“People are pissed, ”my friend told me last weekend before the United We Roll Convoy arrived in Wawa. I joked, “are they pissed because of pipelines or because of no pipelines?”.
Jokes aside, the response the United We Roll Convoy has received in Ontario and elsewhere has been an authentic expression of frustration and fear. People are rightly worried about what impact the faltering tar sands will have on Canada’s economy. Years of deregulating bank lending (which has resulted in speculation and asset price inflation), and failing to invest in research and development (while pouring a tremendous amount of public money into dying sectors), amongst other things, have left households burdened with debt and the country exposed to the possibility of a severe economic downturn. There is a sense that “the good life” is slipping farther and farther from many peoples’ reach.
For decades the gap between the average Canadian income and the earnings of the executives who run the largest corporations in the country has been growing (to say nothing of the gap between the top earners and those making minimum wage, which has grown even more).
As a report from 2014 documented, while the average Canadian salary increased 6% between 1998 and 2012, the income of the highest 100 paid CEOs across the country rose 76% during that same time period.
To think of this another way, the 100 top-earning CEOs in Canada made 105 times the average annual wage in 1998, and by 2012 that gap had grown to 171 times. The trend has continued: the gap reached 193 times by 2015 and over 200 times by 2016.
Among the top earners in 2012 was the CEO of what was then called Talisman Energy (now Repsol) —an oil company —John Manzoni who earned 18.6 million dollars that year. He had formerly been CEO of BP. Since then John has gone on to become the Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office in the UK, the second most senior civil servant position in the British Cabinet Office.
Rounding out the top ten paid CEOs in Canada in 2012 was Al Monaco, CEO of Enbridge, a company that builds pipelines. Al made a pitiful 12.1 million dollars that year. In 2015, Steven Williams of Suncor Energy Inc made just 12.2 million, and in 2016 Doug Suttles of Encana Corp made 17.5 million. Granted, all of that oil wealth seems measly compared to the 182.9 million that the CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Michael Pearson, made in 2015. Most of these earnings are not salary and are either exempt from taxes or taxed at a lower rate than regular income.
These individuals should not be treated as scapegoats and that’s not my intention. They are likely all very hard working, and highly skilled. What I resist is a kind of austere thinking about our economy that has come to dominate public discourse, and which frames problems in a way that damns us if we do or if we don’t, all while incredible wealth continues to flow to a very small portion of society. The problem is not lack of wealth, the problem is in the way we’re thinking about the problems.
I believe that if our institutions like public education and media were functioning as they should, people would not only find the figures I’ve listed above indecent, they would also be angry and extremely concerned about the consequence of the world’s increasing consumption of oil and other fossil fuels (the world hit 100 million barrels of oil produced per day for the first time at the end of last summer.
Climate change is not something happening far away, either in time or in place. Between 1973 and 2010 average annual ice coverage on Lake Superior declined by 79%. The Arctic has warmed more rapidly than the rest of the planet, changing the temperature gradient of the earth, the ocean currents and wind patterns (like the jet stream) have also changed, leading to increased extreme weather events, such as the one in one hundred year rain event that Houghton, Michigan experienced late last spring; the the third such one in one hundred year event they’ve had in the last 10 years. These extreme weather events cost us collectively, as they destroy public infrastructure as well as private property. Much more severe and costly consequences are now locked in no matter what we do tomorrow, as military officials are fully aware. The cost and severity will continue to rise as long as the world’s consumption of fossil fuels increases, tracked closely by the earnings of Canada’s top CEOs relative to the rest of us.
Political leaders, and civically minded individuals must take note.
If people knew how great the risk from a rapidly changing climate is to the quality of life that their children and grandchildren will have (if things continue as they are, those who are kids right now will live to see calamity at a scale that will surpass the World Wars), maybe rather than meeting around a convoy of fuel-inefficient trucks to express our fear and anger, we’d be united by different forms of public discourse about the economy, the challenges facing the region and the country, and just what it means to live “the good life” anyway.