Holy War

Here’s an op-ed I wrote a few months back which never saw the light of day:

Pipelines are tedious to talk about, especially when we bludgeon one another with the importance of the economy or the environment. It’s tedious because it’s not the important conversation. Heresy, I know, but in the aftermath of the federal government’s new interim principles for the environmental assessments by the National Energy Board, these are the bludgeonings we can expect.  The Conservative’s natural resources critic Candice Bergen took a first whack: “At the end of the day it’s about jobs”. You know how this one goes.

But, actually, this time it’s different and the punches about the economy aren’t landing quite so squarely. This is because these new interim principles aren’t directly about the approval of specific pipelines like Energy East. What they are about is how we should make decisions about these pipelines, and about whose voices get included in making that decision. They’re about what kind of democracy we want.

And there’s nothing better than a pipeline to force this conversation. Think: they are born in backcountry, have huge and uneven economic value, flow through farmland, provincial borders, indigenous lands and cities, and end up at the sea with global effects. Everyone has a stake. Existing at this scale, Rona Ambrose is on the money when she raises the scepter of national disunity, but she’s wrong to think this makes decisions about pipelines an obvious ‘yes’ to appease despairing westerners.

There are economic benefits for some of us and environmental costs for others, often both for all of us. Who, then, makes the decision? In a democracy, the answer is “we do”, but who is the ‘we’ when the pipeline has such a wide range of effects for different people? Ah, well, there’s the rub.

A couple of safe answers are on the extremes: not every farmer in its path should have a veto, and it shouldn’t be left to a federal bureaucracy which only looks at jobs statistics. Somewhere between the two we have the existing NEB charged with a mandate for ‘consultation’, balancing the need for public legitimacy with the realities of having to govern and make centralized decisions about our pipelines.

So then how much consultation is needed, and with whom? These are difficult questions but, importantly: they are the right questions. Even posing them requires us to acknowledge that the decision should somehow be ‘ours’ democratically. A federal bureaucracy which tinkers with statistics but fails to consult citizens will never have this legitimacy. This is what Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr alludes to when, defending these principles, he notes how few major NEB projects have gone ahead in recent years. They failed, he says, because they lacked public confidence. In this light, we should interpret the interim principles as a way of saying that the NEB needs to be more democratically legitimate – more closely tied with citizens. Consider two of the five principles:

–  The views of the public and affected communities will be sought and considered;

–  Indigenous peoples will be meaningfully consulted, and where appropriate, impacts on their rights and interests will be accommodated

Just how much consideration communities will get and just how meaningful the consultation will be is yet to be seen – and is a balancing act all its own – but placing these requirements front and center makes a strong statement about what is at issue: how we govern ourselves and who is included in the political “we”.

Marking these as priorities is a way of disqualifying the zealots who shout “it’s all about jobs” or “it’s all about the environment”, dogmas which fail to recognize these resource decisions as essentially political problems. From this perspective, “the economy” and “the environment” are not the words on which we should hang these choices. As singular nouns, they are set beyond our reach; they are outside of politics, cordoned off as special and non-human. This is not to say that we don’t need environmental science or economics – we desperately do – but we must treat them as tools, not as distant gods which demand certain sacrifices from us.

It is when politicians or other experts claim special knowledge of the will of these gods, economic or environmental, that we are lead into the kind of holy war with which we as a public are so familiar. Experts duel and most of us feel compelled to declare an allegiance to one or the other. And meaningful democratic politics is the biggest casualty.

We should then find cause to celebrate whenever this feud appears to loosen into a conversation about how it is that we should make these decisions. By requiring expanded political dialogue, it seems that large parts of the NEB interim principles could mark just such a shift. But even if that’s too hopeful a reading for the time being, such democratization needs to become true of our national environmental assessments. Holy war only leaves carnage.

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