Sustainable development in small jurisdictions: the cases of New Brunswick and Vermont.

AuthorArif, Hassan


Our world is in the midst of a crisis that is both economic and ecological. The 2008 collapse of the financial sector called into question many of the assumptions of neo-liberalism that had been dominant since the collapse of Keynesian economics in the 1970s. These assumptions included unlimited growth and unfettered markets. At the same time, the threat of global warming and resource depletion remains ever-present and questions the assumptions of unlimited growth. These two crises--the economic and the ecological--may potentially force policymakers to rethink traditional models of economic development that have focused on industrialization and unlimited growth. This is especially true for smaller jurisdictions in North America which are characterized by rural areas and small communities where this rethinking of development happened well before the 2008 economic crisis.

Such a jurisdiction is the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island (PEI), whose strategy for economic development has focused on non-manufacturing sectors such as tourism, biotech, and green energy sources such as windmills. Provincial leaders have sought to preserve Prince Edward Island's identity as a province of small communities and pristine natural sights. They have used this reputation to promote the Island as a tourist destination. This strategy has paid off not only in terms of preserving the province's natural beauty, but also economically. A Reuters story on March 30, 2009 noted that PEI was one of only four provinces that was projected by the Conference Board of Canada to grow over the course of 2009, despite the economic downturn.

Another jurisdiction notable in this regard is the American state of Vermont, which supplies one focus of analysis in this paper. Vermont is a small jurisdiction of well under one million people, characterized by small communities, rural areas, and forests. The state has established an economic niche for itself by building on its natural advantages and by seeking to preserve its rural areas and forests rather than embarking on large-scale industrialization. Vermont has a thriving tourism industry and has become an attractive home for people from New York City and Boston who seek to escape the urban life (Smart Growth Vermont). In these respects, as smaller jurisdictions which have built on natural advantages, Vermont and Prince Edward Island have much in common. While the latter can serve as a useful reference point for the former, Prince Edward Island is not a primary focus of this paper.

The Canadian province of New Brunswick, like Vermont, is a low-population jurisdiction characterized by picturesque natural sites, small communities, and rural areas. In the past, economic development schemes in New Brunswick (and in Atlantic Canada as a whole) have sought industrialization and urbanization as their goals in order to "catch up" with traditionally "have" provinces such as Canada's industrial heartland of Ontario. In particular, analysts such as Donald Savoie have cited New Brunswick's lack of large urban centers as a reason for its underdevelopment (2006, 32-35). However, we argue that policymakers should instead seek to capitalize and build on New Brunswick's unique advantages as a province of rural areas, small communities, and natural beauty, rather than try to emulate urban centers like Ontario. They should recognize that New Brunswick is not Ontario and gear economic development strategies with this in mind.

Vermont is located in Northern New England which, like Atlantic Canada, is traditionally considered an "underdeveloped" or "have-not" region. Geographically and demographically, Vermont resembles New Brunswick in many respects. However, while New Brunswick's population growth has been sluggish and the province's unemployment remains above the national average, Vermont has been able to maintain steady population growth and an unemployment rate that is consistently below the United States average (Ewan and Condon 2009, 4-6).

A jurisdiction such as Vermont potentially offers New Brunswick some important lessons on building an economically viable and environmentally sustainable strategy for development that builds on local strengths. This essay examines Vermont's conservation policies and how Vermont has successfully balanced ecological concerns with economic development. Furthermore, we consider how the lessons of Vermont can be applied to New Brunswick, a jurisdiction with comparable geographic, economic, and demographic features. The interaction of ecological concerns with economic development provides our primary focus. This is not to discount other factors that affect economic development, such as educational attainment, but factors such as this are outside the scope of our paper.

The first section offers a background on both New Brunswick and Vermont and illustrates the points of comparison that will be discussed below, such as differing rates of population growth. The next section focuses on Canadian and regional development schemes that have been aimed at "have not" provinces like New Brunswick. Particular focus is directed to policies that aimed to "modernize" Atlantic Canada and New Brunswick by seeking to emulate industrial hubs such as Ontario. The following section reconsiders this "modernization" paradigm and examines whether traditional indicators, such as GDP, provide an adequate picture of social well-being. As well, the role of forests and rural areas in contributing to social well-being in smaller jurisdictions such as Vermont is discussed. In the next section, the role of local activism in developing new models of development that balance economic and ecological concerns is examined, with special attention to the needs of smaller jurisdictions where nature and rural landscapes form a significant part of local identity and well-being. The paper concludes with a series of policy recommendations for New Brunswick drawing on Vermont's experience in balancing economic and ecological concerns.

Background: New Brunswick and Vermont

In analyzing and comparing these two jurisdictions, we need to gain an understanding of key demographic, economic, and historical factors shaping each. The tables below offer information on population change and unemployment rates in our two jurisdictions.

Challenges Facing New Brunswick

While New Brunswick's economic position relative to the rest of Canada has improved over the past forty-five years, it is still considered a "have-not" province. In 2008, New Brunswick's per capita income was 85% of the Canadian average (Ruggeri 2008, 1, 4). (1) Population growth in the province has been stagnant in recent years and even experienced periods of decline. According to Statistics Canada, in 2004 New Brunswick's population stood at 749,400. By 2007 this number had declined by roughly 4,000 people to 745,400. However, 2008 saw a modest rebound with the province's population increasing to 747,300 which, while a gain, was still below 2004 levels (Statistics Canada, Population by Year) (See Table I).

Table I: Demographics (New Brunswick and Vermont) Population Population Population change (base year) (reference year) New Brunswick 749,400 (2004) 747,300 (2008) -2100 (-0.28%) Vermont 608,827 (2000) 621,254 (2007) +12,427 (+2.04%) Sources: Statistics Canada, US Census Bureau These numbers are of particular concern as they represent an out-migration of youth--especially those educated at the province's universities. Such out-migration represents an investment in human capital from which the province ultimately does not benefit. (2) This is of particular concern as the province's population is aging. With baby boomers entering their senior years, concerns over an elderly population lacking a large enough labor force to support them are increasing (Ruggeri 2008, 4-7).

This out-migration of youth has been exacerbated by New Brunswick's historically high unemployment rate which, in January 2008, stood at 8.2%, a rate well above Canada as a whole (5.8%). It is worth noting that, in light of the economic downturn, Canada's unemployment rate has risen at a faster pace than the rate in New Brunswick. By February 2009, the gap had narrowed and Canada's unemployment was 7.7% while New Brunswick's was 8.8% (Ruggeri 2008, 4-7; Statistics Canada; Statistics Canada, New Brunswick: Heavy Losses; Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey 2008). By October 2009, Canada's unemployment rate, at 8.6%, had slightly surpassed New Brunswick's 8.5% (See Table II). However, whether this is a temporary state--due to the effects of the global economic downturn on the manufacturing industry in Ontario and the oil industry in Alberta--or the reflection of a new long-term trend, remains to be seen. Furthermore, these numbers do not account for factors such as out-migration from New Brunswick due to that province's longstanding status as a high unemployment jurisdiction (Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey 2009).

Table II: Unemployment Rates (New Brunswick and Vermont) Pre-recession National Rate (Differential) New Brunswick 8.2% (Jan 08) 5.8% (-2.4) Vermont 3.7% (06) 4.7% (+1.0) Post-recession National Rate (Differential) New Brunswick 8.5% (Oct 09) 8.6% (+0.1) Vermont 6.7% (Sept 09) 9.8% (+3.1) Sources: Statistics Canada, US Census Bureau Within New Brunswick, regional disparities also exist. In particular, the province's rural areas provide fewer employment opportunities than the three largest cities of Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton. In addition, the economic viability of the northern part of the province--including the Miramichi and the Acadian Peninsula--is threatened by lack of employment opportunities. This creates demographic pressures where people--especially youth--from these less prosperous regions migrate to comparatively more prosperous cities in the south (Ruggeri 2008, 7).

Economic and Demographic Background of Vermont

As discussed earlier, Vermont...

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