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Opinion: Is carbon the 'new' staple in our contemporary economy?

With the tragedy of events unfolding in eastern Europe, once again the notion of Canada as an energy supplier beyond North America’s borders is finding traction in a way that foregrounds the country’s resource economy..
harold innis
Harold Innis.

Harold Innis is no longer a household name in Canada, but perhaps he ought to be.

As Canada progresses forward into the complexities of transitioning energy systems and times, it's worth reflecting on what Innis might think about the state of Canada’s energy economy — particularly where it stands in a global context — and how we might think about evolving it.

Innis is a giant figure in Canada’s economic and political history. His staples theory profoundly helped Canadians define a sense of national identity as the country slowly weaned from the teat of colonial mothering nearly a century ago — as it developed its resources and established international markets for them.

With the tragedy of events unfolding in eastern Europe, once again the notion of Canada as an energy supplier beyond North America’s borders is finding traction in a way that foregrounds the country’s resource economy.

It’s worth dipping back into Canada’s economic and political history and with a dollop of Harold Innis, ponder the twin possibilities of carbon and energy transition thinking powered by people as the new staples of our resource economy.

Like all (economic) theories, Innis’s work on staples comes in and out of fashion. Its key propositions are mostly timeless (and sensible) and any contemporary utility derives from how effectively someone reinterprets and re-engages with them. Like most theoretical frameworks, staples thinking is layered, complicated, and contested but for people outside academic cloisters, it provided (and continues to provide) a common-sense way of thinking about how their lives were lived.

Innis, who died in 1952, saw staples (fish, fur, grains, lumber, etc.) as the commodities that shaped and defined early Canada — geographically, socially, and politically. No news there. The magic in his thinking was more nuanced, in that he employed theoretical frameworks less top down than bottom up in their orientation. His work on the fur trade was seminal and did much to affirm that Canada was more of a product of itself than an outpost of the Empire. He remained concerned, however, that Canada could become overly reliant on the staples themselves and fail to evolve economic utility beyond the provision of raw materials to others. Today, it’s easy to argue that to a degree this has happened — while pointing out plenty of examples where we have advanced well beyond that in terms of adding value.

But Innis never seemed to explicitly valorize individuals directly, even though he was thoroughly grounded in research programs that took him right into Canada’s wilderness and often into direct contact with doers. As such, he would almost certainly concur that you need to be resourceful to manage, sustain, diversify, and advance a resource economy — as well as transition it. Here’s the important thing: Innis also posited that staples opportunities mature and to keep the economy prospering, new markets and opportunities are required. 

Innis’s thinking blossomed in Canada at an important juncture in a young country’s history; Canada was seeking to define itself in non-colonial terms and his work contributed significantly to a Canadian sense of self. Arguably, we are at a not-dissimilar point now — in an energy market context significantly more global than Innis could have ever imagined.

Innis probably would have much to say about hydrocarbons as a contemporary staple. He would point to Canada’s market access debate and our need to move our hydrocarbons to tidewater and beyond as the natural evolution of a staples market. He would agree Asian and European markets are logical growth opportunities after decades of dependence on a single customer. He would well understand that when your biggest customer (the United States) becomes your biggest competitor, it’s time to move on and find another market — or another staple. 

He might also have suggested value-add thinking. In this case, intellectual value-add on top of molecular value-add.

In that case, why not both people and product?

So, here's the new twist on Innis: Why not consider people and product as a form of joint staple and think creatively about another people-powered commodity produced by our resource heritage: carbon competency. 

Most Canadians are wont to believe Canada (Alberta) is a global bad boy when it comes to oil and gas development. Quite the opposite. Canadians are technology and innovation leaders. We are performers par excellence in regulatory matters. We’re also tenaciously tackling the complexities of emissions challenges. Any cursory examination of the emissions landscape reveals there’s a lot of good stuff going on.

We’re just poor at telling the story.

Take carbon management as just one example. We’re incredibly resourceful in matters carbon. There is so much at hand in advanced carbon research and innovation, building on foundations laid down years ago, that it’s difficult to track. It’s not a stretch to claim we’re something of world leaders in everything from carbon sequestration to an exciting future in next-gen (and non-combusted) materials.

But who knows?

Certainly not Joe Canadian, whose mind today is more filled with tripe by activists about how our resource economy is dragging Canada down than about how Canadian innovation talent is building it up. In the past, we were never very good externally as a sector about pairing the product with the way we produce that product.

It’s hard to know what Innis might have made of the ESG movement and its attendant impacts on socio-economic and socio-political thinking. It probably wouldn’t have surprised him and he might even have suggested ESG mastery is a sign of an advancing and evolving resource economy that knows how to imbue its staples with value.

Carbon (and its management competencies) could be the new staple of our resource economy — not just the atom and related molecules, in a manner of speaking, but the skills and talents of people curious about how to change its status from liability to asset. That seed of national pride Innis identified so many decades ago still exists within Canadians associated with energy production.

Innis might well agree (if we could somehow channel him) that it might even be a good thing for the federal and provincial governments to push Canada’s carbon management competencies into new markets (think European Union) long before the hydrocarbons themselves actually arrive to demonstrate how we balance responsible resourcefulness with the resource itself.

Good resource economies are powered by resourceful people — people who can hold in dual balance both environmental and economic performance.

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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