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Thinking Outside the Crisis: Out of What Exists

in Analysis/Beyond COVID/Featured by

This article is part of the Independent’s ongoing series, Thinking Outside the Crisis. Read Robin Whitaker’s introduction here.


It was years before we had a vaccine. We had to learn to live differently. Not worse. Different. COVID took us to the cliff-edge but the view from the precipice, well, it helped people realize some things.

I mean the bottom had just fallen out. Gone. So we retrofitted. The offshore platforms–Hibernia, Terra Nova, Hebron and White Rose—were all still out there and some folks just started spitballing. Got goin’ with an acronym generator. Cold Ocean Observatory Labs. Linked ‘em all up together and hooked ‘em into the island’s fibre lines. COOL Net: the most cutting edge marine science platforms in the North Atlantic. And, since NL went out first and hard on this, we got way ahead of the game. North Sea stuff’s just getting going. We’re training them.

Turned out the money wasn’t that hard. COVID taught us that. People finally got that a national budget isn’t like a household one. Not at all. And, really, no new money was needed anyway. It was already there—way more than enough—to retrofit the platforms for COOL Net. The operations, maintenance, and supply people, those who wanted to stay on, did. Others who wanted to keep doing offshore work retrained as lab- and sci-techs or as marine scientists themselves. Rest of that money was put back to other public goods onshore.

Now scientific teams from all over the world are booking time out on COOL Net’s platforms. Like telescopes, those things, but for the ocean. Time out there for the international teams brings in thousands of dollars per observation hour. They’re booked solid for years in advance.

And COOL Net was just a start. Those platforms are ocean-based infrastructure for search and rescue; marine weather observation, forecasting, and modelling; fisheries monitoring, harvesting and preprocessing. They’ve gone from only being extractors to being something more like generators.

Muskrat’s turning out to be a bullet dodged. But I’m not gonna lie: it’s still way dicey. We got dug out of the darkest debt hole, but that came with strings tugged from Ottawa. Some of those aren’t terrible. Nalcor was wound down, its people got retrained, and a citizens’ assembly with real powers of oversight was spun up to keep making Muskrat right. The North Spur is holding. So far. Still, there’s a long way to go before the methyl mercury pollution is fixed.

Turns out, with Muskrat, we had even more horseshoes up our you-know-wheres. COVID plus OPEC’s incessant infighting kept oil prices way low. Like punching through the bottom of the barrel low. The Russian-Saudi tussle over the oil market would flare up and down, sort of like the virus did every time someone was foolish enough to try to open things back up in the old ways of doing things. A few rounds of that and enough people just said, ‘You know what? F*** it.’

Things started to look pretty different pretty quick. Oil traders had to re-calibrate their charts so people could read ‘em. Otherwise they just disappeared: a vertical line, straight down. What had been the US fracking boom was done. Oil majors kept cutting their dividends but, well, they were done, too. Not gone–not like oil totally disappeared–but demand went down far enough to matter. Put all that together with electrification and the juice from Muskrat started to look ok for out of province markets. It wasn’t making money, but Muskrat wasn’t losing it either.

Some of those federal strings that came with the Muskrat bailout meant other things changed too. Like rewriting Bill 61 and opening up power generation to other options besides Muskrat. Net metering caps were lifted. Meant people and the places where they live could run their own electricity co-ops. Wasn’t like this was a revolutionary idea after all. Here in NL, now, excess power sold onto the provincial export grid brings in some income to those places–keeps the lights on so to speak–to smaller communities that might otherwise be having trouble paying for municipal services like water treatment and stuff that helps younger folks to stick around. Childcare, for example. The local energy income generation and pay for performing the maintenance and repair work to keep it all running help that happen. Kids who want to stay, can.

Things really picked up after MUN went tuition free. Sure, there was a hue and cry at first. But then people realized it was just a back to the future move; it’d been happening elsewhere for decades. They figured out that more students from away meant more money from away, too. And that money got spent into the provincial economy–rent, groceries, beer — all the things. Even before COVID the university’s operational costs were millions less than its total contribution to the province. And it wasn’t like student fees had ever been more than 12 percent of MUN’s revenue anyway. So we did it, the free tuition, and lots of positives flowed from that. Some of those you could pick up and move around, others you could feel.

Even before the pandemic the university accounted for 7 percent of the province’s 25-35 year-olds. But pretty quick that went above 10 percent, then 15, and more and more of those from away stayed, because they like it here and can make a go of it in all sorts of ways. The video gaming companies need storytellers, artists, and musicians as much as they need software engineers. Without the pressure of tuition and student loans, people feel way freer to take risks and try new things. Micro-manufacturing started popping up using CNC and 3D printing to make the stuff people want here instead of bringing it in. Sure, we’ve got out-of-province supply chains. But, more and more, we pull from digital design commons and do the finished build right here. Furniture, farm equipment, robotics, you name it. We pull from those design commons, but we add our own ideas too. Like plans for 3D printed marine food provisioning equipment; open-source instruments and protocols for place-based science; formulas for bioplastics for 3D printing filament made with glycerol and stuff that used to be thrown away from fish plants. You think arts and humanities or social sciences aren’t adding to all this? Try self-isolating through a multi-year pandemic without books, music, movies. The arts are lit and the social sciences are helping us figure out where to land and how.

All these efforts keep agglomerating and calving, hiving off smaller and boutique specialisms to locales all around the province. More and more of all this is supported using Faircoin for exchanges of goods and services. That helps save people’s fiat currency for those times (more and more rare) that they have no choice but to use it. It’s not growth in the old way. It’s something else, something more cooperative, something less in love with efficiency and more in love with sufficiency. A sense of ‘enoughness’.

Not every outport and remote community made it out the other side of COVID, but more did than didn’t. These days, when you code up a map of the province, as if from orbit at night, you’ll see the pin-pricks of light dotted around the island and up over the Big Land.

They’re there, getting brighter.

Josh Lepawsky is Professor of Geography at Memorial University. He investigates discards, such as pollution and waste, that accompany the lives of electronics. He is also interested in how maintenance and repair, broadly conceived, might offer both literal and figurative lessons for figuring out how to live well together in permanently polluted and always breaking worlds.

Art: “Not Yet, Then, and Now” by Katie Vautour.

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