by Ross Burnet
I enjoyed Kyle Carruthers’s Sept. 3 column concerning tough questions about federal transfers. He makes an interesting point about the perceptions the rest of Canada might hold about a territory that receives substantial per capita transfer payments but also a region that transmits active opinions that oppose development.
He surmises that these realities might play into one another. He suggests that a strong and lasting preservation ethic might decrease transfer payments because, he ponders, “what’s in it for the rest of Canada?” I think he means apart from a strong and lasting preservation ethic, which is also of value to Canadians.
The tide is certainly turning towards environmental protection and preservation. Long forgotten and buried notions are re-dawning on people that natural resources ‘do’ much more than provide materials and jobs. Materials and jobs are important for the way our society functions but the natural world serves much more than that. Severe environmental changes like those caused by climate change are regularly described in terms of what just happened and not so much about what was decided months ago to set things up.
I’m not suggesting that this causes that, but I am suggesting that everything causes everything. The natural world is not just a store of materials; it’s a self-nourishing system that reaches much further than we have yet imagined let alone comprehended. With a number of decades of more or less ignoring this relationship, humans have had a significant negative impact on the natural world. We’ve had a few jobs along the way and also gotten a few materials too, which has led to some remarkable advances, without a doubt. Good for us. But not just good.
Carruthers recognizes that an exorbitant amount of resource development and, he admits, environmental degradation would have to occur in order for Yukon to pay its own way. The transfer payments are large and the Yukon can’t support itself fully. Let’s just take these two abstractions out of the debate for a moment because we are likely going to continue to have some transfer payments and some development.
The issue has been paralyzed by the question: how much? That’s the wrong debate. It’s not how much, but how? It’s methods that matter.
It’s great to find and make use of ore and a host of other resources, but across the nation, the resulting degradation, catastrophic accidents and side-effects have not been avoided or mitigated in the way that proponents often suggest and many environmental review processes seem to allow.
We will certainly produce some effects to get our widgets, but we tend to not think about how far those effects travel, their ultimate severity, or their cumulative impacts until there is a catastrophe. We’ve tended to elevate the value of the short-term financial benefits, at the expense of direct health and welfare.
The resource sector is intelligent and informed. I think it should kindly drop the PR campaigns and the boundary pushing conferences and concentrate on the wisest places, the wisest methods, the wisest research and innovation to constantly improve how it explores, develops, refines, and transports natural resources.
Embrace the regulation that is necessary to protect the public good and convince the public of the value of the industry not with bumper stickers, but with smarts everyone can appreciate. Do this and watch stocks soar. Perhaps there would not be quite so many “don’t develop” messages if the means of developing were not so invasive and devastating to water, species, and habitats.
The Yukon will probably see more development. By all means, let’s create jobs. But let’s also make it a world-leading operation with a philosophy for the times that is meaningful to Canadians. That’s what’s in it for all. And widgets too. Market forces can still compete for profits, but also for integrity of methods that preserve values of health throughout.
Ross Burnet lives in Whitehorse