Maybe, rather than heckling, he could use his time to pursue the reading list that I have recommended to him on a number of occasions.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to reference in this context an article about Edmund Burke and the environment, an article that I think is an interesting reflection on the relationship between Burkean principles and sustainability. Edmund Burke is seen as a foremost thinker within the conservative tradition. Edmund Burke articulates this idea of sustainability that we should not be seeking radical revolutions that ignore the wisdom of the past but seeking progress in an incremental and positive way. I think the relationship between Burkean conservatism and environmentalism, properly understood, is quite clear. It is that just as we seek to preserve the goods of civilization, we seek to preserve the goods of the environment.
My favourite thinkers in Canadian and English conservatism are Edmund Burke and Thomas More. It is interesting to think about these two thinkers, generally presented as conservatives, in relation to each other. Thomas More wrote a book called Utopia. His reflections on political philosophy are presented in this book, where he imagined a place far away. He wrote as if it existed. However, “utopia” in Latin means “no place”, so it is very clearly a kind of playful use of words to imply that utopia, indeed, does not exist. Thomas More's utopia is actually a place where sustainability is highly prized and much attention is paid to the need to preserve the environment and to have a sustainable society.
What is interesting about More is that he imagined, in a fictionalized sort of way, a far-away place with a totally different structure of society compared with the society in which he lived. In fact, in his own political career, he did not, in some critical areas, pursue policies at home that he described as being pursued in utopias. Therefore, people wonder if Thomas More's utopia is playful fun or a description of policies he would like to have seen pursued if he could have advocated them, but he felt that he could not given the constraints and the politics of the society he lived in. I think Thomas More's utopia is really neither of these things. Rather, he is more inviting us to expand the scope of political possibilities by imagining a different kind of society, and not thinking that we could get there or even would want to get there right away, but rather realizing that other things are possible.
It is interesting to reflect on the English Conservative Canada and the way in which Burke and More both exist as part of it. I think both of these things are part of how we should think about sustainability. We should think about sustainability in this Burkean way of trying to preserve our heritage, our history, and pass it on in complete and, ideally, better form to the next generation. At the same time as we think about those kind of measured incremental improvements we can make to the sustainability of our environment, we should also pause to imagine completely different kinds of societies and the possibility of things working in a very different way. However, we are not capricious enough to think that we can get there overnight by flipping a switch without unintended consequences, because we are societies with histories, with existing economies, with existing cultures, and in the process of imagining that possible future, we need to recognize at the same time the need to move in an incremental way that bears the wisdom of our history.
Doing those things together is what Conservatives have sought to do. It reflects the best insights of the opportunities we have when it comes to sustainability.
I found a brief column called “Edmund Burke's Earth Day Speech”, written by someone named Byron Kenner, who writes: “How environmentalists became Burkians and Burkians became environmentalists”. He says:
Here’s my favorite quote from Edmund Burke’s Earth Day speech, “Never, no, never did Nature say one thing and Wisdom another.” Isn’t that terrific? And so apt for the occasion! I couldn’t have said it better myself.
What’s that you say? Edmund Burke didn’t make an Earth Day speech! He couldn’t have! Earth Day was in 1970, almost 200 years after Burke died. That’s true, of course, but, nevertheless, there he was--big as life--seated next to me on the speakers’ platform. Funny, but what struck me as strange was Burke’s speaking at all. Why was Edmund Burke--of all people--addressing an Earth Day rally? Talk about a fish out of water!
Edmund Burke is regarded as the founder of modern conservatism, and Earth Day 1970 was a high-water mark of the then prevalent left-wing counter culture.
More strangeness was to follow. When Burke began speaking, I--along with the huge crowd listening--was soon mesmerized by his magnificent eloquence. Speaking of nature’s bounty, Burke urged Americans “not to commit waste on the inheritance...hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of a habitation.”
As he went on, I realized Burke was describing a coherent, overall approach to environmental protection, one that was simple, powerful, and persuasive.
This is Burkian environmentalism. Here is what it boiled down to:
It’s highly imprudent, Burke warned, for humans to radically intervene in the functioning of natural systems whose boundless complexity and infinite interdependence exceed our understanding. Such interventions are especially unwise and dangerous when these systems--such as climate--underpin our very existence. Plaintively, Burke asked what in past human experience suggests that such large-scale meddling is harmless? On the contrary, it’s prudent to assume that great risks are involved.
(In his remarks, Burke acclaimed prudence as “the chief among virtues.” So I wanted to be absolutely sure of the word’s exact meaning. I checked the dictionary: prudence is the exercise of careful good judgment based on actual past experience and the application of such judgment to show care for the future.)
I think the application of the virtue of prudence to our environmental decision-making is critical and often absent from the calculation of the government. Prudence is the virtue that invites us to see the practical world the way it really is, to learn from our experience and to be measured and wise in our response to it. Unfortunately, when it comes to the environment, we often see that the government is not prudent. Instead, we see the pursuit of contradictory policies in the name of sustainability, policies that do not actually move us toward sustainable objectives. There are policies designed to look like a statement is being made, but not actually make anything resembling substantive progress.
Our reflection on this particular tradition in the words of Burke and the principles around prudence could well inform the actions of the government.
The article continues:
When it comes to politics and government, Burke argued that prudence--simple, ordinary prudence--in itself provides a sound base for public policy on the environment. And because this is self-evidently true, environmental activists can stand and fight on this base with strength and confidence.
The second point about Burkian environmentalism that is made in the article is the desirability of organic change:
Burke made clear that his call for prudence is not a call to halt progress. He believes that change is desirable, necessary, and in any case nature compels it. “We must all obey the great law of change,” he declared. “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.”
This is perhaps a challenge to some of the caricaturist versions of Burke that are presented by his critics. Some people suggest he was against any kind of change, but that is not the case. He speaks of change as a law of nature and the value of organic change as a way to ensure we sustain our civilization, we sustain our ability, but also recognize the change should happen in a way that is organic. The challenge he said is how to best manage change.
Continuing the article, it states:
Burke believes the answer to this challenge may be found in the functioning of natural systems. Change must be sought organically. Organic change occurs on a small scale, incrementally, from the bottom up. It evolves without being forced or contrived.
Organic change should characterize environmental politics too. Burke said change in nature was “a condition of unchangeable constancy, (that) moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve, we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete.”
This is some beautiful language coming from Edmund Burke, making a connection between the sustainability of the environment and then the policies we pursue to make the environment sustainable, making that connection also to the kinds of policies we pursue in other areas, to the way we treat our institutions, that we recognize the need for our institutions to be sustainable to preserve what is good about them and where we make changes, to do them in a way that is organic.
This is a point I do not think is well understood by the government. Although it may talk the talk of sustainability, I think it misunderstands its richer application, at least in the way I do, following what is being said by Burke.
The government talks about making immediate and radical changes on which often it cannot deliver. It made promises, for instance, to dramatically change the electoral system and it failed to deliver on that promise. The context of the consultations that happened through the discussion was that people made the point that there were benefits of our existing system that needed to be preserved. Therefore, when we talk about possible changes to the way our democratic institutions work, we have to make changes in a way that is sustainable, not just in the sense that we allow those institutions to continue to exist, but that we sustain the benefits, the wisdom and the effectiveness of those previous institutions.
This is the essence of Burkean philosophy applied to politics. However, it draws an important connection between what we observe in the natural world, change, yes, but the preservation of that change in an organic context and how we ought to think about our institutions. They are not the sorts of things we should cut down and redesign on a whim.
I think about our own parliamentary institutions, how they have evolved organically and how we continue to look for opportunities to change and improve them, how we discuss ways possibly that we can strengthen our institutions, but at the same time do so in ways that reflect observed problems and a desire to preserve the wisdom of the past. That is what we should be doing when we have discussions about ways to preserve the sustainability of strengthening our institutions.
Bill C-57 invites us to use the tools of sustainability more, to include in our reporting and accountability to the government a greater emphasis on sustainability. The government probably thinks about that language of sustainability primarily in the economic context. However, I hope this will engender a deeper appreciation of the value of sensitivity, of how all policy-making, the way we act in the context of our institutions, the way we preserve social institutions and the way we interact with community groups about our fiscal and economic policy. Are we doing things in ways that preserve the sustainability of those institutions?
I wonder if, in the context of goals being set on sustainability, as mandated by Bill C-57, we will see a greater use of that tool in the reports they give. I hope we will see that, because certainly, that is something that is worthwhile and quite important.
I am going to continue now to read from this article about Edmund Burke's approach to environmentalism. The article states:
In this connection, Burke heaped praise on the thousands of new small green businesses and entrepreneurial endeavours now flourishing throughout the country. These businesses are not only transforming the economy, he said, they are also forming a vibrant and vocal political constituency. (Hearing this, I thought—wow!—a constituency like this is exactly what Burkean environmentalism needs if its promise is to be realized.)
We hear him speak about the issue of, in Burke's time, small green businesses, entrepreneurial endeavours coming from within civil society that were responding in a concrete way to the environmental challenges that were faced. Those, he understood, were the benefits associated with that policy.