We are what we do

©

“Life is simple. Eat. Sleep. Drive a Toyota.” Well, maybe it’s that simple for some. I guess a lot of people just get up in the morning, grab a coffee and a bagel, hop into their Toyota (insert key in favourite model here), commute for an hour and spend the rest of the day mouse-wheeling at work before hopping back into their (sensual, sporty, rugged, frugal, elegant) Toyota for another idyllic commute home.

Despite what the Toyota ads tell us though, our work—not our car—is probably the overriding feature of our life. For example, I woke up in the middle of the night. I was dreaming about work, or more precisely, how to shore up a collapsing corner of a barn. Don’t make me tell you about the barn, it’s a long story, and not that interesting.

When I was writing every day I’d actually dream about words. When I was a teenager working in a supermarket after school, I’d go home exhausted, crash out on Mom’s couch and dream about stocking shelves. And it’s not only our dreams that get reshaped by work. Our style of dress changes, as does our attitude toward people, even our self-perception changes. That shouldn’t be the case, though. I mean, if my job is to pick up garbage, does that make me a different person than if I design buildings? Well, the simple answer is, “yes”. And even if I don’t see myself differently, others will.

This approach to work is scaleable, too. I think companies tend to have a corporate sensibility, or some kind of aura around the kind of work they perform. And it must be true, or they wouldn’t spend so much time and attention on shaping their corporate image. Cities, provinces, states and nations share the same characteristic. There’s definitely a New York sensibility that’s different from a Toronto sensibility or a London sensibility, even though the urban experience can be quite similar. California is definitely not Serbia.

Of course there are a whole lot of complex reasons why this should be so. California, to follow that example, is a wealthy state in a wealthy nation. It has vineyards and Hollywood starlets and Arnold Swarchenegger as its governor. Serbia has, well, memories of Milošević and war crimes, and the birthplace of the First World War.

To be fair, Serbia is doing just fine, despite its poor public image. It’s rated by the World Bank as a high middle-income nation, and is the only European country outside of the old Soviet bloc with a free trade agreement with both the EU and with the Russian Federation. The city of Belgrade is apparently booming. And it shouldn’t be overlooked that Serbia grows fully one-third of the world’s raspberries. So you might want to think of that when you’re spreading your jam on your morning toast.

Which brings me home to New Brunswick. We grow a lot of potatoes here, and spruce trees. The Irvings are making is famous for oil refining, gas pumps and LNG. The city of Moncton put us on the call centre map. And we have the world’s highest tides and the tourism to go with it. But, I’m not quite sure how all that hangs together in one image. Compared to PEI’s Anne of Green Gables farming, or Newfoundland’s rocky shores and ocean-going oil rigs, New Brunswick’s image seems a bit fuzzy.

Over the past few weeks it just got a bit fuzzier. New Brunswick, it seems, is getting out of its own electrical power business. Apparently a memorandum of understanding has been signed with Hydro-Québec. The good news is New Brunswick will get $4.75 billion for the good bits of the system. And our residential electrical rates will remain frozen (even though—what a deal!—Hydro-Québec’s rates currently are 60% lower) and our commercial rates will drop by 20%. Best of all, the deal will cancel out NB Power’s debt. Gee.

The bad news is that we get to keep the dirty coal plants and will have to pay to decommission them. We’ll also have to pay for any cost overruns on the Point Lepreau nuclear plant refurbishing. Plus the new Hydro-Québec utility won’t have to pay any provincial taxes. Zero. Nada. And there’s no guarantee for our friends in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland will continue to have easy access through our energy corridor to the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.

Which explains why Premier Danny Williams was so upset with the Quebec deal. His government has been unhappy with Quebec for years over the Churchill Falls—which gave Quebec windfall earnings from the Labrador-based facility.

But how did this all come to pass? How did NB Power run up such a substantial debt in the first place? Simply put, New Brunswick has few natural energy resources, at least on a large scale. There are no large coal deposits here, and only small reserves of natural gas. Waterways in New Brunswick are populated and ecologically sensitive, ruling out large hydroelectric developments. Which leaves only “alternative” energy schemes such as wind and tidal power, or nuclear. New Brunswick, unfortunately, chose the nuclear option.

To say that nuclear energy is hi-tech is an understatement. The building of Ontario’s Darlington nuclear plant nearly put a huge strain on Ontario Hydro, its initial $5 billion estimate swelling to $14.4 billion by completion, a project that took over 10 years to complete. Today fully 20% of Ontario’s electricity is generated at Darlington. Ontario, like New Brunswick, has become dependent on nuclear power.

This is the end result of centralized thinking. And for a province of just 750,000 people, that kind of thinking can be expensive, and dangerous. Instead of thinking beyond the fossil fuel horizon, New Brunswickers have been sold a bill of goods on the benefits of high-cost-to-build nuclear, rather than a more “desktopped” approach to power generation, which could, for example, include homeowners’ rooftop wind turbines feeding electricity back into the grid. Options like these are easily scaleable, supportable by tax-refunds and through price subsidies paid to electricity-producing homeowners.

Instead, we will now have an electrical system owned by another province—and a province with a huge stake in the centralized energy-generation game. It all sounds vaguely familiar. Isn’t that what happened here in telecommunications? Where there once was the innovative NB Tel, we now have the Toronto-based Bell Aliant. Do we really think slower Internet speeds and a branch plant mentality are better for New Brunswickers?

But then again, if we fail at our core businesses, what else does that say about who we are?

Comments

  1. do research, than write an article. it's that simple.

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  2. It's "then" not "than". It's that simple. As to the shortcomings of the research, you might be more specific. But thanks for the kind comment.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Swartznegger... spelling? Serbia is an EU member? Ceaucescu = Romania. Romania is not the same as Serbia. Dude, seriously... Do your research.

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  5. Too true. A bit sloppy. Milosevic. And Arnold's spelling. However, Serbia is an associate member of the EU. Dude you should be my editor. Cheers!

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