The Windsor Star’s Chris Vander Doelen is, to all appearances, highly intelligent and a very clear thinker and writer. He’s also a snotty, short-sighted idiot. Just read his two most recent columns: this one about Ontario’s energy future and this one about, well, about how much he hates those damn hippies.
First, Ontario’s energy future. Yes, electricity rates will be going up in this province. On this one I’d better admit from the start that I won’t be hit directly, at least not right away, since I’m a renter whose utilities are included. Of course, that just means my rent is that much higher than it would otherwise be, and if there’s any slack between my aggregate electricity usage and what my landlord pays to Enwin Utilities, I’m betting it’s not in my favour. At some point everything will probably go to smart metering and we will all have a direct incentive to conserve energy. For now, let’s call it a wash.
That said, CVD’s opinion on the McGuinty government’s plan to invest in clean energy over the next twenty years could not be more predictable: it’s the old market-fundamentalist drill about killing jobs and reducing Ontario’s ‘competitiveness’. (Competitiveness in this context is a dummy term, with no consistent definition. Its role in an opinion column is to be the all-purpose victim of policies promoted by evil and bad people the pundit thinks are trying to pick the pockets of the virtuous.) In the supply-side era, we’re all supposed to be short-term greedy and no one’s supposed to look beyond the end of their nose: because markets are efficient, there’s perfect information and the pricing signal isn’t just everything, it’s the only thing. Under this mentality, all that matters is the up-front price of a kilowatt-hour of electricity or a liter of milk at Wal-Mart. The one and only sensible thing to do is to pay the lowest price and shut up, because the market will provide for all conceivable needs in the most efficient manner possible.
People who have this kind of cargo-cultish belief in the magic of efficient markets get stupefied and obstinate when you point out some of the obvious problems and irrationalities of markets, such as the role that herding behaviour plays in creating bubbles and financial panics (a phenomenon that simply didn’t occur between the 1930s, when financial markets were first regulated in the wake of the Great Depression, and the 1980s, when the deregulation movement started to pick up steam). Another is the existence of negative externalities: costs that are not priced into transactions but instead imposed on others, such as the health-care consequences of pollution caused by burning coal for electricity.
But the other big problem with CVD’s argument is the implicit assumption that tomorrow’s world will look like today’s, only more so: more consumerism, more globalization, more consumption of everything under the sun — and that we can have all this with no consequences. It’s not true: there won’t and we can’t. Let’s leave arguments about clean air and global warming aside. Here’s the other biggie: with the end of cheap oil at hand, energy is going to be much more expensive whether we like it or not, and the implications of this are greater than anything dreamt of in Chris Vander Doelen’s philosophy. Globalization will come to an end on the day when the price of oil drives shipping costs up sufficiently to destroy the advantage of low-wage countries in manufacturing, so we will no longer be competing with China, except maybe for access to food. Even shipping overland within Canada may become prohibitive sooner than we think, and as for a way of life built around endless driving in petroleum-fuelled vehicles, forget it. This is to say nothing of the enormous tracts of suburban real-estate, all of which will rapidly become worthless when no one can afford to drive from there to work and back again, or the social consequences when people’s nest eggs disappear out from under them on a large scale. Mr. Vander Doelen is hardly alone in being in denial about all this, but the fact is, this is the path we’re on. When all this hits home, Ontario had better have some kind of plan, including a home-grown energy industry of some description, or we are going to be in even worse trouble. We can either maintain some control over the process by making investments now, or be hit that much harder when events overtake us.
Then there’s those damn hippies. Now, I’m a rational guy, so when people try to warn me about the hazards of nuclear energy I tend to weigh them against the dangers of not having nuclear energy before I make up my mind. There are legitimate concerns about nuclear safety and public health, and the long-term problem of nuclear waste disposal remains unsolved, but society still needs energy to function, and it has to come from somewhere. What I don’t do is level cheap accusations of hypocrisy, or declare (even half-seriously) that medical imaging or cancer treatment using radiation should be off-limits for anyone who criticizes nuclear energy on any basis at all. Here CVD displays a level of smugness worthy of Michael Moore. I have no doubt that if anyone did display the level of fanatical puritanism he criticizes people for not displaying, his contempt for them would be all the greater. I hope Mr. Vander Doelen will one day realize that people who don’t share his opinions about the choices our society makes, are still entitled to live in that society.