Writing / Ken Storie:  Thoughts on Sustainability

Voluntary Restraints

In recent years both Provincial and Federal governments have changed and we have new faces in the Environment portfolio. Is there any chance that this will signal less talk and more action?

What would action look like? How will we recognize it?

There are two things we should be looking for. First… action is immediate. Action is not consultation and study – those things precede action, and are often used to avoid action. There are many things that can and should be done now. Those things should involve real caps on emissions from the most prolific polluters.

So far we’ve got a bunch of carrots, leftovers from previous banquet at that, but not a hint of the stick.

Because, secondly, we must understand that using voluntary restraints to stop polluters from polluting is like asking a carnivore to adjust its diet. In fact, voluntary restraints are often about avoiding action.

Many of the problems we face, as a community, or as a society, can be viewed as an infringement of the products of one group’s habits or occupations on the rights of another group.

Today we have individuals and, more significantly, organizations (corporations) who, in their pursuit of their goals (profits), seem to be damaging our world in a variety of ways. To be fair to the corporations, they have been doing this with the permission and support of a large portion of the population. But the relentless pursuit of profit and personal gain, as many now have come to realize, is going to leave future generations with an environmental bill to pay.

Whenever groups, from heads of state to local town councils, get together to decide what to do about this, the result seems to be more about talk than about action.  Invariably the lawmakers discover that there are vested interests in the pollution business. They are powerful, they are rich, and they will use that power to get people to vote against you. In a search to find a way to seem to act without confronting the real problem (and angering the people causing the problem), the term “voluntary restraints” will soon ring out. 

When someone comes up with the term ”voluntary restraint”, or its companion, “educational programs”, as a solution to a problem, what we are really hearing is evidence of lack of will. 

When we, as a society, want something done, we quickly move past voluntary restraints. We move towards community-sanctioned restraints. In a so-called “primitive” culture this might take the form of taboos and unwritten laws, but every culture develops boundaries based on what they need for survival.  Our society uses laws. And we’ve become quite subtle in our ability to address complex issues through legislation.

At various times in our history we seem to have developed a national will to do some things. (True, our will on some of the issues was subject to manipulation). We wanted to build a national railway, to fight in some “popular” wars, to develop a national Medicare system, to end child labour. In fact, the very creation of our country was an act of will. As a more specific recent example, some time ago we decided that it was time to stop allowing drunk drivers to continue killing innocent people on our highways.  After years of pussyfooting around the issue with slap-on-the-wrist fines and educational programs (the equivalent of Voluntary Restraints), we put some teeth in the laws and we got results. Not only have we reduced deaths, but more importantly we’ve changed the way we think about drinking and driving. In my adult lifetime I’ve seen a total change in attitude about the practice. As a society we have accomplished something. It’s not yet perfect, but we’re making progress.

We have been able to do what we have really wanted to do, but we have also become quite good at pretending we can’t do some things that we just don’t want to do very badly. 

Sooner or later we’re going to have to come to a simple realization.  If we, as a community, want certain behaviors out of our citizens, we have to, at the very least, reward the positive behaviors, discourage the negative actions, and completely eliminate the criminally dangerous practices.  Rewarding positive behaviors is the easy part, but we need all the parts.

It’s a simple concept, but you do have to be able to put up with the moaning and whining that will ensue. 

So far what we’ve seen is an attempt to go green without stepping on anyone’s toes. 

Ken Storie