Search This Blog

CCE in brief

My photo
Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 20 January 2012


 “If it weren’t for Alberta’s energy sector, I wouldn’t enjoy the quality of life I do today.”

There are two things the hubbub around “ethical oil” have to tell us about society:


Despite what Conservatives pundits have tried to tell me (and PM Steven Harper tried to tell the world when he said Canadians “don’t care” about morality in procedure) – ethics matter.  The Defenders of the Crude would never use the term otherwise.

The importance of ethics makes sense not out of some perceived notion of the better angels of human nature, but out of simple social evolutionary adaption.  Do Unto Others as You’d Have Them Do Unto You only gains in meaning when the Other is beside you every day on the subway, or can access your whole life – and your social networks – online.  The give-a-penny, share-a-penny mentality also makes sense because it proactively builds good will, collaboration and mutual benefit.  Call it the busker model of business.  It’s not unique to humans – even chimpanzees do altruism, because it pays. 

The users of oil might just be using “ethical” to soften the appeal of their cause, but the fact that they feel it necessary to use the word at all is telling in and of itself.  Just like “clean coal”, there is recognition on the part of old-tier energy resource advocates that people ARE concerned about environmental degradation and the impact of resource-use on local communities.  It’s the same trend we saw with the advent of “humane” capital punishment, moving from public hangings to private, less painful injections.  Eventually, you get to a point where you can’t simply can’t sugar-coat the unpalatable enough and choose a third way.

The third way is renewable energy, clean/green energy.  The broad, long-term appeal here is that “renewable” will translate into “ever-lasting” and “clean” will end up meaning less degradation in one’s backyard.  In ancient Rome or even Victorian England, personal waste got dumped on the street.  That kind of self-centred, short-term focused thinking led to plagues and epidemics that impacted everyone equally.  It took a while, but we eventually learned how to collaborate on a more effective model; we have a public sewage system now, and are all a lot healthier for it.

Fossil fuel is today’s equivalent to dumping crap on our streets; yes, it’s handy, yes, it’s there, but you mess up the lawn and risk health (individual and environmental) and access to green space to get it.  If your personal gains outweigh the costs, you don’t care – which is why Albertans are more pro-oil than they are willing to adopt new technologies, but we’ll get to that in point two.

The clean/green movement is the advocate for  tomorrow, but that tomorrow comes at the expense of oil-beneficiaries’ present.  Yes, it is telling that the majority of them aren’t dependent on oil-or-coal generated income.  That just means that the short-term carrot of fossil fuel is smaller for them than the long-term carrot of consequence, while the long-term carrot of better access with less consequence is perhaps bigger than the short-term stick for “Ethical Oil” folk in adapting to a new system.  The great minds behind the Oil Industry could be redirecting their energy on building the next thing – creative destruction as the only option for perpetual success.  It’s far easier, though, to keep promoting and expandinge horse-and-buggy market rather than invest in developing cars.  Though we know how that turns out.

The weighing of long-and-short term carrots and sticks is the history of cognitive development and civilization.  As we live in increasingly dense urban environments, the long-term sticks that result from snatching short-term carrots grow in significance, as does the possibility of big carrots down the road if you perhaps skip the small carrot available at the present.  The societal whole is increasingly less tolerant of individual gain at social cost.

Hence, ethics.  And that’s why even the use of the term “ethical oil” is a great indicator of the slow demise of fossil fuel dependence.  


There comes a time when any model outlives its practical usefulness.  There is never a clean cut line between models, however – there is always a period of friction.  In that way, social upheaval is the same as the shifting of tectonic plates – and equally inevitable.

As an example: Feudal Japan went out fighting – the samurai battled against the adoption of the Western model and the country against the West itself.  In the end, the result was inevitable.  You can’t stop progress.

The use of the horse and buggy was familiar and comfortable.  Just as important, it was routine.  The advent of the car brought great benefits, but new challenges.  The introduction of the train, though, was terrifying for once-isolated communities.  The train brought disruption, diversity, quantity.  It changed everything.  It is no coincidence that the concerns being raised around mass transit through a railway grid used the exact same arguments being leveled against wind turbines today.  There were concerns about the health impacts of trains on people and livestock.  Some said that the noise and commotion of locomotion lead to two-headed calves being born.  While many of the arguments presented might seem ridiculous, but they were based in a very real place – the discomfort of change.

Change, unfortunately, is the order of the day.  Just look at the impact of the Internet on print journalism, the pulp and paper industry and the communities that depended on it.  The ripple-effects of the 21st Century are shattering the conventions that have sustained us, in some cases, since the dawn of the industrial revolution.  Is it any surprise that stress-related mental illness diagnoses are on the rise, economies are contracting, national and domestic tensions increasing, and decision-makers are waffling?

I think there would be a lot of agreement with that concept.  The Tea Party and Occupy Movement would surely be on board.  But what does this have to do with oil?

Here are the pro-ethical oil and anti-oil arguments, as I understand them:


Depending on your point of view, oil is all kinds of wrong – its extraction hurts the environment, it’s a limited resource so can’t be relied on forever and the sheer amount of energy, resources and innovative potential put into obtaining it are long-term wasted as again, it won’t last forever.  When there is even the remote potential of something cleaner and more sustainable, why on earth would you focus on building the better buggy when cars are the thing people are after?  When that opportunity equates to economic opportunity, isn’t it detrimental not to pursue green energy?


Or, it is absolutely right.  Fossil fuels have been the source of social growth since the industrial age – you can’t expect that to change.  There’s still enough out there to last all of mankind for, well, a while; we’ll have time to figure out what next way down the road, (ie: not our problem).  Given that reality, isn’t it better that we use our own oil and make money doing so?  Fossil fuel generated income plays a huge role in our economy and besides, the way Canada does oil is far better than other countries.  We successfully and proudly advertise “ethical” Canadian diamonds to a desiring world market; “ethical oil” is the same thing.  Besides, this is a Western thing.  The elites in Central Canada have called the shots, ignoring the West, for far too long – it’s our term to lead now and if it’s at their expense, so be it.

The first argument is a proactive one; the minimal size of the carrot to be had from oil extraction and use stands in contrast to the broader implications of the long-term stick of environmental degradation and the lack of preparedness for what a world without oil would mean.  The short-term discomfort to be had from developing and building a clean/green energy infrastructure is nothing compared to the long-term benefits of stability, sustainability and a back-yard that doesn’t reek of bitumen and muddy up your carpet. 

The emerging clean/green energy industry is all about building new partnerships, information sharing, building on innovation – horizontal integration, building new energy networks, etc.  Proactive is adaptive. 

The second argument is a reactive one; we’ve got it, we’re using it, the payoff is great.  If you don’t get the payoff, too bad, but don’t try to take it away from me.  I don’t want less of what works, I want more of it – shouldn’t everyone?  Those trying to take away my carrot are themselves the stick, so I have to swat them with a club.  Hence, the whole ethical oil movement. 

Notice the focus of Ethical Oil is on the unethical nature of their opponents?  It’s less about why fossil fuel use is good, it’s why the alternative is bad.  Green energy is unproven.  Foreign oil is blood-fuel.  Those who are against us are either soft-hearted lefties or the powerful, foreign interest groups conspiring against us.  It’s not about who the partners are or could be – China, for instance – it’s about who the enemy is and how the enemy is not us.  It is no irony that the Harper Conservatives used the same “trouble lapping at our shores”/”socialists and separatists” threats to push for a majority government as they’re using to back ethical oil.  The whole ethical oil argument fits in with selectionist thinking; it’s reactive.  Reactive is combative.

When it looks like their opponent’s arguments are gaining traction, the anti-oil factions become equally reactive.  When reactive meets reactive, you inevitably end up with conflict.  Just ask Rob Ford.

This is as true in national politics as it is in personal politics.  Politics, really, is the social equivalent to fighting – the whole point of politics is to plan your success at the expense of someone else, or mitigate harm to yourself by deflecting it with criticism pointed elsewhere.

Some of my journalist friends’ would tell me segueing into why reactive vs proactive is a distraction that takes away from the main point, but I think it’s fundamental to understanding what’s really happening here.  Plus, this is a blog, not a lecture – you can read whichever pieces you like.  The industrial revolution, the horse and buggy, the collapse of print media and the rise of online social networks, the ethical oil argument and even the rise of urban living are all tied into the same paradigm. Understanding the causal factors behind social, behavioural patterns is key to making the best decisions that balance long-term interests against short-term needs.  They all tie in to the rise of the city.


Urban living forces people to be ever-adaptive as every facet of their daily routine is subject to countless external influencers.  In Toronto, a domestic fight can lead to a distracted driver who runs a light, hits a streetcar and grinds the whole metro system to a halt.  Even a photo in a newspaper can throw one of the most powerful politicians in the country off their routine (Rob Ford = great metaphorical fodder).  Urbanites are intensely inter-dependent in ways most people never even consider, yet there it is. 

At the same time, the diversity of intense urban living provides untold benefits – mass transit, ethnic cuisine, theatre, new business opportunities.  We are willing to take the risks, the lack of individual control over our lives, because in the cost/benefit analysis, the opportunity pros outweigh the adaptive cons, and even the adaptive needs offer room for innovation, which potentially creates new benefits.

That doesn’t mean that there are those who are adverse to change or who see the costs of change as outweighing the benefits – hence, NIMBYism.  Across the board, though, the benefits of dense urban living are enticing; this is why urban growth continues to escalate, globally.


By contrast, small-town anywhere tends to be less diverse and, therefore, more homogeneous – not just in terms of demographics, cuisine or social activities, but even down to routine.  This is a lifestyle that works – the benefits are there, the risks of change are minimal, life is good.  Until, that is, external change forces internal change.

I grew up in Cornwall, Ontario when it was a mill town.  Kids didn’t think it an exciting place to be, though there was some theatre, bowling, the odd festival.  Parents could be relatively assured that their jobs at plants like Domtar were secure and that positions would be there for their kids when the time came.  Routines were pretty established, from family dinners to summer bonfires.  Not much changed, because not much needed to change – until the realities of the global economy came home to roost.  Cornwall is still in the process of adapting to the forced reality of closed plants and unemployment, but it IS adapting.  Part of the process has involved, not surprisingly, diversification – there are new industries popping up and, at the same time, diverse consumption opportunities, too.  Who’d have thought Cornwall would ever have two sushi joints?

Cornwall’s change was met with resistance, yet it undeniably is happening.  The rebirth of Japan was met with fierce, ultimately futile, resistance.  Apartheid didn’t go down quietly, nor did slavery in the United States, although the Civil War was about more than just that.

What we’re witnessing with Ethical Oil is the last forceful gasps of an industry that is losing its hold over the present.  As soon as they started applying the “ethical” descriptor and started pouring vast amounts of resources into mounting an offense, they were done.  This isn’t politics, this isn’t the four-year cycle;  this is a fundamental change in the nature of the fuel that drives our economic engine. 

I don’t expect those behind ethical oil to switch horses mid-stream, no matter how tired their current horse is.  I don’t expect Albertans or Steven Harper to back away from their staunch defence of bitumen.  For their sake, for our collective sake, I hope they spare a few thoughts and a few dollars to what is coming next.  Adaptation, after all, is the key to survival.

No comments:

Post a Comment