Mixed messages and false starts

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, January 2011

Current economic models need serious retooling.

In Kenya, like everywhere else around the globe, the natural landscape continues to erode under the relentless pressure of urban encroachment. From a safari van in Nairobi National Park, home of some of the biggest and grandest animals in the world, you can now see the high-rises of Nairobi shimmering in the distance. Such trespass is not easily curbed because the city is the heart and hope of the country’s struggling economy. As a result, the park seems destined to shrivel to a bleak inner city greenway with little more to offer than the novelty of a few caged animals bumping around in one corner.

But a park conservation group has crunched a few numbers and offers the premise that a single lion in the wild has the capacity to pour about a million tourist dollars into the coffers of Kenya every year. Well, once you realize that the people filling the hotels have come specifically to see the lions, you naturally begin scrutinizing the quick-buck logic that would destroy the wildlife to make way for more hotels.  

Globe-hop to Victoria where we also walk a fine, if somewhat less dramatic, line between the considerable assets of our natural surroundings and the enterprise that continuously taxes that inventory. We talk about safeguarding our environment—the one thing we can keep selling and reselling to our tourists—but seem hamstrung when it comes to factoring its protection into our economic models. No doubt that’s partially because the exchange of currency, goods, services and power is so frenetic and convoluted that the effect on anything other than the commerce itself seems too complex to work into the formula. But it’s also because the powers that actually could instigate some serious retooling prefer the current business model and its more straightforward profit margin.

An Angus Reid poll conducted in 2010 revealed that 66 percent of Canadians believe the federal government is “paying too little attention” to the environment. Based on the way these numbers usually go, it’s safe to assume the local level of discontent is at least that high. Yet we can’t seem to get anything done that would secure the integrity of at least some part of the environment for ourselves and future generations. Perhaps we have no idea where to begin. Perhaps we’re not actually willing to give up anything in our own lifestyle and are waiting for others to come up with painless solutions. You know, like inventing a cheap, non-polluting fuel substitute that will still let me drive my SUV just for the fun of it.

Perhaps the false starts keep us demoralized. Last October, for example, the owner of the E&N rail corridor asked Via Rail to consider offering a daily round-trip commuter service from Nanaimo to Victoria by simply reversing its current schedule. Because the train and infrastructure are already in place, this seemed a brilliantly feasible way to pare down both highway congestion and CO2 emissions. But, smart idea be damned; just a month later another agenda put the kibosh on the whole thing by voting the tracks right off the new Johnson Street Bridge.

The mixed messages are annoying too, and they come from all directions. We should consume less and re-use what we have. But we should buy more to stimulate the economy. We should preserve trees—unless we become developers who seem to be able to cut them down indiscriminately. (A patch of forest in my neighbourhood was almost completely denuded last year to make way for a four-house project currently underway.)

We should drive less. But look at all the slick ads for the slew of cars coming out of what has to be the ultimate born-again industry.

We should eat more locally grown food. But the stuff that gets lugged here from the other side of the world is still the cheaper option on the shelf. 

And so it goes, from one inconsistency to the next. Clearly we’ve yet to factor the lion into our economic model. But the time for that is coming, the time for appraising our treasures while we still have them in abundance. Our visitors already know the value of our giant firs and cedars, pristine air, rolling hills, pastoral tranquility and magnificent views in every direction. It’s time we did as well.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a writer, mother and Master Gardener. Her books include People in Transition and Ernie Coombs: Mr Dressup (both from Fitzhenry & Whiteside).