Photo: What are governments for?

We can't rely on technological fixes, individual actions, or market systems to protect nature (Credit: Peter Blomert via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Aquatic Biologist Jeffery Young.

What purpose do governments serve? Some people think we could do without them, but that's absurd. Even libertarians agree that some kind of police force and legal system are necessary to ensure that individual freedoms and property are protected, especially when conflicts arise over competing freedoms and property rights.

Others argue that the ever-expanding economy is our highest priority, and that governments should encourage this unending growth by subsidizing or promoting business and removing so-called regulatory red tape.

At its most basic, a government is there to protect its citizens. That's more complicated than it seems. What rights do citizens have? Most democratic countries spell those out in their constitutions. Canada's Constitution, for example, enshrines rights in a range of areas: fundamental, democratic, legal, equality, language, and so on.

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As we begin a New Year, it's worth reflecting on how well our government has looked after the interests of its citizens, and where we might be heading.

According to our Constitution's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we are legally entitled to life, liberty, and security in Canada. But how can we fulfill that right without protecting the necessary preconditions for life: clean air and water and productive soils to grow food? These all come from and depend on natural functioning ecosystems. We can try to clean up water that has been polluted or grow food in a lab, but those strategies will cost much more than protecting the ecosystems before they are compromised.

Natural functioning ecosystems (let's just call them "nature") supply resources that we all depend on to meet our basic needs and to survive. We need nature, including each other, more than anything else. We can't rely on technological fixes, individual actions, or market systems to protect it. Unfortunately, the negative costs of damaging the environment and the benefits that nature provides are rarely factored into economic equations.

In that light, one of government's primary roles is to protect nature. Arguments between the so-called political left and right are often summarized as the difference between wanting more or less government. But that misses the point of government.

Governments set priorities, many of them based on where they allocate money and resources. Successive governments in Canada have promoted the idea that a strong economy is the most important consideration and that to have prosperity we must put the interests of corporations above those of citizens. This is backwards.

While continuing to spend tens of billions of dollars on jet fighters, war ships, and campaigns to promote itself and the tar sands, Canada's government is gutting resources from the programs and departments responsible for protecting our environment, as well as weakening policies and laws designed to conserve nature.

At the end of 2011, we saw our government trying to cajole other countries to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol during the climate change talks in Durban, South Africa. When no one went along, Canada became the first country to abandon this legally binding international agreement. Of course, our current government isn't the only one that has failed to live up to the agreement's requirements. Kyoto may not have been perfect, but in abandoning it rather than working to strengthen it, Canada's leadership failed to acknowledge that dealing with climate change is essential to protecting its citizens, and those of the world.

We can only take this administration's word that it will come up with a realistic plan to cut emissions and fight climate change, but the record of successive governments so far doesn't inspire much confidence.

Let's get beyond this false dichotomy of economy versus environment. If we look at economy as a way to provide for the health and well-being of citizens, then it's there to serve the environment, of which we are a part, and not the other way around. Environmental protection shouldn't be seen as a barrier to opportunity; it should be seen as an essential part of a healthy economy.

It's up to all of us to ensure that the governments we elect to look after our interests protect nature because we depend on it for our very lives. That's what they're for.

January 6, 2012

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Mar 13, 2017
4:51 AM

I don’t trust the government as far as I can throw them, i think that they are here to purely keep us like sheep and rob us like criminals would, they are certainly not here for this :-

“At its most basic, a government is there to protect its citizens”

I agree with what ryan and John say

Jul 17, 2016
4:52 AM

Maybe you find the idea of no government as absurd, but i find the idea of supporting a system that allows a government that covers up attacks on their own country, and lobby’s for the interests of a certain sector of the public into power and keep them their under a guise of democracy as plain insanity.

Jan 12, 2012
9:13 AM

Suzuki is on the right track in criticizing the government for speding money on specific military BIG TICKET items rather than protecting the enviro. etc.

BUT, he could go one step further to show that there is perhaps an even more direct link between WAR and ENVIRONMENT. Namely that the ENIVRONMENT is the FIRST "INSTANT" AND "INTENTIONAL" CAUSUALITY with all MIlitary actions! A bomb will destroy the entire local ecosystem (not to mention the human ecosystems).

Furthermore, the entire Global War machine is the single largest consumer of fossil feuls as well. So we allocate mind-boggling amounts of natural resources so that we can continue to extract/Fight For those very same resources! Its an INSANE viscious circle!

Yet, why can't anybody (especially the Environmentalists) make this direct correlation between the Industrial Military Complex and the Environment?

Perhaps they are unaware of the research that is already out there.

I would recommend the following website as a good starting point for this conversation:

Jan 11, 2012
12:10 PM

We all know that government is about saying anything popular to get elected and once elected pay back the favours granted along the way. The elected person then falls in with party policy and does his or her best to keep their foot out of their mouth while helping their friends get rich. He or she must then promise popular changes while trashing the oponents to get re-elected. Oh yeah! they must depend on the short memories of the voters (which most have because young people don't care and older people have shorter memories) pertaining to previously broken promises. Once re-elected the cycle begins again and just maybe a cabinet or other such appointment is in the cards. There is nothing better than being appointed to a position one knows nothing about and spending vast amounts of tax dollars hiring "experts" to tell you how to do your job then "appointing" more "experts" to see if you were given good advice … Oops I jumped on the train to Cynicalville again! Please just find me a candidate who is truly devoted to the type of government summarised in this article. That candidate would have my undying devotion.

Jan 11, 2012
7:40 AM


As usual, a sound and well articulated argument.

But I'm old enough to know that until the $2.6 B Natural Capital of the Ontario Green belt gets translated directly into the cost per hectare for a subdivision lot, a cost per tree for the morning paper, or cost per tonne of gravel to pave the driveway, the general public will not get the connection between Environment and daily cost of living.

I'm also cynical enough to think that even this won't effect the way most people think and act toward the environment as long as their standard of living is not drastically altered. It would just give them an excuse to demand higher wages to cover that cost, and so the cycle will continue ad-infinitum.

As usual, it comes back to the fact that the current economic system is inherently unsustainable by design.

Jan 11, 2012
7:34 AM

We agree 500% That is why I signed the petition and we sent an invitation to the David Suzuki Foundation (general mailbox) to have someone join us at the Construction Resource Initiatives Council in Wakefield Quebec.

If you look at what we are doing, we are focused on resource efficiency, and the David Suzuki Foundation can play an important role in Mission 2030…

Please visit our web site and do not hesitate to contact me for any further information at 613-795-4632

Jan 10, 2012
10:18 AM

Neither politics nor government nor corporation are essential to human survival but a healthy environment is!

In pandering to greedy interests, governments demonstrate a lack of respect for the universal declaration of human rights and freedoms to which most advanced nations are signatory (Canada included) and upon which much of our charter is based.

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