Sunday, June 1, 2008

Beyond Brain-Dead Accounting

My submission to the Voluntary Planning hearings on natural resource policy came down to just 10 words.

Go beyond brain-dead accounting. Use the Genuine Progress Index.

Nova Scotia Voluntary Planning is holding consultations on a long-term natural resources strategy for the province, looking particularly at forests, minerals, parks and biodiversity. Clearly, something big is afoot. Meetings have already been held in Pugwash, Parrsboro, Blockhouse, Port Hawkesbury, Middleton, Tusket, Dartmouth, Inverness, Saulnierville, Middle Musquodoboit, St. Ann's, Debert, New Minas, Shelburne, Cheticamp, Windsor, and St. Peters.

Further meetings will be held in Sherbrooke, Sheet Harbour, Weymouth, Membertou, Yarmouth, Halifax, Liverpool, Stellarton, and Antigonish. There will be three meetings in French. It's also possible to submit written comments. Details are at

These consultations may shape the government's natural resources strategy for years to come. But alarmed conservationists reported that the early meetings were packed with industry representatives demanding that the province reduce the number of protected areas, support clear-cutting and herbicide spraying, relax its regulations on mining and, specifically, abolish the moratorium on uranium exploration and mining.

Ye gods. But if nobody else is heard, those voices will control the discussion. So I trotted off to St. Peters with my ten-word recommendation.

Go beyond brain-dead accounting, I said. Use the Genuine Progress Index.

Every economic activity has costs as well as benefits. Brain-dead accounting overlooks the most important costs, and overstates the benefits. For example, it sees a forest only as potential pulp and lumber. The only costs are the cost of labour and equipment to cut it down. The benefits are employment and profit.

But a living forest is a natural community which confers all kinds of other benefits. It inhales greenhouse gasses like CO2, and exhales oxygen. It provides habitat for life forms which enrich the soil and pollinate our crops. A forest absorbs rainwater, filters it, and regulates its release into the streams. It prevents soil erosion, attracts visitors, provides us with recreational activities like hunting, fishing and hiking.

To the forest industry -- indeed, to the industrial economy generally -- such benefits literally count for nothing.

A natural forest also produces more and better wood than a clearcut one. Windhorse Farm, in Lunenburg County, has been logged selectively and sustainably since 1840. No pesticides, no clearcuts. Its rich, mature Acadian forest has produced more lumber than would have been produced by clear-cutting and re-growing and the site contains as much standing timber today as in 1840.

GPI studies have also found that forestry jobs per unit of wood cut have steadily declined with the growth of industrial forestry. Sustainable forestry produces far more jobs than clear-cutting.

The 170-year experiment at Windhorse Farms simply ends the debate on clear-cutting, which really amounts to mining and destroying the forest, just as we mined and destroyed the cod fishery. If clear-cutting destroys the other benefits of a forest, and doesn't even produce as much wood as selective logging, it simply can't be permitted.

Uranium mining and nuclear power are even worse. Uranium mine tailings are viciously toxic, and they persist for generations. Nuclear power plants are so dangerous that they can't get liability insurance at any price -- so they are insured by government. That's you and me, buddy. Wastes from nuclear plants have to be securely stored for centuries, perhaps millennia. Nobody knows how to do that, and the costs, though real, are simply incalculable -- so they aren't calculated. They're ignored.

That's brain-dead accounting, the kind of accounting that goes into calculations of the Gross Domestic Product. It's the normal basis for economic decision-making, and it's hideously wrong. If we had kept the ecological books properly in the first place, we wouldn't be facing environmental catastrophe today.

The essence of the Genuine Progress Index, by contrast, is "full-cost accounting,"
which recognizes the value of such natural capital as standing forests, healthy populations, productive soils and waterways -- and the cost of destroying such assets. Over the past decade, GPI Atlantic ( has been publishing realistic accounts for Nova Scotia, using our province as a test-bed for techniques to be applied globally.

The GPI is a fabulous gift to Nova Scotia. Nobody else has it. It covers almost every sphere of human activity, and it's almost complete. It should be the foundation of any discussion of natural resource strategies in this province.

We can choose to ignore the GPI and the environmental crisis, fouling the earth with toxins and consuming the natural wealth that belongs to our descendants. But the St. Peters crowd, which included several forest workers, was largely on the GPI wavelength. It wanted to develop sustainable lifestyles, and agreed that a top priority should be the restoration of our depleted forests.

The death of brain-dead economics and the birth of genuine progress. It's a vision as beautiful as sunrise.

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