The Green Gap

In the Cold War, we feared a Missile Gap was a strategic weakness. Nowadays, we must awaken to the fact that the Green Gap is true strategic weakness: the nations whose economies will thrive in the coming years will not be those with the biggest factories, but those with the most sustainable, efficient, and ecological markets. What we require is a Strategic "Green Reserve" of ecological design to weather the coming changes that both climate and resource scarcity will force on the international economy.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Civil Society - Part 1: The People, Chapter III: First Nations

I risk embarrassing myself at my lack of knowledge of First Nations issues in Canada by writing anything at all regarding policy ideas for First Nations peoples. I also risk embarrassing myself through complete and utter cultural insensitivity, and from the simple fact that it isn't my place to speak for First Nations peoples. Still, I have these thoughts rumbling about in my head and they have to go someplace... so I thought I'd write them down so they could rumble around in your head instead.

I'm not going to go into history except to say one very simple thing: in Canada, there were "Treaties" with the First Nations peoples. The word "treaty" is an important one. A treaty is an agreement between sovereign nations. Terminology, in this case, is quite powerful. The implication of the word "treaty" is that the First Nations peoples were (ostensibly) afforded the recognition of sovereignty that our Westphalian system upheld at the time of their signing. Please pardon me for thinking that the original treaties were, perhaps, not signed in good faith as true Westphalian-style documents signifying mutual recognition and equality of sovereignty.

The system has not fared well. Neither has it assisted the First Nations in maintaining their ancestral ways of life or their land, nor has it allowed Canada to treat the First Nations as nations proper, alike in dignity to herself. True, there is a lot of blame to go around. True, there is much to be repaired in the system. As with any problem that needs fixing, it is better to roll up one's sleeves and fix it than to start by apportioning blame. The goal of such a system would be to return to the original concept of the treaties without dreaming anachronistic dreams. The First Nations peoples must be given the leeway to protect and preserve their culture and habitat, as well as being granted the sovereignty required to do so. Oddly enough, multiple benefits accrue from this arrangement... and to everybody involved. Follow closely: this is going to be somewhat unconventional.

Conservation as a means to cultural and industrial preservation

Part of that title may have forced some readers to purse their lips, but I'm serious - this is to preserve industry, too. Where there is the incentive of making money, money will go... so how does one make conservation an activity that not only preserves culture, fosters the development of industries, AND makes money? Well, I'm going to crib a bit from Paul Hawken on this one with a little riff of my own on the side. The concept is called a common utility. It means a resource held in common, but the holding of the resource is incentivised to grow the resource, not exploit it. It's a solution to the Nash Equilibrium of the Tragedy of the Commons. Oddly enough, a seed form of what I am about to describe was developed by the Coast Salish. The Coast Salish had a potlatch gift-giving economy, and it therefore suited them to foster their local resources in order to be able to give the most impressive gifts during potlatch. The same theory can hold today: fostering and husbanding resources allows these resources to be maintained at an acceptable level of abundance for posterity rather than exploited and exhausted. By preservation, we ensure responsible exploitation, which ensures long-term meaningful employment for the workers in a natural resource based industry.

The means Hawken suggests to combat the tragedy of the commons, such as overfishing, is to give the rights to all fish to someone. He makes an example of the Pacific salmon, which dovetails nicely with all our talk about the Coast Salish. Every salmon that is taken from the area protected by the salmon utility (including farmed and wild salmon) would have a small levy attached to it. Perhaps ten percent of the wholesale value of the fish removed from the watershed. This would go to the salmon utility, and the salmon utility would be responsible for watershed maintenance, education, habitat preservation, and overall improvement of the stocks of wild salmon. Hawken has a good idea there, but I feel it needs a little more oomph to really make the system functional.

First off, in the case of our fictional salmon utility, I think the government should enforce and collect the levy, because the government can. The government is good at collecting money and holding shirkers accountable. That's good. To maintain a strong incentive to build stocks, however, I feel that the utility should be rewarded for fish in the water, not simply fish taken out. Some metric could be selected... perhaps the size of the salmon run in a given year, or the total number of females of reproductive age in the run... but there should be the equivalent of the infamous share price bonus for the utility when it comes to the end of the fiscal (or should I say halieutic) year. This bonus would be a good incentive to boost stocks and improve habitat. Hawken also throws in that a mandated 90% of the profits of the utility must go to habitat improvement. Perhaps that will work, perhaps not. I think that if the bonus incentive is sexy enough, habitat improvement would happen as a matter of course, and not due to an imposition.

To get back to our Coast Salish, I propose the Coast Salish (and Tlingit, and Haida, and Nuxalk, and everybody else) be granted control of the salmon utility. As a matter of fact, they would also be able to form an oyster utility, a cockle utility, and a mighty clam utility. These ancient staples of the west coast people are under threat from, among other things, septic tank leachate, which renders them unsafe to eat. The money gained from the utility levy could be used for, among other things, purchasing safer and less harmful septic systems for coastal watershed houses. While the utilities would not be granted the right to appropriate land, there could perhaps be a case made to request the government acquire land on the behalf of the utility if it was absolutely necessary to habitat survival. The utility would be able to use its funds to purchase land on the open market in order to protect habitats. Land owned by the utility would not be built upon unless the housing was culturally appropriate.

This plan gives the sovereignty back to the First Nations peoples over their natural foodstuffs and products. It also creates a source of income based on sound ecological husbandry practices that are already part of the rich culture of peoples such as the Coast Salish. Some might argue that the government grants adequate First Nations fishing rights on the west coast, but the concept of a resource utility is ownership. Fishing rights are granted by the government and do not mean ownership any more than a sport fishing license does. Ownership begets stewardship when incentives are properly structured. The power of First Nations people to have sovereignty over their culturally significant resources is a particularly capitalist solution to an issue that fundamentally deals with wealth. In this case, natural wealth. The salmon fishing industry would be happy to see the salmon catch increase year on year. The salmon utility would benefit from increasing catches year on year, and the improvement of spawning grounds. All would benefit from environmental protection of beaches from water-borne disease and pollution, which would increase the total natural capital available for exploitation. Preservation creates wealth, and sustainable exploitation of that wealth creates long-term meaningful and satisfying employment. The empowerment of the First Nations would lead to preservation, preservation would lead to abundance, abundance to profit. The cycle would continue onward, a virtuous circle of increasing levies to create better habitats and greater stores of natural capital.

Each Nation or set of Nations would be granted a special utility over resources. For some it might be logging rights or hunting; for some acres of prairie or heads of buffalo; for some, lobsters or seal. In their sovereignty over natural wealth, I hope that First Nations peoples would find greater empowerment, perhaps coming closer to the original intent of the word "treaty" than heretofore experienced. Through an odd set of virtuous knock-on influences, the preservation of First Nations wealth would lead to greater stores of natural capital, and therefore more capacity for nature to support meaningful work and produce profit. Indeed, the profits of cooperation and mutual assistance would be far greater than simply those valued in dollars and cents.

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