An ethical and economic revolution

Published Tuesday, June 23, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Like most New Brunswickers, I’m struggling with the challenging choices facing this province.  Our aging population and perilous finances threaten the sustainability of health care, education, road maintenance and more.  So it’s no wonder that the economic benefits promised by an oil pipeline, hydraulic fracturing and a large mining prospect are so alluring. 

But as I strive to process all the pros and cons of these and other economic megaprojects, one nagging line has come to resonate loudly in my thoughts and refuses to go away. 

It’s this: “What profit will a person have if he gains the whole world, but destroys himself?”

You may recognize it.  It’s from the bible, spoken by Jesus Christ in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In the context of the choices we face in NB, it could be paraphrased this way: what does it profit us if we gain short-term prosperity but destroy our air, water and climate in the process? 

Short term prosperity, long term impacts

To be sure, all three projects above offer the temptation of economic wealth.  But they also have consequences which extend vastly beyond the timeline of their benefits. 

Take the Energy East pipeline.  The great majority of jobs it will create are in construction, and will last less than three years.  On the other hand, the greenhouse gases generated by the million barrels of bitumen it will carry every day will persist for generations. 

The Sisson Mine project promises hundreds of jobs over its expected 27 years of production.  That’s wonderful, but when it closes, it will leave a tailings pond and pumping facility that will need to be managed, in the company’s own words, ‘in perpetuity’.  In other words, forever.

Finally, there’s fracking.  Amid the uncertainties of estimated reserves, projected recoveries and unknown unknowns, there is one certainty: natural gas is still a fossil fuel (albeit the least dirty) so emissions from its use, like those from coal and oil, will contribute to global warming for a very long time.  

In fairness, the difficult choice between short term prosperity and long term environmental stability is not unique to NB.  It’s everywhere, because economic systems around the world ignore the environment and put no price on its fouling.  Within Canada, surely nowhere can the choice between economy and the environment be more challenging than in Alberta. 

Perhaps all of this underlines the need for an economic and ethical revolution – a need to reset the goalposts that define success and prosperity.  That’s why last week’s intervention by one of the world’s most revered spiritual figures is so important.

Encyclical

In a speech last year, Pope Francis suggested that an economic system “centred on the god of money” is unsustainable, even suicidal, because it encourages ever more consumption, which in turn requires ever more plundering of nature.

And in last Thursday’s much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, he went further.  He called for an ethical revolution to correct a “structurally perverse” economic system that is turning our wonderful planet into an “immense pile of filth.”  He urged all humanity, not only Catholics, to awaken to the immorality of a system based on environmental plundering.  He challenged us to redefine what progress really is.

Pope Francis is not alone; many faith communities are appealing for a moral reset and a renewed focus on stewardship, sustainability and human-centred values.  Notably, in April, the Church of England permanently pulled its investments out of coal and oil sands.  Increasingly, socially-responsible corporate CEOs are speaking up too.

Thank goodness for such voices; may we heed them here in NB and everywhere as we struggle to reconcile economics and the environment.  After all, what does it profit us if we gain short-term economic prosperity but destroy our long-term future?