• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Is It About Resource Finity?

Two discussions of recent events, by their extreme difference in tone, have me wondering.

January 10, 2012

Two discussions of recent events, by their extreme difference in tone, have me wondering.

First, there's the feigned outrage of Canada's natural resources minister about foreign financial contributions to "environmentalists and other radicals" who are protesting a proposed pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to a port in British Columbia -- the pipeline would transport tar sands oil for shipment to Asia.  This particular project, and the protestation it has triggered, pretty much parallels the situation of the Keystone XL pipeline that's in the news down here in the USA.  But since the construction would be entirely within Canadian borders, Minister Joe Oliver is raising the specter of a radical international environmental cabal to justify his political position.  How do I know the outrage is feigned?  Because funding for the proposed pipeline is coming, in large part, from Sinopec (China Petroleum) and Total (French Petroleum).  I guess foreign money is only outrageous when it funds opinions you (which is to say, the Canadian government) don't share.

By way of contrast, a discussion on the Diane Rehm show this morning focused on recently-announced annual catch limits affecting all Federally-controlled fisheries in the USA.  Represented were environmentalists, fisher-folk, regional councils, the fish processing industry, pretty much all parties concerned.  There was plenty of disagreement, but it focused on the details of how initial limits were set, what protocols would come into play if (when) those limits require adjustment, what the current state of scientific knowledge regarding fisheries is or is not.  No implication that anyone disagreeing with a particular position was evil or malicious.  No disparagement of science.  Indeed, a general consensus that NOAA will require additional resources to do the monitoring and analysis necessary to enforce and improve the fisheries management process.

These two data points, combined with a comment I heard a couple of days ago which reminded me that in current American discourse the "economic perspective" is often assumed to be the short-term perspective, got me wondering.  Is the difference in tone largely a matter of the fact that fisheries, properly managed, are thought of as a resource that can be sustained effectively forever while petroleum reserves are inherently finite?  If so, the rush to exploit petroleum before the window of opportunity closes might make some superficial (if ill-founded and financially suboptimal) sense.

The other possibility that occurs to me is that, while both industries are dominated by large-scale processors, petroleum companies are fewer and larger than fish-products companies, and there's no real tradition of family-scale enterprise in the oil-fields business.  (Sure, there are oilmen whose grandfathers were oilmen, but the day of the independent "wildcat" speculator are long gone.  By contrast, there are fishermen whose great-six-times-removed-grandfathers were fishermen (and all the generations inbetween), and there are still plenty of individual/family-owned fishing operations around the world.)

Is the difference in civility of discourse a matter of finity of resource?  Of scale of participant?  Of something else entirely?


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