By Neale McDevitt
A former two-time Canadian National Debating Champion while pursuing his Honours BA and MA at McGill in the 1990s, Gerald Butts knows a thing or two about the power of words. But he also knows how to put words into action – especially when it comes to issues of sustainability. Prior to his becoming President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund of Canada, one of the country’s largest conservation organizations, Butts served as Principal Secretary to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. During that time he was intimately involved in all of his government’s significant environmental initiatives, from the Greenbelt and Boreal Forest Conservation Plan to the coal replacement strategy and green economy initiatives.
Playing the role of prodigal son, Butts has returned to his alma mater after being named to McGill’s Board of Governors in January. On March 15, our newest BoG member was at the Thomson House to deliver a lecture titled Make It Happen: Growing Toward Sustainability at McGill and afterward, he sat down with the McGill Reporter.
With the demands the world’s population of close to seven billion people puts on all viable land, is it worth even addressing other issues of sustainability?
We have to be careful here. There is an obvious mathematical relationship between the number of people on the planet and the resources we consume. But it’s not a straight function of population growth; it is a question of sustainability and the efficient use of resources per person. The world can afford a lot more people who live like Africans, what it can’t afford is a lot more people who live like Americans and Canadians.
How difficult is it to get developing nations to buy into the idea of sustainable progress?
Given where they are in the arc of their development, there are – believe it or not – some advantages that developing nations have.
That sounds pretty optimistic.
I guess my optimism comes from seeing a lot of the world over the last three years and realizing this is a cross-cultural issue. People in China don’t feel aggrieved that they can’t develop the way we have in the West. They know this is a serious problem that must be solved. China’s approach to the problem is “we will engineer our way out of environmental limits on traditional means of growth.”
Conversely, one of the single biggest obstacles we have in creating sustainable urban environments in North America is 200 years of legacy infrastructure.
Solutions often come from places where resource scarcity is a huge problem to the point where social cohesion is threatened. That’s why Singapore has perhaps the best water management system in the world. I have a lot of faith in people because I really believe we can think our way out of just about any problem.
How realistic is it to ask North American consumers to change their habits?
You could argue – and many people do – that dematerialization is already underway. We download our music, we download our movies – we no longer purchase a lot of hard goods in some sectors of the economy and that’s a really positive step forward.
There is a real continuum from good to bad in the way we produce and consume goods. There is a way to produce commodities that have a minimal environmental impact and at the WWF we’re trying to help foster public policy that gives incentives to firms to produce goods on the lower end of that continuum and for individuals to consume those goods.
Cars are a perfect example, right? I’m not saying we have to do away with cars – they’ve become an integral part of our lives. But there are certainly choices to be made that have less of a negative impact than others.
In your lecture, you emphasized how much of the responsibility to make meaningful changes must come from the young – sometimes the very young.
Take recycling as an example. If you talk to people involved in putting the system into place in the 1980s in Ontario, they would say – almost to a person – that the program was so widely accepted because kids hounded their parents to do it. That’s why, when I speak to kids, I’m always on them to pester their parents.
How has McGill changed in terms of sustainability from when you were an undergraduate here in the early 1990s?
There’s a huge difference. I lived in McConnell Hall for my first two years and I’m not sure we had blue boxes. Most of the things we recycled we brought back to the depanneur for a deposit [Laughing]. It’s pretty incredible to see how far the University has come since then in terms of making sustainability a central issue on campus.
When did conservation issues first interest you?
I grew up in Cape Breton and my father was a coal miner. The place was so beautiful and there was such an impact on that beauty because of industry, so these issues have always been a part of my understanding of the world. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have someone I admired working in areas of sustainability and conservation.
I spent my childhood camping and hiking. I also spent a lot of time on the water in the North Atlantic. When you’ve been heaving over the side of a fishing boat for an hour you realize what kind of power you have relative to the power of the universe. [Laughing] I feel lucky to have had impressed upon me at such an early age the real beauty and force of nature.
But it was at McGill where I first met people pursuing these lines of thought academically and professionally. This was when I first got the sense that you could make a living doing this. This is where a lot of ideas began to really percolate for me.