The Hamilton Spectator November 19, 2002
The Niagara Escarpment is currently in jeopardy of being bisected
by the government's planned construction of the mid-peninsula highway.
plan seems to many of us to be completely nonsensical; we wonder
how the provincial government could even contemplate such an action.
answer to this question may lie in part in the field of economics.
the current Conservative government places a different value on
undisturbed wild places than do many individuals.
Niagara Escarpment runs like a ribbon of unspoiled land through
some of the most heavily developed and populated areas in Canada.
Its difficult terrain and irregular topography have mostly protected
it so far from the frenzy for development that has always characterized
land use planning in southern Ontario.
lucky we are to have such proximity and easy access to wild land,
home to thousands of species of plants and animals, waterfalls,
hiking trails, wetlands and forests. It is an oasis of nature running
through Southern Ontario.
we even know how valuable it is, or is it like an endangered species:
only to be missed after it's gone?
provincial government's plan to pave a great swath of the escarpment
to construct the mid-peninsula highway from Fort Erie to Burlington
demonstrates a cavalier attitude about the effects of development
upon natural wild lands and the creatures that live there.
attitude (and the economic theory that underpins it) is one that
the current government and indeed society as a whole should think
about moving beyond.
attitude is shaped by economics -- the simple economic model evidently
favoured by the government, in which only those things that have
obvious and tangible price tags attached are thought to have any
value -- houses, convenience stores, trucks, new highways, etc.
things to which a price tag cannot readily be assigned are essentially
valued at zero in this model.
even have a technical term to describe these things that they dismiss
from the debate -- "externalities."
externality is something that is outside the model. In other words,
it is dismissed right off the bat -- its value is deemed to be zero
and it doesn't merit further consideration.
the case of the planned mid-peninsula highway, the government's
list of externalities is long and varied -- not only plants, animals,
forests and wetlands referred to earlier, but also many things to
which it's even more difficult to assign a price tag.
list of these might include clean air to breathe (air not yet filled
with the exhaust from a million SUVs); nights so dark that thousands
of stars can be seen (nights without thousands of headlights to
dilute that view); the quiet that can be felt in nature (a quiet
that turns out to be filled with rustlings and bird calls audible
to the patient listener); the sight of a hawk circling over a field;
or of a deer bounding away with tail high and flashing white; or
of a spotted turtle basking in a wetland. Can we place price tags
on things such as these?
economic model favoured by the current government sets the value
of these natural things at zero.
they really worth nothing? Or are they so valuable as to be priceless
and worth protecting no matter what, as those in the radical fringes
of the environmental movement would say?
seems reasonable to me to place their value somewhere between those
is necessary for our survival and prosperity, even if it does have
negative consequences for the environment.
development as our only objective, governed by an economic view
in which the natural world is valued at zero and perceived simply
as an obstacle to be overcome, filled in, or paved over, is an attitude
that is starting to seem as dated as the steam engine. It is an
attitude that we should leave behind.
mid-peninsula highway is massive, costly, and a potential environmental
disaster. It represents a terrific opportunity for the government
to rethink its transportation and development planning and begin
to place value on the intangibles in nature.
they do, they might decide that the $2 billion they're prepared
to spend to pave a huge ribbon of asphalt could be better spent.
$2 billion goes a long way towards improving transit, rail and existing
roads. These improvements could accomplish their goal of easing
the transportation congestion they imagine exists between Burlington
and Fort Erie.
the externalities? They'd be protected. And maybe the government
and the transportation ministry would even come to a realization
-- these things are not external at all. They are integral. They
have value. Having them near us and available to us enriches all
of our lives.
Eckersley, of Hamilton, is a member of Citizens Opposed to Paving
the Escarpment. E-mail: email@example.com