Thank you very much, Mr. Godfrey, and Chair. It's a pleasure to be here and to have this opportunity to address the committee.
I am here today to speak to you about the sustainability principles that are in clause 5 of Bill C-474 and about why they are a critical component of the bill.
In my role with The Natural Step I've worked with dozens of organizations that have found these principles helpful in sustainability planning, from municipalities as diverse as Whistler in B.C.; to the town of Olds in Alberta; to the Halifax Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia; to associations, small businesses, and community service organizations, such as the Santropol Roulant in Montreal; and to large corporations such as Alcan, The Co-operators, and Nike.
In each of these organizations and communities I've witnessed first-hand the power of having a rigorous set of scientific sustainability principles that act as a compass to provide direction and structure for sustainability change initiatives.
So I want to address three things in my remarks this afternoon: first, where do the principles come from?; second, why are they important generally?; and third, why are they important specifically for this bill?
Before I begin, though, I want to emphasize the essence of my presentation; that is, if we're going to be strategic about sustainability, we need to know where we're headed. We need to know what success is in terms of sustainability.
Let me start with where the principles come from. In the late 1980s, frustrated by seemingly endless public debates about matters of health and the environment, a network of leading Swedish scientists from a variety of disciplines, led by a cancer researcher, Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, engaged in a process of trying to articulate a scientific consensus about the requirements for a sustainable society. Rather than debating each of the requirements in detail, they sought a principle-based definition that was broad enough in scope to encompass all the details with a full systems view. They began by focusing on what they could agree on, rather than what they disagreed about.
After more than twenty iterations of the document, the scientists achieved a consensus, and their findings were endorsed by the King of Sweden. They were mailed out to every Swedish household and incorporated into the curriculum of every Swedish school. The not-for-profit organization called The Natural Step, which I'm involved with, emerged as a vehicle to disseminate this material and to work with governments and businesses to incorporate it into their planning and decision-making.
Since then, the scientific work of that first network of scientists has been scrutinized and elaborated upon by a much larger international network of scientists and published in scientific peer-reviewed journals. The sustainability principles have been adopted by thousands of businesses, governments, and not-for-profit organizations as guiding principles for sustainability. And the process of applying them in this wide variety of organizations has helped to further develop the original material into a tangible, concrete planning framework for decision-making for sustainability.
What is it that the scientists agreed on? I'll spare the committee the details of the rigorous science that underlie the principles except to say that it begins with an understanding of the earth as a system and an acknowledgement of fundamental scientific laws.
By recognizing that the sustainability of life on earth is really about the capacity of natural cycles to run forever and that nature was doing just fine with that until relatively recently, the scientists identified three main ways that we as human beings in a modern industrial society disrupt natural cycles to cause the many problems that end up as headlines in our newspapers. So there are three main ways, and I'm just going to go through each of them as they relate to the three principles in clause 5.
First, we dig up substances from the earth's crust--various minerals, oil and gas, and so on--that have taken thousands or millions of years to be deposited. We then use them in our products and processes and then release them into nature. We do this at a faster rate than nature redeposits those substances back into the earth's crust. As a result, they accumulate in natural systems and eventually cause problems if their concentrations get too high. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mercury in our fish, cadmium in our kidneys, and so on are all examples of that.
From this comes the first sustainability principle, which is mentioned in paragraph 5.(1)(a). Note that the first principle does not say that a sustainable society requires that we not use any material at all from the earth's crust. It does not say that there is no mining in a sustainable society. It does say that whatever materials we use from the earth's crust, we must use them in a way that prevents their accumulation in natural systems. This means using them efficiently and using them in products and processes where they can be recaptured and reused rather than released into the atmosphere, water, or soil.
Second, we combine molecules into new, more complex molecules that nature has never seen before, and we use these complex molecules in products and processes that eventually allow them to be released into natural systems. Because nature has never seen them before, it cannot break them down within its regular cycles, so they too begin to accumulate. From this comes the second principle, which is noted in paragraph 5(1)(b) in the bill.
Again, note that the second principle does not say that there are no chemicals in a sustainable society; it says that a sustainable society will require that we be efficient in our use of them, and most importantly that we use them in ways that allow them to be captured and reused rather than dispersed into nature, where they can accumulate.
Third, we physically degrade nature's ability to run natural cycles by encroaching into natural areas, overharvesting renewable resources, and eroding nature's ability to process our waste. That leads to the third principle, paragraph 5(1)(c).
All of the downstream effects we know and hear about regularly in the news, like climate change, acid rain, deforestation, depletion of fish stocks, and toxins in our toys that accumulate in our tissues, can be traced back to one or more of these three ecological mechanisms. They are all downstream symptoms of more fundamental problems in how our societies are designed.
Now that I've covered the basic principles, I want to talk briefly about why I think they're important. First, while the sustainability principles are the minimum requirements for a sustainable society, they provide direction for efforts to become more sustainable by actually defining what that means.
Because they are based in rigorous yet simple science that everyone can agree with, they help groups of people within and between organizations overcome their differences to form a common shared goal. Also, in organizations that are striving to be innovative and leaders in their adoption of more sustainable practices and technologies, the principles provide the boundaries within which the innovation process can be focused.
The principles are non-prescriptive. They simply tell us the minimum conditions for sustainability and leave individual organizations, communities, and governments to work out what this means for them in their unique situation. Organizations begin to scrutinize each and every decision, whether they are capital decisions, research and development priorities, education programs and so on, for their ability to bring the organization a step closer to alignment with the principles.
We do not need to, nor could we, reach sustainability with any single action or investment, but we can use the principles to scrutinize our investments and programs for how well they are moving us and how well we're being innovative. Without rigorous principles to provide a solid understanding of success, too many well-intentioned efforts in sustainable development become exercises in describing the status quo or justifying marginal improvements on the status quo.
The leaders of the sustainable development movement, in both the public and private sector, are those who can tap into the creative capacity of their people to bring about transformative innovations that create positive social, economic, and environmental outcomes. The sustainability principles help us know what is ultimately required to achieve this.
Now that I've described the principles and why they're important, I want to leave you with why I believe they're important and relevant to this bill.
First, this is clearly a place where there are widely differing views. In such a context, there's a strong need for a shared language for something so important to our nation's future as sustainability. My sense is that this is vitally important, especially considering that governments will change, politicians will come and go, priorities will shift, but the forces driving the need for sustainable development will only strengthen over time.
Second, we want Canada to be a leader in the coming sustainability wave, capitalizing on the capacity of Canadians to be innovative in sustainable development. My sense is that establishing the parameters for that innovative effort is one of the goals of this bill.
Third, we have heard numerous times from the current and previous commissioners of the environment and sustainable development that the federal departmental sustainable development strategies lack a clear sense of what they're striving for. It is no surprise, then, that they often end up being exercises in eloquently describing the status quo or marginal improvements to it.
Rigorous sustainability principles that can be used to derive tangible goals and metrics are vitally important to be able to monitor progress and to be accountable citizens. Legislation is where principles are described, it's where we lay out our aspirations for justice and the principles that guide our actions. Today I've laid out three basic principles that together describe the underlying causes of all our environmental challenges.
In conclusion, I would like to underscore that addressing each problem one by one, after it becomes a threat, is a terrible way to go about society's business. A national sustainable development act is therefore an ideal place to enshrine a core set of sustainability principles, because they will be fundamental to our success over the long term.
That's all. Thank you.