Economy versus environment: What gap?

Terence Corcoran
Globe and Mail

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ONE of the more insuffera­ble myths of the environ­ment movement is the be­lief that there is a large gap between the environment and the economy that only environmental­ists can bridge. The second myth is that the gap is so vast that we need a wholesale reworking of the eco­nomic system and sweeping new government controls and regula­tions.

That’s the essence of sustainable development, the great socialist model for global environmental planning and control that now domi­nates official policy making across Canada. The idea is that the eco­nomic and business world is a sepa­rate sphere that fails to account for the environment, and therefore must be subjected to a juggernaut of new laws and bureaucratic master plans.

The existence of this mythical en­vironment-economy gap was re­cently decried by Frederick P. Gale in. a letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail. Mr. Gale, who generously — although inaccurately, I thought — referred to me as “an eco-hostile Neanderthal,” made the following observation:

“Business people and economists inhabit an economic world devoted to encouraging investment, maxi­mizing efficiency and enhancing global competitiveness. Environ­mentalists, on the other hand, in­habit the world of nature, and devote themselves to protecting endangered wildlife, preventing ozone depletion and combating pollution. This divi­sion of the world into two separate spheres is antiquated, dangerous and absurd.”

Hear, hear . . . but. The trouble with Mr. Gale’s assessment is that it is he and devoted environmental ac­tivists, rather than us eco-hostile Neanderthals, who are fostering and reinforcing this dangerous and ab­surd division.

Across Canada and around the world, environmentalists are turning economic decision making into gang warfare. It seems as if every tree cut­ting or mine project, every trade pact or housing development, now pre­cipitates hostile confrontation be­tween segments of society that want growth and others that want to stop growth, between the economic and the environmental.

The vast majority of environmen­talists, as they ply their trade today, are essentially fomenting this dan­gerous — and artificial — division, driving an even deeper wedge be­tween the economy and the environ­ment, all the while missing the point: There is no inherent gap between the economy and the environment. And to the extent that there is a gap, it is an artificial one created by the very peo­ple the environmentalists are now enlisting to legislate a clean environ­ment and sustainable growth: governments, politicians and bureaucrats.

The natural link between the econ­omy and the environment is prop­erty rights. Canada’s economic and legal system is founded on property rights, rights that serve to guarantee a pollution-free environment, in­cluding clean rivers and lakes and clean air.

But these property rights are slowly being eroded. Governments, the institutions least able to maintain the environment, have been expro­priating property rights for decades, passing laws and regulations that give politicians and bureaucrats, rather than property owners, control over the environment. One law after another has stripped individuals, groups, and corporations of their rights to property.

This legislated destruction of rights has created the current envi­ronmental messes that exist here and there around the world. For exam­ple, Canada’s principal rivers and lakes were once pollution-free, and protected by property rights. But over the years the governments took control over water resources, passed laws that took away those property rights, and then virtually turned riv­ers and lake into licenced dumping grounds into which to flush toilet and industrial waste.

A more detailed exploration of the great state takeover of water and property rights, and the resulting environmental disaster, will follow in tomorrow’s column.

In the meantime, consider the fol­lowing brief example, provided by Elizabeth Brubaker, director of pol­icy research at Environment Probe. In 1949, the Supreme Court ordered a pulp and paper mill in Espanola, Ont., to stop polluting downstream waters because the property rights of fishermen, farmers, and tourist oper­ators were threatened. In response, the government of Ontario passed laws allowing pulp companies to re­lease chemicals into the water, deny­ing citizens and other corporations their property rights.

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