Since the 1970s there has emerged a vast literature exploring the relationship between economic growth and the environment. Fifty years of research has yielded anything but consensus: One major school in the debate claims that humanity long ago overshot Earth’s natural carrying capacity; it thus argues we need to dramatically scale back material consumption (particularly in the West). Another major school argues that growth can be made to be green, as long as environmental damage is accurately priced within the market. There is also a range of radical contributions to this debate, with calls for everything from eco-socialist revolution to venture-capital backed geoengineering schemes.
Enter the Trudeau Liberals, who placed themselves within this debate by repeatedly assuring Canadians that what’s good for the environment is good for the economy, and vice versa. The economy and the environment “go together like paddles and canoes,” Trudeau once said: “unless you have both you won’t get to where you are going.” This rather vague mantra – that protecting the environment and growing the economy go hand in hand – has not only served to juxtapose their environmental policy from the Harper Conservatives (who seemed to imply that environmental protection hampered economic growth), but it has also worked at justifying a wide range of government policies, from the recent overhaul of the environmental assessment rules; to its support for oil sands pipelines; to its investment of hundreds of millions of dollars into Canadian innovation; and its plan to put a price on carbon.
Don’t get me wrong – some of these policies are great ideas (particularly the latter two) – but allow me to ask a rather heretical question; what if what’s good for the economy isn’t necessarily good for the environment all the time? What if doing what’s truly good for the environment in a particular case would knowingly inflict pain on our economy? If we can assume that there are indeed instances where growth and environment are incompatible, then is not the Liberal mantra a dangerous tautology destined to make us believe we can have it all without changing our way of life?
To suppose that we Canadians (who, by one measure, produce more garbage per person than any other nationality on the planet) can consume our way into a green economy strikes many as a bit of a fairy tale. Canada’s economy is relatively strong. Meanwhile, the environment is ensnared in deep crisis – not just relating to climate, but also to biodiversity and the viability of precious resources. Policy is often a way of mediating tradeoffs between gains and concessions. A guiding policy which claims no compromise is necessary in achieving sustainable growth in perpetuity is deaf to the material realities of our biosphere.
To return to the growth and environment debate, it seems rather obvious that the lack of consensus about their relationship arises from the abstract nature and complexity of both growth and environmental sustainability. How could there possibly be such a clear-cut relationship between these two societal goals? Hiring someone to cut down a tree generates economic activity; but so does hiring someone to replant it! Some economic activities that generate growth in Canada’s domestic product will evidently yield some forms of environmental damage; and others may help us in tackling certain environmental indicators. So why the oversimplification from our political leadership?
A more honest path forward is one that specifies what we truly need from our economy and the environment. Canadians arguably need fulfilling and lasting employment, to provide us not only with income, but meaning; yet we also need access to uncontaminated natural resources and ecosystem services, which provide us with sustenance and good health. If those needs can be achieved while the economy grows, great; but the priority should be on the ends, not the means. The point, as we work towards a truly green economy, is to focus our objectives on the specific social and ecological outcomes we require for our national and global society to thrive.