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.