Feature

The Global Green Shift

A field report from the front lines of ecological economics

Photograph by Colin Faulkner
Bruce Peninsula, Lake Huron, Bruce County, ON.

When I was a boy, our family owned a summer cottage on Georgian Bay. It was a small, glass-fronted box set on a sweep of grey-pink granite scoured smooth by long-gone ice. Juniper and Scotch pine dug their toes into the rock in front, and behind us a few hardy oaks held arthritic fingers to the wind. It was there that I first heard the dry buzz a massasauga rattlesnake makes when it vibrates the hollow scales at the tip of its tail. My father promptly beat the unfortunate serpent to death with a shovel.

Over the next few seasons, other rattlesnakes met a similar bad end on our property. But then our perceptions began to change. In addition to their being endangered, it dawned on us that these elegantly garbed reptiles helped control the mice whose annual winter break-ins left rice-sized black droppings to be swept up each spring from kitchen drawers and cupboard corners. We began, that is, to appreciate the snakes’ service as well as their menace (more theoretical than real, in any event). By the end of my youth, any rattler that visited was captured gingerly in a bucket and relocated deeper within the island.

A similar change of outlook is occurring across our entire society. We are rethinking our perceptions of nature, and our place in it. It is dawning on us that we are neither masters of nature nor its victims, but merely another of its artifacts; that its fate is ours. The dark forest of folk tale, the bottomless natural bounty of Canada’s founding myths, are being revealed for what they are: a biophysical web as essential to humans as to any other animal. And when we look, we see that this web is rapidly unravelling.

Sometime in mid-September, our species will blast through “Earth Overshoot Day,” the date when we will have consumed all of the natural goods and services, from fish to trees, that our planet takes twelve months to produce. For the remainder of 2008, we will live off the dwindling stock of earlier years’ production. We’ve been doing this for a larger part of every year since the late 1980s: living on eco-credits, giving scant thought to reducing our ecological spending or paying down our overdraft. Now the bill has come due. Drought ravages a third of the planet; deserts annually devour twice as much farmland as they did thirty years ago. Biodiversity is fraying, and the fresh water that sustains both it and us can no longer be taken for granted. Our species is hurtling around the sun on a spaceship whose life-support system is grinding toward meltdown. Houston, we have a problem.

Are we at least enjoying the ride? As it turns out, not so much. During the past half century, rising incomes have brought the rich world no measurably greater joy in life. For some groups, notably women, the sense of well-being has actually waned. As wealthy as we may be in North America, people in Nigeria and El Salvador report greater contentment. To the amusement, no doubt, of long-departed sages, we are discovering yet again that man does not live by iPod alone, that no amount of stuff can fill that gnawing hole in the soul where happiness might take root.

This is causing even some of the hardest heads among us to question whether the metrics on which we have gauged our communal and corporate progress for more than fifty years now, those abstractions variously labelled as the gross domestic product and the bottom line, are leading us toward paradise or perdition. A few visionaries even posit an altogether new measure of how we’re doing, one they have the temerity to call an “index of genuine progress.” If they are right, almost everything we thought we knew about keeping track of our economy, businesses, politics, and relationship to nature may turn out to have been seriously misguided. The good news is that we may at last be on the right track.

None too soon, a group of dissenters has stood back from balance-sheet fundamentalism and adopted a new approach. They call it “ecological economics,” a phrase acknowledging that in terms of social, economic, biological, and environmental matters, we really are all in this together. Canada has been slower to act on this insight than some other countries. But even here the facts are becoming undeniable. Despite our vast landscape, it’s clear we have few fresh fields to plow or lakes to pump. Especially in our most populous regions, we must now learn to work with what we have—perhaps with less.

Plainly we have been counting the wrong things and putting our efforts in the wrong places. What, then, if we counted things differently? To see where that might lead, I travelled first to one of the most remote and superficially backward places on the continent: the Sierra Gorda in central Mexico.

going long in good works

You could fly from Mexico City to the heart of the Sierra Gorda in forty-five minutes, if only you could land a plane anywhere in its 3,800 square kilometres of buckled mountain ridges and plunging ravines. Instead it’s a four-hour bus ride from the nearest city, Querétaro, over a blacktop that climbs through corkscrew turns and hangs over vertiginous scenery until it drops into Jalpan, the Spanish mission town at the heart of the reserve. Near the highest summits are stands of Douglas fir and aspen; along the sierra’s eastern flank, jaguar and puma prowl one of Mexico’s last old-growth stands. Scores of other endangered species, from salamanders to dazzling macaws, find refuge in cloud-forest waterfalls and the many species of oak in its drier western cascades. Mexico designated this magical region a national protected area a decade ago, and the United Nations conferred world biosphere reserve status on it. But actually preserving the Sierra Gorda’s ecology has been much tougher. Some 100,000 people live in the region and own 90 percent of it, most scratching a bare subsistence from its worn-out western slopes. In large measure, it is a private property reserve, a place with special status and international recognition, but one where ground truth is still driven by the prosaic needs and interests of its inhabitants.

Two hours from the highway, over a track that in places fades to bare rock, I meet Doña Juanita. A resilient stump of a matriarch four feet tall in straw hat, grey skirt, and worn black loafers, she shares a small compound of wood and adobe huts with her daughter and granddaughter. Their homes on a windy promontory provide a stunning view into shadowed clefts below. We sit in their open-air kitchen, while the two younger women serve tumblers of cloudy agua dulce de maguey. The agave juice ferments into pulque, the home-brewed ur-tequila that relieves and perpetuates the poverty of so many households here. Fresh, it tastes like smoky coconut milk. Bowls of peppery, tomato red broth laced with golden egg yolk strings, and palm-sized tortillas hot from the fire follow. The whole meal, I guessed, grew within thirty metres of this spare home.

For all its beauty, the sierra gives up little to humans without hard effort. Many families keep small herds of thin cattle, whose sharp hooves and voracious appetite for acorns ravage the hillsides. Fields are scratched into slopes as steep as fifty degrees. Burros carry water from a spring at the bottom of the valley up to the family’s compound. Doña Juanita’s grandson once shared the chores with his sister, but like most working-age males in the region he left to find easier, better-paying work in the city. Other young men slip into America. They may be escaping too soon; life and nature here are showing modest improvements. A new solar panel on the roof keeps the canciones coming from a radio, hillsides are being reclaimed by flourishing stands of young pine, and the valley spring has greatly improved. Its flow is clear again, and more reliable.

Martin Granadero, a field manager for one of the ngos the Mexican government hires to care for the reserve, leads me on a ten-minute hike uphill from the restored spring. In the small valley’s upper reaches, hillsides long scored by erosion are now contoured with sinuous terraces, where buffalo grass and pine seedlings take root behind newly planted maguey. “In five years, there won’t be any bare ground here at all,” Granadero says. “In ten years, it will be another world.” Already the stabilized slopes capture far more water for the valley spring, and contaminate streams downhill with far less sediment.

The remote valley’s recovery owes much to the way Mexico has moved past the notion that ecological and social values are necessarily antagonistic to economic ones, and realized instead the urgent need to get the former onto the books of the latter. In 2003, the government recognized that the Sierra Gorda is one of the irreplaceable “water factories” that supply the country’s growing cities and 109 million people. With this in mind, it began distributing $500,000 a year to farmers in upland regions, where rain is captured in streams. Through non-profit groups like Granadero’s employer, Bosque Sustentable, the payments are worth up to $40 a year for every hectare a farmer (or ejido collective) agrees to protect from wandering livestock, fire, and foragers. When the program was renewed earlier this year, its goals expanded to restoring biodiversity. Farmers now must also safeguard their woodlots from poachers.

Such eco-payments are increasingly mainstream outside Canada. Costa Rica and Panama also pay landowners to manage their properties for water production. The European Union, New Zealand, and Australia remunerate farmers for a variety of ecological services, including maintaining biodiversity. The United States’ Conservation Reserve Program spends $1.8 billion a year, giving farmers an average $50 an acre to restore native vegetation along watercourses, among other activities. Helpfully for trading nations, treaties protect such compensation from sanction in what is called a “green box.” Coined by the World Trade Organization, the term has nothing to do with nature, only with permission, as in a traffic light. But the permission is important: because eco-service payments are viewed as legitimate transactions, not baleful subsidies, wto member countries may introduce them without fear of trade retaliation.

Meanwhile, Bosque Sustentable and its parent, Grupo Ecológico, have discovered markets beyond water for the Sierra Gorda’s eco-services. Citing science confirming that young forests capture carbon, Grupo Ecológico has sold carbon offsets to organizations that want to bolster their green bona fides, such as the Triple Bottom Line Investment forum. The money goes directly to the locals who own the forest land. And Grupo has even bigger plans for a “boutique carbon package” with social and environmental elements. Research is under way to quantify precisely how great an improvement in water supply, rare-species habitat, and rural living conditions investors can claim with each unit of the product they buy.

we all live downstream

The exhausted hills of rural Mexico may seem a world apart from rich, prosperous Canada. But look again. Canada’s prime agricultural land would fit into an area not much larger than Montana, a state with less than one-thirtieth of our population. Unwitnessed by urbanites, the soils on which Canada’s harvests rely are being exhausted five to fifteen times faster than they are being replenished. If our industrial parks generally seem cleaner than their Chinese counterparts, it is mainly because we’ve been off-loading our most polluting businesses, even our electronic trash, to Asia. If you include the portion of our ecological footprint we export, the average Canadian uses four to five times our per capita share of the earth’s natural services. Put another way, it would take four or five planets to give every human our lifestyle of flat-screen TVs, big box stores, and drive-thru donut shops—more in places like southern Ontario, Montreal Island, and BC’s Lower Mainland, where we are most densely packed.

Across North America, the housing boom of the new century has exposed the zero-sum nature of our most critical landscapes. For the majority of us, those aren’t the roadless tracts at the top of the Dominion map or the deserts of Nevada. Rather, they’re the green spaces that begin just beyond the last model home. And, as with the Sierra Gorda, most of those green spaces belong to someone and are already fully occupied.

Two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, have wielded their legal fiats to declare no-go zones for development around their biggest cities. The newest, Ontario’s 7,300-square-kilometre greenbelt, fish-hooks west from the Niagara River around Toronto and back east as far as Cobourg. Inside it, the wheat and corn fields where I biked as a teenager have mostly disappeared beneath spray-on communities branding themselves as tranquil oases insulated from the noisy complexity of urban living. Beyond the greenbelt, real estate companies have already banked much of the unprotected farmland for future leapfrog development.

Carol Cowan and her husband, Ken Anderson, live just outside the greenbelt in the stone house Carol’s great-grandfather bought in 1874. They moved to the 80-hectare farm southwest of Waterloo four years ago when Carol’s father turned eighty-seven. Ken commutes to a Toronto law practice; Carol raises calves organically. “We didn’t want the farm to go out of the family, and we didn’t want it to become part of the housing development going on as a result of the Toyota plant down the road,” Carol told me last spring. Serene in a blue denim smock under a halo of short white hair, she had just delivered the first of some fifty calves she would midwife over the coming days.

Ontario’s greenbelt, like BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve, was drawn on the map of the politically possible. Nature’s map follows a different terrain. The creek that crosses the pasture behind Carol Cowan’s weathered brown barn, like scores of other brooks trickling over southern Ontario’s farm country, is the functional equivalent of Mexico’s mountain “water factory.” It collects nature’s supply of rain and snow from the couple of hundred hectares of farmland it drains, and delivers it to the Nith River, a kilometre down the concession road. Along with the waters of other creeks, the Nith flows into the Grand River. More than 800,000 residents in the surrounding four counties rely mainly on the Grand for water; 500,000 more are expected to join them by 2030. The importance of the creek coursing through Cowan’s pasture land to their future is no less for its being excluded from the official greenbelt.

Nor does inclusion in the agricultural greenbelt keep the capillaries of Ontario’s water factory from becoming clogged. When cattle gather at a creek to drink, they churn the banks to mud. Fields worked to the water’s edge afford no shade for cool-water-loving native fish. Rain that falls on soils laced with fertilizers or pesticides becomes infused with them from furrow to stream. All three factors contribute to the dead zones that have returned to Lake Erie, to which the Grand River contributes a quarter of Canada’s share.

Ontario’s Grand River Conservation Authority enjoys a reputation as a leading model of watershed governance. Like Mexico, it’s been taking a little of the money it receives to maintain recreational areas and manage the river, and giving it to farmers to help keep the basin’s water capillaries clean. Carol and Ken received about $5,000 to erect fences along their creek to keep cattle a few metres back from the bank. Inside the fences, the authority planted a hundred burr oak, silver maple, and tamarack saplings that are now growing future shade. Despite her pro-conservation leanings, the fourth-generation farmer swallowed hard before agreeing to give up any of her working land to creekside repair. “People whose income comes solely from their farms,” Carol says, “[are] going to need to get a lot of money to change.”

And more change will be needed. Ontario has already lost many of its water-capturing capillaries. Some eighty species at risk live in the Grand River watershed, along creeks like the one Cowan maintains. But it would take only one farmer upstream or down who doesn’t buy into the same standard of stewardship to undo her good work.

I asked the conservation authority’s Martin Neumann whether enough of southern Ontario’s natural water factories were being preserved to carry its bursting suburbs through the summer droughts that are growing longer and more frequent. “No,” he replied. “We’d better crank it up, significantly.”

dozing by satellite

Flying across the country, the Prairies seem comparatively wide-open, virgin territory. But touch down in Winnipeg and drive west, and you are soon disabused of this impression. Here, too, almost every inch of the Prairie Pothole Region is spoken for. The shallow marshes and vernal pools that give the area its name shelter the deer, waterfowl, and less-charismatic creatures whose variety is the definition of biodiversity. And like riverbanks farther east, they protect watercourses and communities downstream from the leakage of industrial agriculture. The same runoff cocktail depleting oxygen in Lake Erie contributes to soupy blooms of blue-green algae in Lake Winnipeg. But with grain prices up at last, many farmers eye the income locked beneath the few remaining sloughs and fire up the dozers. Potholes are shrinking fast, both in number and size.

“There was more brush broken last winter than I’ve seen in many years,” Cam Henry told me one spring morning as we sat in his tidy farm office, forty-five minutes northwest of Brandon, Manitoba. Henry’s granddaughters, aged two and three, could one day be the fifth generation of the family to work the land. This operation is on another scale than Cowan’s: about 1,700 cultivated hectares produce seed barley, wheat, canola, and flax. After breaking and draining most of the farm’s potholes over the years, the Henrys have left 200 or so hectares of slough, creek bottom, and woodlots untouched—for now. But piles of new slash down the road are a ready reminder that their neighbours continue to drain the prairie.

There’s an understandable eagerness to take advantage of the return of good grain prices, but that’s not the only change threatening the potholes that remain. There’s technology, too. “Automated steering,” Henry tells me. “It’s run off satellite, and it’s driving machinery for us. You go to the end of the field, you turn it on, it goes to the other end of the field; it’ll turn itself around and come back. But it wants to run in straight lines. Every time you come to an obstacle, you have to turn it off. You can’t drive around a slough. So there is a suasion to take those things out.”

Helping Henry and some others resist that “suasion” as prices rose over the past three years was Alternative Land Use Services (alus), a one-time test program funded by the provincial and federal governments that paid farmers by the acre to drive around sensitive wetlands, keep cattle and machinery out of creeks, plant cover on steeper slopes, and leave patches of native prairie unbroken. The money was a fraction of what some of the land might have earned in crops. Indeed, with tillable acres earning $100 in profit at harvest time, Henry expects “some young guys would still break them [potholes] up at $50” an acre in eco-service fees. “It’d be ‘I don’t want to drive around it.’” Still, he contends that the payments tip the balance for many farmers like himself, who are predisposed to give a little ground to nature. But now that alus is gone, his family might take a second look at the cost of leaving 200 hectares unbroken. His question for urban Manitobans downstream: “Should we do this alone? Or are you going to help me out with it? ”

the parasite’s dilemma

Bill Rees, the University of British Columbia biologist who invented the idea of an ecological footprint, has an uncomfortable analogy for the fix we’re in: he calls it the parasite-host relationship. “The economy,” he explains, “has become parasitic on nature.” The problem for the parasite, of course, is that it can’t become so successful that it kills off its host. Then it perishes, too. Humans, he fears, may be too successful to be good parasites.

Clearly we have to stop destroying our host; saving as many of Earth’s functioning biological factories as possible is a good place to start. If cities need some of the private landscapes around them put into eco-services instead of potatoes, however, they will need to secure the cooperation of the owners and occupiers. “We prefer the system where I agree to provide you something for a period of time and you pay me for it,” says Cam Henry, likely speaking for many farmers. Indeed, paying farmers and others to cultivate nature is one way to give our host a shot at living.

But devils lurk in the details of buying and selling Nature Inc.’s product line. Ecosystems are never simple to start with. Casual observation reveals that tree-shaded, grass-banked brooks flow cooler and cleaner than streams exposed to the sun and trampled by hooves. But scientists have trouble putting a reliable number to the degree of difference a particular change in landscaping or vegetation will make to water downstream. I found nearly identical experiments under way in Manitoba and Mexico to answer that exact question.

The greater problem of low confidence in the unproven currency of any new eco-service has triggered successive crises in the world’s biggest eco-market: the $60-billion, Kyoto-mandated global trade in carbon credits. Enthusiasm for carbon trading has spawned its own ecosystem of carbon practices among financial houses. They trade in credits supposedly underwritten by tonnes of carbon removed from, or not released into, the atmosphere. Backing some are technology investments such as the proposed new carbon scrubbers. Others rest on eco-services, the capture and sequestration of carbon in forests or agricultural cover.

Vancouver consultant Aldyen Donnelly helped broker North America’s first credit sales for cropland (in Iowa), and for carbon captured at a natural gas power plant and pumped underground (in Texas). But the way the carbon marketplace emerged has left her disenchanted. Governments gave away too many credits to begin with. Vendors too often sold the carbon equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge. At best, they were what Donnelly calls “anyway tonnes,” carbon that would have become trees or switchgrass without any encouragement at all. “I believe we’re pursuing the wrong model,” she says now.

Donnelly has an intriguing alternative: ecological product standards similar to consumer protection laws that eliminated lead in gasoline, or limit how much water can be injected into processed chicken (you didn’t know?). This version would require businesses to meet or beat a target score on their product lines’ ecological footprints. Potentially modelled on the multi-scale leed score that rates new buildings according to environmental benchmarks, her eco-standard would ask industries to account for half a dozen key impacts, including carbon balance, water consumption, and effect on biodiversity. When it’s applied to a handful of big-footprint industries (cement, transportation, energy, and food all make the list), Donnelly says, “You capture about 95 percent of the problem.” Already Britain’s Tesco food chain has taken a step in this direction, promising to reveal to customers the lifetime carbon “content” in each of its tens of thousands of products.

A more prosaic way to compensate landowners for saving critical bits of ecosystem has been around for decades. When cbc cameraman Stephen Digby retired, he began to consider the future of an 80-hectare woodlot he and his wife own near Lake Simcoe in south-central Ontario. The property is unprepossessing. Malnourished second-growth balsam and juniper spread their roots over exposed limestone plates webbed in mossy duff. To a biologist, however, it’s a prime specimen of a shrinking type of rare alvar ecosystem. Digby expected some future owner would “log it off for everything that was there, and what was left would be taken over by the limestone industry.” Instead, any potential future owner will find that “everything that could be protected above the surface, under the surface, and at the surface,” as Digby puts it, belongs to the Nature Conservancy of Canada for the next 997 years. The Digbys kept the title to their property and received a tax receipt for $25,000. That’s it. Similar easements have brought an area the size of Lake Ontario under the protection of the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and other conservation trusts.

Other tax levers could do much more to influence greener choices. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy advocates a general shift in taxation away from income onto activities with a heavy ecological footprint. The federal Liberals’ proposed carbon tax would do this, but there are countless other ways to apply the idea. Why, for example, should only farmers be rewarded for giving up space to nature? Backyards are green space, too, as are wildlife migration corridors—now being lost—in urbanizing regions. Why not give a tax break to the corporate campus turned over to wild bird meadow instead of lawns?

salamanders by the acre

One way to answer the hard question of how much a particular patch of ecosystem is worth is to go out and try to build one just like it. That’s Wildlands Inc.’s game. The California-based company sells eco-credits based on a portfolio of ecosystems its 100 employees have banked from Georgia to Washington State. It earns profits on 30,000 acres occupied by such endangered species as Swainson’s hawks, kit foxes, and giant garter snakes. “We’re a convenience store source,” says sales director Jeff Mathews, a cheery guy in khakis and denim shirt. “If you buy a credit from one of our banks, you’re buying a commodity.”

Ninety minutes south of Vancouver, the i-5 traffic whines unceasingly along the base of a kilometre-and-a-half-long arrowhead of green land, where a river divides in its last rush to the sea. The former marsh was drained a century ago, and this bit was farmed until this year. Most of the rest is now the Port of Everett, commercial farmland, and a resting place for the skeletons of old construction equipment. Among the eco-services lost has been a critical layover moment in the life of chinook salmon, when young fish leaving their natal freshwater streams linger in tide-washed marshes to allow their gills to adjust to the saltier sea. This spring, as collapsing salmon stocks prompted the US to declare an unprecedented fishing ban along its west coast, Wildlands set about turning this particular farm back into salt marsh. When the transformation is complete, the company plans to sell the restored chinook habitat in the form of offset credits akin to those proposed by Grupo Ecológico.

The $3-billion market for the company’s services exists because US laws allow developers in certain cases to destroy wetlands or rare-species habitat if they create functioning substitute habitat elsewhere. Offsets are typically certified in the same or a similar ecosystem at a ratio above one to one. California kit fox habitat in Wildlands’ catalogue carries a sticker price of $5,000 to $7,000 an acre; stream habitat for giant garter snakes costs $40,000. Replacing an acre of vernal pool in one of America’s fastest-growing counties, near Sacramento, will set you back $300,000 or more.

Robert Costanza would say that all these ideas, from alus to Wildlands, are trying to do the same thing: close the accounting gap between the biophysical world and the economic one. Costanza is a fervent ecological economist. He was the first in his profession to rough-guess the global economic value of nature’s services, from waste assimilation to water provision to food supply. His sum in 1997 was $33 trillion per year, more than the world’s gdp. He believes that relationship hasn’t changed—our debt is simply bigger now—and that we must account for the Earth’s services or lose them.

The solution doesn’t lie in land-rush privatization of every lake and stream, Costanza says, but neither is it to be found entirely in government agencies. He advances a third state: “propertization” through new public institutions with property title to our natural and social-capital assets, and a fiduciary duty to preserve these assets and any wild inhabitants. Such “common asset trusts” would charge those who use our shared resources—towns, for instance, that release waste to be assimilated in rivers—and use the money to keep nature functioning. A bill modelled on Costanza’s idea (with the additional feature that it would pay citizens an annual dividend for the use of their share of the commons) is before Vermont’s General Assembly.

a new compass

Compelling all this invention is the fact that economic navigation as usual has failed us so badly—possibly fatally. Some of the most plausible narratives of how mankind will experience the century ahead run through desperate wars over dwindling resources, fought until we have reduced ourselves to numbers the planet can actually sustain. Oceanographer Andrew Weaver has his own analogy for this: he thinks we’re like one of those algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico that gorges on nutrients for hundreds of square kilometres and then collapses. This is where selective accounting has led us.

Businesses, seldom required to account even partly for benefits drawn from intact ecosystems, have little incentive either to restrain their use of them or pass on the cost to customers. As consumers, we see few sticker incentives to choose a product made at sustainable ecological cost over environmental train wrecks. The same is true for other values that make a real difference to life: the opportunity to spend time with our families even as we provide for them; the warmth we feel in greetings from our neighbours; a moment alone in a sunlit glade.

These material omissions partly account for the misdirection we’ve been getting from the main compass of conventional economics, the gdp. Sensors able to record values the gdp ignores are at the heart of the new models of economic gyroscope. They go by various names—Genuine Progress Index, for example—and all of them owe a large debt to an instrument a feudal monarch decreed should guide his 700,000 subjects in a tiny and frankly dirt-poor mountain kingdom.

I met the Canadian who helped create Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index in the felicitous surroundings of a faux British pub near his office in Victoria, BC. Michael Pennock is an epidemiologist; he studies populations. Invited to spend three months helping Bhutan’s Buddhist officials draw up a survey to determine the kingdom’s state of bliss, he found he had to recalibrate how he understood happiness. In Bhutan, he explained, “they say ‘well-being’ is something you should be able to experience on your deathbed, when your health is totally failing you.”

The Bhutanese certainly had material desires (TV and Internet have recently come to the kingdom), but their state of well-being drew from less tangible wells. Good health did make a difference after all. But so did economic security, the reliability of a livelihood more than its extravagance. Work, understood as doing something useful with your time, also made for happiness, although not if occupational obsession stole hours from parenting, community involvement, worship, or spending time in nature. Trustful communities were a less obvious but important factor.

In comparing Bhutan’s aspirations to those driving most North Americans, Pennock recalled decades of research in the US and Britain showing that neither society was any happier for the doubling of its gdp over the past half century. Casting a wry look over his own history of 60-hour workweeks, he concluded, “There is a lot of good empirical evidence that we have been going down the wrong path.”

Happiness may be a fuzzy benchmark for the Western mind, but Canada is about to get its first serious rival to the gdp. With support from the Atkinson Charitable Foundation and the patronage of Roy Romanow, a loose confederation of academics, statisticians, and other specialists has been assembling a Canadian Index of Well-Being. When launched next spring, it will attempt to triangulate our progress along no fewer than sixty-four indicators covering values from health and ecological function to civic engagement and community vitality. When we last spoke, Romanow was hoping to reduce those to a single number that would “resonate around the water cooler,” and compel a more balanced performance from Canadian leaders. “When you’re driven by straight economics,” the former Saskatchewan premier said, “you don’t take these other things into account. But if there were public acceptance of the Canadian Index of Well-Being—and ‘the ciw is up’ or the ‘ciw is down’—Canadians would want to know why. Political actors will have to tailor their policies to fit that.”

“I don’t think we’ll change our politics before we change our goals,” Robert Costanza says. “In pursuing the wrong goals, we are heading over a cliff.” But getting ourselves to give up stuff will be a hard sell if we can’t be brought to see that most of it has been a disappointment anyway.

mr. prime minister…

I’m a biologist,” says Bill Rees. “I don’t think we’re in any way exempt from the sort of negative feedback loops other species have experienced.” He tries to be equally clear sighted about what, if anything, might persuade us to change course. “The reality is that historically it’s tragedy, catastrophe, that really moves people. The only other thing that makes people change behaviour, oddly enough, is price increases.” In other words, if we don’t wish to snuff out our evolutionary experiment, we must face the true cost of preserving a functioning habitat at the checkout.

Now is the moment to call up a rescue posse unlike any other—to draft our country’s brightest ecologists, its experts on social and natural capital, its least dogmatic economists, most inventive financiers, and creative lawyers, and direct them to come up with a repair plan. Let them make what inquiries they think necessary, look at what other places have tried, but in the end devise ways for us to begin to do three things: pay in full for the eco-services we receive in every product or service we use, ensure the extra money goes to begin paying off our overdraft at the bank of nature, and permanently repair our economic guidance system. Houston, call in the bean counters!

Correcting a century of accounting error is a large task. Just bringing the services we get from ecosystems onto the books would affect every person in Canada. Some of the issues (putting a “price” on nature) are emotional. The short-term effect will be unpopular: costs will rise. Thus few politicians with ambition would accept such an assignment, and yet no honest appraisal of our situation can come to any other conclusion but that we must try.

Happily, Canada has an institution for tackling this kind of job. The prime minister should promptly call into being a Royal Commission on Sustainable Economics. He should give it no more than five years to design a fair but effective means to put our economy on a pay-as-you-go footing for nature’s services, and on track to eliminate our ecological deficit.

The next election may be fought over how to begin settling just part of our eco-tab. The Liberals would tax carbon emissions; the Tories want to cap them and trade reduction credits. This is somewhat like debating which colour to use when replacing a light bulb on Apollo 13. Beyond financial crises, beyond riots for food and the madness of King George, the prospect of losing our life-support system is the one truly existential test our society, arguably our species, will face in this quarter century. Any prime minister who does not at least prepare to meet it fails his moment in history.

the snake and i

We live, most of us, in mythology. In Canada, our myth is that we have few people and lots of geography. Just look at a map, especially all that “empty” room in the North. But our myths are giving way to new facts on the ground.

Jim Webb knows his part of our northern geography particularly well. From his home in BC’s Peace River country, it’s an eight-hour drive to meet clients in High Level, Alberta. He’s married to a Cree woman and has spent three decades consulting with First Nations on how they can secure title to their traditional territories. He’s also spent a lot of time studying the map of Alberta, and he’s noticed something. What with existing commitments to parks and forestry, expanding resource development, and the pressure to balance that activity by protecting other areas, “Alberta will not be able to set aside sufficiently large areas for conservation and return significant areas of land to First Nations.”

With that in mind, Webb’s current clients, the Little Red River Cree Nation and the Tallcree First Nation, propose what may be Canada’s largest eco-sale to date. They already hold provincial permits to log 15,000 square kilometres of Crown forest and muskeg wetland astride the Peace River, east of High Level. They’re asking Alberta to alter those permits: to let them do less logging and instead protect old-growth forests sheltering wood bison and caribou. The bands estimate the change will cost them $2.5 million to $5 million a year in net income. They think managing the land to preserve its biodiversity and other ecological services should be worth roughly the same amount. They suggest that oil companies could underwrite an arm’s-length trust fund that would monitor the health of the land and issue cheques to the Cree.

Garry Mann thinks it’s a hell of an idea. He oversees environmental compliance for oil and gas middleweight Nexen Inc. The company extracts deep-bed unconventional crude and operates a heavy-oil upgrader. Mann agrees that Alberta should sequester more land from development, even that oil companies should pay for it as a cost of doing business. “Sooner or later, our public accounts do need to monetize the value clean air and clean water provide to a society. My hope is that it would happen sooner rather than later.”

I now live in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley, a place a casual visitor could easily mistake for Eden. Our wooded slopes and emerald fields seem unspoiled. Our communities are comfortable, if not opulent. There is a mild bustle of development, but not the galloping sprawl that has swallowed the Ontario of my childhood. Yet the casual visitor would be wrong. Logged land is being repurposed as acreage lots, forcing wildlife into dwindling refuges. Warmer days have so reduced our major river that some autumns the salmon cannot pass the gravel bar at its mouth. Despite greater integration than elsewhere, the Cowichan Tribes’ claim to much of the valley remains unsatisfied. And the rumble of distant food riots and rumours of peak oil echo even here.

We face what every Canadian community does in this century. We understand we have almost reached the hard bottom of our treasure chest of resources. We are recognizing that “growth” alone does not lead to paradise; perhaps the opposite is true. With a little more honesty, we may see in time the wisdom of the Bhutanese, and of the ages. To speak just for myself, I am coming to understand that my place in the garden is only as secure as the serpent’s.

Chris Wood wrote Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America (2008), which was nominated for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.