Locally grown food, like these heirloom tomatoes from Tsawwassen's Earthwise Community Garden, could play a major role in dealing with both our economic and environmental challenges

How to Deal with our Economic & Environmental Challenges Together


“The economy is a subsidiary of the ecosystem…The only place where the environment and economy are separated is in the human mind.”

– Dr. William Rees, UBC Professor, Founder of the ‘Eco-footprint’ concept

Perhaps the most foolish and dangerous misconception of our time is that we must somehow choose between the economy and the environment. We hear it all the time. “We can’t establish green house gas emissions caps until we get our economy out of recession.”…”The environment’s important, but so are jobs.”…”We need to balance the economy with the environment.”

It’s a false dichotomy which has become the go-to defense of big polluters and the governments that enable them. We heard it with Fish Lake in BC, where Taseko Mines said they needed to destroy a fish-bearing lake to build a giant gold and copper mine. But, of course, they told us it would bring nine gazillion person-years worth of employment.

We hear it from Enbridge, the company that wants to build a pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to supertankers on BC’s North Coast. They too are fond of tallying up their person-years. (However, they leave out the fact that the majority of these jobs will go to people from out of province – and that they’ll last only a few years, while we’re left with the enormous environmental and economic risks from their project long after the jobs disappear).

These companies and our governments consistently create the impression that we must decide between the economy and the environment – which is short-sighted, self-interested nonsense.
The first step to dealing with both our mounting economic and environmental challenges is recognizing that the economy, as Dr. William Rees says, is a subsidiary of the environment. No fish ecology, no fishery. No forest, no forestry. No energy, no economy. No farmland, no food, no us. 

We also must come to see that due to impending Peak Oil and the age of increasingly costly, scarce, dangerous, and unreliable fossil fuels, the kind of globalized economic model we have today is unsustainable. Not just environmentally unsustainable. Unsustainable, period – because it depends on a finite and dwindling resource. So regardless of whether it contributes greatly to climate change, we simply don’t have the resources to maintain this system, as former CIBC World Markets Chief Economist Jeff Rubin explained in his essential 2009 book, Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller.

In it Rubin relates the skepticism he’s received from the energy and banking intelligentsia over the past decade – even after correctly predicting the rise of oil to an all-time high of close to $150/barrel in 2008. He emphasizes that the key to adapting to this new world lies in the re-localization of just about every function of our economy – and the scaling down of everything we do in terms of our energy and resource-indulgent lifestyles. In other words, smaller and more local is better. This from one of Canada’s top economists and energy experts, no less.

Ponder for a moment the madness of our economic system today – and BC’s role within it. We put our ecosystems at risk by chopping down trees and mining coal – which we then ship, in raw, unmanufactured form, across the Pacific to China in tankers burning the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world (bunker diesel) – where the coal is consumed in electric plants to power the factories in which people labour under awful conditions for paltry wages, building the logs we sent them into tables that are then shipped all the way back to us…all so we can save a few bucks at Canadian Tire (which is a misnomer today, incidentally). 

Of course, we get precious few jobs in this bargain. What we do get is coal smoke and diesel fumes in our air shed, climate change, and a crappy table that lasts a fraction of what it used to when we made them ourselves.

And this insanity has made abundant sense to flat-earthers like the New York Times’ vaunted Thomas Friedman (Rubin’s alter-ego). But it doesn’t make sense at $150/barrel oil, nor at $200 or $300. And that, according to Rubin and many other experts (including the late, great oil banker Matthew Simmons), is where we’re headed – very shortly. Consider that in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, some 12% of the world’s shipping fleet ground to a halt, with 500 behemoths hidden off the coast of Singapore for the better part of a year – a small harbinger of what is to come.

Yet Rubin somehow sees an upside to these unavoidable challenges we face – namely, in dealing with them we could create local jobs, clean up our environment, and rediscover how to live modest but fulfilling lives. Rubin writes, “Distance costs money. That will be the mantra of the new local economy.” The closer goods and food are produced to the markets in which they are consumed, the lower the transportation costs and reliance on fossil fuels. But with that we also get the twin benefit of fewer green house gas emissions (transportation accounts for upwards of 30% of North American GHG’s). Hence, once again, what’s good economically is also good for the environment.

So to both the BC NDP and Liberal leadership candidates – and to Michael Ignatieff, for that matter – I humbly submit: Build your platform on addressing both the economy and the environment together. Tell people it won’t be easy, but we can and must develop a greener, healthier, more economically and energy efficient British Columbia and planet. 

Here are some planks to consider in that platform:

-Get back to growing our own food. In BC, we currently rely on imports for over half our food. We need more of our own farmers and food-producing lands – which means an investment in agricultural education and the protection and development of land that families and small-scale local farmers can afford to till to feed their own communities.

-Stop raw log exports. Truly sustainable forestry practices with local mills and enhanced manufacturing would ensure we get maximum economic benefit from one of our most important resources, while minimizing the environmental costs.

-Re-localize manufacturing in general. Our dependance on China and other low-cost labour markets has hollowed out a manufacturing base that we will surely need to develop our own goods in the near future.

-Get serious about protecting and rebuilding sustainable local fisheries. That means moving aquaculture to closed-containment, protecting and restoring fish habitat, and better managing our fisheries. That means saying “no” to things like the Raven coal mine proposal on Vancouver Island, which could destroy one of the finest oyster fisheries in the world (employer of 600 people). The seafood we’re blessed with on BC’s coast is an ecological and economic gift, which if we take care of will take care of us – as this past year’s surprise sockeye return reminded us.

-Preserve our wild places for sustainable wilderness tourism. And focus more on Canadians, many of whom have yet to experience some of the treasures in their own back yard. This would lower the industry’s dependence on emissions-heavy international travel.

-Build a proper network of public transit and pedestrian infrastructure for people movement – and electrified rail and short-sea shipping for goods movement. The construction of public transit creates far more jobs per dollar than highway paving. And by getting some of the 70% of single occupant commuter vehicles off our highways, we can free up space for goods movement, reducing lost economic productivity from gridlock – all without having to destroy our farmland or add to suburban sprawl.

-Make conservation the key focus of our energy policy. The private power industry is the antithesis of conservation, as it makes money through increased consumption – which is why it has forced grossly expensive purchase contracts on us for power we can’t use and must therefore sell at a considerable loss. Conservation is the only truly zero-impact form of energy and it frees up clean public hydro electricity to sell to our neighbours at a profit, which goes toward our schools, hospitals, and keeping our taxes low. We also need to make homes and businesses more energy efficient and, importantly, more self-sufficient – through things like small-scale wind, solar, heat pumps, and geothermal power.

If it seems that looking out for the environment and/or public interest are unpopular with the electorate, look no further than Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s intervention in the sale of Potash Corp. to foreign mining titan BHP Billiton, or recently retired Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams’ reclaiming of a public hydro resource from Abitibi Bowater when they shut their pulp mill down (breaking their resource-for-jobs deal with the Province). Both were extraordinarily popular decisions with the public – in Williams’ case, he described it as the best decision of a brilliant political career. Meanwhile, a full 80% of British Columbians favour a ban on coastal oil tanker traffic – and politicians with the guts to fight for one will be duly rewarded. These platforms aren’t a tough sell with the public at all – only with a select few individuals and corporations with far too much influence over our political system.

One of the features of the Peak Oil era is that we will have less and less capital to implement the above changes. Which is why we must cease immediately building out-moded, unsustainable infrastructure and energy projects. Every dollar that we spend on paving highways over farmland is a double-whammy. Not only is it depriving us of a far more important use for that land, but it’s taking already scarce money away from public transit alternatives. Consider that for roughly a seventh the cost of the upgrades underway to Highway 1 and the Port Mann Bridge in BC’s Lower Mainland, we could get the old Interurban commuter rail line back up and running, servicing the same corridor far more efficiently and getting commuters to work faster, cheaper, more comfortably and safely.

Instead of fighting with all our might against these irrepressible forces, why not turn around and go with the flow? We must ask ourselves, is it worth all that effort and long term pain, just to forestall the end of this status quo by maybe a few more years – after which we will be far worse off for not having been proactive in changing our ways? 

We might do to ask ourselves a few more questions. Like, is bigger really better? Has global “free” trade worked for most average citizens around the world – or has it simply afforded wealthy individuals and corporations better access to cheap labour and foreign resources? Are we happier as a society today than we were fifty years ago? (Skyrocketing obesity, diabetes, cancer, and depression rates might suggest that we are not). Finally, is the planet better off?

Building a future based on the inextricable relationship between the economy and environment would present the ultimate in public policy achievements – a win-win for everyone (or almost everyone). 

It also just might get someone elected as the next premier of BC or prime minister of Canada…and help save the planet, which never hurts.


About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

15 thoughts on “How to Deal with our Economic & Environmental Challenges Together

  1. Thanks Sue. You won’t get any argument from us on most of your points. The Green Party – federally and provincially – is consistently more progressive than others with regard to the issues we have both raised here.

    While it may be true that some Greens are elected in FPTP systems in other countries, the majority are in some form of proportional representation system – which is why Rafe has been such a strong proponent for evolving our electoral system. It’s a sad fact that were then-BC Green leader Adriane Carr (a friend and someone I greatly admire) to have endorsed STV the first time around, as Rafe counseled her to do, it very likely would have passed and we’d have a number of Greens in our Legislature…Like I say, unfortunate it didn’t work out that way.

    Unlike the other countries you allude to, the Greens have yet to even come close to electing a single MP or MLA in Canada. Which is why when confronted with the prospect of another Harper or BC Lib Government, we have supported what we consider to be electable alternatives.

    I know it’s a chicken-and-egg game, but that’s where we’re coming from. I really hope things change – we’d love to see some elected Greens in Canada 🙂

  2. Dear Damien, I admire and agree with pretty much everything you post – including this piece. So, I’m going to keep hammering on my public comments to Rafe and to you that the Green Party, both provincially and federally, have set out our plans for a sustainable future grounded in fiscal responsibility, ecological sanity and social justice. Everywhere Greens have been elected around the world (even in first-past-the-post systems), they have contributed to moving environmental and social justice initiatives forward; creating more collaborative and civil political discourse; and a more inclusive and participatory form of democracy.

    I’ve been told the Greens don’t have a hope to form government – but we have plenty of eminently qualified, passionate and knowledgeable candidates, so I say – start a revolution and vote Green. Every Green vote sends a message.

  3. Dylan, allow me to qualify my support for closed-containment:

    Firstly, any type of aquaculture that uses carnivorous salmon is problematic due to its dependence on feed made largely of other wild fish (up to 5 kg of wild to yield 1 kg of farmed) – which is why I would prefer herbivorous species.

    The concern I alluded to in this piece was for the ecological consequences from open net pen farms, which breed parasites and diseases, passing them onto wild fish, and dump their chemicals and waste into the marine environment. To that end, closed containment systems are vastly preferable to the open net pen variety.

    Finally, the unsustainable energy needs of closed containment you refer to can be dealt with through ocean-based near-shore tanks, which draw sea water and filter out their waste (such as Agrimarine’s pilot project now being built near Campbell River); by using on-land freshwater tanks (used for coho by both Swift Aquaculture in BC and Aquaseed in Washington State); or through closed recirculation systems – the holy grail of closed-containment.

    Whatever the case, open net pen salmon farming is the least sustainable option, by far!

  4. The more frequent and more severe weather events and the Great Recession have a common cause—the failure of decision makers to consider the long-term effects of their actions in favour of short-term gratification. This could be a definition of addiction.

    If you want a stable, prosperous economy—elect an ecologist as your finance minister.

  5. Damien,
    Your commitment to closed-containment baffles me.
    If you were so dedicated to energy-efficient methods you would stick with net-pen farming.
    Where would land-based farms go anyway?
    On existing farmland, or to compete with housing or areas set aside for recreation?
    Closed-containment does nothing but increase the cost, energy use and footprint of Aquaculture.
    If you want sustainable food production stick with the evolution of net-pens in the ocean.
    My future includes salmon farming on the BC coast, in net-pens, using the most cutting-edge environmental technology available.
    Not cramming fish into artificial tanks on land and expending incredible amounts of money and energy to accomplish what the Sun and Moon do for us now.

  6. Both Kevin and Eric’s points are well taken – but do note that my article does not in any way suggest abdicating other important instruments of social change for growing community gardens. I am quite sure my piece is more expansive than that – specifically dealing with transportation, resource management, and the de-growthing of our unsustainable globalized economy – points I made repeatedly throughout. I didn’t discuss the mechanisms of social activism required to achieve these important socio-economic changes in this piece – but as our readers will know, these topics are well-covered in these pages, and will continue to be. By all means, get in the streets!

  7. Kevin Wrote “Are we letting the globalists off the hook buy turning our efforts into community building and relocalization? . . . I am all for a big local hug and working with your neighbours but I am totally against busy work designed by the globalists to ensure they are freed up to ice the global cake they baked.”

    This is a very important point. Note how many groups are getting government and corporate foundation grants to put in community gardens. There is a big fight here, and a movement to build, focused on the real pressure points of the (cancerous) growth economy. I have chosen to focus on transportation, since automobile dominance is such a big part of what keeps (un)economic growth going and cooking the planet.

    By all means grow your urban veggies, but we need to be out on the street too. People tried to change society by dropping out of it in the early 1970s, it didn’t accomplish much.

  8. I think Paul misses the point.
    Shipping crude oil to China to be returned as cheap plastic goods is not sustainable hence the observation on the Enbridge pipeline.
    As for raw logs; Vancouver island is being stripped of lumber at an unsustainable rate partly for the sake of private land owners who have re designated large once timber productive areas for development.
    There will always be a need for resource extraction but let us use it wisely.

  9. I disagree with Damien in proposing that the environment vs. economy dichotomy is false. He explicitly states that some forms of economic activity must stop because they are too destructive. If ecology is the birth-place and mother’s milk of the economy, then in many cases ‘the environment’ must be chosen over our economy. I think that Damien fails to weigh his proposals for economic shift against ecological reality. Global shipment of sustainably logged wood furniture is not sustainable — global shipments are not sustainable. A manufacturing base, with its inherent energy needs, resource extraction and infrastructure is also not sustainable.
    While I agree that we need to transition our economy, and that that transition will mean the temporary continuance of unsustainable practices, Damien’s framing of ecological sustainability and his proposed solutions represent an avoidance in challenging or changing our social and economic lifestyles too greatly. This serves only to further obscure the notion of sustainability and distract us from the question we need to face, which is “how do we meet our basic needs as animals without destroying the ecology upon which we rely?”

  10. To Len, thanks for the kind comment. For now I’m content to use my camera and our website to try and positively influence the political discourse and hold our elected officials’ feet to the fire. Not saying I wouldn’t consider venturing into the Lion’s den someday, though…

    To Kevin, you raise some important points. I see building community as a key piece of the puzzle – but the principles I outlined here are more relating to economics. And since that’s where progressive folks often get hung up with the media and their conservative political counterparts, I think it’s an important place to turn our focus. It’s also an unavoidable fact that, as Rubin explains, this globalized trade system is unsustainable from an energy and economic perspective – not to mention environmentally. So when I speak of community in this context, I predominantly mean with regards to developing local food production and manufacturing. I don’t think re-localization is a ploy of globalists – seems to me Monsanto’s doing its damnedest to stamp out local farming. But your warning that we not lose sight of the big picture or let the globalists off the hook while we tend to our community gardens is well taken.

  11. Things have gone so obviously, horribly wrong that the glaringly obvious policies you outline are somehow now considered revolutionary.

    We have won the race to the bottom, which provides hope for the bottom up development of a rational society built on common sense to over come the top down Orwellain reality we face.

    However, given the globalists penchant for threaten and rescue politics and Rubins cry for relocalization, you have to wonder exactly whose agenda is it to relocalize.

    Are we letting the globalists off the hook buy turning our efforts into community building and relocalization? Why do we have to reinvent the local community it is the one thing we had for ever until it went insanely global.

    I am all for a big local hug and working with your neighbours but I am totally against busy work designed by the globalists to ensure they are freed up to ice the global cake they baked.

  12. Thanks for the article Damien. You continually show the courage to fight for higher standards in government and communities, for protection of our agricultural lands, waterways, forests, coastal waters and sensitive ecosystem. You have my support!

    I think we need to start with new civic laws at the local level to regulate city councils and stop big development from luring these naive governments into long term disastrous deals. Civic councils are often made up of local business people who don’t have the legal expertise, education or understanding to deal with heavy lobbying, the lure of quick & fast “junk” jobs & the legal jargon large corporations and developers use to entice them into costly deals. Clearly, these foreign companies do not have the local communities or environment’s best interest in mind – for them it’s all about profit & who’s paying? We are. Without protective legislation, I feel our communities are like sitting ducks, easy targets for the big corps to do a “subtle takeover” from the inside out. We are only as strong as our weakest link. By making our local councils “corporation proof”, we could effectively counter much of the eco-takeover in BC.

  13. I understand your frustration, Roger. I think our best chance for changing attitudes and behaviour – and for building resilience for the troubles ahead – lies at the community level.

  14. “We can’t establish green house gas emissions caps until we get our economy out of recession.”

    BC Govt tackles CO² by taxing gas.

    Scientists, say AGW causes the cold weather: errrr hello! Goodbye white Christmas’ and here we are socked in!

    So I pay my pennies to fill up. I do not drive but my out board consumes 50+/- litres annually. I’m no angel.

    Nor is Bill, as he avoids pointed questions as off he flies to share his bon mots hither and yon. Ditto Suzuki and Condon: the saints have much to answer for.

    In fact the whole damn democratic charade is out of kilter: no one cares.

    I’ve been dabbling in urbanism/planning/architecture for decades: it’s all about green washing while aficionados gossip on line.

    Biblical sized issues confront us: air quality, social inequities, greed/corruption in high places, righteous people turning their blind eyes, cities and communities built, not for living, but for profit.

    Even righteous Canada is up to its neck in wars: wow how much gas do Leopard tanks drink up in an hour? And you expect me to row my boat!

    When the big issues come into focus I’ll buy a pair of oars!

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