In his important and timely article “The Business of Saving the Earth” (October/November), Chris Wood presents several market-based strategies Canada might adopt to turn things around. But how much hope should we be placing in these types of policies? A review of the famed Wetland Mitigation Banking market in the US, for example, found that only three of twelve banks successfully met the scientific standards of a functioning wetland, with four described as “shallow dead pools.” Even if such projects were successful, they would only end up shifting the site of environmental destruction from one place to another. These projects do little to remedy the overarching problem Wood identifies at the outset: our use and abuse of the planet is outstripping its ability to replenish itself.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that bringing in payments for ecosystem services in some countries (including Paraguay and Papua New Guinea) leads to community unrest, as new conflicts arise over who should receive such payments, and whose ideas about how best to use the land (e.g., carbon storage or subsistence agriculture) will prevail. We’re talking about enormously unequal political playing fields, and tricky questions about who wins, who loses, and who decides do not magically disappear by moving to economic incentives or markets. Good environmental policy requires democratic governance of public goods, a goal that must not be reduced to “voting” with our cash or paying people to live as we want them to.
Wood’s historical analysis posits that environmental destruction can be chalked up to “a century of accounting error.” Surely there’s more to the problem than missing a line for the environment in our ledgers. Economic historian Karl Polanyi argued some time ago in his classic The Great Transformation that any attempt to “disembed” markets from their social context or use the price mechanism alone to fix problems will be doomed to failure. There are two reasons: land (by which Polanyi meant nature) does not respond to prices, and social demands cannot be fully expressed by them.
This brings us to one of the more dismaying turns in Wood’s article, which begins with a quote by ubc professor Bill Rees to the effect that humans are motivated to change only when faced with catastrophe or price increases. As Rees himself knows, this kind of reductionism — characterizing society as a collection of individual utility maximizing calculators — is a poor foundation for any understanding of the human condition, let alone for policy approaches to the dire environmental problems we now face.
Chris Wood suggests we add to classic economic theory a fourth pillar that accounts for our ecological footprint (“The Business of Saving the Earth,” October/November). It is hard to argue with this logic. However, he fails to address the critical role that one of the existing pillars plays in our “hurtling around the sun on a spaceship whose life-support system is grinding toward meltdown” — namely, labour.
Canada may export its ecological footprint to the developing world, but the cost is returned in human capital seeking the same material security that created the ecological imbalance in the first place. While Wood despairs of the sprawl around Toronto that chews up brook and field, he doesn’t mention that Canada’s high rate of legal immigration, used as an economic tool to keep the labour pool fluid, is responsible for approximately 66 percent of anticipated population growth. New inhabitants need space to live, and thus they consume the hinterlands.
Some day, left-wing environmental economists are going to have to confront the very real and politically ugly truth that immigration is a major component of the growth patterns wreaking ecological destruction in this country and elsewhere. It is such a significant factor, in fact, that it must form the baseline of all other ecological accounts.
T. Scott Low
Greed Is Good
At its peak in 2006, the US housing market was excessively influenced by an investment motive — the kind of impulse Charles Montgomery considered in “Grim Repo” (October/November). It wasn’t just the investors, mind you, but also people who planned on living in the homes they bought but were driven more by the expectation of rising values than by their actual housing needs. According to my calculations, around 20 percent of sales were attributable to the investment motive. Now, with prices in decline, the inverse of the investment motive is producing a downward spiral of the market, with US housing sales approximately 40 percent lower than they would otherwise be. The inventory surplus must be reduced before there is any hope of stabilization. So, for the next while, the vultures described in Montgomery’s article may be the best real hope for bringing the US housing market back into balance.
Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals
Small-town culture is a culture of prejudice, and my little corner of small-town Canada is no different. We are prejudiced against the unknown. But as Guy Saddy expertly explored in “The First Little Mosque on the Prairie” (October/November), this behaviour cannot be sustained face to face.
Like the Muslims in Saddy’s story, new Asian immigrants in my town are learning to fit into our decidedly non-urban culture, while many long-time residents are dropping their naturally defensive stance toward anything foreign. As Saddy suggests, it is often the little things, like food, that bring us together. Recently, our first sushi restaurant opened. Hopefully, it will not be the last.
Canada is a young country, founded on multiculturalism. Perhaps the time will come when every town will have a mosque, a Buddhist temple, and a synagogue within walking distance of the good old Catholic church.
“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Email us at [email protected] or write to 101–19 Duncan Street, Toronto, ON m5h 3h1. Letters may be edited for length, clarity, and accuracy, and may be published in any medium (including your dinner plate in gluten-free Alphabetti Spaghetti).