“The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago. The next best time is now.”—Anonymous
In a 2017 year-end interview with Keith Baldrey of Global News, British Columbia’s new NDP premier, John Horgan, spoke about his months in office so far. He quickly mentioned the decision to resume building the Site C megadam. He said it was “a very difficult choice” but he had to “listen to what was in the best interest of British Columbia”.
His “deciding factor” was that if the government could not borrow money to build “schools, hospitals, transit, and other transportation infrastructure” they were “not going to be able to deliver on the commitments to the people”.
He continued: “If we’re going to be a government that governs for all British Columbians, we have to set aside our activism and start being better administrators.”
One famous long-ago British politician who responded differently to circumstances was William Wilberforce. He was a wealthy Englishman by birth who in 1784 became an independent MP for Yorkshire. As Wilberforce was a man of high principles and a staunch Christian, he launched a 20-year parliamentary campaign with the support of other activists that resulted in the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
Opposition persisted, and it took many more years to implement the bill. People worried that the British economy would suffer. But Wilberforce and his good friend and parliamentary colleague William Pitt championed the rights of slaves because they felt it was the correct thing to do.
As we can see today, slavery is nowhere near eradicated in our world. But hundreds of years ago, when the Pacific coast of North America was inhabited by populous Indigenous communities and English and Spanish sailing ships were just starting their early explorations, Wilberforce and his supporters were spending their lives in England fighting for what they believed in.
Meanwhile, other forces were in action. Millions of enslaved Africans had shown that much work could be done by many for the benefit of a few. After abolition, the Industrial Revolution’s mechanization proved that this rate of production was still possible. In no time, machines replaced humans as the new slavery and an industrial system became the new master. Subsequently, millions of Britain’s own citizens were enslaved to dig coal and operate the revolution’s factories. Negative mental impacts of these activities have carried on for generations, and they still appear today in descendants of the original labourers.
All this was happening as European nations were colonizing the globe. When lands with rich ecosystems were encountered, the resource-extraction process intensified. The first to be plundered were furs, trees, fish, and minerals. Next was coal and oil. As supplies became depleted, colonizers found new natural areas to pillage or the destruction grew bigger and dirtier.
Addiction to slavery turned into addiction to fossil fuels and large megaprojects such as hydroelectric dams to produce energy. These became the new workhorses. By the 20th century, ecosystem destruction was frequently mandated by a signature on a page, backed up by the businesses and governments in power. These undertakings began with little thought of the impact on the humans and other species that resided in the area. If their homes were in the way, they were expropriated.
The European worldview was centuries in the making; now entrepreneurs regarded resources in colonized lands as free. In no time, newly created societies all over the globe became addicted to energy developments, with their poisonous byproducts and waste. People imagined then, as they do now, that the benefits of natural resources were infinite. But the price was humanity’s continual addiction to taking too much of what wasn’t rightfully theirs in the first place, with little regard for the long term.
The present B.C. NDP government originally campaigned on a strong environmental mandate and commitment to UNDRIP: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Their conviction to halt the Kinder Morgan pipeline and the outright ban of the grizzly-bear hunt has been positive. However, NDP supporters and some Treaty 8 First Nations have shown strong disapproval of the decision to continue building Site C, a megadam that will substantially flood rich farmland in the Peace River Valley. The previous Liberal government started the massive hydroelectric project three years ago. Now we are hearing justifications for the NDP’s choice to continue the work.
For example, David Eby, the new attorney general, said in a December statement that the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC) stated its preference for “terminating Site C and implementing a portfolio of alternative generation technologies…[that] would have comparable public and ratepayer costs to continuing with the Site C project.” Since the decision to continue construction was made known, the public is being told the BCUC’s findings were not viable. The NDP decided this after experts were called in for “financial analysis”.
Not surprisingly, the experts came from a tradition of neoclassical economics, and their models claimed that a completed Site C dam, no matter how many billions it cost, was recognized as an “asset” but the ecological sacrifices made during construction were not recognized as an ongoing liability. On the other hand, the financial experts obviously decided that the cessation of the project—which is now 25-percent complete and involved spending $4 billion so far—is a “liability”.
This point of view continues because of an imagined concept that believes economic value is only created by humans. People cut down trees, flood land, and build a dam, and financial worth is supposedly “created” out of nowhere. But how we measure this is disconnected from any biophysical dimension. In reality, “creating” economic value for humans in this way cannot be done without biophysical sacrifice. These processes involve entropic throughput that results in waste. The more we pursue and accelerate these activities, the more garbage and pollution is generated, which involves substantial costs.
A megaproject like Site C causes great destruction: the forests that are logged, the land that is flooded—which includes agricultural land—the methane that is exposed (which pollutes the air), the plants and animals that disappear, and the humans who are impacted. But these are not factored into the conventional “economic” equation at all.
In the landmark book, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, editor Paul Hawken describes the renewable-energy benefits of hydroelectric projects. But he encourages “in-stream hydro”, which has a massively reduced footprint. “Placed within a free-flowing river or stream, in-stream turbines can capture hydrokinetic energy without creating a reservoir and its repercussions.” In contrast, “hydroelectric dams produce enormous amounts of energy. But they also swallow up vast swaths of natural and human habitat—the Three Gorges alone displaced 1.2 million people—while impacting water movement and quality, sediment patterns, and fish migration.”
To say nothing of the billions of dollars swallowed up to create them. For example, the Muskrat Falls project in Labrador, which is only 75-percent complete, is presently estimated at $12.7 billion.
Today, Canadian politicians are beginning to acknowledge the reality of climate change but then turn back to building huge hydroelectric dams that have many drawbacks. As the BCUC noted, megadams like Site C crowd out companies that are attempting to create much smaller alternative-energy projects, and this includes many First Nations groups championing solar power. There are hosts of entrepreneurs begging to transition to renewable power with diminished impact. Is the negative result of not allowing them into the energy sector factored into the financial reality of continuing Site C?
As well, large projects that exist far away from consumers perpetuate more frequent, wasteful activity. How many people think for five seconds about the origins of power when they flip on a light switch? They will certainly never imagine how much land was flooded and how many plants and animals died or were displaced so humans could have their energy needs met with relatively little effort and expenditure. People are constantly worried that electric-power costs will rise. But considering the massive benefit they receive, it is a very small price to pay, in comparison. This is because the true and total cost of the dam is once again not fully factored into economic assessments.
The other financial considerations are that in the past century, western societies imagined megaprojects to be the long-term creator of jobs and a secure income. For Horgan, it was “a risk…to [not] deliver housing, child care, schools and hospitals for families across B.C.” He said cancellation of Site C would cause an increase in electricity rates, cuts to services, and increase the provincial debt. North Vancouver–Lonsdale MLA Bowinn Ma’s statement was clear on her party’s priorities: “In the end...we chose affordability. We chose housing. We chose schools. We chose hospitals. We chose transit. We chose childcare.”
But Marc Eliesen, the former CEO and president of B.C. Hydro and a 40-year veteran of the industry in B.C., Ontario, and Manitoba, has flatly disputed this analysis. He thinks the NDP’s response is “utter nonsense”. “To say the cost of cancelling the megaproject can’t be managed without affecting the budget is just wrong.” It seems, though, that politicians believe that telling people they will lose their services and will have to spend more money for power makes a bad decision sound much better. However, Eliesen is reiterating a commonsense idea that many people understand: “You don’t throw good money after something that is bad,” he says. “It is known as the sunk-cost fallacy.”
Once again, there is a perception that these important human projects should continue to be funded because they are supposed “assets”, like one-quarter-built hydro dams. And, once again, the true costs of these projects are not properly evaluated. For example, how often do politicians feed into our nervousness if we imagine our comforts might be altered in any way? After being elected, Horgan quickly cancelled tolls on the Port Mann Bridge. This feel-good move has now added a debt to the province’s balance sheet of $3.5 billion, which must be paid by taxpayers, not just car drivers on the bridge.
Neoclassical economics and blindly supportive politicians continue the illusion that value is only created by human work. Wealth is generated because our machinery is active and a whole bunch of earth gets moved. As part of the bargain, wildlife disappears, and there is little idea or regard for the biodiversity lost. Wildlife biologist Clayton Apps said in a 2014 report to the Site C Joint Review Panel: “In the near future, the Peace-region landscape is likely to be reduced to about one-half of its potential to support certain wide-ranging species...Site C will exacerbate this loss and will further erode our ability to conserve and recover some species.”
So what is the final price of the megaproject business? The answer is: it costs the Earth. But the old maxim “you can’t eat money” continues to be pushed to the background, as if it doesn’t really apply in our modern world.
What about reconciliation with First Nations? Like it or not, we still live in a colonized country and this doesn’t seem to be changing very fast. So far, reconciliation is just a word that has yet to be put into concrete action. Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs’ president Stewart Phillip has said that many people in the First Nations community are “absolutely outraged” by the NDP’s choice to continue building Site C.
In a year-end email to supporters, Phillip wrote: “After many promises to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples including the fundamental principle of free, prior and informed consent, it is becoming clear we see that these promises have given way to a plodding shrug once in office. Caleb Behn, an Indigenous lawyer from Treaty 8, where Premier Horgan’s government’s ‘heavy-hearted’ approval of B.C. Hydro’s Site C dam will now flood thousands of hectares of traditional lands, stated, ‘You cannot address injustice while perpetrating injustice.’ ”
Where is the NDP’s “commitments to the people” for these residents of British Columbia? Can non-Indigenous people even begin to imagine how First Nations’ lives have changed drastically from the impacts of colonization? And how megaprojects like Site C revive and continue the colonial legacy in their traditional backyards with an even greater force into the 21st century? Now some First Nations tribes from Treaty 8 opposing Site C will go to court at great time and expense to attempt to stop the continued repossession and destruction of their lands.
Besides the physical impact of the project, what about the mental strain on Indigenous people who constantly try to hold the country accountable? They are asking us to put actions behind words. It is psychologically draining to constantly fight for rights to Indigenous lands and culture and the continuation of a worldview that was historically far more sustainable than the present colonial one. And this all goes on alongside a host of other stressful challenges First Nations have to face daily when dealing with modern society.
And what about the imposition of “man camps” when a resource project shows up in your region? There are always high impacts on vulnerable people who live close by, which certainly includes Indigenous women. Last November, the Secwepemc First Nation in central British Columbia, on whose land the Kinder Morgan pipeline would be built, came out with a strong statement that referenced domestic-violence and rape statistics for communities near North American resource-extraction projects. They were painting a picture they understand to be true from firsthand experience: “We know this horrific violence will not end while the pillage of our lands continues. The water of our lands and the water in our bodies create and sustain our nations. The colonial corporate system of resource extraction relies on the connected violences of destroying our lands and violating our bodies.”
What is gained by yet another industrial sized megaproject? Most jobs are short-term construction. The perception of political peace might reign for a few years. But in the greater scheme of things, very little is truly achieved and much is lost. Now after centuries of colonization and industrialization, humanity is well over on the negative side of the balance sheet with respect to natural capital. We have taken far too much. The Earth is showing great strain. And we are encountering the mental torture that ensues when human addiction is never satisfied. All our dirty industrial expansion into natural ecosystems is fuelled by great “wants”, not necessarily “needs”. And the outcome always destroys someone’s home, community, or mental health in the process, which, in turn, depletes the spirit of all humanity.
Coming to terms with addiction
Elieson is not the only professional stating that conventional economics doesn’t make sense for the continuation of Site C. And so if Horgan and his caucus are not influenced by that, they would certainly not be considering an ecological economic point of view. Then why, when it doesn’t make sense all around, do they continue to champion the old model? Because it appears many Canadians are not ready to embrace sustainability.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released a report stating that Canada’s economy continues to concentrate excessively on resource extraction. Value-added production is not strong enough and, when present, it mostly lacks creativity, material originality, and recycling efficiency.
The OECD’s Environmental Performance Review of Canada 2017 adds that environmental regulations are not stringent enough and, when they do exist, they are not well enforced. All in all, Canada measures poorly compared to the other OECD nations. The report states: “Resources consumed per capita (measured by weight) and resources needed to generate a unit of GDP are high even compared to other resource-rich OECD economies with strong mining and construction industries. Technological and process innovation, as well as greater use of recycled materials, would help Canada improve its resource efficiency. This would also contribute to green growth objectives, including climate mitigation and growth in clean tech segments.”
Former governor general David Johnston warned Canadians that we needed to become more than just “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. But change is unsettling, and people don’t want to alter their ways. Many Canadians continue to view themselves in the outdated image of the original pioneers. However, it’s hard to believe this is the only way forward. Hospitals and schools will hardly go bankrupt if megaprojects are not there to fund them. And cheap power will also not disappear. But anxiety around altering notions of self-sufficiency feed into the original concepts of addiction that western society learned centuries ago in the time of slavery.
Our continued mechanical, industrial, and colonial way of life has vastly desensitized and separated people from their human community and the living planet. It created a life of privilege for some at the expense of many others. Just like during the Industrial Revolution, the price of this thinking has negatively affected our mental health.
Vancouver physician Gabor Mate spent many years working with patients in the Downtown Eastside, the city’s poorest neighbourhood. He frequently speaks about addictions, including where they come from and how they influence individuals and society. In an interview last June, he described a new field of study called “neuropolitics, where they look at how people’s political views are affected by their brain functioning…They could do a lot of work on why people are resistant to reality.”
Mate talked about the “simple case of climate change, which is beyond controversy in the mind of anybody who is halfway rational.” He stated: “The human role in rapid climate change is frightening—the widening gap between ice floes in Antarctica, the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising of the seas. What world do you have to live in not to be concerned about those things or not to recognize that they exist?” With regard to the “war on drugs”, Mate says no more research is needed because what has been discovered already is not being implemented. This is because “powerful forces in our society benefit from it [the drug trade]”.
The same happens with climate change. “Powerful interests benefit in the short-term, and they think in the short-term. They benefit from the economic dividends of industries that threaten the climate. It’s a political and social question, not a scientific question. Science exists within a social, political, and economic context.” And so, Mate asks: “Who makes policy? Who influences policy? Who presents information to the public? Who controls those institutions?”
Peace for the Peace
The status quo is unquestionably unsustainable. It is destroying the planet, which includes humans. It is powered by individuals who continue to enforce an outmoded desire to be in charge of the natural world, which is something humankind will never achieve. We make up theories, our visions of reality. But they are not all working well. Now is the time to unmake those notions that no longer make sense.
The Site C dam is one in a long stream of projects European settlers imposed on what they called the New World. We are at a pivotal moment in history. The people of British Columbia elected representatives to alter the status quo. Now that political leaders are being asked to act on those changes, they are getting nervous.
Horgan wants to return to “administration” instead of “action”. But try to imagine a society in which slavery was not abolished and all people do not have the right to vote. These unfortunate situations still exist today, but at least they are not the norm because many fought—and died—for transformation. What is a human society without action to make our common world a better place? Action exists whether people control it or not.
These days, we continually witness the negative ramifications of environmental change. We should guide our actions wisely in a direction that makes sense for all living things. As Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Ste Marie said: “If you don’t fight for the world you want, you’re going to get the world somebody else wants.”
The best time to stop the megaproject was 30 years ago. The next best time is now.