in accordance with the 11th step in Brown’s plan, think we should replace the private ownership of land with a renewable no-cost lease on the ‘property’ that is subject to a number of provisos. One proviso would be a limit on how much land any individual (corporations and foreign individuals would not be eligible) could lease, the limit to be dependent upon what he is ‘giving back’ (good stewardship, conservation, employment etc.) Another proviso would be forfeiture of the leasehold rights if the property is mismanaged. Who would make these assessments and have ‘title’ to the property? Not a big government bureaucracy, but a council made up of all the residents of the local community in which the property is located, and including a selected representative of the interests of future generations and a selected representative of other species, either of which could veto or cancel a lease with just cause. No one would ‘own’ the land — it would be stewarded in trust for future generations.
- This would make the property in each community (ideally consisting of 50-200 people) essentially a commons, and Ostrom’s Governing the Commons principles would apply to them. This greatly increased additional local authority and responsibility would likely lead to a great deal of movement of residents to find community-mates with whom they share affinity. Communities would evolve from being accidental to being intentional, and some marvelous models and ‘best practices’ could emerge, a welcome replacement for the dreary monotony and indistinguishability of today’s ‘developer-defined communities’. Over time, these communities would become autonomous and self-managing, at which time they could be granted, by the federal government, full self-governance, and we could eliminate all the other municipal, regional and provincial government layers that have proven too large and incompetent to effectively manage anything. The federal government would retain responsibility for only those functions that absolutely cannot be done at the community level, and would otherwise stick to the seven duties listed above — not operating but simply regulating local community governments, and equalizing their per-capita assets through the allocation of tax revenues. It has been argued that small local governments are inefficient and uncoordinated, but John Ralston Saul has provided compelling evidence in The Unconscious Civilization that big governments, like big corporations, are inherently less efficient than smaller ones ‘close to their members’, and that there are no ‘economies of scale’; and you need look no further than the Internet to see that small decentralized organizations are completely capable of self-coordinating if command-and-control fanatics stay out of their way.
- As for tax revenues, as Brown suggests, the tax regimen should be completely revamped, and its basis shifted from tax on income, revenue and employment to a tax on resource consumption, pollution, waste, and wealth beyond a basic threshold level. I have described how such a tax regime would work elsewhere. Tax revenues should also be used to reward what Brown calls “good-stewardship substitutions”, such as the replacement of factory farms with local, small, humane, subsistence farming operations, and the development of community-based renewable energy coops to replace hydrocarbon and other non-renewable, environmentally destructive or dangerous energy sources.
- When it comes to health care, I have argued elsewhere that the current model needs to be turned on its head: We need more emphasis on prevention instead of depending entirely on treatment of avoidable illnesses and accidents; more personal responsibility needs to be taken for self-care, self-diagnosis and self-treatment; and large centralized institutional approaches need to be replaced by answers that are more decentralized and closer to the patient. Technology and knowledge can get us there. Let each community look after itself. If there are specializations and technologies that are needed that no one community can reasonably accommodate, trust the communities to coordinate their needs and share the facilities between them.
- Same thing for education. Allow each community to look after its own needs, and to coordinate with neighbouring communities when it has needs that no one community can reasonably accommodate. Encourage educational solutions that involve seeing and doing in the community and in neighbouring communities, rather than classroom teaching of abstractions. Encourage self-learning and collaborative mutual-help learning, using the astonishing, free resources now available to anyone with Internet access. Involve the people in the community in all learning activities, not just teacher-babysitters.
- I confess I have no answers for defence. The idea that we can defend our country against a nuclear power bent on our destruction, or against the US if it should decide to invade us again (as in 1812), this time to take our oil and water, seems to me quite absurd. Our only defence is to be such a great model for the rest of mankind that those countries with sufficient military might will either not want to attack us in the first place, or will rally in our defence. I’m sure some will find this as provocative as point 4 above, but that’s how I see it.
- Brown’s book suggests a number of progressive ways of measuring the ‘success’ of this new stewardship political-social-economic-educational system. They are measures of well-being, not of wealth.
This could not, of course, happen overnight. A lengthy transitional period would be needed both to prevent serious disruption of capital markets and to allow communities to learn the business of self-governance.
Am I dreaming to think this could ever happen? Perhaps. John Gray would say this is impossible, that it is against human nature. But I would love to prove him wrong. In time (or maybe not in time) we are going to realize that the old model for how to run our society doesn’t work anymore, that it’s broken beyond repair and is only pushing us headlong into oblivion. A new model is needed. And there’s no harm thinking ahead.