The Environment in the Age of Globalization
John W. Warnock

It is difficult to be an environmentalist these days. It is very easy to fall into despair as one follows the reports in the mass media. I might start off by mentioning a few stories that are in the clipping file sitting on my desk:

Despite a drop in the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the ozone layer in the stratosphere continues to decline, producing a hole over the Antarctica now around 22 million square kilometers, more than twice the size of Europe. In 1997 a new ozone hole appeared over the Arctic, and the ozone layer is thinning over Saskatchewan in the spring.

Global warming continues, as carbon dioxide emission from the burning of fossil fuels continues to increase. Governments and corporations continue to insist that this is not happening, despite the unquestionable evidence of the shrinking of the polar icecaps, the shrinking of glaciers, and the northward march of the tree lines. Our provincial government refused to even send representatives to the Kyoto world meeting on the issue.

The world's forests continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Around 50% of the world's forests have already disappeared. Here in Saskatchewan we are already logging at an unsustainable rate. This year Weyerhauser declared that it wants to triple it annual cut. On Monday the Romanow government announced some new projects which will double the forest cut. Our forests here are clear cut by machines and at best replaced with tree plantations which radically change the local ecosystem.

In March this year Health Canada released a major study on the health effects of ground level ozone, the product of motor vehicles and industrial smokestacks. It concluded that this air pollution in urban areas was high enough to warn Canadians not to exercise outside during summer. Yet the number of automobiles, which produce 60% of this pollutant, continue to rise all around the world.

Here in Saskatchewan we appear to be relatively free from serious pollution. But that is true only if you ignore what is happening in the agriculture and food industry.

An Agriculture Canada study released this February of rainfall in the Lethbridge area, showing that many common pesticides are found. They concluded that the most widely used herbicide, 2,4-D was found at "extremely high, unacceptable levels." In some test sites, levels were above the Canadian drinking water guidelines.

A study last year by the National Hydrological Research Centre in Saskatoon of the water quality in 21 farm dugouts around our province found herbicide and insecticide residues in all of them. While they were individually within the levels permitted by Health Canada, they were all much higher than standards in Europe.

In 1997 research under the Canada-Saskatchewan Green Plan tested wells in this province for pesticide residues. Pesticides were found in 10% of the wells in the Kindersley area and 45% in the Outlook-Davidson area. All of the wells showed high level of nitrates. Between 40% and 80% of the wells had levels above the acceptable levels set by Health Canada. High levels of nitrates are not safe for infants or young children.

Our provincial government is actively promoting and subsidizing the creation of industrial pig factories. But wherever they are a major development they have led to ground water pollution, whether it is North Carolina, Iowa, Quebec or The Netherlands.

Furthermore, all of these intensive livestock operations use antibiotics in the feed of the animals. 50% of all antibiotics are used in animal feeds. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta says this is a major contributing factor to the development of the new bacterias which are resistant to all antibiotics.

We know that the ground water in southern Alberta is polluted by bacteria and parasites due to animal confinement operations. For the last few years, rural health officers have been issuing warnings to Albertans to boil their water before they drink it.

What about our food production system? In March this year the American Consumers Union reported that many fruits and vegetables have pesticide residues that may be unhealthy for children. That came at the same time as several U.S. studies showing children living in rural areas where pesticides are used have experienced neurological damage, and that routine exposure to pesticides can skew the thyroid hormones and damage the body's immune system. A study in rural Minnesota concluded that birth defects were higher in children conceived during the spring growing season.

I wonder how many of you know that Saskatchewan is a centre for the development and testing of genetically modified agricultural plants. There is more field testing done here than anywhere else in the world. The major concern is the laboratory transfer of genetic material across natural species barriers. This new development in corporate agriculture is of major concern to farmer, consumer, and environmental groups. No one has any idea what will happen as all these new species are introduced into the environment. We are already having serious problems with Roundup Ready Canola and other similar products.

But there are some positive developments
At the same time, there are some positive developments to report. There is a growing recognition of the seriousness of environmental degradation. The problem is the resistance from our governments and the corporate sector. There are some positive news stories:

Following the adoption of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, CFC production has fallen by about 90%.

Over the 1990s, the most dramatic increase in energy use has been in wind power and solar photovoltaic cell use. In the United States and Europe, energy conservation and demand management are emphasized everywhere. But not in Saskatchewan. There was some beginning here during the Blakeney government, only to be abandoned by the Devine and Romanow governments.

Nuclear power production has declined dramatically since the 1970s, and is being expanded only where there are huge government subsidies.

The European countries are putting first priority on public transportation as a strategy of dealing with air pollution and traffic congestion.

Throughout the industrial world, the trend in agriculture is clearly to organic production of food. Even in the United States, a recent survey found that 54% want American agriculture to move in this direction. Again, Canada and Saskatchewan are lagging well behind.

What can we do?
I want to start by briefly describing how I got involved in the environmental movement. In 1974 I moved to the Okanagan and began operating a commercial orchard. While I grew up in a farming community where fruits and vegetables were the basis of the economy, I was not aware of the degree to which North American agriculture had become so dependent in the use of pesticides: insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides.

In reading the material on the pesticides I used, it was very clear that most of them are highly toxic to humans and all other species. While most of the pesticides I used had been tested for acute toxicity, none had been tested for chronic toxicity before being registered. It was only after the thalidomide disaster that new pesticides were tested for carcinogenesis, teratogenesis and mutagenesis. Those already registered were grand fathered by government decree.

In 1978 the B.C. provincial government announced that they were going to used the herbicide 2,4-D in the Okanagan lakes to reduce the proliferation of Eurasian water milfoil plant that was growing in shallow waters and becoming a nuisance to the tourist industry. But the Okanagan lakes are used to irrigate our crops and for most communities is also the source of drinking water. A little research found that the registration for 2,4-D in Canada and elsewhere prohibited its use in drinking water sources, and that it was harmful to many crops, and in particular grapes, grown in the Okanagan using irrigation.

Public meetings were held, and the South Okanagan Environmental Coalition was formed to oppose the provincial government and the tourist industry. It was a broad alliance of various groups. Included in it were the local trade unions, CUPE and the BCGEU.

At the libraries we uncovered an enormous amount of scientific research on the hazards of

2,4-D. This included studies of the adverse health affects of workers in the industries manufacturing the herbicide. We found good epidemiological studies on the effects on workers who used these products, including forest workers, railway workers who sprayed the chemicals along the tracks, highway workers, municipal workers who used the herbicide in park maintenance, and there were excellent studies from the USSR on the impact on farm workers. With this material in hand, we got support from the B.C. Federation of Labour as well. We also found studies reporting the ill effects of phenoxy herbicides on children when used on school grounds and parks.

What this case demonstrates is that it is impossible to isolate an environmental hazard. There is a close link between what goes on in the workplace and where we live.

The impact of globalization
But while we are becoming more knowledgeable about environmental concerns, the ability to deal with them is becoming more and more difficult. One of the main problems is the move towards an international economy, what is commonly called "globalization". Social scientists call this neoliberalism, the move toward the free market and free trade, managed on an international level.

The neoliberal model demands the reduction of the role of the government and the public in the economy. It is an attempt to limit the powers of our democratically elected governments. The agenda, set in the early 1980s, is to help corporations increase their profits, and one of the ways identified is to cut regulations on corporations.

Thus we have seen deregulation in the area of environmental control. In Ottawa, the ministries which deal with environmental regulations have seen their budgets and staffs cut drastically. The federal government and the premiers want to shift this responsibility to the provinces. Here in Saskatchewan the Devine and Romanow governments have seriously cut the staff of the environmental enforcement agencies.

Free trade has also allowed corporations to shift production around the world. As you all know, employers regularly threaten workers during collective bargaining. If workers don't make concessions, or insist on improving a contract, the employer threatens to pack up and move to Mexico, Asia or the southern United States. And there are examples of companies doing this. One of the most widely known is the furniture industry in California. When the state adopted new regulations on their toxic emissions, they did pack up and move across the border to Mexico.

Furthermore, all of the trade agreements, and the powerful interests behind them, want to create one international standard that is applicable to all countries. This was President George Bush's dream. Then when any country, province, or municipality adopts a higher standard, it can be classified a non-tariff barrier to trade and thus ruled illegal under the rules of the World Trade Organization or NAFTA. The U.S. and Canadian governments are doing this to get Europe to drop its ban on beef raised using growth hormones.

It is for this reason that in 1987 the Canadian Environmental Network was formed, an organization of all the major Canadian environmental groups. It was formed to help the environmental movement fight the Canada -U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The CEN has been part of the Action Canada Network in its battle against NAFTA and the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment. It is fighting against the new rules of the World Trade Organization and the proposed Free Trade Area for the Americas.

And the CEN is working shoulder to shoulder with the Canadian Labour Congress here and in other areas. They are working with the Committee for Justice in the Maquiladoras. The U.S.-Mexican border area is a perfect example of how environmental issues affect workers in their workplaces and where they live. Ironically, for Mexican workers in the Maquiladoras, the greatest threat to their health does not come in the factories but in the shanty towns where they have to live.

It seems to me as a political activist and as an environmentalist, that in the era of neoliberalism or globalization public sector workers have a particular responsibility. Workers in the private sector are often afraid to complain about unsafe working conditions. They are afraid of losing their jobs or their employers packing up and leaving. I know that public sector workers face the problem of staffing cutbacks and increased work loads. I know that first hand from my own work place. But public sector workers have relatively strong unions and are better able to push the issues of workplace safety and well being. This must be done.

Trade unions have traditionally been suspicious of environmental organizations. They have been seen to be dominated by middle class people who put environmental interests above the interests of workers and jobs. But what happens when environmentalists and workers do not work together? In B.C. we are seeing the disappearance of the salmon industry. We have seen the forest corporations in B.C. shift to capital intensive clear cut operations which have eliminated one half of the jobs in the industry over the past ten years. We have to work together.

Saskatchewan Government Employees Union
Occupational Health, Safety and Environment Conference
April 29, 2022