Social Justice intrudes itself into our political discourse in most instructive ways this week. The Federal Government has approved the Trans-Mountain Pipeline Expansion (a.k.a. the TMX). This decision has evoked a fine contradictory chorus of partisan prognosications, with Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens, and the Governments of Alberta and British Columbia all seeing something quite different coming as a result. Whether the Government’s decision proves decisive remains to be seen. At least they have made it, as they always said they would. “Our position is in the national interest,” they declare. The Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens, and the Governments of Alberta and British Columbia all say the same thing.
I suggest that under these circumstances it would be entirely reasonable to predict a further torrent of verbiage, and good times ahead for lobbyists, advocates, and lawyers on all sides of the question.
My own proposal is fairly straight-forward. I believe the pipeline should be built to carry refined bitumen, what used to be called and maybe still is “synthetic crude”, and that the refining should be done in Alberta, before the pipeline reaches the mountains. I acknowledge the greenhouse gas effect, but simply point out that this stuff is going to be refined somewhere, with the same effect globally. At least if it is done in Alberta we can specify the technology and, to some extent, control the emissions. Furthermore, I believe that every stage of this process, from mining to shipping, should be done at the highest possible level of fail-safe technology, and that the inevitable extra costs should be built into the chain of prices. If this makes oil sands oil unprofitable, then so be it. The pipeline will not then be built. If oil sands oil is only profitable when mined and shipped on the cheap, then considering the risks involved, the market for it is not really a market, and it should stay in the ground. A pipe-dream of wealth doth not a market make.
In arriving at this proposal, which I believe to be sensible all things considered, I am using a technique I call “creative doublethink” and “bi-polar accommodation”. Double-think, you may recall, was identified by George Orwell in his book 1984 as meaning “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” In his context he was against it; in the context of Unsolved Riddles, it can serve us well if we learn how to use it.
To be specific: I support the dreams of prosperity of the people of Alberta. I came to know them well in the twenty-five years I lived there. Two of my children and four of my grand-children live there now. I was and am involved with the prospects of Alberta. I support the dreams of preservation of the astonishing landscapes and coastlines of British Columbia. I have never lived there, but have become somewhat familiar with the country from Dawson Creek and Prince George to Sparwood and Williams Head. The idea of a bitumen spill anywhere along the route of that pipeline or in the shipping channel beyond fills me with horror. I want to see the pipeline built, the oil sold, for Alberta’s sake, and I want the passes, valleys, and coasts to be protected, for British Columbia’s sake. I hold these two beliefs, apparently contradictory, in my mind simultaneously and accept both of them. That is the “doublethink” part of my proposal.
The “bi-polar” part is an alternative to the “compromise” idea, the latter suggesting a reasonable amount of prosperity for Albertans and a reasonable amount of protection for British Columbians. I believe the compromise is inherently unbalanced, and that we can do better. I believe in maximums, of both prosperity and protection. When it comes to Unsolved Riddles, which TMX is, I am a follower of Charles Simeon who said, in 1825, “that the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme; but in both extremes.” He then went on to say to his reader: “I see you are filled with amazement and doubting whether I am in my sober senses.” I think I am. Considering our wealth and ingenuity, I see no reason why we should not strive for both extremes of prosperity and protection. I do understand, however, that in order to achieve that doublegood we may have to think differently about cost and profit. If we think about them in the old accustomed way, then someone is going to gain, someone is going to lose, and I think I know who they are. The pipeline industry’s spill record is not nearly good enough to justify the accustomed risks.
As to the “national interest”, I believe it is just as bi-polar as mine, shared by the great mass of Canadians. In dealing with Unsolved Riddles, compromise has its place when the stakes are relatively small. Such is not the case with the Unsolved Riddle of TMX. For that one we need Creative Doublethink and Bi-Polar Accommodation.
I have left Stephen Leacock’s ghost out of this discussion, poor shade. I’ll consult him next week.