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Trudeau Foundation encourages its scholars to think big

Lively debate on humans and their environment was a highlight of the fund’s 10th annual conference.


Although Pierre Elliot Trudeau loved the simple pleasure of paddling a canoe, no one would have called him a simple man. Fittingly, the Foundation bearing his name has eclectic, dynamic and ambitious interests. Started in 2001, in honour of the erstwhile Prime Minister who had died the previous year, the Trudeau Foundation embraces the principles that he held dear, under four thematic pillars: human rights and dignity, responsible citizenship, people and their natural environment, and Canada in the world.

The Trudeau Foundation funds a broad range of thinkers, from graduate students to researchers, and brings them together for workshops, lectures and an annual conference. Tim Brodhead, Trudeau Foundation CEO, wants the scholars to take a role in Canada. “Broadly, our aim is to produce leaders,” he said in an interview. Mr. Brodhead believes that the foundation’s mentor program is vital: pairing younger scholars with experienced mentors widens the network faster.

The annual conferences help create an informed public debate, Mr. Brodhead said. But, “The challenge is to disseminate more broadly the fruits of our discussions. We need to update the way we communicate to people.”

For the 10th annual conference, called Democracy in the 21st Century, held in Montreal Nov. 21 to 23, the foundation expanded its usual monothematic format to address all four pillars. Indigenous and non-Indigenous cooperation, the geopolitics of emerging nations, and nomadic citizenship, were among the topics discussed in panels and by individual presenters.

One lively event was People and their Natural Environment, a panel with University of British Columbia professor emeritus Bill Rees, who coined the term “ecological footprint,” and Art Hanson, distinguished fellow with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (and previously its president).

Drs. Rees and Hanson discussed the feasibility of a green economy within our current system. The United Nations Environment Programme defines a green economy as “one whose growth in income and employment is driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.” One focus of their talk was how monetary value can be applied to natural capital and ecological services. Some believe that if we can put a price on environmental resources, for example by imposing a carbon tax, then we can avert disaster.

The story is both dire and familiar. We’re facing climate change, overfishing of the oceans, soil erosion and biodiversity loss. Eighty percent of resources go to 20 percent of the globe’s population. At this rate, the amount of consumption over the next four decades will equal all the consumption up to now. We’re using natural resources 50 to 60 percent more rapidly than they can regenerate.

“Even the World Bank acknowledges we’re headed to four degrees of warming,” said Dr. Rees of climate change. As a consequence, two- to three-billion people will be displaced and, “we’re headed for a food crisis.” As a species, he said, humans with their rapacious ways “make Tyrannosaurus Rex look like a piker.”

But the pricing of natural resources into the current economic system is, in Dr. Rees’s view, “doomed to failure.” Because we can’t readily identify the goods and services of nature, we can’t price them. The green economy “is an elegant and intellectually satisfying tool that is impractical in the world as we know it,” he asserted.

Part of problem lies in having created systems that are so bogglingly enormous that they are beyond human comprehension. One solution, Dr. Rees believes, is to embrace the more manageable scale of a steady-state economy (i.e., an economy with a stable or mildly fluctuating size, according to the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy).

“We can do it!” he urged, adding humans have the necessary qualities such as intelligence, ability to plan ahead, capacity for moral judgments, ability to cooperate, and compassion. But, particularly in North America, we’ve “deliberately constructed a model away from the public good and community.”

Dr. Hanson, too, is convinced that a green economy won’t work. The idea is to “get the prices right and problems disappear,” he said, but, “the problem with the green economy concept is that it doesn’t adequately bring out the human dimension.” There’s “no end to wants.” China’s growing middle class may demand luxury cars as well as education for their kids. “Economy trumps environment,” he lamented.

Dr. Hanson doesn’t see steady-state economy as globally possible, but gleans hope from smaller-scale communities and Indigenous initiatives, such as Idle No More. He believes cities, with their access to innovation and capital, are probable environmental leaders.

Dr. Rees believes we must put an absolute cap on carbon, then develop a market mechanism for allocation. Subsidies must end, letting prices tell the true cost for goods and services. If fossil fuels actually cost the consumer what they should, demand for energy would plummet.

Dr. Rees called Canada’s government “unconscionable,” their policies “a form of moral negligence,” and called for electoral reform. Provinces should be abolished and the country re-created around bioregional districts, he suggested.

For his part, Dr. Hanson said the federal government substitutes ideology for knowledge, throwing us into “an age of unreason and the Endarkenment.”

At the university level, Dr. Rees sees increased corporatization: “Beware Canada, your universities are being taken over by the corporate agenda. It has already happened in America.” Though scientists were initially trained to stay out of the political arena, “that has to come to an end,” he continued.

“Old environmentalists die with their boots on,” Dr. Hanson joked, but he was serious in suggesting that younger folks must pick up the political reins. He urged scholars to take risks. “Think big. That’s what we need. For any Trudeau Foundation scholar, you have all the things going for you. Figure out what you can do and do it.”

And if Trudeau had been present, he might have said: Just watch them.

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