Confessions of a closet tree hugger

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Appeared in the National Post
Several years ago, after a day-long hike in Kananaskis country (a magnificent wilderness that abuts Banff National Park), I drove by two vehicles stopped by the side of the mountain highway.  The passengers were busily feeding potato chips to a small herd of mountain sheep.

I could have kept driving and cursed the central Canadian tourists under my breath (sorry, but the SUVs had Ontario plates). Or I could have grabbed my cell phone and passed on their licence numbers to park wardens, who might have levied a fine.

Instead, I pulled over and gently asked the visitors to stop feeding the sheep the treats.  The chips, I explained, would only encourage the animals to trot by the road more often, which could have tragic consequences if a car came around a nearby corner too quickly. The tourists mumbled an embarrassed acknowledgment; I wished them a wonderful stay in the mountains.

I'm aware that for some, the notion that a Fraser Institute director might care about nature goes against type. The conventional narrative is that concern for continued prosperity is necessarily anti-environment; the opposite narrative also exists, where self-identified greens want the human race to live in medieval hovels.  

However, the real debates on the environment, and our responsibility for it, are far more nuanced.  They involve useful deliberation about the role of more or less regulation, carrots and sticks in environmental governance, the role of entrepreneurs and technology in solving problems, and what it takes to make countries prosper so they have the extra wealth to properly care for the natural world.  (Dirt-poor Haiti, for example, won't get serious about green issues until it conquers rampant poverty first.)

So, full confession: I'm a closet tree-hugger. As an undergraduate, I spent three summers tree planting because I preferred the outdoors to an office. Give me a choice now between a glitzy Las Vegas vacation or a hike in the Rockies, and it's no contest. And on occasion, that requires personal action. When I spot beer cans in the woods, I'll haul them out and fume at the irresponsible miscreants who brought and tossed them.

Anyone who buys into the easy stereotypes misreads the reality that plenty of conservative people are also conservationists. Southern Alberta ranchers, some of the most hard-core, fiscal conservatives in the country, are also the most protective of the natural environment. Polluting the land and water is not good for their business. Just as importantly, despoiling nature offends their sense of personal responsibility for the land under their care.

Such ranchers live by their convictions, leaving a far smaller environmental footprint than the Ted Turners and Al Gores of the world, who own multiple mansions and jet-set about while preaching sustainability.  Instead, the ranchers' desire to both make a decent living and respect nature, is an obvious rebuke to would-be green messiahs and a positive example for the rest of us.

These days, it's all too easy to cut a cheque to a green lobby group or blithely assume governments can organize, regulate and direct all matters concerning the environment. The result is that teaching moments - such as my encounter with the sheep-feeding tourists-are often lost. So too is a positive personal impact on the preservation of the wild.

The reality of a Canadian preference for rules over responsibility hit home when a friend from New Zealand commented on the plethora of signs posted in our national parks.  They listed a slew of prohibited activities, including blasting one's stereo, feeding animals, and littering. So what's different in New Zealand? I inquired.  To paraphrase his reply, such behaviour was understood to be unacceptable and dumb. In Kiwi country, signs are fewer and lists shorter because anyone engaged in the above activities would be swiftly reminded by locals to stop. In contrast, we Canadians make a religion out of being polite - and shove off responsibility to government.

I don't claim that individual responsibility can solve every environmental problem, or always bridge the divide in policy disputes. But taking greater personal care of Canada's flora, fauna, forests, meadows, rivers, lakes and oceans certainly couldn't hurt.

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