Environmental panel ponders sustainability

A panel of environmental experts met at York University on June 1 to share their experience and reflections on urban sustainability. The panel, convened for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences and hosted by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, was moderated by Joni Seager, dean of York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. Panellists included Mark Anielski, president of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics; Ryerson University professor, author and York alumna Cheryl Teelucksingh (PhD ‘01), and Royal Roads University professor Ann Dale, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Community. 

 Above: Anne Dale (left), Cheryl Teelucksingh, Mark Anielski and Joni Seager.
 Photo by Chris Kurata

Anielski, who is also the author of the 2004 Federation of Canadian Municipalities study on the ecological footprints of Canadian cities and regions, was the first to present. His central focus was on his own evolving economic methodology and his concept of genuine wealth accounting. Sustainability, according to Anielski, is inherent in the meaning of economics, a word that originates in the Greek word for “house stewardship”. He highlighted how genuine wealth accounting is a departure from traditional measures like profitability. The concept is a move to adopt new methods that measure wealth against core values including individual health, the health of the land and the strength of our interpersonal relationships and interdependence.

In explaining this new perspective on public accounting, Anielski spoke of the completion of his first genuine wealth assessment for Leduc, Alta., commissioned by a municipality that Anielski described as “concerned with environmental health problems, rising crime and the growing trend for its youth to leave and settle elsewhere”. While financial capital was incorporated, new indices of human capital (human resources), social capital (community involvement, shared decision making and trust and interdependence), natural capital (land, trees, air, water and other goods nature provides without charge), and built capital (things made with human labour) were given analytical prominence. Described by Anielski as “a tool for governance,” the analysis involved the identification of core values first through the identification of a theme such as trust and then an examination of such themes through such indicators as the number of neighbours a person knows.

Teelucksingh, editor of the newly published Claiming Space: Racialization in Canadian Cities (May ‘06), spoke to the critical aspect of social justice in urban sustainability. Citing the United Nations projection that the planet’s current population of 6 billion will nearly double by 2030, Teelucksingh emphasized that “the potential for environmental oppression is greatest in cities and that cities should be the focal point for environmental policies and politics.”

“Unrestricted economic growth in cities,” said Teelucksingh, “has been driven by players in the global economy, resulting in a high level of waste and energy use as well as social conflict.” As a result, Teelucksingh noted, new forms of resistance are surfacing. She identified as a major concern those individuals who confuse “the settlement patterns of the new urban sprawl” as an issue of immigration.

What is needed, Teelucksingh said, is an improved use of high density communites and new ways of approaching land use intensification problems and social housing. “Environmental problems bear down disproportionately on the poor and marginalized people.” Teelucksingh concluded by stating, “Globalization and the neo-liberal economic model resulting in high levels of pollution, greater resource exploitation and social and cultural dislocation must be questioned.”

Finally, Ann Dale, author of A Dynamic Balance: Social Capital and Sustainable Community Development (2005) asked, “What makes a community sustainable?” In answering, Dale began with the usual suspects – limits to development, scale (too big, too small to be sustainable), the most energy efficient state of the art technology, good transit, walkable neighbourhoods and easy access to goods and services.

Dale ventured that the answer also lies in themes of reconciliation and connection, noting that development which integrates simple modular social and economic decision-making is diverse and complex.  “There must be dialogue,” said Dale and that dialogue must take the form of speaking and listening among the participants and stakeholders. She said there must be a move beyond governmental structures, if the challenge of the gridlock that has characterized past governmental responses is to be overcome.

As the last speaker, Dale also had the last word, leaving the auditorium to consider her final question: “We have had enough science, enough integration, enough intelligence and enough information. And yet we have had a systemic failure to put sustainable community development on the political agenda. Why?”

This article was written by YFile graduate assistant Chris Kurata, a PhD candidate in English.