Neil Young's utopian vision of Mother Earth

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

In the 20th century, much of the divide in politics and policy was over how best to create jobs, incomes and keep people from starving how to create opportunity as part of the good life. Those on the "left' argued for state intervention and often outright state ownership; those on the "right" pointed to open markets and other elements of capitalism as the superior route to avoiding poorer populations.

The outcome of that titanic struggle is well-known; the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the command-and-control Soviet Union two years later cratered support for the most extreme forms of state intervention.

But that was then. These days, a policy divide often opens up in the struggle to convince large chunks of the public, especially in urban areas with little contact with rural life, not to kill off development.

Part of the problem in such an exercise is that not all development comes wrapped in a pretty package.

Exhibit A here comes from folk singer Neil Young who recently ranted against Canada's oil sands. In a Washington D.C. speech, Young said that the northern Albertan oil sands city, Fort McMurray, "looks like Hiroshima." Young called the city "a wasteland" and asserted that "The Indians up there and the native peoples" were sick and dying of cancer because of this [the oil sands].

The cancer scare claim originates in a 2006 accusation from Dr. John O'Connor. The Nova Scotia physician worked in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, and alleged that the oil sands were causing an epidemic of cancer in the north.

After three other physicians complained to the College of Physicians and Surgeons about the O' Connor claim, the college investigated. A note for Neil Young: In a leaked 2009 report about O'Connor, the College's report said that "Dr. O'Connor made a number of inaccurate or untruthful claims with respect to the number of patients with confirmed cancers and the ages of patients dying from cancer." In 2010, the Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel summarized their findings: "There is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands developments reaching downstream communities at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer cases."

Young's tirade revealed part of what drives opposition to the oil sands an aesthetic dislike for their visual appearance.

Fort McMurray may not be scintillating but it's hardly a "wasteland." I've been there, as well as to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their atomic bomb museums. To compare a northern mining town to Hiroshima is cheap demagoguery; it also displays a profound ignorance about the atomic bomb’s horrific effect upon the Japanese population in 1945. Such invidious comparisons should not be lightly made.

Mining for oil is not pretty but then neither are mines that extract the metals necessary for bike parts, or any industrial activity that requires disturbing the earth to extract some substance. That is real life. (It is also transitory advances in technology have greatly improved the reclamation of mining sites.)

When artists decry mining, they forget that not every occupation is perfectible or can result in an aesthetic pleasure be it ditch-digging, setting up a city sewer system or getting minerals and oil out of the ground. Natural gas heats our homes and oil helps transport food to market. Modern-day routine attempts to better the human condition should not be held hostage to idealistic artists who have a misplaced utopian vision about the aesthetic perfectibility of oil-soaked dirt.

On a related dust-up about environmental questions, after the Canadian Taxpayers Federation revealed that the city of Calgary handed $340,000 in tax dollars to the Pembina Institute for environmental consulting, Mayor Naheed Nenshi was asked whether he would ever contract with the Fraser Institute on such matters:  "As soon as they hire scientists who actually know something," was the mayor's reply.

The response was evidence of a mayoral mind ensconced in a silo. To wit, the Institute has dozens of PhDs among staff, and past and present Senior Fellows. Many are in economics but we also have a few eminent women and men in disciplines that range from botany science and law, to philosophy and mathematics. Our editorial advisory board has included three Nobel Laureates in economics.

As for expertise on science and the environment, my colleague Kenneth P. Green holds a Master's degree in Molecular Genetics from San Diego State University, and a Doctorate in Environmental Science and Engineering from UCLA. His other accomplishments include writing textbooks and encyclopedia chapters; he has also testified before the United States Congress, and was an expert reviewer for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But here's the best part about Ken Green: since the Fraser Institute doesn't accept government funding, and given our Calgary office is only a few blocks away from Calgary City Hall, I am sure my colleague would happily walk over to the mayor's office and give policy advice for free.

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