Virtue or Vice


luxury of Canadian elections is that they don’t matter too much. We are
embroiled in only one unpopular foreign war, our financial institutions are not
yet shattering under the weight of mass greed, our health care system isn’t on
the brink of collapse, and none of our hockey moms will be given the launch
codes for a nuclear armory. But the upcoming election, called for October 14th
of this year, has put one of the boldest and most important policy initiatives
in global politics on the table: the Liberal Party’s “green shift.” The policy
would make carbon taxation the principal source of government revenue. And
though Stéphane Dion, the Liberal party leader, claims the new tax would be
revenue neutral--involving deep cuts to corporate and personal income tax--the
shift would completely restructure the Canadian economy around its
environmental policy. Al Gore could ask for no more.

What makes such a profound change possible is that the
Liberals would only need a minority government to make it a reality--the Greens
and the New Democrats, the parties to its left, have even more radical
environmental policies on their platforms. Dion’s opponent on the right,
however, is the current Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party,
Stephen Harper, whose most important environment policy initiative so far has
been to propose reducing the tax on diesel. Elizabeth May, the leader of the Greens, has
called his ideas proactively destructive: “It’s not a climate change plan; it’s
a climate disaster plan.” The Prime Minister’s environmental troglodytism can
in part be attributed to the fact that he’s from Alberta, Canada’s answer to
Texas, which has been booming during the recent rise in oil prices due to huge
resources in its tar sands and its proximity to insatiable American markets. He
also clearly believes that, in the end, Canadians will choose doing nothing
over fundamentally altering their way of life.

But environmentalism is chic in Canada--with lush wilderness close
by even major cities--and it frequently ranks as the most important political
issue in surveys. In a recent study by Canada Post, our mail service up here, 75
percent of Canadians “consider environmental conservation and preservation as a
matter of personal importance.” Unfortunately, Canada also has wide spaces
between towns which require a great deal of carbon-based energy to cross. The
huge resources in the Albertan tar sands--somewhere between 1.7 and 2.5
trillion barrels of oil, much greater than Saudi Arabia--require immense
amounts of heat and water to refine. So despite our desire for virtue, we
actually live dirty. The central question of the election is whether our virtue
or our dirtiness will triumph.

Harper thinks it’s good politics to bet on dirtiness,
largely because he sees Dion for what he is: a huge liability to his party.
Dion may be an interesting and bold political thinker, but he is a terrible
politician, only barely fluent in English--a deficiency he attributes to a
hearing disorder--and despised in French Canada for his history of aggressive

There are other, deeper problems with selling the Green
Shift. The basic idea is excellent, possibly even necessary to our survival: a
way to lower our national carbon footprint significantly without altering the
peculiarly Canadian amalgam of capitalism and socialism which is cherished by
an overwhelming majority of Canadians. “Our plan is as powerful as it simple,”
reads the Green Shift manifesto. “We will cut taxes on those things we all want
more of … and we will shift those taxes to things we all want less of.” The
document goes on to promise that, within four years, a middle class family
(earning $60,000 a year with two kids) will pay $1,300 dollars less in taxes.
But such figures are beyond useless--empty projections within campaign
promises. Nobody knows what, exactly, would happen if instead of taxing income
we started taxing carbon emissions; predicting the future behavior of 34
million people to a completely different way of life is impossible. The
specifics are wooly exactly because no one has ever attempted such a thing
before. And given the current economic crisis, a dive into fiscal uncertainty
may have less appeal that it might otherwise.

No doubt the larger question of the environment will
continue to be a major division within Canadian politics; it may even replace
the bitter Constitutional struggles of the 1980s and ’90s as the Big Issue.
Dion, however, has probably miscalculated how much of their cherished security
and stability Canadians are willing to sacrifice for even their loftiest hopes
and ideals.

And even if he hasn’t miscalculated, a plan as complicated
and transformational as the Green Shift may just need a better a salesman. Over
the course of the campaign, Dion has become a byword for poor political
organization. The Liberals were caught so much by surprise when the election
was called that the only campaign plane they could find was a 30 year old
Boeing 737, the aeronautical equivalent of a gas-guzzling old Dodge, while the
Conservatives managed to snag an Airbus 319, much cleaner and more modern. To
make matters worse, on their first trip from Quebec to Ontario, one of the
generators on the Liberal aircraft failed, and they had to make an emergency
landing in Montreal. The symbolism couldn’t have been more painfully obvious--a
group of environmental idealists sitting in the dark, on the tarmac, powerless.


Stephen Marche is a
culture columnist for Esquire, and
the author, most recently, of Shining
at the Bottom of the Sea

By Stephen Marche

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