Preston Manning the environmentalist

Preston ManningIn the late 1980s and early ’90s, when he was at the head of the right-wing–populist Reform Party, Preston Manning was the only major political leader in Canada talking sense about the monstrous federal budget deficit. Now, he’s among the only ones really talking sense about the environment.

In a way, they’re very similar problems. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Canada’s government got used to borrowing and spending way more money than it took in in taxes. Things were at their worst in 1985, when the feds spent $37 billion more than they took in, but the problem wasn’t taken seriously by any government until the International Monetary Fund cleared its throat in 1995 and warned that the country’s economy was dangerously vulnerable to a sudden shock like a global interest-rate hike.

Till then, the deficit was the sort of problem politicians occasionally paid lip-service to, but little more. Everybody knew that you couldn’t spend more than you were taking in forever, but actually doing something about it would have meant cutting spending or hiking taxes, and nobody wanted to do that.

Except Manning, who had spent most of the last decade insisting that the party had to end. The idea that borrowing billions of dollars each year for the routine operations of the government wasn’t sustainable wasn’t popular, and it was partly a stalking-horse for a generalized dislike of social programs, but it was Manning’s unpopular but very necessary message.

Now in the elder-statesman phase of his career, Preston Manning is articulating solutions to environmental problems in a language not many other public figures use:

Manning argues for something called full-cost accounting, or integrating the environmental costs of producing a good into its market price.

A shift to a mindset in which people commit to buying only environmentally friendly products, and are willing to pay a premium for them, is key, said Manning.

“That force would have greater impact on the market than all the speechifying or policy declarations by governments put together,” he said.

Still, that won’t happen unless the government is willing to step in and provide incentives to encourage consumers to make environmentally conscious choices, Manning added.

“If Alberta started pricing water, even if it just establishes some nominal price to get people used to the idea that it isn’t free, anybody that’s using water would have to take that into account,” he said.

Manning acknowledges that this approach would have its problems, but “at least we’d be starting down the right road.”

In other words, the party’s over. Time to face some hard facts and do something about them.

Here’s a version of this as reflected in notes for a speech Manning gave last week (the notes start out sparse and get more precise and readable as he gets to the good parts):

Somebody once said, “If it’s important, measure it.” Full cost accounting says that if the environmental consequences of producing a good or a service are important, then the costs of those impacts and actions to mitigate or eliminate them should be measured and internalized into the price of the good or service being produced.

In a competitive market, if all firms are required to measure and mitigate those harmful environmental impacts and incorporate the cost in their prices, it will be those who can do so most efficiently that will survive and prosper. And prices that incorporate environmental stewardship costs send an important conservation signal to you and me as consumers as well.

In this province, perhaps one of the best places to start applying the concept of full cost accounting and pricing is with respect to water. Our province includes some of the most important and valuable watersheds and aquifers on the continent. We are also enormous consumers of fresh water, especially by the agricultural and petroleum sectors. And as individuals, because most of us consider water to be free or virtually free, there is no substantial price constraint on our personal usage.

Application of the concept of full cost accounting and pricing to the conservation of water would require us as a matter of public policy to meter, measure, and appropriately price all water used by Albertans if we want to effectively manage and conserve this vital national resource.

Would such an approach impose some initial hardship and inequities on some individuals and industries? Yes it would, and public policy would have to include measures to recognize and mitigate those.

But if you want a clear and comprehensive signal with respect to the value and environmental costs of using and sustaining water resources, to be sent to every Albertan every day, dozens of times a day, every time any one of us turns on a tap or any business or industry sticks a pipe into a river or reservoir, there is absolutely no substitute for communicating those messages through full cost accounting and a properly established pricing system.

Needless to say, I agree with Manning that mechanisms like the ones he’s talking about are the only way this is ever going to work.

Instead of proposing such things, Canadian federal politicians fall into three camps:

  • Problem? What problem? (Conservatives)
  • We need regulations to make certain evil people do what everyone else agrees is important (New Democrats)
  • Let’s talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and eventually come up with some half-assed regulations to make people do what everyone agrees is important (Liberal)

Maybe ironically, the people who sound like they’re closest to Preston Manning on this stuff are those in the non-crazy wing of the Green Party. I sure hope Manning keeps talking like this, and sending pointed notes to his old friends still in the government in Ottawa.

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