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Thursday, July 03, 2008

john kenneth galbraith on alberta's oil sands: wwjkgd?

In the face of growing American skepticism of Alberta's oilsands operations, it appears that Premier Ed Stelmach is assembling a Tarsands Coalition of the Willing this week as Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and Idaho Governor Butch Otter have jumped on board the bitumen train.

I can only suspect that the Governors of Montana and Idaho have about as much influence on the direction of American energy policy as the Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz would on Canadian energy policy (and so go my chances of becoming Premier of Prince Edward Island anytime soon...).

A couple of months ago, I picked up John Kenneth Galbraith's book The Good Society: A Human Agenda. Born in Iona Station, Ontario, Galbraith had a long career as a working for the Presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as American Ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963, and serving as the President of the American Economic Association. He was an Officer of the Order of Canada and was a two-time recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to him by both Truman and Bill Clinton). He also taught economics at Harvard University and was the author of over 30 books.

Though I wouldn't rush to agree with all of his findings, after reading Galbraith's handbook for a compassionate and fiscally sound nation, I would recommend that Stelmach, Schweitzer, Otter, and the seemingly untouchable energy executives in the comfort of their downtown office towers (
this means you Charlie Fischer at Nexen, Tom Katinas at Syncrude, Rick George at Suncor, Bruce March at Imperial Oil, and friends) put this book on their summer reading list. The exert below, from Galbraith's chapter on the environment, was one that I believe is particularly relevant to Alberta in the context of how we exploit our oil sands (with their 50 square kilometers of tailings ponds filled with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and naphthenic acids).

"The market system and its incentives are an accepted part of the good society; this is not in doubt. But there is no divine right of free-enterprise, or free choice, for the producing firm. Or for its consumers. The largest community interest must be protected, as also the future climate and well-being, and there must be concern as to depleatable resources. Since automobiles must be built, have fuel and be driven, and other consumer goods and services must similarly be supplied and utilized, a compromise between the current financial and long-term public interests in essential and inevitable. As a broad rule, however, this compromise must favor the larger community interest and the interest of those to come. That is because the business and political voice and money are allied with the current economic power - with the firms that produce the goods and services, their lobbies and captive or susceptible politicians. The community and the longer public future draw on less specific support."


Gauntlet said...

JKG was the only thing that made my political economy courses remotely bearable in undergrad. He has great respect for the power and elegance of the free market, but still treats it as a tool toward other objectives, not an ideology.

I didn't realize he was O.C. Cool.

Gauntlet said...

Oh, and I have to say... it's not fair to attack the CEOs of these sorts of companies and complain that they are not balancing the interests of future society vs. today's economy.

I'm quite sure most of them would be very happy to have effective and reasonable environmental limits on how they do their business. They just can't say so, because they are paid to do whatever is profitable for the shareholders.

No, the people who work for the oil companies are not the bad guys. We are the bad guys for not electing a government that is strong enough to resist their advances and use the power of government do the right thing for tomorrow.

Aaron said...

Another possible solution:

Anonymous said...

While your post raises interesting questions, I agree that it's unfair to target the CEO's in that way.

Charlie Fischer, for example, is a proponent of a carbon tax and an advocate for more sustainable energy.

Suncor, while an extraordinary polluter, is also one of Canada's largest researchers in alternative energy.

Yes, they could do much more, but we can't look to industry solely for the leadership our governments need to provide.