unsustainable sustainability

The Peel Watershed debate reminds us how fantastic the Yukon is. And I mean that in the Oxford dictionary sense of "remote from reality." It really is wonderful to live in a bubble, remote from what the rest of the world is experiencing these days.

The Peel Watershed debate reminds us how fantastic the Yukon is.

And I mean that in the Oxford dictionary sense of “remote from reality.”

It really is wonderful to live in a bubble, remote from what the rest of the world is experiencing these days. For example, a friend is a history professor at a university in New York. With state revenues devastated by the recession, the university is said to be considering 50 per cent cuts in faculties like history. Yes, that number is five-zero per cent.

The philosophy department faces a potential 100 per cent cut, which brings an unwelcome new dimension to the “existential” debate.

The dean recently banned sessional lecturers, many of whom had taught at the university for years. With an unemployment rate of around 10 per cent in New York, it is not easy for specialists on the Federalist Papers or the Salem Witch Trials to find work.

A much-loved sessional was found dead in her trailer a few weeks after classes started without her.

Meanwhile, here in the Yukon, one hears muttering from some teachers that their raises are merely a few points above inflation.

We live in such a protected environment that undoubtedly some Yukoners think “GFC” is a new brand of fried chicken rather than the now common acronym for Global Financial Crisis.

We have low taxes but high government spending. Our formula financing seems to be immune to global cycles. When the Canadian economy grows, our transfer payments go up. When the Canadian economy stutters, our transfer payments go up.

Our gas tax is the lowest in the country. There’s no tax on propane heat. Our electricity rates are subsidized. Our property taxes are subsidized. The fee to register your truck is so low I can’t even remember what it is. We don’t even have a territorial sales tax.

Almost 40 per cent of Yukon workers are directly employed by the government, with a large number indirectly supported by various boards, contracts and job-creation programs.

It’s clear which direction the Peel Watershed debate will go in an environment like this. Most people – and I’m not exaggerating when I say “most”- really wouldn’t be affected if mining, energy exploration or logging were completely banned in the Yukon.

The overflow parking at the Beringia Centre for Peel events emphasizes this.

Our mining friends feel increasingly out of place. They think of themselves as productive members of society, but spend most of their time explaining themselves at Riverdale barbecues, if they even get invited.

So now we are considering what to do with the 68,000 square kilometres of the Peel Watershed region. To put that in perspective, if the Peel were its own country it would be bigger than 111 sovereign states. And that’s not just Luxembourg, but biggish places like Croatia and Switzerland. Bigger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined.

Depending on which Yukon government department you believe, the Yukon has between 482,443 and 483,450 square kilometres. Of which about 10 per cent is already in parks and another 2.7 per cent is conserved in various ways. The rest is protected by our environmental laws.

The proposal by the land-use planning commission calls for about 80 per cent of the Peel region to be strongly protected, with the other 20 per cent with a range of restrictions on roads and access to mining claims.

This would mean that the amount of land off limits to mining and oil and gas in the Yukon would roughly double to around a quarter of the land mass.

The land-use planning commission has opined, and now we wait to see what the government’s decision is. We have no idea what Premier Dennis Fentie will decide, but eventually he’ll tell cabinet and the rest of us.

In the meantime, the debate can continue. In reality, it’s hardly a debate. At least not in the sense that facts or arguments have changed many minds. Listening to both sides, it seems like no economic statistic could change the conviction of some that the Peel should remain completely undeveloped. On the other hand, pro-development advocates simply can’t understand how people who depend on metal and fossil fuels for their everyday lives can want to ban mining from country-sized tracts of land.

Both sides use and abuse the phrase “sustainable development,” defined famously by former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Some think that a few well-regulated mines in the Peel are consistent with this definition. Others don’t, or have other definitions that place greater emphasis on pristine wilderness and traditional culture and lifestyles.

But sustainability operates at multiple levels. In one sense, it is only sustainable for the Yukon to make energy and mining off-limits in areas the size of major European countries if we have some other way of meeting the “needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

At present, the only way of achieving this is hundreds of millions of dollars annually in transfer payments from the taxpayers of southern Canada.

I happen to like parks. I have hiked in the Peel Watershed region and have flown over it and, like that now-famous tourist from the Maldives, thought it was a magical place. I have also climbed in Kluane, and am glad there is not a giant smelter at the foot of Mount Martha Black. Or a Roots-branded resort in the middle of the Chilkoot Trail.

But we have to ask ourselves how sustainable those transfer payments are, especially if Ottawa begins to notice that we continue to enjoy lower taxes than most southern Canadians and seem more interested in creating parks rather than growing our tax base.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s

adventure novels.