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Big questions

What does a post oil-dependent Newfoundland and Labrador look like?

By Janet Harron

We are in a time when challenging and difficult conversations are taking place all around us.

Topics like sexual harassment in the workplace, the limits of free speech, gender identity, the legalization of drugs, reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples and the very nature of democracy itself are just some of the weighty issues shaping our public discourse.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, exchanges about our province’s dependence on oil and gas are high on that list of challenging topics. Examining what a post oil-dependent Newfoundland and Labrador might look like is particularly audacious.

Solemn responsibility

Enter Memorial University sociologist Dr. Barbara Neis.

Asking the Big Questions, a project that began as a three-day symposium in October 2016 co-organized by Dr. Neis and supported by the Royal Society Atlantic and Memorial University, recently culminated in a significant document titled Asking the Big Questions: Reflections on a Sustainable, Post Oil-dependent Newfoundland and Labrador.

For Dr. Neis, the privilege of being a tenured, full-time university professor comes with a solemn responsibility.

“It is part of our responsibility when we have generated knowledge about things that threaten the public good, particularly when vulnerable groups are threatened, to try to ensure they don’t keep happening,” said Dr. Neis, who was recently presented the John Lewis Paton Professorship and the lifetime designation Distinguished University Professor.

“Any motivation I have comes from having an opportunity to understand how we all lose — workers, employers, communities and the province as a whole — from a failure to prevent things like occupational disease, over-fishing or climate change.”

‘Profound disjuncture’

The impetus for Asking the Big Questions came out of the confluence of multiple conversations and studies, the collapse of oil prices, the related fiscal crisis exacerbated by the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project and what Dr. Neis calls “the profound disjuncture” between the relative silence around climate change in Newfoundland and Labrador and the escalating debate to address climate change and its impacts on a global scale.

The book-length document is divided into four sections and includes submissions from a wide range of Memorial University faculty and community representatives.

The Big Picture

Section one begins with a wide-ranging survey of critical issues and includes links between oil dependency and climate change (Memorial physicist Dr. Lev Tarasov and geographer/climatologist Dr. Joel Finnis); Newfoundland and Labrador as a “petroculture” (English professor Dr. Fiona Polack); Newfoundland and Labrador fiscal policy and social equity (historian Dr. Robert Sweeney and several community collaborators); the rise of social enterprise (Nicole Helwig, Centre for Social Enterprise at Memorial); the need for inclusivity (Angelia Loucks-Atkinson, School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, and others) and a vision for an improved food system (Grenfell economist Dr. Catherine Keske and Dr. Lynne Phillips, former dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences).

Doing Things Differently, Industry by Industry

Section two examines multiple sectors of the Newfoundland and Labrador economy through the lens of post oil-dependency. Contributors include engineering professor Dr. Andy Fisher (oil and gas and mining); economist Dr. Jim Feehan (renewable energy); Grenfell Campus political scientist Dr. Paul Foley and others (fisheries and aquaculture); and folklore department head Dr. Holly Everett and community collaborators (tourism).

Changing Institutions and Enhancing Cultural Capacity for Future Sustainability

Section three focuses on key questions related to changing institutions, including the media, education and the built environment. The Harris Centre’s Bojan Furst discusses the future of the media in Newfoundland and Labrador; Jarislowsky Chair Dr. Tony Fang looks at immigration; and members of the Faculty of Education and the International Student Advising Office, under the leadership of Rhonda Joy, examine what kind of education system the province needs to transition to a post oil-dependent society.

Tactical Issues and Strategies

Section four consists of reflections on key tactical issues and strategies, including an essay by sociologist Dr. Stephen Crocker on the fiscal and energy security challenges posed by Muskrat Falls. Anthropologist Dr. Robin Whitaker and Grenfell Campus visual arts professor Dr. Gerard Curtis look at fossil fuel divestment at Memorial.

Finally, the document concludes with a thought piece by Dr. Natalie Slawinski of the Faculty of Business Administration with input from other contributors.

Poetic summation

The document concludes with the poem, “It’s the Dream,” by Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge (translated by Robin Fulton) that reflects on building a sustainable future.

It’s the dream we carry in secret

that something miraculous will happen,

that it must happen –

that time will open

that the heart will open

that doors will open

that the mountains will open

that spring will gush –

that the dream will open,

that one morning we will glide into some little harbour that we did not know was there.

Focused and positive

Dr. Neis hopes “asking the big questions” will help to encourage a focused and positive response to the negative scenarios making the rounds of current conversation.

“We need to encourage hope and faith in this place and our collective creativity among all groups to work against cynical withdrawal from the political process and in favour of positive social change informed by a commitment to social justice and environmental sustainability.”

The document and its subject matter will also be the subject of an upcoming collaboration with the Independent.ca in 2018.


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