environmental groups is growing exponentially, as development is
pursued in new areas. Battle lines are forming with no solution in
sight. Without a major change in public policy both Canadians and
foreign investors will be forced to take sides in a pyrrhic battle
that no one needs.
Garrett Hardin, in 1968, developed the theory of the "tragedy of the
commons" -- the idea that a shared resource will be depleted by
individuals acting independently and rationally according to their own
self-interest, despite the knowledge that depleting the resource will
not be in the group's best long-term interest. His theory is as
relevant today as it was when he wrote it and offers an intriguing
insight into current resource development in Canada.
The objective of any business, according to Hardin's model, is to make
money. They are guided by Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of supply and
demand and businesses assume that decisions reached individually will
benefit society as a whole; or to paraphrase a 1980's movie 'greed is
It should not shock people that executives, in an attempt to maximize
their own self-interest, make comments such as "We're jeopardizing
commerce" by spending time checking the safety of rail bridges after a
major flood, or when indigenous peoples' rights and traditions, as in
the case of the Tahltan's Sacred Headwaters, are treated as secondary
to profit, or when companies advocate for the Keystone pipeline using
simplified economics rather than looking at the broad pros and cons of
the project. Or even when the Canadian Association of Petroleum
Producers (CAPP) states that the "proposed oil and gas regulations are
too ambitious and will hobble the Canadian industry's ability to
compete" and use this argument to ignore all environmental concerns.
These companies are acting rationally. They are maximizing short-term
profit at the expense of long-term public interest and as Hardin
stated they benefit "from (the) ability to deny the truth even though
society as a whole, of which (they are) part, suffers."
It would be easy to "just say no" to any new development but this
benefits no one. The world would lose transformational projects such
as the Canol shale-oil discovery in the Northwest Territories and the
nascent rare-earth industry, which has the potential to create entire
new industries and be the catalyst for technological innovation in
Canada and with its trade partners. We need to balance what is good for resource companies with the rights of people and the environment. The job of balancing these rights falls to the government; they are the only ones who can implement and mediate administrative law.
By recognizing resources as "a commons" that requires management,
Hardin believed that we "(could) preserve and nurture other and more
precious freedoms." This means recognizing the country and its
resources as a source of wealth shared by its citizens, developed
sustainably, and protected for its citizens by the government.
When the world hears comments such as we "won't take no for an answer"
from the Canadian government in relation to the Keystone pipeline, and
"foreign money" is behind attempts to stop the oil-sands, or stating
that Kyoto is a "job-killing, economy-destroying accord," we must take
notice as we must also take notice when environmental laws are changed
that reduce the government's role and abrogate their responsibility,
forcing companies to become free riders at the expense of the people
We are seeing the consequences of the government's laissez-faire
approach to economics in the hardening of the battle lines between
people and resource companies. Canada has become a country divided.
The Keystone Pipeline, the Avalon rare-earths project, the Red Chris
mine, and many others are all opportunities that could generate great
wealth and prosperity for the companies involved, the people in the
area, and the world in general. These companies, however, cannot be
allowed to become free riders, nor have they showed a desire to, but
without a government that will balance public and private rights they
will inevitably becomes ones, and this will lead to further divisions
and long-term economic stagnation.
No government has the right to say the economy is more important than
the environment or the rights of its citizens. Our future depends on
the greatest good for the greatest number of people, not the success
of an anointed few.
Ryan Lijdsman is an independent analyst and consultant. He can be
followed on twitter @ryanlijdsman