The Religion of Growth

IMG_1384Sunday December 29, 2013


By Jim Taylor

Two pipeline debates wrack North America these days. Both start in what Alberta euphemistically calls its “oil sands.”

One projected pipeline heads south, to refineries on Texas’ Gulf Coast — the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The other, the Northern Gateway pipeline, heads west to the Pacific Ocean and the burgeoning Asian markets.
I had a premonition that the Joint Review Panel studying the Northern Gateway line would came out in favour of it. On December 19, they did.
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, 1159 people spoke to the panel against the pipeline, including the representatives for 130 First Nations. Only two spoke for it.

The sheer volume of public opinion might suggest that the pipeline’s opponents should win. But in cases like this, majorities do not necessarily rule.
Because the two who supported the pipeline had powerful allies — money and mindset.
They had the entire oil industry behind them. That’s about 25 per cent of the value of the Toronto Stock Exchange, and almost ten per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product.
Back in the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau tried to impose his National Energy Plan on the oil producing provinces in western Canada, bumper stickers in Alberta read, “Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.”
The threat of the slogan is lessened now that provinces east of Ontario’s financial towers also produce oil. But the implied threat is still there. If Canada’s oil companies ever locked out consumers as a bargaining tactic, more than just “eastern bastards” would be freezing. And not driving. And doing without plastics of all kinds.
The Joint Review Panel found that “opening Pacific Basin markets is important to the Canadian economy and society.” Also that “the project would bring significant local, regional, and national economic and social benefits.”
Money talks.

Even more significantly, the two in favour of the Northern Gateway pipeline had on their side a prevailing mindset — the gospel of growth, growth, growth.
Its defenders cite economics — you must have growth to provide jobs.
Or demographics — you need a growing economy to provide continuing income for the people who are already there and retiring.
Or biology — any organism that stops growing is beginning to die.
Or even theology — the biblical mandate that God made the earth for humans to have dominion over it.
Against that mindset, it’s heresy, anathema, blasphemy, to argue that half of the province of B.C. should be preserved as is.
For four years, I covered news for the sweep of Highway 16 across northern B.C. And for one glorious summer, I worked in the woods that the pipeline will pass through on its way to Kitimat. It is a spectacularly beautiful region, barely damaged by the urban obsession with parking lots, freeways, and big box stores.
I don’t want to lose it. I don’t want my grandchildren to have to experience nature in a make-believe Disney theme park. Neither do the 1159 people who spoke against the pipeline.
They weren’t completely ignored. The review panel issued 209 recommendations to address their concerns.
But the panel also found that “after mitigation, the likelihood of significant adverse environmental effects resulting from project malfunctions or accidents is very low…. After weighing all of the oral and written evidence, the Panel found that Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project than without it.”

Still, I guess that few of the pipeline’s opponents would want to freeze the clock where it is, let alone turn it backward. I doubt if they’re satisfied with the present quality of education for their children, medical care in their hospitals and medical clinics, and availability of road, air, and rail travel to larger centres outside the north.
In that sense, they too believe in growth — but at their pace, their timing. Not sudden massive growth where a single accident could destroy much of what they value about living in the north.
The pipeline itself may be the least of their worries. Pipelines can be monitored. Spills can be contained.
Tankers, that’s another matter. A tanker that runs aground, the way that B.C. Ferries flagship Queen of the North did, because of a short lapse of attention, despite all navigational aids, could have massive consequences.
And there will be an accident. I don’t know when. It may be decades away. But there will be an accident, eventually. The owners of the pipeline, the owners of the ships, will cut a dollar here and a dollar there to reduce costs. Safety will take second place to profit. Maintenance will become a chore rather than a commitment.
Now it’s up to the federal government to approve or reject the pipeline.
Given Stephen Harper’s support for private industry, his conservative economic leanings, his conviction that resources exist to be exploited, I don’t see him rejecting a development that could produce hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars of revenue.

As I expected, Northern Gateway will go ahead.
Copyright © 2013 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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