06/12/2012 07:56 EDT | Updated 08/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Striking an Environmental Balance

We need a balance between ecology and economics, between the effects of the tar sands and the money it makes. However, this approach does not conform to the narrow and myopic world view of the Harper Conservatives. The Conservative majority rests on less than 40 per cent of the vote, yet for them this justifies demonizing and dismissing the other 60-plus per cent.

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There needs to be a balanced approach to economic development, one that accounts for monetary and ecological benefits and costs, one that values economic diversity and is not beholden to one sector.

Unfortunately, this is not the approach of the federal Conservatives, who have taken narrow-mindedness in this regard to a dangerous extreme. In their obsessive focus on the oil industry, Conservatives have pushed forward controversial projects -- such as the proposed northern gateway pipeline through British Columbia -- ignoring concerns in the province about health, safety and environmental impact. Opponents of the pipeline have been condemned by the Harper Conservatives as "foreign interveners" thus refusing them legitimacy in public discourse.

The Conservative majority rests on less than 40 per cent of the vote, yet for them this justifies demonizing and dismissing the other 60-plus per cent.

Wrapped up in the Conservative budget bill is a re-write of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act that weakens the environmental review process under the guise of "streamlining," and shuts out citizen's groups from the environmental review process. These provisions would expedite controversial projects such as the British Columbia pipeline where there is significant public opposition as well as very real questions about the effects on pristine natural landscapes and the health and safety of residents in populated areas through which the pipeline would pass.

What's especially concerning about the provisions in the budget bill is the $8-million allocated to the Canada Revenue Agency to audit charities for advocacy activities -- a major affront to freedom of speech on environmental issues and an attempt to stifle dissenting voices.

These concerns were summed up by the Suzuki Foundation in the following statement,

"Over the past few months, the environmental laws that protect our nation's extraordinary natural legacy -- our air, water, land and the web of life -- have been gutted. At the same time, those who want to protect this natural legacy have been the targets of an unprecedented and organized effort to discredit, disenfranchise and silence their voices."

For the Harper Conservatives, the interests of the oil industry seem to take precedence over fundamental rights like free speech as dissenting voices are stifled and demonized to pursue an ideologically driven agenda. The Conservatives do not want any dissenting narratives to interfere with their myopic view on economic development, nor face up to facts -- such as the realities of climate change and negative ecological impacts -- that would deny this ideological narrative.

When dissenting voices are stifled and demonized to pursue a narrow-minded agenda, the consequences can be disastrous. The demonizing of opposition to the British Columbia pipeline is reminiscent of U.S. Republican tactics of accusing opponents of being "un-American."

The darkening of websites -- the "blackout speakout" campaign which included all four opposition parties, First Nations, and a range of environmental and humanitarian NGOs -- was in reaction to the Conservatives' tactics. It is essential that dissenting voices, on environmental conservation and issues such as the tar sands and the British Columbia pipeline, be heard.

The value of these dissenting opinions is seen, for example, in comments by author and consultant Jeremy Rifkin. He has raised concerns about Canada becoming too resource-dependent by focusing on the tar sands and losing out on new economic opportunities such as renewable sources of energy. "This is a really, really historic mistake," states Rifkin, "[Canada] could potentially become a second-tier country."

Properly accounting for the ecological side of the equation can bring great monetary and quality of life benefits. An example that is relevant, even though not directly related to the tar sands, is the Greenbelt in Ontario where urban and suburban development is restricted in the greenbelt zone around Greater Toronto and the urbanized "Golden Horseshoe" along the western shores of Lake Ontario.

The purpose of this greenbelt is to protect forests, natural areas, and farm land from suburban sprawl. A report by the David Suzuki Foundation has estimated the monetary benefits of this green belt as being at $1-billion per year. In particular, watersheds protected by the greenbelt absorb and filter pollutants from waterways and drinking water sources as well as control the flow of water during storms.

Additionally, in curbing sprawl, the greenbelt promotes more sustainable urban development where there is less strain on infrastructure such as hydro and transportation where costs can become prohibitive with more spread out developments.

This is a debate relevant in New Brunswick with concerns about the need to conserve wetland areas being raised -- one example being the University Woods in Fredericton which helps prevent floodwaters (from heavy rains) from running down the hill to the city's downtown (also, in the case of the Fredericton University Woods, there are concerns about the need to curb sprawl).

There needs to be a proper debate around economic development, and overall an approach to economic development that factors in ecological, public health, and quality of life aspects. However, this approach does not conform to the narrow and myopic world view of the Harper Conservatives. That they would not only ignore dissenting voices in this regard, but demonize and even suppress them, is especially worrying for our country as a whole.