The Saint Croix Courier

St. Stephen, NB

2007 Mar 6

Life on the Edge:
Searching for ethics in no man's land

Columnist Jerry McEachern

Sometimes I think I'm stuck in a kind of "no man's land' between those who adamantly support industrial-technical progress and the other people who'd like to protect the environment at all costs.

I know that we can't have it both ways. Or as they say in business, "you can't suck and blow at the same time." Yet that's exactly what our politicians have to do all the time. Take Shawn Graham, for instance. On one hand, he's trying to get Maine Governor John Baldacci to work with the province to convince Washington to lighten up on the impending passport requirements at the U.S. border. On the other hand, he's trying to convince New Brunswickers that he's steadfastly against the transport of LNG through Canadian waters, which is in direct opposition to what Mr. Baldacci would like to see.

So what happens? Mr. Graham seems to soft-pedal on both issues and nobody's happy. The anti-LNG people in New Brunswick freak out because he's not standing strong on the issue, and the political types in Maine are likely upset because they suspect that Mr. Graham isn't willing to play ball with them as in: "We'll help you get rid of the passport issue if you help us get our LNG plants up and running in Washington County."

Then they hear Mr. Graham promoting Saint John, New Brunswick, as a prime energy hub for the U.S. east coast. "Why," our friends in Maine ask, "is the province of New Brunswick against LNG in Maine when it's helping to develop the same LNG business in Saint John?"

There was an especially articulate letter to the editor by Leland Thomas in The Saint Croix Courier a week ago on that very issue. The writer very pointedly questioned the good sense of creating a fossil fuel energy hub in the province when the world is running out of fossil fuels. Where, the writer suggested, were the provincial plans to develop alternative energy strategies?

Questions. Good questions.

These questions remind me of another question on the consistency of ethics. It goes like this. If you're against capital punishment, are you therefore also against abortion? If you're not, then why not? It's one of those questions that tends to make things cloudier for a lot of people. For example, some folks are for the death penalty but against abortion. And some folks are against the death penalty but for abortion. If you were being ethically consistent, wouldn't you be either "for" both or "against" both?

Ah, but I guess life (and death) is not that simple.

But the driving force behind common sense isn't simplicity. Common sense is all about how we handle complicated issues. John Ralston Saul talks about this in his book, On Equilibrium. He observes that, in direct opposition to Freud, "There is never closure on any issue." He goes on to say, "We move on because we are able to debate issues, not because we have left them behind." He understands that once we believe we've "resolved" an issue, we've frozen all our future thinking on that issue.

So how do we unfreeze our thinking? How do we oppose a rock quarry in our neighbourhood when we drive on paved roads constructed from materials mined from similar quarries? Or how do we oppose LNG when we heat our homes and fill our tanks at the pump with fossil fuels? Do we find other ways to pave our roads, heat our homes and fuel our engines? Well, in an ethically consistent universe, we would.

And so, half way through my column and I'm back to where I started. How do we take things from the planet in order to survive (and profit) and protect the environment at the same time?

In answer, two big bad things come to mind.

One is the concept of a deregulated export-import economy where goods and services surf around the world in search of the lowest production costs and the highest retail price. The other is the idea of "subsidized" resource extraction and government subsidized business activity.

What both things have in common is that they are both artificial systems that allow big businesses to sidestep their responsibilities to the rest of us, the real citizens.

Of course I'm not the first to say this. But here's what I mean. We all lose when a corporation lays off 10,000 highly paid workers and sets up an offshore factory hiring nonunionized, unprotected workers for less than survival wages. We all lose when a corporation is "given" national resources such as mining rights or logging rights and is subsidized with huge grants from the government to remain in the country, especially if it is not investing in the future of its workers through things like pensions and extended healthcare. Or if it's doing the maximum extraction with the most minimal environmental remediation required. In both cases, the corporation is able to download their costs on someone else while it chases the highest profits available.

That's exactly the kind of society we get when we view everything through an economic lens. We get rich and poor, profit and loss, famous and forgotten. Maybe, instead, we need to start seeing everything through a "good neighbours" lens.

I remember being up in the Arctic almost 20 years ago. The Inuit people still had a strong, built-in culture of looking after each other. I remember one of them, the young mayor of a tiny village on the Arctic Circle robbing the Hudson's Bay store safe and hopping a plane to Winnipeg for a wild weekend. He didn't want to upset anyone, so he left a note on the safe telling the manager what had happened. And not much did happen. The RCMP located him on Monday, flew him home and he paid the money back over time.

Individuals acting alone will most often take as much as they can get, if they think they can get away with it. Groups, however, regulate individual behaviour and force the concept of responsible sharing. That's the foundation of government. [... and the definition of civilization. — SPB webmaster]

So what's happened over the past 20 years to change the group dynamic of shared responsibility? A lot, as it turns out. And I've mentioned this before. Technology has finally "individualized" society. Our cars are personal bubbles, as are our computers and iPods and X-Boxes. Most of us don't interact with groups as much as our grandparents did. Marketing has hooked up with the new technology to promote keeping us separated into endlessly-consuming units. And government has bought on to economics (such as selling off Crown corporations while opening casinos) at the expense of social responsibility.

There was a time when the social experiment turned toward the group. Communes were big in the late 60s. Flocks of hippies migrated "back to the land" and created a whole movement around group sharing, organic farming and sustainable living. And just as quickly the movement faded and almost everybody moved back to the city (which is the ultimate commune, I suppose). Next came the yuppie and further right, the neo-conservative. Utility and self-interest had trumped social utopia.

Well, that line of thinking and ten cents won't get you a cup of coffee. But the question still nags at me. How can we go to work every day and still manage to save the planet? Do we have the guts to quit our jobs if it's ethically and environmentally wrong? And to whom would we turn if we did?

The one answer that did make sense was a return to regional self sustaining economies. I've mentioned this before, too. But how do we actually do it? Who's going to start the organic farm? Or raise the sheep for wool? Or figure out how to power our vehicles or heat our homes without pumping out masses of carbon dioxide? To do that would require a significant cultural shift away from "pre-processed living" purchased online or at the box store, to a more involved, hands-on, physical way of living.

Is it possible? I have to wonder. From what I've seen, cultures themselves are self-perpetuating. Once you train a culture, that culture wants to maintain course, no matter what. So maybe we'll keep driving our cars and buying stuff until we finally just run out of gas.

That's the thing about living in "no man's land;" it's hard to move ahead and it's hard to go back.

Gerald McEachern is a writer, marketer and business consultant living in St. Andrews.


© 2007 Advocate Media
Article republished on Save Passamaquoddy Bay website with permission.

The Saint Croix Courier, St. Stephen, NB