“It’s almost always the same depressing exercise. We have also carried out research showing that few conservation management decisions are based on scientific literature and almost nothing is documented in a manner that is accessible to others.” -T.G. Northcote
Experience and long-range views tell us that so-called “action plans” breathe distrust. As the documented sixty-year experience (1948-2008) of Professor T.G. Northcote in repeated “action plans” to address conservation and water quality problems in the Okanagan / Similkameen system shows – action plans are more exercises in deflecting responsibility, than actually tackling problems. The list of “action plans” he reviews reads like a catalogue of political feel-good and window-dressing worthy of the best green-costume party, on a background of six decades of continuous and amplifying environmental deterioration.
What Dr. Northcote’s account of the failure to manage the Okanagan Basin effectively shows is that - in spite of having at hand the best scientific information, so-called action plans, are a systematic masquerade for politicians and civil servants to pursue contradictory political moves and avoid effective action.
This problem is not new. It is pervasive in all levels of government. It is time to get serious, because the environmental stakes of political deceit now endanger us all.
The example given by Professor T.G. Northcote is a rare systematic long-term overview of the political games played around environmental questions. Few people are in a position to provide this kind of authoritative record. These political games focus public attention on “action plans” and public relations exercises, but produce very little “hard attempts at actions.” Northcote’s review is a middle-scale example – ongoing parallels can easily be observed in the federal handling of climate change in-action, and in the Sunshine Coast Regional District’s 8 years of in-action plans for Zero Waste.
Party Political Investment Theory
Last week at the closing of the legislative assembly, true to custom and form Carole James railed against Premier Campbell’s liberals, noting that politicians have an obligation to honour political commitments, and that failure to do so destroys the credibility of politicians. However, it is largely irrelevant which party is in power. The party in power always seems strangely like the one it replaced.
Regardless of the party, politicians regularly betray the trust of the electorate. The rapid contrast between the promises of Obama-the-candidate who relied on grassroots to seek office, and Obama-the-president who quickly mimetically aligned himself with conservative interests, and has now lost much of his base among environmentalists , gay and lesbians, and many working-people who saw his administration, dilute the health bill, reward bankers and promote off-shore drilling, is just one glaring instance of re-alignments in office that make the electioneering process increasingly vacuous.2
One no longer votes for the betterment of society, but for the lesser of potential dangers to society.
Poll after poll shows that about 60% - 80% of the electorate have no trust in politicians.3 A 2006 Leger Marketing poll found that only 14% of those surveyed trusted politicians, but 19% trusted used car salesmen.3 This is not an accident.
There are substantial reasons for the low esteem in which politicians are held, and the electorate is increasingly disaffected from the political process. Large structural societal changes, largely associated with the revolution in communications, the reliance on marketing sales techniques replacing real information, and the accelerated pace of life since the 1970’s, coupled with increasing instances of political duplicity have largely contributed to the demise of political integrity.4
This political phenomenon in North-American and European politics is well-documented. It was first analysed in the early 1980’s by Thomas Ferguson, a University of Boston political scientist. It is known as “the investment theory of party competition.”5 The theory is a reversal of the classical democratic theory of elections. In classical democratic theory – the one we all want to believe in- informed individual voters invest time and effort in the pursuit of democratic goals for the betterment of society at large. The investment theory rests on the observation that in the current socio-economic framework individual voters have little time , are poorly informed, and do not have the means to promote classical democratic goals. They rely in good faith on the trust they place on civil servants and politicians to act as their representatives.
This is democracy by proxy. It is the opposite of participatory democracy. While political parties still formally court voters, voters are no longer the real market for political parties:
“The real market for political parties is defined by major investors who generally have good and clear reason for investing in the control of the state... Blocs of major investors define the core of political parties and are responsible for most signals the party sends to the electorate.”5
One of the spin-offs of this re-alignment of political forces is that key interests are shared by investor blocs, which are not necessarily the same as those of the electorate. As is frequently noted, it really makes no difference who you vote for, because the parties resemble each other, once in office. Investor bloc interests overlap. This is largely explainable through the second corollary of Ferguson’s investment theory:
“political parties dominated by large investors try to assemble votes they need by making very limited appeals to particular segments of the electorate... but on all issues affecting the vital interests that major investors have in common, no party competition will take place.”5
This has important consequences for the environment. Although politicians – at all levels and of all persuasions – talk about wanting to be green, and particularly during elections, talk of the need to take decisive action which resonates with the good-will of the electorate , actual green and sustainable action is impossible if it is contrary to the vital interests of faceless investor blocs.
As is frequently observed by the public, there is a huge disconnect between the message that politicians articulate and the reality that they enact.
The Record of In-action
Some of the recent track record – all just from last week or so may provide some insights into this trust gap.
On Friday (4 June 2010) – the same day on which climate scientists at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) released a report that 2010 was well on track to rate as the hottest year yet-6 the federal government quietly posted the results of the its climate change “action plan” on its Environment Canada site, all in big green letters “Canada’s Action on Climate Change.”7 This was not posted because the Harper government wanted to, but because it was required to do so under the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act. After Jim Prentice’s (Minister of the Environment’s) disgraceful performance at Copenhagen, and the dubious logic of the Harper governments’ Climate Action Plan, based on the principle of industry self-regulation, the results are a confirmation, that the federal government will not even meet 10% of the relatively low targets it set on 2005 emission levels, in comparison to the original plan of the previous government to reduce emissions to below 1990 levels.
While the Canadian government aligned itself with the –as yet unconfirmed U.S climate plans- which proposes United States targets of 17 % below 2005 levels by 2020, the figures show that, according to its figures, by 2012 Canada may reduce emissions by 1.4% below business as usual. (That actually amounts to a 34.9% increase above the original Kyoto targets for 2012.)8 This is not on track for 2020, but simply well on track for more in-action.
Jim Prentice’s announcements on Friday did not focus on the climate inaction information – but on two other matters of contradictory importance. The first was a quiet announcement on May 27th of Enbridge’s application for the Northern Gateway pipeline to facilitate tanker transportation of crude down the coast, and the second was the much more prominent, and very timely announcement of the creation of a marine park off Haida Gwai to protect the seabed. (This may garner some First Nations support for the Enbridge proposal.)
As mainstream Canadian press reported it, this gave Canada “gloating rights” over the United States as oil spews over the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico.9 Who could really gloat at a global ecological disaster, but a sycophantic mindless mainstream press? The gloating might turn into self-loathing if people connected the dots....
What mainstream press failed to report is that prior to this, Jim Prentice, to all ends and purposes, dismantled the Pacific Regional Advisory Council on Oil Spill Responses (RAC).10 This is the body of credible experts who could oppose and tightly regulate oil tanker traffic on the Coast of British Columbia. Minister John Baird refused in 2009 to allow the RAC to review and comment on changes to the Shipping Act regarding oil spill safeguards, though he invited guidance from the industry-dominated Canadian Marine Advisory Council (CMAC). The reality – beyond the pious talk of “tough regulatory regimes” and “action plans” - is an invitation to inaction, and more Exxon Valdes impacts.
Similarly, while the Obama administration has been in damage control for announcing the renewal and expansion of off-shore oil drilling, and has spent much of the last 50 days trying to look tough and looking for the “right butt to kick,” the Wall Street Journal was able to confidently re-assure its readers that all the while, the Obama administration has been moving decisively to reopen offshore drilling.11
The oil industry lobbies Washington to the tune of $168 million a year (to which BP alone donates 16 million).12 This is a substantial investment in political parties. A similar proportional investment exists in the interests of Ottawa political parties, and Victoria political parties. It is understandable that this investment bloc’s interests may well override the public interest.
In keeping with the investment theory of party competition, while the general public interest lies with sustainable environmental values, it does not matter which party comes to power. The ultimate party interest lies with “the vital interests that major investors have in common.” In these cases the vital interest lies with Big Oil.
The only thing that really looks sustainable here is “business as usual,” and substantial inaction on the environment.
The Coastal Sustainability Dance
The examples above apply to federal governments. Similar observations could be made, regarding provincial governments. Apart from its well-publicized links with the Enbridge Project proponents, the liberal government also has numerous corporate investors, as does the NDP. Thus, many perceive decisions made around biomass burning and waste disposal to be linked to major companies involved in waste hauling, such as the Belkorp companies which have given nearly $100,000 to the party since 2005, according to Elections B.C.'s donation database.13
If the investment theory of party competition is correct, it is the democratic system that is broken, and the question of scale does not matter. A part of the social weakness that has enabled this abuse of democracy lies in the lack of interest, or time, that the public has for the electoral process. This is even more so in local or regional government elections. The turn-out for municipal election in BC’s 2008 elections was 27%.14 The system is therefore possibly even more open to investment politics in the local political arena, and the tendency to play sustainability games around so-called “action plans’ is an even greater invitation to inaction.
At the last round of Sunshine Coast elections we witnessed many civic officials make many public statements, for which they are on the record, in support of Zero Waste objectives and sustainability. Once in office, as Carole Jame indicated last Friday – these same individuals have only brought themselves into disrepute.
Regrettably, two years after the election we continue to witness a systematic betrayal of these objectives, mainly in the form of more committees, and more action and management plans with elected officials colluding with our mainstream press to avoid accountability.
While we do not know what local investments have been made in the careers of our local politicians, we do know that our local press is slanted and selective in the items it will and will not report. The Local edited by the wife of the SCRD’s chief administrative officer, consistently carries SCRD promotional material – with no critical analysis of policies driven and shepherded by her husband. The Coast Reporter bars individuals whose letters it will not carry – as they may be critical of local government, which is an important source of advertising revenue. And both fail to report news that reflect poorly on the SCRD – such as illegal waste dumping by SCRD contractors on Sechelt Indian Band lands, or well-attended public events on Zero Waste Workshops, which might bring critical attention and perspectives on the inner dealings of SCRD staff and directors.
We also know, that the while SCRD has promoted itself as a Zero Waste community for the last 8 years, discussions at the Whistler RCBC conference revealed that SCRD plans and procedures were inconsistent with Zero Waste practice and objectives – and were therefore unsustainable.
The Zero Waste workshops in Gibsons and Pender further revealed that a fundamental part of Zero Waste design and strategy require a thorough market assessment – none of which has even been initiated after 8 years of talk about “sustainability.” Was this deliberate or does it reflect a lack of knowledge on the part of staff? For these last 8 years our taxes have subsidized this inaction – where is the democratic accountability to be expected?
So we should all ask ourselves a simple question, before the next election repeats another round of deceit. “What investment bloc drives this in-action plan, and how much longer should we support inaction, and pay for unsustainability through our taxes?”
1. T.G. Northcote (2008). “Okanagan Basin Studies: Problems, Plans, Actions.” The Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists Newsletter/Bulletin 65(4) pages 11-19.
2. For as positive as possible take on this see, Bill McKibben (7 June 2010) `Will Obama Stand up to Big Energy in Deeds as Well as Words? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-mckibben/post_616_b_603271.html?)
3. For example: “Guerguis affair hurts trust in politicians: poll” CBC News (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2010/04/22/ekos-guergis-affair- html) ; Rupert Taylor (14 March 2009) “Canadians Don’t Trust Politicians; Those who seek elected office are held in very low estime.” http://canadian-politics.suite101.com/article.cfm)
4. For commentary on this see Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (2005) Crimes against nature. Harper 280pp.; Jimmy Carter (2005) Our Endangered Values. Simon and Schuster. 212pp.
5. Thomas Ferguson (1995). Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competetion and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. University of Chicago Press. 440pp.
6. John Vidal (2 June 2010). “2010 on track to become the warmest year ever.” The Guardian.
8. Guillaume Bourgeault-Cote (5 juin 2010) GES: Ottawa a menti sur ces cibles. Le Devoir.; Mike de Souza (3 June 2010) Feds admit greenhouse gas targets off by factor of 10. The Gazette.; Matthew Bramley (3 June 2010)New federal climate plan admits minimal action on emissions. http://climate.pembina.org/blog/94.
9. Don Martin (6 June 2010). “Ottawa protecting seabed off Queen Charlottes.” Times Colonist.
10. Mitchell Anderson (31 May 2010). “Feds Undercut BC’s Oil Spill Prevention Panel.” The Tyee. http://the tyee.ca/News/2010/05/31/OilSpillPrevention/
11. Laura Meckler and Jonathan Weisman (8 June 2010). “Obama to Reopen Drilling.” The Wall Street Journal.
12. Robert Redford (9 June 2010). “The Fix: Dirty energy’s undue influence on American political life.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robeet-redford/the-fic-dirty-energys-und_b_606278.html