There are many ways to ruin a cocktail party. One tried and true way is to bring up the environment: “Are you aware that the pork in that pig-in-a-blanket you are eating creates toxic runoff that contaminates our rivers?” “No, but it sure is tasty!”

This is why we did not start this series of articles on changing Canada’s economic DNA with a piece on the importance of thinking and acting green. However, while it may be a buzz kill, addressing the environmental piece of the economic competitiveness puzzle is critically important.

This is especially true because we are nowhere near where we need to be when it comes to environmental efficiency (see what we mean – what a buzz kill). We have an economy that is really good at exploiting the environment and we are trying to stick this square peg into a round environmental hole. There has been progress: Recycling has become commonplace, dumping industrial waste directly into rivers has been banned, and we have greatly reduced the use of ozone-depleting hairspray. Despite these and other minor adaptations, our basic economic DNA is black and red (as in black and red ink) rather than green.

Out of the Stone Age
The point here is not to be ashamed of what we have accomplished as a civilization. The modern economy and its roots in transforming the land and harvesting the earth’s resources have taken us out of the Stone Age. For most of us, at least, this is a good thing.

Nonetheless, we don’t want to become an economic dinosaur staring into a future where we are just a bunch of bones in a museum. We have to move beyond tinkering at the margins of how our economy operates and embrace a completely different approach to how we weld our economy to the short-, medium-and long-term health of the planet.

The first thing we have to admit is that this will not be easy and it will not come without short-term costs. It will pay off, but like anything worth having, it requires sacrifice. There will be winners and losers, and the losers are not going to be happy. If we plan for this rather than think that the transition to a green future will be painless, our chances of success will be much greater.

The second thing we need to understand is that one-off reactions to the crisis of the day – be it greenhouse gases, oil spills, birds getting chewed up in wind turbines or the disappearing rainforest (remember when we cared about that?) – will not get the job done. It is like training a duck not to quack – you might have some success, but it would be better to change the duck’s genetic code so it has no need to quack.

As an economy, we need to change the basic equation of exploiting land, labor and capital to a much more complex algorithm that incorporates the value of ecological goods and services, establishes the primacy of creativity and innovation and erases the notion that “protecting” the environment is either a cost or a moral obligation. Sustainable practices must be as natural as breathing. If they are only the result of laws, guilt or religious fervor, they will always be on shaky ground and open to fierce opposition.

We need business practices, investment strategies, production systems, accounting methods, entrepreneurial norms and market signals that integrate both the efficiencies that can be gained from green economics and its respect for the natural processes that sustain life.

A change of this magnitude is a massive undertaking, and for this reason alone it cannot be centrally controlled. It has to happen at the level of the individual firm, investor, entrepreneur, worker, parent and teacher.

Two things make this transformation increasingly likely: First, there are many potential advantages to a greener economy, including lower production costs and higher profits; new jobs in the green services sector; a decrease in onerous government regulation and the related compliance costs; and less money spent on reacting to environmental challenges (thus leaving more money in the hands of consumers).

Rediscovering what ancient cultures already knew
Second, we know more today than we used to. Some will say that we have only rediscovered what some ancient cultures already knew, but either way, the next generation of Canadian entrepreneurs, investors, managers and workers are much more savvy about the need for, and value of, greater balance between harvesting the earth’s bounty and ensuring that it continues to be bountiful.

Alberta can take the lead. Or, we can become the dinosaur while Germany, the U.S., and yes, even China, push us out of the way.