Going BANANA in British Columbia

July 25, 2011

Going BANANA in British Columbia
 Unless we take risks, we will be economically weaker and poorer
 By Fazil Mihlar, Vancouver SunJuly 16, 2011
What's standing in the way of unlocking and unleashing British Columbia's economic potential?

Many factors come to mind. Aboriginal land claims and uncertainty about the land base, lack of foreign investment in machinery and equipment, few head offices, a thickening border with the United States, expensive real estate, a shortage of reasonably priced office space, too much red tape and a divisive labour-management environment.

But none is more important than what we seem to be suffering from: affluenza, irrationality and BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone).

These are cultural problems that need a fix. Soon. But I am not optimistic. In fact, I am downright pessimistic.

The result of these three strains of viruses is a lower standard of living for British Columbians.

I know this is a provocative thesis. Let me explain.

Our relative affluence means that we are not willing to take the risks that our forefathers/mothers took. We want to live in a zero-risk world. That is particularly so when it comes to non-voluntary risks as opposed to voluntary ones. Getting into a car and driving despite the fact that 2,700 Canadians die in traffic accidents each year is apparently okay because it is a voluntary action. But we are concerned about Wi-Fi, electricity transmission lines, GMO foods, cellphone towers, offshore oil and gas development, fracking technology in gas extraction, nano-technology, oil tankers on the West Coast and the development of mines.

These concerns are despite the fact that there is no science (rationality) to support many of these concerns. More importantly, there is no recognition of the fact that we need to take some calculated risks and bear some costs if we are to benefit socially and economically.

Life is not risk-free; between 20 and 30 Canadians drown every year in bath tubs. But we still take baths. Unfortunately, there is a culture of fear and irrationality that permeates society today. People are not connecting the dots: Poverty is the single biggest risk factor for an early death; a job is the best defender against poverty.

Risk-taking and experimentation are good for society:

- Imagine a life expectancy of 50, not 80;

- Imagine an infant mortality rate of 300 per 1,000 live births, not five;

- Imagine a survival rate of zero for a variety of cancers, not 50 or 60 per cent;

- Imagine a life without central heating.

Thankfully, we don't have to experience "a nasty, brutish and short life" like Thomas Hobbes described in Leviathan in the 17th century. That's because our forefathers and mothers took on and tamed natural-born killers like bacteria, viruses, toxins and cold snaps. Chemicals get rid of bacteria in our water; vaccines kill viruses; processing techniques make our food safe; and insulation keeps us warm.

So we enjoy a better life because our ancestors took risks. The word risk comes from the Italian word riscare, which means to "to dare." And dare we must.

In the process of risk-taking, we leave other bigger risks behind. Mile for mile, it's safer to take an airplane rather than a car. A car is safer than a horse.

All that rationality aside, let me get back to the second virus: irrationality. Neurobiology research is giving some convincing proof that people are not always rational. They are, in fact, very emotional.

That means a picture with two oil-soaked seals or ducks is enough to dissuade people from allowing a tanker to go through our waters despite the fact there has been no major oil spill in British Columbia in the last 50 years.

John Medina, in his best-selling book Brain Rules, points out that "Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events."

The author of How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer, reasons that part of our brain is like a "charioteer trying to keep the wild horses of our emotions in check."

Given this reality, when some environmentalist argues that we should not open Mine X or Mine Y, how should a mining proponent respond?

My response would be: "With no jobs and tax revenues from mines, do you want to be the one who sits across from a single mother and tells her we cannot afford to provide a hot lunch at school and/or daycare for her fouryear-old daughter so that she can go to work and live a life with some dignity? I cannot; perhaps you can. Only folks with a cold and hardened heart can look a mother in the eye and tell her that you don't care about her and her little girl."

Think of the imagery. Remember we humans think in pictures, not words. Now, I have the higher moral ground, not the BANANA crowd.

According to those afflicted with BANANA:

. We should not allow BC Hydro to put up transmission lines;

. We should not build the South Fraser Perimeter Road to move goods through our port because it will destroy another unique habitat (everything is "unique" in B.C.);

. We should not build the Prosperity gold and copper mine near Williams Lake;

. We should not build an oil pipeline to Kitimat from Alberta;

. We should not allow oil tankers to ply our coast;

. We should not build a casino in downtown Vancouver;

. We must not use gas in any new power generation despite the fact that it is 40-per-cent cleaner than coal;

. We should ban fish farming;

. We don't want an LNG terminal in Kitimat.

These are the same folks who then demand smaller class sizes for their kids, that grandma's faulty hips be replaced within a week, not six months later, more social housing, more legal aid, lower university tuition fees for their grown kids and higher public sector wages.

These same folks in the cities -lawyers, accountants, teachers, human resources professionals, university profs, media relations staff, marketing executives -don't seem to understand that their jobs are dependent on economic activity in the hinterland. Economists call this "backward and forward linkages."

Here's a news flash: This province is still a resource economy. Hollywood North provides less than one per cent of our total economic output. The much talked about clean-tech sector also provides less than two per cent.

At the same time, the median household income in Metro Vancouver, at $68,000 annually, is 20th among 28 major metro areas in Canada. Folks, we are not doing too well. The BANANA folks have never heard of a debit and a credit; asset and liability. In short, they have not heard about double entry bookkeeping. Pray tell: Where will the wealth come from to pay for all the demands of the BANANA crowd?

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once remarked: "Pennies don't fall from heaven; they have to be earned right here on earth." And she went on to say, "No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well."

Affluenza, irrationality and BANANA are more acute in urban centres and that's where the votes are. So you know what politicians are going to do. I don't have to spell it out. I am afraid that B.C., which has seen its productivity slide compared with the rest of the country over the past 30 years, will continue to do so.

That means a lower standard of living in the future.

And let me be clear: Politicians of all political stripes are to blame for this. What we need is a resurgence of what economist John Maynard Keynes called "animal spirits." We need to dare. In fact, a recent Deloitte report points out that our reluctance to take risks is one of the prime reasons for lower productivity growth.

Unless we can treat this threeheaded monster -affluenza, irrationality and BANANA -with some powerful antibiotics, we will have a much lower standard of living.

It's time for an adult conversation.

This column is an edited version of a speech delivered to two audiences with both private and public sector leaders and employees in Vancouver.

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