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Reckoning With Canada’s Hidden Deficit


The following was written by Bill Wareham and published on the David Suzuki Foundation website. 

$100 dollar bill.  Image: Wilson Hui.

$100 dollar bill. Image: Wilson Hui.

It’s budget time, and we’re hearing a lot about deficits and declining economic growth. Like many Canadians, I’m worried that today’s federal budget is creating a hidden deficit that our children and grandchildren will have to pay for.

The March 21 federal budget cuts programs that protect nature. This lack of support for environmental programs is drawing down on our natural heritage. We might not have to pay now, but the long-term consequences are serious.

Canada is blessed with rich natural resources, an abundance of fresh water, bountiful farmland and oxygen-producing forests. But the 2013 focuses on how to exploit our natural heritage rather than sustain it.

Canadians expect every level of government to look after our collective wealth, whether it’s in education, transportation infrastructure or national defence. When it comes to collective wealth, there’s nothing more important than the elements we depend on and share the most: our air, water, soils and biodiversity. These shared elements are what Canadians expect their governments to watch over and safeguard.

Cuts to scientific monitoring cast doubt on whether we can make good decisions about our environmental wealth. If we don’t know what’s happening with fish populations, ocean acidity, rainfall and carbon emissions, how can we expect our governments to properly manage our most precious resources?

This hidden deficit is most obvious when it comes to protecting our coastal waters. Canada has the world’s longest coastline but is a laggard, not a leader, when it comes to protecting it. “Conservation actions are not keeping up with the increasing pressures faced by our oceans,” is how Scott Vaughan, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, bluntly put it.

What did government put in the budget to move forward the 20 proposed marine protected areas? A mere $4 million. The Green Budget Coalition, a respected umbrella group of environmental organizations, had suggested a minimum of $65 million to get these protection measures on the move.

It looks like the priorities of Commissioner Vaughan the Green Budget Coalition are not the same as the federal government’s.

However, there are priorities in the budget, including $57 million for “aquaculture renewal”, which in plain English means “help for fish farms”. Did the federal government forget about the findings of the Cohen Commission?

Even if this budget were only about protecting our economy, the choices are wrong-headed. “Conserving and protecting marine biodiversity is not solely an environmental priority…[the ocean] is intrinsic to the health and functioning of the world economy,” Commissioner Vaughan said. It’s not surprising that he also has an economic perspective on marine biodiversity. He is, after all, in the office of the auditor general of Canada.

Clearly, our magnificent and awe-inspiring blue planet has more value than any ledger can quantify, but even through the distorted lens of an economy-first perspective, safeguarding productive ecosystems must become part of the calculation when balancing a budget.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 2013/03/30 3:26 pm

    ‘Green’ budgets are such double-edged swords… on one hand, there is really no way to quantify the services that the environment/seas/forests/animals/etc provide for us and it is far, far too easy to leave very important aspects biodiversity out of the equation if they are not processes/organisms that visibly and directly impacts human life. But within this neoliberal capitalist system, without extending markets to protect ecosystems, they will be exploited and polluted beyond repair. We need a significant change to the way we organize the system of production/consumption and distribution of wealth…. basically, a new economy. Until then, though, you’re completely right –we definitely need to include ecosystems when balancing budgets, and not just let environmental destruction be an externality of economic growth.

    • 2013/03/31 6:38 pm

      There is a drive in certain economic circles to put a dollar value on the work of nature. If you take a look at one of my earlier posts (, at the end of it is a link to an excellent TED Talk about the economists that are trying to put a dollar value on nature’s work.

      • 2013/04/01 11:04 am

        Thank you, yes. I study this a lot as well, it’s just honestly too problematic to put into words. I agree, though, that if we are to continue with this neoliberal capitalist global system, then valuing nature economically is necessary, but I’d argue that we simply can not continue with this system if we are actually going to address any of our ecological crises. Tough spot.

      • 2013/04/01 6:23 pm

        I agree that our current system is ecologically unsustainable. And, as the past 4 years have shown, it is also economically unsustainable. The stock markets are at record highs. Corporate profits are at record highs. CEO’s are pulling in record pays. And yet, nation, provincial and municipal governments are out of money and unemployment is very high.
        Something has got to give…

  2. 2013/03/30 4:11 pm

    We have to stop our short-sighted provincial and federal governments from making bad decisions aimed solely at getting re-elected; and the only way to do it is to educate the public that keeps electing them. Your blog is a great step in that direction – congratulations.

    • 2013/03/31 6:50 pm

      I completely agree with you. (And thank you for the compliment!)
      I would add that campaign financing is also a big problem. I believe that all elections should be paid by tax dollars. Because, at the end of the day, politicians are loyal to those who pay the bills. So, public funding of elections and an end to lobbying.
      But, in the meantime, education of the public is key.

  3. 2013/03/31 2:35 am

    Aww what is happening to our world? I used to agree and believe Canada if an eco friendly country, but as I learn, it is far from it! We could do so much more and be a role model to other nations, but thats not happening. I feel let down by our government. They are even making oil sands seem clean and eco friendly with their new commercials out. That doesnt even make sense… crazy…

    • 2013/03/31 6:51 pm

      “Sustainable resource development”. Makes me die a little every time I hear it!

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