Sunday, September 20, 2009

Playing To Win At Environmental Engagement

Saying that many Canadians consider themselves environmentally conscious is like saying Albertans cheer for a pro hockey team. While we cheer for a team, the colors we wear can be very different. Just like some folks cheer for the Oilers and others for the Flames, local governments in Canada choose very different approaches to engaging with environmental issues.
A proposal to develop a huge waste management facility in Thorhild County, northeast of Edmonton typifies one approach to engaging with environmental issues. The proposed “SuperDump” will receive waste from the City of Edmonton and other sources. On the surface, it’s not the Angelina Jolie of economic development proposals. However, the Company promises local jobs and corporate community involvement, along with a substantial boost to the municipal tax base.
That was enough to win the enthusiastic support of Thorhild County Council. When ratepayers twice challenged the project because of its potential environmental impact, Councilors pointed to the projected economic benefits for the community.
Deeply concerned about potential environmental risks, particularly to the water supply, opponents of the proposed facility corralled 1200 signatures on a petition opposing approval without a complete Environmental Impact Assessment. Since there are approximately 3000 residents in the County, that’s a significant number. Yet Thorhild Council continues to enthusiastically support the proposal.
Community environmental engagement can also see the cards stacked against needed economic activity. A proposed development on Saltspring Island, British Columbia is an excellent example.
Saltspring is a community with a small commercial base primarily dependent upon tourism. Housing is expensive, and good–paying jobs are in short supply. It’s a difficult place to live for lower–income residents.
Some Island-based businesses have prospered. One of those is Saltspring Coffee. It’s one of Canada’s largest and most respected micro-roasters of certified organic, fair-trade, shade-grown, and carbon-neutral coffees.
That ongoing success made business expansion necessary. The company started the application process for building a new plant on Saltspring, promising a strong boost to the Island economy.
However, Saltspringers pride themselves on their sense of environmental responsibility and the proposed expansion quickly ran into rough seas. Local disapproval centered on the environmental impact of the proposed coffee-roasting operation, particularly to air and water quality.
To address these concerns, the company’s proposal underwent several expensive environmental studies. Ultimately, the completed studies validated the company’s strategies to mitigate the environmental impact.
Was Saltspring Coffee’s proposed expansion approved? The member of the Island Trust casting the deciding vote on the proposal said she voted “No” because the proposal was “The thin edge of the development wedge”. That hollow rationale is impossible to quantify and is a huge red flag to anyone planning future investment on Saltspring.
What lessons can we learn from Thorhild County and Saltspring Island? In Thorhild County, it appears that the mantra of economic growth for the sake of economic growth drowns out many voices calling for environmental stewardship. On Saltspring, a reflexive “All economic development is evil” mindset creates a climate that driving away future economic development.
So how can communities avoid the rigidity and dogma that can pervade community engagement on the environment? Communities winning the environmental engagement game will be the ones using the Detroit Red Wings approach to hockey. The Red Wings team culture demands players holding themselves personally accountable and working within a balanced, system-driven approach.
That’s a great model for communities looking for a winning strategy for environmental engagement. Communities implementing planning and approval processes requiring collaborative information gathering, respectful conversation, and community accountability are on the way to successfully engaging environmental issues. They are the kind of community – or hockey team– that anyone can cheer for.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Social Side of Community Engagement

Albertans have a curious attitude towards the social element of community life. We talk a lot about the “Alberta way”, irrigating talk-show radio’s arid pastures with verbal cloudbursts extolling the wisdom found in small-town Alberta where “Community comes first.”
Yet reality is often different. When Alberta communities make important public decisions, some see economic gain as the fruit on the tree. Environmental concerns are the potential risks to the tree’s fruit. The social element of a community is the bird that might be enticed to come to sing in the tree.
We are puzzled when boom–time Alberta workers from places like Newfoundland and Saskatchewan make their money and return home. How can they turn their back on Paradise?
Do we have something to learn from Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, where life in socially engaged communities is often quite different? In those communities, the economy is the trunk of the tree providing support and feeding nourishment to the branches. The environmental element is the leaves– the sunlight receptors ensuring vigorous, sustainable growth. Anchoring the tree are the roots –the social elements of community life. All three are essential and interdependent.
Socially–engaged communities endure because of their attributes. Diversity is one of those attributes. Social diversity adds zest and vigor to community life. Yet in much of rural Alberta, the amount of social diversity is somewhere between Slim and Zippo, and Slim just moved back to Regina.
Alberta didn't start out that way. The homesteaders who broke the land and built the foundation of this province were a motley crew from all over the globe. Many were economic and/or political refugees with differing faiths and values. A common desire for a new and better life united them, along with the stark reality of their mutual interdependence. In the community “code” that governed life in that era, one never – ever – left another person alone and stuck in the ditch, even if the stuck person was your worst enemy. To do so would irrevocably stain your reputation.
Diversity can lead to conflict, and that leads to the second attribute of socially engaged communities– the ability to use conflict as a tool in building a tolerant and enduring society. Properly managed conflict is to human progress as yeast is to wine. Discussions focusing on listening before speaking, and on mutual engagement rather than posturing, lead to deeper understanding and creative solutions.
All too often, the preferred community governance “Modus Operandi” for resolving issues is issue-avoidance or unilateral decision-making. Avoiding issues always resolves them in favor of the status quo, and unilateral decision-making disempowers the community. However, open and respectful conversations on important community issues leads to a deeper examination of the issue, and the possibility of alternative solutions.
Rocky Mountain House is a good example of a community with the courage to discuss and act together on a social concern. That community engaged in a thorough examination of the issues involved in Video Lottery Terminals. The community made its decision after thoroughly discussing the pros and cons.
Regardless of whether we agree with the outcome, we should applaud the community’s courage, for there are risks associated with this kind of open discussion. Would this community discussion tear open wounds that might take generations to heal?
It took courage and a strong belief in the validity of community social engagement to take such a chance. Rocky Mountain House had that courage. That’s the kind of guts that built this province, and I believe it’s the real “Alberta way”.
In the next post, I'll share my views on environmental engagement.