Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Sharbot Lake standoff and economic faith

Of all the "green" ideas that I've tried to promote, the idea that economic growth is not equivalent to economic progress has been the most difficult to get across.

The basic philosophy that virtually every citizen adheres to is that more is better.

As a result, we live in a system that seeks always to maximize "output" - the total value of goods and services circulating in the society.

Unfortunately, large outputs require large inputs - which is why our system has been chewing up our natural resources at a rate which will very shortly reduce our planet to a desert.

A much better system would be one that maximizes efficiency - that actually minimizes the natural resources required to fuel a healthy degree of economic activity.

This would seem little more than common sense. At its simplest, it's what shoppers base their shopping decisions on: how can we get the best deals for our dollars?

Yet our desire for vast amounts of cheap goods and services leads us to put massive demands on our natural resources, demands which are obviously unsustainable and which drive governments to foolish policies like the energy policy currently being followed by Ontario's Liberal government.

It's a surprisingly little-known fact that more than half of Ontario's electricity comes from nuclear reactors. This dependence on nuclear energy is masked by our habitual use of the word "hydro" to refer to electricity. In fact, hydro-electricity, which derives from harnessing the power of our waterways, makes up only a small fraction of our consumption.

Another common misconception is that nuclear power is "clean" - that it doesn't contribute significant amounts of pollution to our ecosystems. This overlooks dozens of environmental problems with nuclear energy development, right from uranium mining through its processing into nuclear fuel, to the immense amounts of energy required to build and maintain the massive nuclear power plants, to the problem of dealing with radioactive spent fuel.

Most scientists and policy-makers who are in the know agree that we must reduce our energy consumption by at least 50% over the next generation to even approach sustainable levels. Energy efficiency technologies abound in the marketplace. A large portion of our current electricity consumption goes to waste or to activity that is unnecessary or utterly unproductive in the real economic sense.

In other words, Ontario could phase out its nuclear operations entirely without significantly affecting the high standard of living we currently enjoy. It would just mean that our economy would "slow down".

The problem is that in a hyper-competitive global economy dominated by corporations under obligation to their shareholders to maximize profits, the Ontario government is afraid to let the economy "slow down" for fear of losing investment to other countries or provinces.

The Liberal government and the nuclear industry want taxpayers to subsidize nuclear development in Ontario to provide still more electricity supply, even though we are already consuming twice as much as we should be.

As a result, businesses like General Electric in Peterborough and the mining company Frontenac Ventures are seeing dollar signs. GE has applied for a licence to process more nuclear fuel at its Peterborough location, right in the heart of the city's residential and commercial areas. Frontenac Ventures, meanwhile, have made extensive plans to prospect for uranium in the Sharbot Lake area two hours east of Peterborough.

Neither Frontenac Ventures nor the government ministry which granted permission to the company to look for uranium on what they considered "crown land" paid much attention to the people who have been living in that area for hundreds of years at the very least - the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation.

Members of the nation, along with their neighbours from Alderville, Hiawatha, Curve Lake and other First Nations in the area, have occupied the gateway to the lands Frontenac intends to mine. They refuse to let the miners in, arguing that even prospecting for uranium poses a serious danger to the watershed and to the short and long-term health of their community, and indeed that of everyone living in Eastern Ontario.

Frontenac has sued the First Nation, and is currently seeking a court order to remove the demonstrators. A Kingston judge has reserved his decision on the request for over a week now, indicating the particularly messy legal situation he finds himself in. If he grants the order, the OPP will be reluctant to enforce it, and moreover it does not seem possible to force a First Nation to vacate land which its members live on.

The Canadian constitution requires governments to negotiate with First Nations fairly and respectfully in such matters, yet neither the Ontario government nor Frontenac made any attempt to consult with the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation before setting up a multi-million dollar mining plan that is potentially illegal and certainly immoral.

Beyond the legality and immorality of the individual situation, however, lies its absurdity.

There is no real need for nuclear expansion in Ontario - in fact, there's no real need for nuclear power at all - except the impatience of individuals and businesses who continue to demand vast amounts of electricity to fuel a wasteful economic system.

At Sharbot Lake we see a classic case in which our reluctance to change our most basic assumptions about what it means to have a healthy economy has created an unnecessary and potentially damaging social conflict, one which will itself consume massive amounts of people's time and energy that could be far better spent working together toward sustainability.

I'll discuss Sharbot Lake and the nuclear industry further on Friday.

Check the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation website at http://www.aafna.ca/ for more information on the people and the struggle.

1 comment:

al pearson said...

Hi Brent, are you still involved with Sharbot Lake and what has happened to the injunction with the Superior Court judge? Do you have contacts in the area as I want to get involved?
The following letter was written to the editor of the post today

Regards to your editorial of wednesday Oct 10,
How can you compare a Uranium Mine to occupying a building site in Caledonia?
Sharbot Lake is a pristine area in Eastern Ontario approximately 100 kilometres west of Ottawa. and 45 kilometres north of Kingston, with a large number of Lakes, Agriculture and is prime cottage- country - the area relies heavily on Tourism.
The native peoples and all residents - full and part-time, are concerned about the damage that could be done to the environment if this mine goes ahead, both from a watershed viewpoint and 'fall-out' from the proposed strip mine. The proposed site has not nor will be subject to an environmental assessment due to loopholes in Ontario Laws for mining and ownership of mineral rights, the same laws that allow this mining company to establish rights to mining on 30,000 acres of land without permission of the native peoples nor any other residents of the area.
Any pollution of the watershed in this area could have disastrous consequences for the local area and the cities of Ottawa and Kingston - the watershed feeds into both the Mississauga River and thence the Ottawa river, and the Rideau canal. If there is even a one in a million chance of polluting the groundwaters through run-off from slag heaps and tailing ponds - this foolish venture must be stopped.
In addition the prevalent winds in the area are westerly - it has been proven that the drift of dust and 'fall-out' from open pit mining contemplated for this site can be even more disastrous than polluting ground water - it can spread for hundreds of kilometres including the City of Ottawa.
It is obvious that a moratorium must be placed on Uranium mining in this or any other part of the province close to urban and agricultural centres.
If the only option is for the Native Peoples to occupy the site then they have my full- scale support, if they are removed from the site then this Company will immediately begin mining.
Your editorial only alluded to some of these problems and was totally mis-guided.