Ross Urquhart: Lament for oil pipelines and bottom lines
By Ross Urquhart
My generation, boomers, seem to have added a twist to the concept of using personal choice in defining ourselves. We define actions taken for the purpose of protecting other species on this planet as heroic while, curiously, we define actions that protect our lifestyle as practical—even if that includes putting other species at risk. As a result, when it comes to determining our future the choice is to be either heroic or practical. Such is the benefit of sitting in judgment over yourself. It’s too bad that issues like the Enbridge pipeline come along and add a bit of stress to these neatly constructed rationalizations.
According to the reigning economic gurus, the entire world is facing a rough patch in the coming decades because individual and government debt are taking control of spending agendas. A primary contributing factor is that we boomers are busily entering our retirement years and, subsequently, demanding to live from the assets of a career spent working toward the promise of comfort and security in old age (remember “Freedom Fifty-Five”), leaving governments and large industry, who negotiated these monetary and health-care benefits with us, struggling to fulfill commitments once believed obvious and easy.
An important tool in this struggle is the government’s ability to set lower interest rates. But a consequence of low interest rates is low returns on safe investments (i.e. GICs, government bonds, et cetera). Therefore, every institution and individual alike who needs to generate income is pushed into situations that hold greater risk—leading to increased volatility in what has become a frightened and paranoid marketplace—not a good circumstance when virtually everyone’s retirement is based on such income.
The government response has been a desperate search for new economic activity and, in doing so, they seem willing, though not particularly happy, to risk long-term environmental damage when it’s forecast. If that were all we needed to understand about the Enbridge pipeline controversy our decision would still be a difficult one. However, elevating this issue to the realm of near-superhuman complexity is the possibility that increased economic activity alone won’t have an impact on the problem. As recent history has shown our debt load has grown even in the so-called good times. We seem to have become spending junkies whether we have the money or not, and in our consumer-based society both government and industry are pushing us to “stay the course”. Ostensibly, we are told, to promote the ultra-important growth required by the economy.
That age-old solution to a debt crisis, reduced spending, has been upstaged by the widely touted belief that rescuing ourselves from economic disaster requires increased spending by both government and consumers and, in the process, the creation of more debt because we don’t have piles of money sitting around to use for this purpose. Supposedly, when we have “spent” the world economy back to perking along as it should, we will find a viable solution to the mountain of financial indebtedness we have created along the way. The counterintuitive logic and a lack of expert consensus on this proposal have, unsurprisingly, left us somewhat anxious about accepting this truth. What it hasn’t left us is wiggle room to pick and choose between multi-billion dollar revenue and job generating projects.
Thanks to a habit of living beyond our means we have backed into a corner where we are forced to trade our “heroic” principles to feed our “practical” addiction to “more and better and now”—and it’s creating all manner of internal and external angst. Somehow we’ve morphed into a nation of credit dependents ready to sacrifice Mother Earth on the altar of disposable technology and deep-fried everything.
The tar sands may be a blight on the Earth but it employs tens of thousands of mostly young people from all across this nation and provides them with homes and a chance to raise families and buy into the good life. It’s the closest thing to the land of opportunity we have left and it remains available to all who have the gumption to pick up and move there. How can my generation deny them when we were given the same opportunities and used them to the fullest? We mined the land, the oceans, and the forests to provide for our good times and now this latest generation is being offered oil and gas fields, offshore drilling, coal mines, pipeline projects, and hydro-electric dams to keep themselves in the lifestyle we accustomed them to. These revenue generators of society support us all in spite of further jeopardizing our mutually sustaining relationship with this planet. We can talk all we want about creating less resource-dependent jobs but we’ve been talking about it for 50 years and it hasn’t happened yet. Our young people need work now; how do you postpone a future?
The Enbridge question is time-sensitive and even though no pain-free solution to this problem exists a decision will be made. Do we threaten a delicate balance and risk miles of dirty oil or toxic condensate floating up and down the rich and beautiful coast of British Columbia, changing life in this region for generations as the Exxon Valdez or the Gulf Coast blowout did, or, indeed, do we risk a broken pipeline pouring poison into one of the dozens of major spawning rivers that must be crossed between Alberta and Kitimat? Or do we abandon the increased economic benefits and sentence our young people, and ourselves, to a substantially lower and more precarious “standard of living”?
In the end, like most tough questions, it comes down to values and self-image. Is protecting the environment only to be accomplished in the good times when we have full employment and oodles of discretionary income, or is it a guiding light to be followed throughout our lives? If we, as the generation who lived well off the avails of development, decide that sustainability will just have to wait until we can afford it, should we be surprised if that era is a long time coming and finally arrives in a world none of us would recognize—if we were around to recognize it? That, of course, being the salient if not profound point; people of my generation won’t be around to recognize it. Perhaps this decision is best left up to those who will. Perhaps, as well, this coming generation will evolve a set of values that encompass more than the shallow superficiality of consumerism. But even if they don’t it will still be our fault.
Ross Urquhart is the author of an anecdotal history of the Stein River region entitled Westside Stories as well as a recently published ebook, Being Reasonable: Plain Talk For Living in the Future. He was chair of the Save the Stein River Valley Coalition, which led the fight to create the Stein River Wilderness Park and, subsequently, he was a councillor in his community. Urquhart may be contacted through his website at www.ofbandg.com.