New Brunswick, 2050: two visions

Published Tuesday, July 22, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

How will New Brunswick look in 2050?  Election years are good opportunities to share visions for the future, so here are two very different ones.  

Scenario one

It’s 2050, and it’s business as usual in New Brunswick.  Unfortunately, though, ‘as usual’ has come to mean ‘not very good’.

The world has changed greatly, but somehow much of that change appears to have bypassed us.  Successive leaders have stayed the course on NB’s economic tradition of resource-based industries, and we are bumping into some disconcerting tipping points.  

Virtually all the big trees are gone from our woods as we struggle with the realization that our northern forests cannot compete with tropical plantations that grow fibre much faster than we could ever hope to.  We’re not the tissue kings anymore, and we’re trying to figure out what comes next.

After 27 years of production, the Sisson Mine has just closed; all the molybdenum and tungsten are gone.  The closure has left a big hole in our economy and our landscape; people are worried about the long-term impacts of both.  

The initial cascade of wealth and employment from shale gas development has declined to a trickle because wells have been depleting faster than expected.  As well, a continental oversupply of gas has depressed prices so revenues have been lower than we’d banked on.  We’re still dependant on imported crude, and it’s getting harder to come up with the $300 it takes to buy a barrel of the stuff.  That’s ironic, given that a pipeline quietly transports boatloads of it under our noses for export.

The megaprojects of the past did bring good jobs, but most proved temporary.  Now our provincial resource cupboard is a little less stocked than before, and yet again we find ourselves looking beyond our borders for suitors.

Scenario two

It’s 2050, and there’s a positive vibe in NB.  Years earlier, visionary leaders recognized the need to transform the province and build an economy based on clean energy.  Sure, there were challenges, as there are with any bold initiative.  But our leaders persevered and now here we are, and it’s amazing.

Locally-assembled solar panels cover virtually every roof in NB.  On a clear day, even in January, they provide much of the power we use.  Homeowners love them because they turn sunshine into money.

NB Power still generates electricity, but only from hydroelectric dams, wind turbines and cutting-edge tidal power generators.  The company’s larger role has become that of power traffic director: its smart grid precisely balances power supply and demand, ensuring everyone gets what they need.

That smart grid is buffered by the batteries of thousands of electric cars.  Those batteries get charged when the sun shines, the wind blows and the tide turns, but they in turn supply the grid during demand peaks.  A bonus: our air is cleaner than ever.

NB’s construction industry is thriving, thanks to a building code mandating that all new buildings be super efficient.  Baseboard heaters are history; we now use solar hot air systems, super-efficient heat pumps and locally-grown biomass.  (Most NBers agree that homegrown energy is the best use for our forests.)  

Most importantly, a culture of efficiency has taken root.  We’ve leveraged the traditional resourcefulness and ingenuity of our people, and developed an expertise that is the envy of neighbouring jurisdictions.  We’ve become an incubator of ideas, apps and patents, fuelled by the new sense of confidence and empowerment that has swept the province.  We no longer send our dollars away in exchange for oil, so we have many more to spend here at home. 

Our choice

New Brunswick Day is coming and a provincial election looms.  Both are good opportunities to contemplate which of these futures we’d prefer.