While researching my response to Bret Stephens’ article “Can Environmentalists Think?”, I came across a 2009 editorial that was published in Canada’s National Post (by either the editorial board or Editor-at-Large Diane Francis; it’s unclear), CN idea a winner for oil sands.
“CN idea” happens to be shipping tar sands by rail, which is a bad idea for reasons I addressed in my response to Bret Stephens, but it was an off-hand argument that appeared in the column that struck me as just the saddest thing I’d heard all day:
As for Canada’s environmental concerns, the oil sands is absolutely essential to maintaining the future living standards of Canadians. They should not be stopped.
I’m not even talking about how the author dismissed environmental concerns without actually thinking too hard about them, which would normally make me both angry and depressed. I’m talking about the part where she argues that developing oil sands is “absolutely essential to maintaining the future living standards of Canadians.”
You see, I was under the impression that Canada is a wealthy, developed, first-world country. I thought it was recently ranked most-educated in the OECD. I thought it was a major world power, with both the 35th-highest population, and — because of its second-largest size — the 228th-highest population density. From my visits to BC, I thought it was filled with beautiful natural scenery that stretches from one ocean shore to the other. I thought it was the land of maple syrup and honey. That it shares a long peaceful border with a wealthy, friendly neighbor who speaks mostly the same language and with whom it has secured a free trade agreement. I thought it was home to world-class cities and centers of culture like Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver (and I’m out of Canadian cities). I thought its banking system was among the most effective and secure anywhere in the world. I thought it ranked 11th on the Human Development Index, earning it the designation “Very High” (much like Canadians in general — Canadian kids smoke the most weed among their counterparts in western countries). I thought it ranked fifth in Economic Freedom (a measure by which the US ranks 18th). I thought it got all the benefits of a royal monarchy (zomg!! Kate had a baby!) without having to pay for it without having to pay very much for it. I thought it ranked third for overall quality of life.
Much as it pains me to admit it, Canada sounds like a pretty great place to live. And I refuse to believe that it got that way, and can only stay that way, because of some gunk it learned to extract from the ground. Canada was prosperous long before it seriously began to develop the tar sands and presumably can remain both happy and healthy even if it decides to leave all that fossil fuel where it belongs. The idea that tar sands are “absolutely essential” to Canadian prosperity and well-being or anything else, really, is just absurd — and ultimately, tragic. Canada’s perch among its international counterparts is not so precarious that one decision regarding a small portion of Alberta will send its economy plunging into Lake Ontario. It has the potential to build — hell, it already has — a strong economy on the basis of more than just unsustainable* resource extraction. There was a Canada long before the tar sands, and there will be a Canada long after the tar sands, whether they’re ever developed or not. That fact alone is not reason to leave them in the ground — but scaremongering is not reason to take them out of it either.
*I mean this in the most literal sense. No matter how good we get at extracting them, we will one day run out of fossil fuels. And that’s sort of the definition of unsustainable.