Escarpment doesn't have tangible price tag

Dave Eckersley
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.

This plan seems to many of us to be completely nonsensical; we wonder how the provincial government could even contemplate such an action.

The answer to this question may lie in part in the field of economics.

Perhaps the current Conservative government places a different value on undisturbed wild places than do many individuals.

The 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.

How 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.

Do we even know how valuable it is, or is it like an endangered species: only to be missed after it's gone?

The 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.

This 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.

The 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.

Those things to which a price tag cannot readily be assigned are essentially valued at zero in this model.

Economists even have a technical term to describe these things that they dismiss from the debate -- "externalities."

An 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.

In 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.

A partial 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?

The economic model favoured by the current government sets the value of these natural things at zero.

Are 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?

It seems reasonable to me to place their value somewhere between those two extremes.

Development is necessary for our survival and prosperity, even if it does have negative consequences for the environment.

However, 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.

The 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.

If 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.

That $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.

And 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.

Dave Eckersley, of Hamilton, is a member of Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment. E-mail: mail@cope-nomph.org

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