On December 19, the Joint Review Panel recommended approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. This involves a proposed pipeline and tanker port which would carry bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to the coastal town of Kitimat, British Columbia. The panel, made up of three individuals, heard the testimonies of 1,161 people from all walks of life—1,159 of whom were very critical or overwhelmingly against the project. Presumably these comments contributed to the 209 conditions added—but the panel approved the project all the same.
Not surprisingly, the decision brought forth a flurry of press releases, articles, and discussions from all sides. It was applauded by self-appointed spokespeople for the business community as signaling “renewed hope for access to rich Asian markets”.
Countering that, of course, were some strong statements from First Nations and environmental groups. They vowed—as they always have—that the pipeline would not be built because thousands in British Columbia were behind them and ready to “put their bodies on the line”. In response, Enbridge CEO Al Monaco pledged to seek “common ground” with Native groups who oppose the project.
Predictably there were the usual stern thoughts from the “powers that be”—the press, politicians, and business community who have a strong stake in the status quo. Some of these commentators were highly annoyed those “darned environmentalists” were unfairly influencing the public. Peter Foster of the Financial Post claimed these “ENGOS” were a “powerful radical minority” which employed “thuggish tactics” to derail what he believes is necessary to keep our growth economy on track. He decried their “rejection of markets and contempt for democracy”. In his eyes the corporate world apparently does no harm because it follows the rule of law while environmental groups are “spreading alarm, threatening violence, and contempt for democracy”.
Dissatisfied minorities have had contrarian ideas throughout human history. Indeed these have been a major force in the creation of today’s society, and most will agree human societies are fairer and more “just” than a few hundred years ago as a result. Think of the people’s revolutions against monarchy which rocked Europe for centuries, the fight to end slavery, and the birth of universal suffrage democracy. Think also of the struggles for racial equality in the United States and South Africa. Then look at the sea of faces at one of a multitude of rallies which have been organized against the Northern Gateway project in the past few years. Their placards read “Protect Mother Earth”, “No Jobs on a Dead Planet”, and “Orcas Against Enbridge”. One has the sense that once more these well-informed activists are rising up to articulate an inconvenient but truthful critique. They are arguing against the latest invasive project which seeks to extract commonly-held natural capital—stocks of clean air and water, healthy plants, animals, and soil and fossil fuels, et cetera—and deliver them all to market “by hook or by crook”.
However, listening to statements from Al Monaco and Peter Foster—it’s just a matter of getting a few naysayers out of the way and the road to Northern Gateway and permanent prosperity is paved. They don’t seem to realize how wide the divide between both sides really is. Perhaps if those who support the building of more pipelines and tanker ports had a broader comprehension about the evolution of our own species and of ecological literacy—the “ability to understand the natural systems that make life on Earth possible”—they would better recognize the depth of commitment of their opponents. They might also show more respect for the power of this common environmental message.
Let us look back, for a moment, on how humankind got to this point in history. For at least 98 percent of the 160,000 years that Homo sapien has been occupying his planetary home he lived in some inhospitable places—from the deserts to the Arctic and many less challenging natural environments in between. These hunter-gatherers had a deep understanding of the surrounding land and waters, the habits of fish and other animals, and availability of plant foods. Knowledge of how to survive was passed down from elders and meant the difference between life and death. We are not entirely certain how these people once lived, but if the scientific study of similar groups that survived into the 20th century is any indication—they were remarkably successful. One thing is certain: the ancestors of today’s seven billion humans, with their small numbers and more sustainable habits, did not significantly deplete or degrade most of the resources the Earth offered them.
Around 12,000 years ago, people took to growing their own food to supplement hunting—which enlarged the population and put an end to a nomadic lifestyle for many. However it has only been in the last 600 years that humankind has grown to gradually separate itself from the natural world. Things began to change steadily in the West with the growth of science, the emergence of market economics, and even more rapidly with the progress of the Industrial Revolution. During this period, democracy—which was seen as a way to govern society more fairly—spread and became more popular. Unfortunately, ecological literacy shrank with the further division of labour and expanded urbanization. This meant a growing proportion of the population became ever more estranged from the land and waters that nourished them.
It is not surprising the word environment first came into use during the 17th-century Enlightenment and was used more frequently as the Industrial Revolution progressed. This was the time in Europe when the “commons”—land that was not officially owned—was reclaimed from the poor and from wildlife and transformed into private farmlands or “enclosures”. In turn, this gave rise to large-scale farming—what we call agribusiness today. There was some sense in regulating the commons but there was also much injustice in how this unfolded. And the problem with using the word environment as a common descriptive term was that it implied that human beings were surrounded by something of which they were not themselves a part.
Alongside this evolution arose classical economics, which viewed western man as the overseer and organizer of both old-fashioned agriculture and modern industrial activity. It sought to improve human understanding of sustenance and wealth accumulation. It also led to the rise of ideologies which were less concerned with the Earth as the ultimate origin for all prosperity. With the great success of the Industrial Revolution and the further rise of science and technology, classical economics gave way to neoclassical economics—a school still remarkably influential today. The importance of the Earth and its contribution to our well-being dropped out of sight just as economic measurement was becoming more sophisticated. In the mid 20th century, when gross domestic product was devised as an important statistic, natural capital was seen as little more than a flow of seemingly abundant materials, and not a critical asset in limited supply. This has unfortunately set the tone for trade between individuals and nations, and for public economy policy to the present day.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal is a continuation of such an anthropocentric, reductionist, and neoclassical economic worldview. However, this extreme approach has certainly passed its “best before” date. Proponents foolishly accept that humankind can endlessly extract fossil fuels from the ground despite the extensive earth, air, and water pollution and climate chaos that ensues. Implicit is the assumption that the energy from these resources is ours—a single generation of a single species—to own and exploit regardless of the negative impact on the health of all living things in the present and future. Their claim is that the free market—which is only checked by governments currently in power which are chosen through our all-too-imperfect democratic process—can make reasonable decisions on such momentous matters. Furthermore there are several large and important stakeholders missing from this decision-making function which have no voice or rights of complaint: future human generations, other species, and the land—now understood to be a living organism itself. The evolution of such a worldview has brought us a new epoch called the Anthropocene—in which natural ecosystems and their resident flora and fauna are in mass decline. And large and imperative planetary systems such as the climate and our oceans are becoming more severely compromised every day.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal is a major flashpoint at this point in time because many key issues are coming to the fore. Most of these involve struggles in which significant forces are concerned and engaged. The first is land rights and title of First Nations in British Columbia. B.C. was one of the last places in the world to be colonized since settlement grew across resource-rich North America from east to west. By that time in the late 19th century, European imperatives were at their peak. It was assumed that large populations of B.C. First Nations, which initially outnumbered settlers, would quickly be assimilated. That was the main reason for creating small Indian reserves and the quick and efficient induction of Native children into residential schools where white culture dominated by brute and cruel force. There was little time for treaty signing, and the settler governments assumed this would not be necessary.
This also means that in the 21st century much of First Nations territory in B.C. remains unceded. Thus the federal and provincial governments are legally required to consult with hundreds of First Nations bands whose traditional territories could be adversely affected by the resource extraction of public or private sector enterprises. There has been mass First Nations resistance to the Northern Gateway project—with over 130 bands signing the Save the Fraser Declaration and thousands of individuals joining in. Key groups which represent central Interior and northwestern First Nations such as the Yinka Dene Alliance and the Coastal First Nations have been very vocal in their opposition to the project and vow to block it in whatever way what they can.
The project has also been proposed at a time in recorded history when runaway climate change has reached epic proportions. As humankind watches glaciers shrink and ice sheets calve, freak storms the world over are having a disastrous impact on millions of people and long-inhabited islands in the Pacific are becoming submerged. Climate change has now has been indisputably shown to be caused by humankind’s excessive burning of fossil fuels, and the massive tar sands project in Alberta is an important contributor. High volumes of greenhouse gasses are created by the extraction of bitumen. This process also contributes significantly to land and water pollution. Further challenges come from bitumen’s transport across land and sea to markets. Then finally the burning of the fuel adds another major insult to the natural environment.
And what about the good sense of transitioning to renewables as well as saving fossil fuel stores for the future? The present Conservative government seems to rely quite disproportionately on tar sands production and sales ostensibly to “keep the Canadian economy strong”. Is this a wise choice—since we are leaving very little behind for upcoming generations? How about investing in people and technologies that permit us to add a much greater value to already-existing flows of extracted resources? Ecological economist Herman E. Daley wrote: “There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.” Surely there must be a better way for intelligent and creative Canadians to make a living.
The “environment” is not just the backstory to human history; it is the story. How this word fits into our modern worldview says a lot about who we are. Hunter-gatherers couldn’t afford to differentiate between themselves and the natural world; they understood intuitively that the Earth has always been the basis for life. Indeed North American Native people tell us there was no such a thing as “wilderness” until the white man showed up.
In the western worldview—which has now become a global force—the ruling elite assume that our present day market system and all-too-imperfect political democracy can and will properly care for a living planet. But the future health of the “environment” is typically a fleeting afterthought easily dispensed with whenever other things seem more immediately pressing. A government Department of the Environment is only one of many and can only be as good as the rules it establishes and enforces. As well, we are a long way from creating robust economic policy for the long term with necessary input from environmental scientists and ecological economists. And how are we collectively addressing the few hundred years of harm already done by our misguided, purely human-centred notions?
Damning and trying to halt “environmentalists”—their ideas, tactics, and funding sources—will not succeed for long. “Business as usual” cannot lead to lasting prosperity because ecological overshoot and decline will ultimately impoverish us all. Do the business people and politicians who support Northern Gateway not need air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat? Do they not have children or care for their future? Author and anthropologist Wade Davis puts it well: “Oh I love it when people say he is an environmentalist. What the hell does that mean? If it’s someone who lives in their environment then all human being are environmentalists.”
The sooner we all learn that “Environmentalists ‘R’ Us” the better off we will be in the long term. The quicker we admit that all organic life on Earth relies on the ecosphere—a miraculous but thin layer which works in elaborate, complex, and interconnected ways—the sooner we can more closely entwine our present day worldview with that of our evolutionarily-fit hunter-gatherer ancestors. They survived lengthy pre-industrial epochs and passed on their resilient genes to us. It is worth noting that the most forceful arguments against the Northern Gateway project come from the First Nations of B.C. who recently practiced a more sustainable hunter-gatherer lifestyle themselves.
It’s not about them and us. We’re all on this planetary spaceship together. If the powers-that-be really think that a huge group of individuals in British Columbia who neither have official ties to First Nations or environmental groups are simply being brainwashed into thinking Northern Gateway should not happen, they are misleading themselves. Those against this project have come to realize something those who support it have not—that all humans share the same air and water, grow food in the same soil, and depend on the same healthy oceans to support life. They are concerned for the ongoing welfare of orcas and wild salmon, old-growth forests, and spirit bears because they believe all living things deserve a safe and healthy home for years to come. These “ordinary” British Columbians are forming a community which is saying that, if humankind doesn’t decide deep in their hearts to respect and care for our common and precious natural world, we will go down together—and this is something they don’t want to risk.