The binary of economy and environment

We seem to collectively know that ‘water is life.’ But most of us do not take action to protect or defend it. That is likely because we do not feel as though our waters are at risk and where they are at risk, we generally have a poor understanding of the threats to health.

Lake Erie has been facing a toxic algae problem for decades. It was solved, temporarily, in the 70s largely through improvements to wastewater treatment. The algae problem has been intensifying for much of the last decade with record setting outbreaks in 2014 that shut down the drinking water supply in Toledo, Ohio and, in Pelee Island, ON it led to beach closures and a public health advisory to not use the lake water. Despite this high profile threat to Lake Erie's health, people still by and large think it is sewage that is the primary problem causing the algae bursts.  Though sewage still contributes to the phosphorous levels of Lake Erie, the primary cause is run-off from the region’s agricultural fields, which do not undergo any treatment and run directly into our rivers and lakes. 

This disconnect in what we identify as a core problem in Lake Erie may, in part, be connected to an uncomfortableness with targeting the agricultural community as the threat. After all, farmers feed cities (we’ve all seen those bumper stickers, right?) and most of us, 81% of us actually, do live in cities. We do not want to negatively impact the primary economy of a region and we want to support our local family farmers. 

Most people intrinsically believe that we can, as a society, make decisions that support clean waters and that support a strong economy. BUT “we” are also faced with immediate decisions that seem to create a dichotomy between the two - for example, action to save Lake Erie will unnecessarily hit the pocket books of farmers and hurt the rural economy of the region.  

Our solutions have to address this dichotomy. We can not ignore it. Both Lake Erie and local family farms need to be winners in any and all solutions.

Taxes, are another example that seem to amplify the binary between the environment and economy. Raising taxes to address solving immediate environmental challenges (adding tolls to highways, energy taxes, property taxes to support water infrastructure upgrades) seems to evoke a negative response from ‘the public’. If communities truly understood the value of what those taxes paid for, and saw the benefit of those expenses, than the value of taxes may actually be converted to a positive.

Any discussion between environmental protection and the economy exposes the necessity of overcoming this binary if we are to succeed in making decisions that are in fact both good for our economies and our waters.

How does this binary of environment and economy appear in your local regional freshwater health issues? How can you support a shift in this perspective exposing how a strong economy is actually what emerges from a healthy environment? What other examples can we point to that show how environmental protection and economic health are mutually beneficial?


This blog series is inspired by a ½ day exploratory conversation convened through the Our Living Waters Network.  At the meeting, a small group of network members and supporters explored the dominant freshwater narratives that we’ve encountered in our work for freshwater health across Canada. Participants of the workshop included: Canadian Freshwater Alliance, Great Lakes Commons, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, and Tides Canada. The opinions throughout the series represent those of the author and not necessarily any of the workshop participants.

Lindsay Telfer
About Lindsay Telfer
Mom, organizer, capacity builder, outdoor enthusiast, justice advocate. Thoughts posted are my own :).
The binary of economy and environment
The binary of economy and environment
Imagine a Canada where all waters are in good health: