The Environment, Employment and Inequality
On June 11, about 3000 barrels of light crude spilled into Jackson Creek, a tributary of the Red Deer River in Alberta. It was the second spill in as many years for that pipeline, “maintained” by Plains Midstream. The first leak occurred last April, but received far less attention, perhaps because the location of this year’s leak, near Sundre, Alberta, occurred in an area favoured by hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Considered pristine wilderness, it was popular for locals and visitors, alike.
I’ll take a guess that there isn’t a whole lot of recreational fishing going on there right now. I imagine the residents are more concerned with securing potable water than planning the next camping trip.
It’s an interesting time in Canadian politics. With the Conservatives holding a strong majority, the horse-trading and compromise of minority governments (as well as the squishiness of Liberal majorities) are no more. Stark lines are drawn on a number of issues (as evidenced by the marathon session to pass the budget). Aside from the budget and crime policy, environmental issues are probably the most polarizing.
Our American readers might remember the issue of the Keystone Pipeline, the development of which has been put on hold by the current U.S. administration. That pipeline, along with another new pipeline to the west coast, is a significant development project, fully supported by our Conservative majority. Politicians and pundits have touted the virtues of “ethical oil”, the rhetorical turn of phrase used to gin up support for the development of Alberta’s oil sands (you see, our oil is ethical because we are not a totalitarian nation like so many other oil-producing countries). Such development, we are assured, is essential to our national prosperity.
There are, naturally, many organizations throwing their metaphoric and monetary support behind such campaigns. Similarly, there is a great amount of money being used to try to stop the development (though much of that support has been derided by our government as originating from outsiders who do not have Canada’s best interests in mind). The battle of monies has been as unsightly as the recent spill, itself.
The cynic in me is sympathetic to charges that the Tories are in the pocket of Big Oil. Today’s image of the Conservative Party is of an Alberta-based party concerned more with that province’s monied interests than with the Canadian population as a whole. Today’s caricature of the party is of Robber Barons. Nonetheless, there’s no reason to believe that the Tories’ position is anything but principled. Unfortunately, the principles behind the policy put wealth creation ahead of other needs and desires the population holds.
This principle has been in play in recent labour disputes, with the government taking away the right to strike from workers in non-essential services back to work. Employees with airlines and railways are no longer afforded the basic rights and freedoms other Canadians enjoy simply because the Conservatives want no bumps in the road to prosperity. The sovereignty of the individual has been placed subordinate to the wealth of corporations.
The inequality born from these policies is not based purely on income or wealth discrepancy. In the case of Air Canada and CP Rail, it is easy to chalk the situation up as rich management oppressing the working masses, with an assist by wealthy politicians. There is nothing incorrect about such an assessment, but it is incomplete. Current bank balances are not the determining factor in the use of power in the favour one group over the other. It is about an increase, an expansion, of wealth. Prosperity, itself, is not even the concern. GDP and economic expansion are on the minds of politicians. The success of the nation, and, thus, the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives, requires further growth (and I do not mean to imply that this is a flaw peculiar to the current Conservatives). It does not require that any economic gains trickle down to the the poorer classes.
In other words, rising inequality is a feature, not a bug.
The supposed concern for the economic well-being of the nation is little more than rhetorical cover for government policy that benefits the wealthy first and the rest of us, well, maybe. It is rather obscene to value money so much more than the actual well-being of our nation, but here we are. Top priority is given to balance sheets, with workers barely a concern.
The issue of (arguably) lax environmental standards demonstrates a different, yet possibly more egregious, abuse of the powerless as a result of inequality (in terms of potential wealth creation). As we have seen in the Jackson Creek spill, the effects of a government-promoted money-making endeavour has had serious ramifications on the pleasure and health of others. True prosperity cannot be measured purely in dollars, but current government policy has accounts for accounting. It’s economic prosperity uber alles, and the desires of corporations like Plains Midstream, CP Rail and Air Canada are deemed to be on a higher plane of virtue than the quality of citizens’ lives. Thus, with the inequality related to wealth and power, we see common resources being allocated for the benefit of wealthy corporations, with less and less mind given to the costs such an allocation imposes on the general citizenry.
What we are seeing is that the increase in inequality of wealth, which both Canada and the United States are experiencing, very often leads to increasing inequality of power, as others have pointed out in this symposium. But there is an even greater perversion. This inequality of wealth and power leads to an increase in the inequality of value assigned to different segments of the population by our government and, to a lesser extent, our society. Common folk are, more and more, being viewed as impediments to wealth creation, rather than the only reason we should ever worry about wealth creation. We have become so obsessed with economics and money, that we devalue the experiences and lives of people. As inequality grows, and as the proverbial 1% race so far ahead of everyone else in terms of the accumulation of filthy lucre, this corrupted viewpoint becomes entrenched. In fact, it flourishes.