February 27, 2003
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One spring day five years ago and a few thousand kilometers away, Elizabeth Brubaker saw the signpost to a new environmentalism. She had flown to the UK in March, 1997, to study what had happened to that nation’s water supply since the industry had been privatized. As the executive director of the Toronto-based advocacy group Environment Probe, she contacted an assortment of British green organizations ranging from Surfers Against Sewage to the more established Friends of the Earth.
What she heard from them was, at first, difficult to comprehend. The privatization of water and wastewater facilities in the UK eight years earlier, she was told, had provided an unexpected boon for the environment.
"Of course, I was suspicious," Brubaker explains. "I thought somebody was pulling the wool over my eyes."
A. 20-year veteran of the peace movement, Brubaker had learned one of the inviolable laws of the left: thou shalt not fraternize with big business. But she was also learning about a water system that had, prior to privatization, been struggling to make an estimated £24 million (about $56.8 million) worth of repairs and been plagued by polluted beaches.
"I was very impressed to find out investment had gone up dramatically and that enforcement had gone up as well," she says of the effects of privatization. "I started to wonder whether we could learn anything from this."
Since then, her embrace of a market-driven solution to Canada‘s water ills has helped earn her a slew of unlikely friends.
Simply put, her view is that this country’s water utilities are a disaster. Suffering from dwindling federal and provincial investment, many municipal governments such as Toronto‘s are facing multi-million dollar repairs to pipes and infrastructure over the next decade. With scant money in hand — and many water utilities suffering under poor management — the answer seems clear: local governments should invite private water companies in, and do it fast.
To Brubaker, the Walkerton disaster is a textbook example of how governments have failed to provide proper regulation or enforcement of environmental laws. The solution, she believes, is to let government regulate, and water companies operate. It’s an opinion she has expanded and refined in two books and numerous op-ed pieces in the Financial Post, The Wall Street Journal and Alberta Report.
Her latest book, Liquid Assets: Privatizing and Regulating Canada’s Water Utilities, published in fall, 2002, is a rigorously researched treatise that should get her scratched off the Christmas-card list of every self-respecting tree hugger.
"She’s very smart, but she’s kind of a one-woman campaign on this particular issue," says Sarah Miller of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, who’s wrangled with Brubaker in the past. "I don’t know anyone who is allied with her on full-scale privatization — except perhaps the international water companies."
It’s imputations like this that Brubaker has come to expect. On the day we meet at her office in the Annex, Brubaker is radiating a caginess that comes from years spent defending her opinions.
"I can’t really think of anybody offhand in Canada who has even looked at water privatization issues," she says, adding that she has never received "a penny" from private water firms.
Boasting staunch activist credentials (she began in social housing, then aligned herself with the US-based Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy during the Reagan era), she emigrated to Canada after attending the University of Toronto in the ’70s. Her tenure at Environment Probe began in 1987 as a lobbyist. In 1994, she became executive director.
Environment Probe is the most visible branch of a larger think-tank called the Energy Probe Research Foundation, which formed after its members split with the much-revered Pollution Probe in 1980 over ideological differences. Chief among these, says Brubaker, was a difference in opinion on the benefits of nuclear power: Pollution Probe originally hailed it as a clean energy alternative, while those in her camp were strongly against it.
Since then, her radical approaches to standard environmental policies have earned her an uncomfortable position somewhere between hard left and far right. While Brubaker has been outspoken about water privatization, her organization has championed a number of green causes over its 12-year history. Some, such as their recent efforts to eliminate subsidies to Canadian lumber companies, seem to adhere to a free-market ethos. Others, like their 1991 campaign to save old growth forests in British Columbia’s CarmanahValley, seem to fall in step with traditional green philosophies.
During last year’s City Hall debate over an arm’s-length water board — one that could have included private appointees — her rallying cry for even further privatization set her far apart from the standard discourse.
Brubaker’s faith in a private future for local water remains steadfast, despite the fact that Toronto city council effectively scuttled such hopes when it backed away from their water board plan last summer.
(Advocates of a public water system won that round; council opted instead to create a new committee of councillors to oversee water and wastewater issues in Toronto.)
"I no longer find the distinction between left and right useful," she says. "Many would associate my ends with the left and my means with the right…But the distinction between ends and means doesn’t really hold up. For example, I advocate stronger regulation as an important means of achieving safer drinking water and cleaner sewage- a typically left-wing solution. But I also advocate stronger property rights that would allow individuals to sue utilities that harm them or their environment — a typically right-wing solution."
While Environment Probe claims to be funded by 8,000 individual supporters, it has also accepted money from the Donner Canadian Foundation (an ally of conservative think tanks the CD. Howe Institute and The Fraser Institute) and the Michigan-based Earhart Foundation.
Sean Meagher, a member of Toronto‘s Water Watch, a coalition of labour and environmental groups that opposed changes to water management in the city of Toronto, thinks such alliances may prove to be her undoing.
"I think that any environmental group that starts making strong right-wing stances about privatization and purely market-based mechanisms is certainly going to attract the big right-wing think tanks and foundations,” he says. “They like to chase after unusual voices in support of their causes, and certainly an environmentalist with credentials that is delivering these kind of messages would be attractive to them."
As a result, he says, Brubaker’s credibility in green circles is shot. "Remember," he says, "Barbara Amiel was a progressive once, too."
Facing her detractors, Brubaker is steadfast. She accepts that certain sectors, such as the labour unions representing City of Toronto water employees, will probably never agree with her. But she still holds out hope for the likes of Miller and Meagher.
"If somebody has a strong ideological distaste for private-sector involvement in the provision of water simply because it’s private, then I’m not likely to change their minds," she says. "But I think a lot of the opposition to privatization from, say, traditional environmentalists, reflects a lack of information, or often just misinformation."
Aside from what she deems faulty reporting on water privatization in England and the US, Brubaker thinks there is faulty thinking at work as well. "Often people who oppose private involvement in water don’t think that there’s anything odd about private production of food or the private provision of housing. They would think it absurd to nationalize the entire agricultural industry to ensure that we all have safe food.
"The very people who don’t trust the private sector for water are precisely the same people who are drinking bottled water, which is provided by the private sector," she says.
As for her somewhat difficult position, she seems resigned.
"It hasn’t been easy," she says, with a laugh. "But then, change rarely is." ■