Intervenor: Vol. 25 no. 2 April - June 2000

Water & Health - From the Executive Director: Our Investment in the Environment

Sometimes you have to hear from someone else those things that we already know to remind us of their importance. When the Canadian Environmental Law Association co-sponsored the "Eco-Summit", a mini-workshop on environmental issues for Members of Parliament, keynote speaker Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who is known for his work cleaning up the Hudson River, reminded us of the importance of investing in the environment.

RFK Jr used the word "invest" in its financial sense. His whole point was that developing environmental protection laws, regulations and policies, establishing training programs, ensuring adequate staff for research, standard-setting and enforcement are not luxuries. Instead, these are investments in the long term sustainability of both the environment and the protection of human health. He then cited examples of countries that refused to make such investments and how they are now faced with profound environmental and human health crises. The World Bank, for example, pegs the cost of China's pollution to its economy and its people at $54 billion a year.

But "investment" means other things as well. Some economists are now putting a dollar value on healthy environments. The healthier the environment (the greener and older the forests, for example), the more wealthy the country or state, or province. The National Forest Protection Alliance figures US National Forests are worth more standing than cut-standing, they generate 38.1 times more jobs than the timber sales program.

Then there is the investment in people's health. We can, as the Ontario Medical Association has done, tally up the morbidity and mortality due to smog and cost out the health care resources used up (the OMA study says air pollution costs Ontarians $1 billion a year). Or we can figure out how much an unhealthy environment might cost the world-the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates global warming alone will cost the world something like $20 trillion.

But do we really need to fix dollar figures to our environment or our health in order to realize both are priceless? Surely, we are bright enough to figure out that the environment and our health go hand in hand and that when one is compromised, so is the other. Surely there is something valuable beyond calculation about a healthy environment that makes it an invaluable investment. Surely we know that this investment is our legacy to our children.

So how are we doing? How is our investment faring? Are we living off the returns of the investment, or are we dipping into the capital? Two Canadian researchers say we are spending the capital. Mathias Wackernagel and William Rees have figured out the "environmental footprint" for various countries-the resources a people use up just to live. It turns out that Canada has the fifth largest footprint in the world: each Canadian consumes 4 times what the world's environment can afford to give us.

A quick read of the headlines does make one reflect whether we are making the right investment decisions. The Plastimet fire in Hamilton, an ever increasing number of smog alerts, toxics lodging in the Rockies and the Arctic, clear-cutting in the forests, contaminated neighbourhoods in cities, and of course, the Walkerton tragedy.

But it's easy to come up with shopping lists. The Fraser Institute has even come up with a list of environmental indicators that have improved. Shopping lists are not the point, and whether we are doing better or worse these days at protecting the environment is not the question. We can always do better, regardless of the indicators-and we should. The question is, who is minding our investment in the environment, and therefore our health and our children's legacy?

Certainly we all should be minding our investments. We all need to cut our consumption and increase our conservation. However, considering the incalculable value of a healthy environment to all Canadians, is it not reasonable to expect the people we elect to protect our investment? Who else has the legislative power and the mandate to use it? Who else is in a better position to put our investment and our legacy above the temptation to get rich quick?

Let's look to a study done by the CELA and the Environmental Committee of the Ontario College of Family Physicians for a measure of how government is managing our environmental portfolio. Environmental Standard Setting and Children's Health (released in May 2000, and summarized in this Intervenor) shows we have a long way to go in ridding the environment of the toxics we make. The scientific research quoted in that study argues persuasively that pesticides, lead and air pollution (for example) are harming or at least, putting at risk, the health of the most vulnerable in our society-our children, especially our poor children.

We looked at government regulation in Canada and one province, Ontario. Regulators rely too much on risk assessment, a system that allows concentrations of contaminants at levels often set by industry. Risk assessment is rife with scientific, logical and ethical problems. A better way of protecting our investment would be to put the burden of proof of harm on the polluters and to adopt a precautionary approach that would, for example, insist pollutants be eliminated entirely at the source of their production.

Paul Muldoon is a lawyer at CELA