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Steve Lafleur: Environmentalists might be more successful if they weren’t so annoying

Commentary

A recent column of mine got a lot of attention from environmentalists on Twitter. I argued that the plastic bag ban failed to account for real-world human behaviour. I pointed out that I’ve had the same reusable bags for years, so on the off chance I forget to bring them to the grocery store I end up throwing out the reusable bags I have to buy since plastic bags are no longer available. 

I got a lot of suggestions for how I can avoid throwing out bags in the future, most of which entail me carrying stuff every time I leave the house (which I do when I plan to go shopping). I think this underscored my point: people aren’t perfect, and environmental policy needs to recognize that we won’t always make optimal choices.

To be clear, the feedback was largely healthy and constructive—even if some people seem to think I should spend the rest of my days roaming the earth doing good works as penance for throwing out a reusable bag. I understand the urge to reduce waste. But I think the plastic bag ban, and many other all-or-nothing policies, make the perfect the enemy of the good. 

I say this for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s possible to reduce the number of bags used without banning them entirely. Moreover, highly symbolic and annoying policies might not be politically durable. The plastic straw ban (which I’m much less personally fussed about) is another example. But, more to the point, if individual environmental policies are annoying enough to become electorally salient, they could well undermine other higher-impact environmental policies. 

When politicians get out of step with the public, even when tackling problems the electorate wants to solve, the public can get mad. Consider, for instance, the mere mention by Hillary Clinton of shutting down coal plants. Arguably that was a contributing factor to her losing Pennsylvania, and therefore the presidency. People don’t like feeling punished. That’s how you get Trump.

Now, that isn’t a reason not to make hard decisions. It’s an argument for picking battles and trying to persuade the public rather than trying to push them along. There are a lot of really high-impact environmental policies that we should pursue. Allowing more high-density housing within major cities would be a huge win for the environment. As would ending mandatory minimum parking requirements and road user fees. I recognize that these aren’t easy sells. But I think these are policies worth burning political capital for. 

Of course, you’re probably not going to get the pure form of any of those policies outside of specific cases. We’ve seen a lot of policy movement towards allowing more density in North American cities. Lots of details remain to be sorted out, though. We’ve seen many cities reduce or eliminate parking minimums. Road user fees, on the other hand, have been far less popular. Even Ontario couldn’t manage to add tolls to existing (or proposed) highways. Progressive British Columbia even rolled back bridge tolls. And no one is seriously entertaining a congestion charge for the GTA or Lower Mainland, even though it’s the only plausible fix for traffic congestion (“free” roads work about as well as “free” concert tickets).

In short, you’re not getting everything you want, and me throwing out a bag every week or two isn’t going to change that. Broad environmental policies that encourage every household to be a little bit more environmentally conscious here and there are going to do far more than trying to ensure that people use zero shopping bags. People don’t always act precisely how you want. And they vote, often motivated by things or people that annoy them. 

Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. If you want to help the environment, focus on the low-hanging fruit like making it easier and cheaper for people to live lower-impact, urban lifestyles. There’s plenty of pent-up demand for that right now, as you can see reflected in Toronto and Vancouver housing prices. Meet people where they’re at with policies today and persuade them to go further tomorrow. 

I hear you saying: but there is no tomorrow if we don’t act now. To which I’ll reply: acting today isn’t much good if it’s going to undermine all of your efforts tomorrow. 

Brent H. Cameron: Handouts without hope won’t help Canada’s poor escape poverty

Commentary

The Trudeau government frequently touts its record on reducing Canada’s poverty rates due mainly to the Canada Child Benefit. Its claims mostly stand up to scrutiny. Targeted public spending has measurably reduced poverty according to an arithmetic conception of poverty as a solely materialistic state of being.

Yet many of the academics, pundits and politicians who talk about poverty lack a textured understanding of the individuals and families who experience poverty in materialistic and non-materialistic terms. Canadians in poverty have reason to be a bit skeptical of the second and third-generation Laurentians who have cast themselves as tribunes of the less fortunate, gesticulating their anger over the plight of the poor whilst brandishing $5,000 wristwatches.

There’s a verse in the Christian Bible that quotes Jesus as saying “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” This is a rather harsh rebuke that I cannot comment on, but I’ll say that an equally onerous challenge is for a rich person to understand the experience of being poor—with the noted exception of those rare individuals who manages to pull off a Horatio Alger-worthy rise from rags to riches.

A richer, more textured understanding of poverty that saw struggling Canadians as individuals with complex sets of needs, interests and aspirations rather than mere statistics would cause the government to place as much attention on creating the conditions for hope as it does on the clever design of income-support programs.

I grew up what in hindsight would be considered a lower-middle-class environment. Our lives were marked by precious little money and moments when the creditors might be a step away, but a stable home with two consistently working parents who employed every effort to improve our prospects. Staying on one side of the ledger book was as much a stroke of luck as it was a feat of indefatigable effort.

I paid for university by selling a car that I restored and took side jobs like driving cab. Even with that, I couldn’t afford textbooks for the first two years, so the reserve reading room—where assigned readings for every course could be had for a period of three hours—became my friend. But my parents gave every spare penny they could, gladly and cheerfully. I graduated and became the first member of my family to get a degree, beating a cousin by one year. But I also readily admit my luck. 

My father, on the other hand, knew what real poverty was. He left a troubled home, quit school, and hitchhiked to Toronto where he got a job with a moving company. Until he had earned enough to pay for a room in a boarding house, he banked most of his meal allowances and slept in either one of the trucks or on a couch in the company’s storage warehouse. He was 12 years old at the time.

It is because of these things that I feel emboldened to comment on the nature of poverty. Yes, it is the lack of money, of food, of lodging, and of opportunity. But those are the things you see: the outward symptoms of the syndrome. What you don’t see—and what our white knight wannabes do not appreciate—is the lack of something we call “hope.”

Hope is subtle and nuanced. The transmission mechanism for public policy is complex. At some level, it requires that policymakers distinguish between “transitory poverty” and persistent poverty” and recognize that the messages and policies to make progress on both will necessary differ. It also demands that they recognize that while policy must confront systemic factors, it needs to inculcate a sense of agency and the possibility of a different and better future. A “hand up” rather than merely a “handout” may sound a bit cliched but it actually expresses a deep insight about empowering people rather than merely solving for their basic needs.

Want to address systemic poverty? Then policymakers have to think beyond materialism. They need to create the conditions for hope. They must seek to enable people like my dad to envision a future better than a couch in a warehouse. My dad would have eagerly taken the quarterly cheque for $250 set out in this year’s federal budget. But it was the hope of a better tomorrow that he really desired. 

Ottawa’s latest budget actually had plenty of money for Canadians in poverty. The government’s poverty reduction strategy isn’t suffering from a lack of dollars. But it is ultimately lacking a vision of how to help people take control of their lives and climb the ladder from poverty to the middle class.

Our prime minister once commented on Canada becoming the world’s first “post-national” country. I do not know whether this is true, but it is becoming clear that we are heading toward becoming a post-hope one.