March 31, 2003
Earlier this year, several days after a lengthy interview with a writer for a weekly news magazine, I received a puzzled e-mail. "How would you describe yourself politically?" the writer asked. "Do you lean towards the left or the right?"
It was an understandable question. We had been talking about Environment Probe’s approach to water. Probe stresses the importance of stronger government regulation in achieving safe drinking water and clean sewage – a typically left-wing solution. But we also advocate bringing private-sector capital and expertise to our troubled water utilities ?an approach more often associated with those on the right.
As you may recall, our campaign for clean and safe water isn’t the first time we’ve stymied those trying to pigeon-hole us. We’ve advocated free trade … as a way of forcing Canada’s environmental standards to rise to the levels required by superior US laws. We’ve promoted stronger property rights … to empower native people who are fighting hydroelectric dams. Such outside-the-box thinking has left many scratching their heads, unable to assign us to one ideological camp or another.
We’re proud that we can’t be labelled. Frankly, we don’t find the distinction between left and right very useful any more. Too often, embracing a particular ideology hinders the search for the best solution. The problems we face – the poisoning of our waters, the destruction of our forests and fisheries – are too important to approach with a limited set of tools. Why restrict ourselves to politically correct solutions, whether promoted by the left or the right?
Our refusal to fit into pre-conceived notions of left and right doesn’t mean that we aren’t guided by a clear vision of the world. In fact, our foundation recently articulated a set of principles that reflect what we have learned from decades of analysing the root causes of environmental destruction. If you’d like us to send you a copy of our principles, please check off the appropriate box on your response coupon.
One theme that infuses our principles – and our projects – is the empowerment of individuals and communities. In my 1995 book, Property Rights in the Defence of Nature, I explained, "Our experiences over a quarter century have taught us the value that ordinary citizens place on their land, water, and other resources and their natural roles as environmental stewards. Individuals and communities who depend on resources understand their workings and know their limits. Since they would have to live with changes, their self-interest motivates them to protect their resources. But they need tools with which to do so."
Much of our work involves developing such tools. Whether we are arguing that fishermen need greater control over their fisheries or that residents of agricultural communities need stronger defences against polluting neighbours, we are proposing a powerful tool for environmental protection: empowerment.
Whether couched in the language of "power to the people" or "property rights," the principle of empowerment is increasingly attracting those from both ends of the political spectrum. Naomi Klein, writing recently in the Globe and Mail about the new left and the World Social Forum, described "a clear pattern to the alternatives that emerged. Politics had to be less about trusting well-meaning leaders, and more about empowering people to make their own decisions … For a left that had tended to look to centralized state solutions to solve almost every problem, this emphasis on decentralization and direct participation was a breakthrough."
We applaud such breakthroughs and hope that you do, too. If you share our vision of a future governed not by outdated notions of left and right but by principles that will bring lasting environmental protection, please support our work with a generous donation. We deeply appreciate your past assistance and hope that we continue to earn your confidence and support.