The Canadian Sustainability Movement: A Three-Part Plan for World-Changing

mcgillYesterday I had the honour of making my first ever speech on an environmental subject, at the invitation of McGill University, to their Business Conference on Sustainability. The students who organized the conference, led by Caroline Morissette and Allan Eisen, have done an extraordinary job, attracting over 100 students from universities across Canada, and the event gave me the chance to meet and work with Peter Brown, whose wonderful book The Commonwealth of Life I reviewed last year.

I had the chance to speak with a number of the students before my presentation, and it was encouraging to discover so many young people knowledgeable about the grim state of our environment, and eager to learn what they can do, as they enter the workforce, to make the businesses they work for, or create for themselves, sustainable. But I had been fretting about what to say in this regard in the short time I had available to speak to them as a group, and I should have trusted my instincts. I ended up trying to modify my original presentation when I should have changed it completely, and as a result it was not one of my better speeches, coming across as unpolished, overly ambitious, and not entirely coherent (though the students were kind enough to say otherwise).

For me it was an important learning experience. I built this presentation around my What You Can Do and How to Disrupt the Distorted Market Economy articles. The latter article honed in on three bottom-up mechanisms for making the economy more sustainable: informed consumer activism, natural enterprises, and intentional communities. And while I still believe these are essential elements in the process of creating a new economy, it is now clear to me that they are not enough, and that, if Canada is to take the lead, and be a model of sustainability for the rest of the world, we need to do much more on a lot of fronts, and create a ‘roadmap’ so that we do these things in the right order. If we are, as Bucky Fuller said, to “build a new model that renders the old model obsolete”, that new model must be solid. Eighty percent of Canadians believe that protection of the environment and conservation of natural resources should take priority over economic growth. With our audience already 80% convinced, and countries like Sweden and the Netherlands striving in the same direction, how can we lose?

Here, hopefully more coherently, is a roadmap for such a model:

Part 1: Getting Canadians and Governments Informed and Committed

We need to build a nation-wide, collaborative information exchange that will explain the roadmap to sustainability, how every Canadian can participate in its realization, and the steps that our governments need to take to enable this realization. It would ideally be presented by someone seen as a credible leader for the process. My choice for this leader would be David Suzuki. Suzuki’s foundation has produced a document called Sustainability Within a Generation, which I believe lays out the framework for this new economic model. This document, written by environmental lawyer David Boyd, begins with a definition of sustainability:

What is sustainability? It is neither a lofty ideal nor an academic concept but rather an urgent imperative for humanity. Sustainability means living within the Earthís limits. In a sustainable future, air and water would be clean, so that no Canadian would ever think twice about going outside for a walk or drinking a glass of tap water. Food would be free from pesticide residues, antibiotics, and growth hormones. Air, water, and soil would be uncontaminated by toxic substances. In a sustainable future, it would be safe to swim in every Canadian river and lake; safe to eat fish wherever they were caught. Clean, renewable energy would be generated by harnessing the sun, the wind, water, and the heat of the Earth.

A sustainable future would mean a global climate undisturbed by human impacts. Canadians would no longer fear sunburn or cancer caused by damage to the ozone layer. No one would have to worry about natureís extraordinary diversity diminishing at human hands. Endangered ecosystems and species at risk, from old-growth forests to beluga whales, would recover and thrive. In a sustainable future, Canadians would be confident that their children, grandchildren, and many more future generations would enjoy the same spectacular natural heritage and quality of life that most Canadians enjoy today. Canada should strive to be the worldís most environmentally friendly nation, making concepts such as waste, pollution, and the destruction of ecosystems become things of the past.

The drive towards sustainability would be coupled with an objective of creating greater well-being for all Canadians — so that sustainability is seen as a shift in the way we live and make a living, not as a sort of sacrifice. Well being would be measured not by the narrow and misleading measure of GDP, but by a Genuine Wealth Index (GWI) that includes a spectrum of measures of: vibrant communities, meaningful work, good housing, high quality education and health care, functional infrastructure, outstanding recreational opportunities, clean air and water, healthy relationships with others, and dynamic economic prospects. Importantly, GWI would enable us to track, month by month, our ‘progress’ in the drive to sustainability in a generation, by setting GWI improvement benchmarks to attain at each step in the roadmap.

Governments in Canada at all levels would be invited to ‘sign on’ to the realization of this vision. Canadian parties and governments that refused to make the commitment necessary would face the consequences at the voting booth.

But this site would be much more than just a means to educate Canadians on the need for, and path to, sustainability. It would enable all Canadians to identify and buy responsibly from local, environmentally responsible suppliers, voice dissatisfaction with and boycott companies that have not signed on to the principles of sustainability, create new markets by identifying and fulfilling unmet needs, and research products and companies before buying to ensure the goods they purchase are durable, responsibly produced, and reusable or recyclable. It would allow consumers to finally use the power of knowledge to shape and influence the way companies behave, and would allow small, new, responsible enterprises to gain access to markets virally.

In the process it would start to remove some of the distortions that make our markets so ‘un-free’: It would create new markets to do end-runs around oligopolies that refuse to produce products that don’t offer high profit margins and that use oligopoly power to set prices far above what a truly free market would allow. It would remove the current motivation for suppliers to increase profits by selling shoddy products, sue and intimidate customers who trade and share products at no cost, lobby governments for intellectual property laws that impede innovation and competition, secure government subsidies that make it impossible for small, independent companies to compete, and lie in their advertising to customers.

Part 2: Develop the Plan, Benchmarks and Policies

Once Canadians were informed and committed to the sustainability goals and processes, we would need an overall sustainability Plan, which would, if we follow the Suzuki model, have the following ten component Sub-plans:

  • Generating genuine wealth: Supplementing the narrow goal of economic growth with the objective of genuine wealth
  • Improving production efficiency:Increasing the efficiency of energy and resource use by a factor of four to 10 times
  • Shifting to clean energy: Replacing fossil fuels with clean, low-impact renewable sources of energy
  • Reducing waste and pollution: Moving from a linear ìthrow-awayî economy to a cyclical ìreduce, re-use, and recycleî economy
  • Protecting and conserving water: Recognizing and respecting the value of water in our laws, policies, and actions
  • Producing healthy food: Ensuring Canadian food is healthy, and produced in ways that do not compromise our land, water, or biodiversity
  • Conserving, protecting and restoring Canadian nature: Taking effective steps to stop the decline of biodiversity and revive the health of ecosystems
  • Building sustainable cities: Avoiding urban sprawl in order to protect agricultural land and wild places, and improve our quality of life
  • Promoting global sustainability: Increasing Canadaís contribution to sustainable development in poor countries
  • Introducing fiscal reforms: Shifting taxes to promote sustainable and to discourage unsustainable production and consumption, and eliminating perverse subsidies that enable unsustainable business practices to be hugely profitable and which discourage innovation and inhibit competition from small enterprises.

Peter Brown’s book provides a wealth of ideas on how a ‘stewardship’ approach to economics can lead to better public programs and policies in each of these ten areas.

The Suzuki report goes on to list goals, benchmarks and policies for each area. Those policies are a mix of regulations, investments, research initiatives, public education, trade initiatives (including the cancellation or drastic renegotiation of NAFTA) and new government measures and programs.

But they really don’t tell the average Canadian what s/he can and should be doing to help realize the sustainability goals. In fact, the report seems to suggest that there’s nothing much we need to do as individuals, as informal communities, and as businesspeople, except to be informed and comply with the changing regulations.

That’s where I think some of my ideas comes in. I’d propose this add-on to the roadmap that the Suzuki Foundation has laid out:

Part 3: Engaging Canadians in Achieving Sustainability

  • Develop the Sustainability Information Exchange (described above) to allow all Canadians to learn about, actively engage in discussion and create personal and collective action plans to help achieve sustainability within a generation. The exchange could also be used as a forum and launching pad for some of the additional programs below.
  • Develop and offer educational programs that show Canadians, through visits to natural areas and sustainable enterprises and communities, how sustainability can work, and how to set up your own ‘natural enterprise‘. We might even be able to create a method of certifying businesses as sustainable.
  • Develop programs, networks and tools that will encourage and enable Canadians to live a life of radical simplicity: how to use less stuff, reduce, reuse, recycle and refuse (to buy what’s not needed and not well and responsibly made), appreciate the virtues of a single-child family, relearn how to imagine and to trust our instincts, learn to become less dependent and more self-sufficient, become a vegetarian or vegan, find (or become) a role model of sustainability, live a healthier, less stressful, more joyful life, and infect others with your spirit and passion.
  • Encourage and enable the establishment and promotion of model sustainable communities, teach young people how to establish such intentional communities, and give them the opportunity to visit and learn about a living in a community that is wholly committed to sustainability and the well-being of all its members.

These are things that all Canadians can do, and learn about. But merely creating these exchanges, programs, networks and model communities isn’t enough: We need to actively recruit Canadians in all walks of life and all political persuasions to participate in these activities, to make it part of the way they think, live, and make their living.

I would like to believe that, with so many Canadians believing in this ideal in the first place, and such a compelling argument for this means of achieving it, without sacrifice, the Canadian Sustainability Movement could almost take off spontaneously, and spread virally, with local community-based Sustainability Circles popping up everywhere, eager to be part of the solution to the problem that has proved so intractable. But I think that’s naive: Most Canadians, like the people of every other country, are preoccupied with personal priorities and the day-to-day struggles of life. But what could spark this would be launching the awareness activities and the ‘part 3’ personal activities through existing social organizations whose values are wholly consistent with the goals of sustainability: schools and universities, religious leaders, the progressive political parties, unions, fraternal organizations and cooperatives, and progressive businesses.

If governments, and large corporations, did their part (willingly or reluctantly) to move to a dramatically more sustainable way of operating, and measuring ‘success’, I think the vast majority of Canadians would be more than willing to play a role, and to take personal and collective pride in the ‘progress’ we make together towards the GWI benchmarks, if the programs that would help them do so were given sufficient momentum and publicity in a broad-based launch. Many Canadians have already accepted the “one tonne challenge” to reduce waste, and the challenge to improve their personal fitness, so we’ve demonstrated that we’re up for a challenge if the benefits are compelling enough.

And what could be more compelling than being the first country in the world to achieve absolute sustainability, and show the world, and the generations to come, that it’s possible and desirable?

Thanks to all the gang at McGill and the MBCS for provoking my thinking on this. If they are representative of tomorrow’s leaders, we can do this. This article is what I should have said in my speech to you last night.

This entry was posted in Preparing for Civilization's End. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Canadian Sustainability Movement: A Three-Part Plan for World-Changing

  1. lugon says:

    Thanks to your “not” giving the perfect speech, now we have it! It will benefit many places elsewhere, I hope.I’ve recently started a site called so that we may do something in the general direction of what you say.A couple of days after I started it, I received an email from a “political entity” (not a party, but a group of people ready to try and have some influence politically). They suggested I should join them.I told them they should join me ;). In my longish reply I told them my work is currently based on three tools (a blog, a yahoogroup and now the wiki) and on three operational principles (public domain content, constructive content = if someone starts using the wiki to play adversarial politics then I’ll set up a password or ban IPs etc, and personal responsibility = I write under my real name, and invite them not to write under the political organisation’s name, because organisations can’t use the same keyboard at the same time).In time I would LOVE to offer consulting muscle (I’m into creativity but know nothing about business) on a non-profit or profit basis. But the place is open and I hope we will succeed, maybe.The wiki I’ve just started is about “sustainability”. No big definitions: I want my grandchildren, if there are any, to have a life as good, problematic and interesting as mine. Even if this means “saving the world” (as a human habitat).I hope to translate your main ideas and, more than that, maybe someone will join me in my home-place.What about a network of “imagine yourplace”?

  2. Hi Lucas, I like your suggestion of a network of “Imagine YourPlace”s! Here is the very beginning of one here in NW north america: (not much content there yet–more explanation is here: thank you, Dave, for all the links, and for your thoughtful recommendations on what is perhaps the most essential topic (to me, anyway!): what individuals and regular citizens can do to make a difference.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you both. I’ve built further on these ideas in my Feb.12 post

Comments are closed.