This post is (very loosely) based on my notes for a roundtable presentation on the Report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy (aka the Ivany Report): “Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Actions for Nova Scotians.” The roundtable was part of a conference put together by students in Acadia’s graduate program in Social and Political Thought, and was also recorded by the NS office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (video of the roundtable discussion here)
The Report is explicitly directed at “building our new economy” in Nova Scotia. For those unfamiliar with the region, Nova Scotia is a province where (according to the 2009 State of Nova Scotia’s Coast report) some 70% of the population lives in coastal communities. Many of those communities, not surprisingly, are close to sea level. It’s not quite Florida, but there are clear climate change vulnerabilities associated with sea level rise and increased storm frequency and intensity (see for example this report on Halifax Regional Municipality; an elevation map of the province is here). On the other hand, what makes us vulnerable to climate change is also an asset: Nova Scotia’s licence plate motto is “Canada’s Ocean Playground.” This can be recognized iconographically in the report, which features seven full-page photos, three of which are of beaches. Put another way: something we recognize as an important asset, and defining part of our identity, is what is vulnerable to climate change.
To anyone aware of these vulnerabilities, the fact that this report appears to take no account of the “new climate” on which the “new economy” will have to be built, is striking. I think the way to explain this silence is through the Report’s committed refusal to engage in politics. I’ll describe the silence in a bit more detail before discussing what I think is its significance.
First, a quick content analysis of the Report with respect to global warming/ climate change:
- The term “global warming” does not appear anywhere in the report’s 87 pages.
- The word “climate” appears a total of six times, as follows:
- three times, it is used to refer to the “macroeconomic climate” (pp. vii,48,70);
- it is used once to refer to the “climate for risk taking and business development” (p. 28);
- it is used once to refer to the “attitudinal climate” (p. 46);
- the one time it is used in a weather-related context is in a boxed quotation, which discusses how the province’s “cooler climate” is conducive to growing premium varieties of apples (p. 40).
To be sure, the report does mention environmental issues beyond climate change, although for the most part these are vague references to “environmental protection” or “sustainability,” rather than specific issues. To the extent that environmental issues do appear in the report, they appear to emerge from the public engagement sessions that were conducted as part of the report’s fact-finding. Thus one of the nine “broad themes” that emerged from the public engagement was “sustainability and growth” (pp. 6-7) (I’ll come back to the significance of this by way of conclusion). Of the 19 “New Goals for Nova Scotia,” only one is directed at environmental sustainability (or two, if you count goal #15, which is to double agriculture and fisheries exports “on a sustainable basis”). Goal #17, “A province-wide plan to achieve Nova Scotia’s new goals for sustainable economic growth and population renewal,” includes the point that such a plan “must recognize that progressive land development can both strengthen our economy and reduce our negative impact on the environment” (p. 49). Here, and consistently throughout the report, environmental sustainability, or the reduction of environmental impacts, is hedged within a growth imperative.
Indeed, the growth imperative, and the need for an “attitude change” to accept that imperative – is the document’s overarching message. In their foreword, the commissioners helpfully lay out the “three core messages” of the report, which work as a sequence: 1) “there is a crisis”, 2) change is possible, and 3) “… the single most significant impediment to change and renewal is the lack of a shared vision and commitment to economic growth and renewal…” (p. vii, my emphasis).
The connection of the lack of “commitment to economic growth” with a “lack of a shared vision” is what I mean by a refusal to engage in politics: dissensus or disagreement is seen as a problem (to be solved), rather than a condition that we have to live with.
From the public engagement sessions, the authors have gleaned a couple of “fault lines” that inhibit a shared vision (pp. 9-10). One was about “public versus private sector roles in economic development,” with a somewhat related lack of agreement on whether or how much “private sector leadership” should be “recognize[d] and celebrate[d].” If we want to apply political economy labels (the Report doesn’t use these terms), the “fault line” is one between Keynesians and neoliberals, who disagree on the appropriate means to achieve more economic growth.
A second constellation of issues is around the rural-urban divide, and the trade-off between natural resource extraction and environmental protection. Rural Nova Scotia here is characterized more or less exclusively as a site for resource extraction (“pulp and paper and lumber mills, mines and quarries, fish plants and aquaculture operations”), and the questions are whether these “sectors” or “rural economies” can or should be modernized, and if so, how.
“Some participants emphasized the need to renew, modernize and in some cases expand these traditional sectors… Others asserted that maintaining a pristine environment may be more economically beneficial over the longer term that (sic) pursuing growth in the mining, forestry or energy fields.” (pp.9-10)
One thing to notice is that the Report frames these “fault lines” as disagreements about means, not about ends. Whether we prefer high levels of public sector spending or cutting corporate taxes, and whether we think lumber mills should be developed to the highest efficiency standards or shuttered to make way for eco-tourism, we are agreed on the end of trying to do what is most “economically beneficial.”
The presumed goal is sacrosanct. There is presumed agreement, first, that “Nova Scotians” are a monolithic community, even a “nation” unto ourselves. The idea that “Nova Scotians” includes multiple, sometimes antagonistic communities, is characterized as problematic “politics”: petty squabbling, a distraction from the serious tasks at hand, and precisely the bad attitude that needs to be left in the past. “The first [change] area identified is political leadership” (p. ix) – defined by refraining from “politics as usual” and “putting aside partisan interests.” “Political leadership” for the authors means getting away from those messy disagreements that divide rather than unite us. It is for this reason that the Report resorts so casually and consistently to the language of “crisis”: the emergency that will get us to see that we are all in this together, so that we can all engage in the serious work needed to reach our common goal.
But what is that serious business, that common goal? “Crisis” literally means “turning point.” But where are we to turn, other than away from the bad attitudes of the past? The second point of agreement presumed by the Report is that we should turn inexorably to more economic growth. Because of its ideological commitments, the idea that communities might have goals that aren’t measurable in positive economic terms (or maybe aren’t measurable at all) can hardly be registered.
This refusal to engage in thinking about ends, to ask, in an open and serious fashion, “what is more growth for?” is what I mean by the Report’s refusal to engage in politics. And it is the watermark that seeps through every page of the Report, starting from it’s first words: “Now or Never.”
As noted above, one time where engagement with substantive ends is forced onto the agenda is in discussing the public engagement findings, and more particularly the theme of sustainability and growth. This shouldn’t be surprising, because there is perhaps no issue that more clearly forces us to confront these differences than our desires for economic growth and the recognition of environmental limits – particularly in a community whose historic identity and prosperity literally sits on ground that is in danger of being washed away by climate change.
So it is not surprising that public discussions of “sustainability and growth” lead to:
“Success and growth can be measured in many ways beyond simply looking at GDP or other conventional indicators, and more consideration needs to be given to how communities envision their own success.” (6; my emphasis)
But no more consideration can happen, within the frame imposed by the Report. Communities can’t take the time to deliberate and determine their own vision(s) of success, because we’ve all got to pull together for greater growth, now or never.
In its recognition of limits, environmentalism should force us to confront anew the questions: What do we want? How should we live? Who are we? From an environmental perspective, what is even more significant than its silence on climate change, is the Report’s attempt to banish these profound, and irreducibly political, questions, or to presume that we have settled or can settle these questions once and for all, now or never.