Oh, Muskrat

Decided? No. But the more we hear, the more uneasy I grow

Muskrat Falls. I swore I’d never write about it, because to be honest the more I heard people talk about it the less I understood about it.

Sure I read the news coverage, but most of the discussion seemed to be carried on in a language most of us can barely understand. Still, it sounded more or less okay to me. There’d be a loan. There’d be jobs. Our power rates might go up (to pay off the loan?). Or they might not. But there’d be jobs. It was somehow ‘green’ energy (which I guess is just a way of saying it’s not oil or coal or nuclear: it still involves destroying one of North America’s greatest rivers and the surrounding environment), in order to sell energy to North American cities to do wasteful things with. But whatevs. It could be worse, right? We’ll get some jobs and money, right?

Despite my efforts to ignore the debate, I’ve found myself inexorably sliding from the “more-or-less-support-it-though-I-don’t-entirely-understand-it” camp, to the “the-more-I-do-understand-about-it, the-more-I-find-myself-disliking-it” camp. And it’s a turn that’s surprised even me.

On the one hand, there is the debate about the economics of it. Will developing Muskrat Falls lead to wealth, great amounts of clean power that we can sell in burgeoning markets, and jobs for everyone (well, some of us anyway)? Or will it be yet another financial disaster? (our history suggests that statistically, our great development projects – chocolate, rubber boots, cucumbers, fishery x 20, etc – usually wind up on the disaster side of the ledger, the current oil boom excepted)

…the arguments on both sides add up to little more than competing efforts to gaze into a crystal ball.

That, fundamentally, is the question. And while there are compelling and detailed arguments (and costly arguments: hired guns consultants don’t come cheap, and there’s a fortune to be made by Muskrat’s mercantile mercenaries) both for and against, the arguments on both sides add up to little more than competing efforts to gaze into a crystal ball. There is no way we will know how the project will turn out until we proceed. Markets fluctuate; costs rise; the unexpected happens. We can try to make a reasonable estimation, but ultimately all such efforts are no more than crystal ball-gazing, no matter how ferociously the economists insist otherwise. And while I love a good Tarot read as much as the next person, I’m not likely to invest my life savings into it.

Ultimately, if we proceed we’ll be going into major debt – a debt borne by all of us – on a gamble. By some estimates (the government and their supporters), a good gamble. By others, a bad gamble. But either way, a gamble.

The problem with benefits

I can already hear the vested interests screaming, pounding their chests in favour of their economic precision, hurling thunderbolts of statistics at me and lighting up my Facebook page with rage. Well, so be it. Supporters hate the opponents, and opponents hate the supporters. And they both fear the undecided (that’s me. and many of you.) And part of the problem is that even a long-term failure offers short-term benefits: there’s the lure, and it’s a compelling one.

Because you see, the vested interests – on both sides – will come out of this okay regardless of how the development of Muskrat impacts us, the average person. There will be jobs, regardless (even a gravedigger gets a paycheque). There will be economic growth, regardless (even natural disasters and oil spills boost GDP, remember). The elites in the business world will trade their millions back and forth and mining ventures will have access to energy, regardless of how it impacts our future and social fabric as a people down the road.

…even a long-term failure offers short-term benefits: there’s the lure, and it’s a compelling one.

And this, no doubt, is why there seems to be such great effort to keep the debate contained: government MHA’s of all party stripes (with their pensions and business connections) are not the ones who will suffer, and are even now making sure that their constituents reap some of those short-term gains regardless of their ideological position on the issue.

It’s also probably why most of the really effective and inspired and determined opposition to Muskrat Falls has come not from any of the elected parties, but from grassroots community groups that are becoming more and more impatient with being excluded from the debate, and more and more convinced that it bodes badly for Newfoundland and Labrador and that we must mobilize to oppose it.

It’s probably also why government seems so dead-set against allowing wider public debate. How often do we hear the ‘experts’ (who seem to be experts only at confusing the rest of us with their acronyms and their sheafs of competing statistics) tell us that since we don’t have sheafs of statistics at our disposal, and don’t have engineering or geoscience or PR degrees, we don’t deserve any say in the matter?

…if the decision cannot be made on economics, then can we…evaluate the proposed development on another basis?

Well the fact is that in a democracy, everybody must have a say in decisions that affect all of us. If one side cannot convincingly explain their perspective, then that is to their detriment, and in the absence of any perfectly functional crystal ball, we must take their inability to convince us as compelling evidence that the course they recommend is not a wise one to pursue.

For me, the economic argument rests in uncertainty. But if the decision cannot be made on economics, then can we – those of us who remain unconvinced and want only what is best for Newfoundland – evaluate the proposed development on another basis?

What is best for Newfoundland

If we cannot obtain a foolproof prediction as to what that means economically, then we must look to other measures of what is best for Newfoundland. And so I turn my judgment to the nature of the debate itself.

Two things stand out to me in this debate. The first is the evident sense of desperate determination the provincial government seems to have to make this project go through. To which I have to ask: why?

Why the desperation? Desperation is never reassuring at the best of times. And isn’t this supposed to be the best of times? The oil is flowing, they’re desperate for workers…sure it’s not all peachy; the wealth is being spread unevenly and corporations are raking in more than their fair share but that’s a product of policy; generally speaking, we’re in a good economic place. So why the desperation? Why push forward at all costs? Why commission “studies” with one hand, while developing promotional campaigns on the other? That’s not how you conduct unbiased research.

…gambling is not a suitable philosophy for governing.

Is it because they’re afraid of being seen to change their minds? Such a motive would be completely irrational. Is it because they’re afraid they won’t have a way to maintain economic growth when the oil is gone? Well, good things don’t last forever, and at some point we’ll run out of quick cash fixes. That’s why they should be using the money now to build infrastructure that will last when, inevitably, our economy dips. The desperate urge to maintain growth is not convincing because it is not realistic. And again, when desperation causes our government to subordinate democratic process and prudent patience for a chance at a quick fix, I am not reassured either. It’s like the gambler who, once he has a taste of profit, can’t stop rolling the dice, even if it means he might lose everything.

And gambling is not a suitable philosophy for governing.

The government’s publicity campaign has also failed to convince me; if anything, it’s done the opposite. When one side hires publicity firms and PR agents to promote its cause, it only serves to discredit their cause, because it suggests they no longer think their argument can stand on its own merit. So instead they turn to sly marketeers to peddle their cause and bedazzle people with glitzy pamphlets and websites instead of engage in rational debate.

Sailing into the unknown

When we embark on a grand project as a nation – and that is how I conceive of Newfoundland and Labrador – it must not be in a state of division, turmoil and anger. Imagine a boat casting off for six months at sea where half the crew hate the other half, and a third of them would rather stay on shore except for the captain and half dozen officers who order everybody to shut up and set sail. Is that a boat that’s ever going to reach land? If they don’t mutiny and run each other through with their sabres in the middle of the night, or jump ship at the first opportunity, they won’t be able to work together to weather the first storm they encounter, and down they’ll go.

You don’t set sail into the unknown until and unless your crew is ready, confident and eager for the adventure that awaits.

That fundamental condition must be met; and we are far from it now. The proper method of government is to remain steady and calm; provide space for all perspectives to be heard; allow all relevant parties to debate and wait for a consensus to emerge. That might take six more months. It might take five years. It might take fifty years. But until it does, no responsible government would push the people it represents off an uncertain ledge that – while there’s a chance it might lead to untold riches, could equally lead to utter disaster.

Until there is certainty, and until there is unanimity – or something much closer to it than we have now – it makes no sense to proceed.

Yesterday supporters of the project released – with triumphant fanfare – the results of a CRA opinion poll which demonstrated, they felt, significant public support for the project. Just how significant?

66% significant (with a margin of error of almost 5%).

To which my response was: only 66%?!?!

If Muskrat Falls was a labour union in this province, it would have just failed its certification vote.

If the opinion survey had scored an A, there would have been a strong case for proceeding. But a low B that might even be a C? That is cause for hesitation, NOT for moving forward.

Judging democracy

There is a principle at stake here that matters far more than quarterly profits. It is the question of how we value our virtue as a democratic nation. What is the quality and depth of our public debate? How do we ensure that all voices are heard, and given equal weight? How do we educate people to understand the conflicting studies that are being produced? How do we teach the virtue of patience and prudence, when those who are supposed to be at the head of state are ripping out their hair with frenzied impatience to be off across the starting line yesterday? (after all, their investments are waiting!)

We need a space to let the partisan mud-slinging settle…

And by debate, I don’t mean two for and two against and a round of applause at the end. I mean public debates between people of different backgrounds and parts of the province arguing different sides of the issue. I mean public hearings in every part of the province where everyone has the chance to have their say. I mean online forums. I mean let’s facilitate a public discussion and at the end of it, see what everybody feels. And maybe it means a referendum. Or maybe a consensus will clearly reveal itself during the process.

I’m not convinced Muskrat Falls is *not* the way to go – at least in some form. But enough doubt has been seeded in my mind that I realize it would be foolhardy to proceed at this time. We need a space to let the partisan mud-slinging settle, so as to re-open the debate down the road on more rational and open-minded ground.

Look north! Well, north-east.

As often when I am in doubt, I look to Iceland. Because Iceland, to my view, offers a model for what a nation like ours can accomplish if we set our minds to it. They weathered centuries of rural poverty much like we did; they reasserted their independence from the large mainland nation which had absorbed them, they weathered the ongoing European economic crisis better than many other European countries, and they even successfully fought off foreign fishing fleets and preserved their fishery.

Gullfoss, Iceland

And in the 1920s, they had a national crisis over a proposed hydroelectric power development surrounding a large and majestic waterfall named Gullfoss. The deal, in fact, was done: the falls purchased by investors who were prepared to proceed with the development; many locals and the government alike championed the jobs this would bring. And one woman – Sigridur Tomasdottir – spoke out against it. She had grown up by the falls – indeed, it was her father who had sold it – and she said that destroying the falls would be like destroying the soul of their country. In fact, she threatened to throw herself over the falls if the development proceeded. Gradually, people listened. Opposition grew, and despite all odds, the project was eventually abandoned and the falls turned over to the national trust. Today, it is one of Iceland’s top tourist destinations. When I visited this summer, there was a steady stream of visitors stretching from the horizon to the edge of the falls: a line of hundreds trekking and bussing through the wilderness to see this wonder which has since captured the imagination and the soul of that country. And as you approach the falls, there is a towering statue of Sigridur Tomasdottir, once ridiculed and reviled as an opponent of progress, and now revered as the founder of Iceland’s ecological soul and somebody who saw through the short-term veil of profit to the longer-term value of what the falls could be.

What if one day Muskrat could be our Gullfoss?

What is our legacy?

The way the debate has played out is no credit to anyone, least of all that significant and growing portion of us which is still undecided and uncertain. And we must not allow our legacy – regardless of how many millions it brings in, or eats up – to be one tainted by impatient, imprudent, divisive sniping and grand-standing. Not only should the outcome be one to be proud of, but the process and decision-making that led to it should be a reflection of our quality and character as a nation. And if what we’ve seen thus far speaks to our character as a nation, then I would be ashamed to be a Newfoundlander.

So let’s pause this project. Let’s set it to the side and wait for the raging duststorm to settle. Let the air clear, send the consultants home (or back to the mainland) and let us reflect on what we’ve learned – not only about the economics of energy in Newfoundland and Labrador, but about how we value democracy and public debate. If Muskrat Falls makes sense now, it’ll make sense in five or ten years’ time. If it doesn’t make sense, then we’ll be glad of not having gone this route. (Here’s the Irish Descendants making a similar point, with song)

We have nothing to lose by suspending the project, and everything to gain.

Most important of which is our own self-respect.

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