Tuesday, 20 February 2007

...or an ambulance down in the valley?

It’s been a few weeks now since the government announced that, in order to honour its Kyoto commitments, it would need 10 billion dollars over the next six years. And since that’s just plain ridiculous, they’re not going to do it, they’re not going to try, and you can’t make them. So there.

I mean, we can’t do it. Right? 10 billion dollars. Where do you find that kind of money?

Oh, wait a minute. What was that in last year’s budget speech? That Canada recorded a budget surplus in 2003,04 and 05, and is projected to do so again in 2006 and 2007? I think I heard some trumpeting to the effect that in fact, Canada is the only G7 country to do so. And that we have the lowest national debt of all the G7 countries too. In fact, in 04-05, our surplus was 1.5 billion. The projected 05-06 surplus is 8 billion.

Hey. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we use that?

Okay, I know – silly me. Things just ain’t that simple when it comes to budgets. I’d better look at it in a bit more detail to make sure I understand it properly.

Here’s a good bit in the “Budget Overview”. The Treasury plans to “restrain the rate of spending growth” in government offices “to save 1 billion in both 2006-07 and 2007-08”. 1 billion plus 1 billion makes…er…

No. It can’t be that easy. We need that money for other important things. In fact, thank goodness we’ve got it, because I see that we’re increasing funding of the Dept of National Defence by 5.3 billion over the next 5 years. Let’s have a look at what it’s for.

1.1 billion is to “rebuild Canadian forces”. Since they plan to put 5,000 more troops in front-line positions, they’ll need to fill the gaps back home. After that, we’re going to “initiate establishment of territorial battalions in major cities”. This means 14 Canadian cities will have “territorial response bases” in case of terrorist attack and/ or natural disasters. The funding will also go to provide “equipment to support combat-capable Canadian Forces”. (by the way, there is an additional 101 million tagged to create “safe and open borders”, which is then defined simply as arming our border officials).

Finally, just over a billion is going to “defend national sovereignty”; in particular, our Arctic sovereignty, to which end a Northern Sovereignty Support Centre will be built and staffed in Goose Bay, Newfoundland.

And this brings us to Hans Island.

Since 1973, this half-mile square bit of barren Arctic ice has been the site of a territory dispute between Canada and Denmark. “This land belongs to me!” “No, this land is my land!” Denmark has periodically sent naval forces to erect a Danish flag on the island. (see also “sticking your tongue out”). Then in 2005, Canada sent its own military to build an Inuksuk and erect a Canadian flag (see also “flipping the bird at”). Not only that, but Defence Minister Bill Graham (and some of the media) accompanied military personnel to the island, presumably to stomp his feet and wave his arms and shout “Mine! Mine!” (an unconfirmed report states that he also threatened to “scream and scream and scream until I’m sick, and I can too” unless sovereignty was awarded to Canada).

Since then we have all calmed down a bit and agreed to talk to each other nicely and not rough each other’s hair up or call each other names (although every time someone issues a balanced, grown-up statement about it, they finish it with “but it’s still ours, so there”). Either way, we still had to spend a heck of a lot of cash sending all those people back and forth to the island to show off.

But here’s why this is all so significant. Hans Island itself is no use to either country. What will be of use is the nearby (and also disputed) Northwest Passage and other linked waterways in the Arctic. Why “will be”? Because they’re no use now. They’re frozen. They “will be” of use…when global warming turns them into waterways.

Yes – we are pouring money into our Arctic Sovereignty plans in active preparation for when we have poisoned the globe enough that the Arctic becomes politically and economically important! We are preparing for the time when our purposeful refusal to ratify the Kyoto Treaty makes the Arctic available for our use. I don’t really need to add “instead of putting the money into making sure the disputed currently-frozen waterways never become unfrozen”. But why would governments come up with systems to do so, when as Marilyn Waring says in her book Counting for Nothing, “no economic model provides the means for understanding how both economic growth and environmental sustainability might be possible”. Although she wrote these words in the 1980s, how chilling that enough has stayed unchanged that it is still relevant.

It’s interesting that we’ll spend on “response units” in case of natural disasters, because these have a direct and measurable economic impact - the cleanup, the physical rebuilding, the tourism adverts. But natural non-disasters, like the ice caps not melting, and us not ending up living on small islands, breathing through masks, surrounded by warm shallows blooming with toxic algae, are economically immeasurable by current systems. (Incidentally, in comparison with the 5.3 billion in Defence funding, only 64 million is going to fund anti-terrorist prevention activities, such as investigating and stopping terrorist funding at the source). A fence at the top of the cliff, or an ambulance down in the valley?

This brings me back to Lucy Wanja and her knitting. She isn’t economically countable for her subsistence work. Nor is the ice that stops the globe from flooding economically countable. Nor is the oxygen produced by trees that are growing, although once you make them into lumber there they are, in the UN System of National Accounts: labour, product, export, money. It is because this internationally-agreed System doesn’t count those things that they’re not going to spend that 10 billion on the fence of Kyoto, and instead spend it on the ambulance of Arctic Defence. There’s no economic value to legislating for the environment, just as there is no economic value to legislating for Lucy and her colleagues. So there’s no reason to change it.

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