Group discussions: what does responsible development mean

The big question on my mind lately has been: how do we achieve a balanced discussion on the tough issues? And I’m apparently not the only one


I’ve just finished hosting a series of eight community discussion sessions across Metro Vancouver along with my colleagues at Resource Works. We spoke face to face with about 120 people, with participants representing business, community groups and local government.

We will be putting out a full report on our findings from those sessions in December. But if I had to pick a single subject that stood out from the eight group discussions I was a part of, it would be that people desperately want a balanced assessment of resource development that they can trust.

People are looking for a balanced discussion

The vast majority of the participants at our events expressed support for both economic development (including resource development) and also environmental stewardship. And there’s this frustrating notion that if only things were done better we might be able to achieve this important balance.

One of the problems is that resource issues are often presented as though they were absolute binary decisions: yes or no choices with no middle ground. At Resource Works, we want to get away from that kind of thinking, so when we held our conversation sessions, we didn’t ask people whether they supported the economy OR the environment, whether they were pro OR anti resource industry. We asked them what responsible resource development meant to them. We asked them to describe a kind of resource development they could be confident in.

When faced with important decisions on resource questions, we need to spend a bit more time asking “how?” rather than “yes or no?” 

What a “how?” conversation looks like

Recently we saw the launch of Ecofiscal, a new Canadian think tank with a mission to promote environmental stewardship through economic policy. They’re big fans of things like carbon pricing. What makes them relevant to this conversation is that they are adamant that we don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy. We do not have to trade one for the other. We can develop both if we’re smart about it. And they present a bold plan to back up that sentiment.

I was also impressed by a recent post by Marvin Shaffer on a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives blog. Shaffer is a well-respected economist and researcher who is regarded as being pretty solidly on the left of the political spectrum. He has been a research associate with the left-leaning CCPA for many years. (Full disclosure: I took a course on benefit-cost analysis taught by Shaffer at the SFU School of Public Policy in 2012.)

Shaffer’s recent blog post, aptly titled “Time for a Different Approach,” takes on concerns over Kinder Morgan’s pipeline plans and the difficult choices faced by BC Ferries. He writes that “it seems to me that there is a better policy answer to Kinder Morgan than outright rejection of its pipeline and terminal expansion proposal.”

I’m not going to go into Shaffer’s suggested solution in detail (it involves moving Kinder Morgan’s facilities from Burnaby to Tsawwassen and consolidating the Lower Mainland ferry terminals), but to me the proposal is not as important as the attitude. His approach to the Kinder Morgan expansion isn’t “yes or no” but “how?” And he bravely proposes some ambitious suggestions that he believes strike a middle ground between our shared economic and environmental concerns. Isn’t that refreshing?

Moving in the right direction

I’m sure others will have problems with Shaffer’s proposal and will prefer other options. Ditto for those of the Ecofiscal group. But by all means let’s have those discussions. I’d much rather be part of a debate where sensible people figure out the best “how” rather than the debates we seem to see most often, which involves entrenched “yes” and “no” factions duking it out with no intention of listening to each other. And this week I’m a bit more optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction. 


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