For the April edition of In The Lead and in honor of Earth Day today, we asked IWF member, environmentalist, and powerhouse public servant Elizabeth Dowdeswell to answer a few questions about her “eclectic” career and experiences.
The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell currently serves as Ontario’s 29th Lieutenant Governor and is charged with carrying out the monarch’s constitutional and ceremonial duties within the province of Ontario. Her career has spanned all levels of government and crossed many policy sectors including five years as an Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. Ms. Dowdeswell has attended and participated in multiple IWF conferences and events. She is an active member of IWF Canada.
You started your career as an educator and then transitioned into public service. What motivated that transition, and how has your time as an educator been useful to your public service career?
Who could have predicted that a home economist would have such an eclectic career? My paths of possibility started with education and public service and have meandered through provincial, federal, and international jurisdictions while learning about culture and the arts, science and technology, the environment, oil sands, climate change, genomics and nuclear waste. Only in retrospect can sense be made of the diversity and transitions. It’s been about curiosity, a love of learning, risk-taking, and most of all serendipity and service. My career remains a work in progress.
At what point were you drawn to environmental issues? Was there any specific event or moment that pushed you to enter this field?
My passion for the environment really became visible at a moment when world attention was being drawn to the unprecedented extent and pace of environmental degradation. It started with an inquiry into Canada’s water policy and bi-national guardianship of The Great Lakes followed by the opportunity to serve as the head of the national weather service – at the time the only non-meteorologist and woman worldwide to do so. That was the moment when climate change entered everyone’s consciousness and the 1992 Earth Summit reminded us all that the environment knew no borders. International negotiations became my preoccupation and the United Nations became my home.
You have been working on environmental issues since the 1980s with the Canadian Department of Environment and later with the United Nations. How has the conversation changed since you entered the field? Do you think progress has been made? Are you more or less concerned about these issues now than when you started?
The most evolutionary shift has been a growing understanding that environmental stewardship is but one element in achieving a world that works for everyone. Creating just and sustainable communities requires that we connect the dots between inclusive economic prosperity, environmental stewardship, and social cohesion. For example, today any analysis of the current state of geopolitical and economic development would reveal a pervasive sense of insecurity at the nexus of energy and the environment. How to live in a carbon-constrained world is one of the most vexing social and technological conundrums facing us.
The promise of the heady days of greater awareness of environmental issues in the early nineties has not yet been fully realized. Without a doubt, there is a greater appreciation of the fundamental importance of environmental protection, but any report card would find us wanting on implementation of international agreements and substantive action. An approach to economic development that provides fairness and opportunity for all of the world’s people without diminishing the world’s natural resources and compromising the carrying capacity of the earth remains elusive.
I remain an eternal optimist. Certainly, science and breakthrough technologies can make an immense contribution in our quest to walk more lightly on this earth. But if I have learned anything in my experiences of developing public policy it is that understanding and paying attention to values and ethics is absolutely central to success. In democratic societies, processes that seek out multiple perspectives in genuine and transparent dialogue are essential to rebuilding trust and confidence in our institutions. It’s about reconciling scientific excellence with social relevance. It’s about struggling between short-term politics and long-term public good.
You’ve recently launched a project called 150 Stories to celebrate Canada’s 150th Anniversary, could you speak about that and what motivated you to begin such a project? Why do you find work like this important?
Throughout my travels as Lieutenant Governor, I’ve heard remarkable stories from people across the province. This project asked 150 Ontarians to reflect on what it meant to be Canadian – in only 150 words. Each contribution in 150 Stories recalls an experience that has left an impression: one of happiness or tragedy, of humour, or of insight. Collectively, these diverse stories help give us meaning and provide insights into our identity. It is my hope that by actively listening to our stories we can better understand each other and, in turn, create the communities of which we can be proud. The project is available online.
What advice do you have for anyone starting a career in environmental advocacy?
I have no hesitation in encouraging people young and more mature to become engaged. For one person really can make a difference. We need scientists and innovative technologists. We need those who develop public policy as well as those within the full spectrum of industry and the private sector who fuel our prosperity. We need those in civil society who raise awareness, educate, and lobby for change. We need those in families and communities who act in the interest of the environment in their daily lives.
What has become so obvious to me is that we need to think holistically and systemically. It sounds so simplistic, but everything is connected to everything else. Those who can see linkages and patterns and tear down walls between disciplines and specializations will be greatly sought.
I believe that, in this technologically fast-paced and interconnected world, we need to see ourselves as planetary citizens. On matters of the environment our mutual vulnerability requires collaboration among nations. No nation or person has a monopoly on good ideas. What is critical is that we actively listen to the voices of others. This world needs thinking, caring, ethical human beings who have a sense of responsibility for those with whom they share this earth and the environment in which they live.