The cascading impacts of oil slowdowns
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“All for the want of a drill bit”
By Bill Whitelaw
Oct. 13, 2016, 11:07 a.m.
Those of us of a certain age will readily recall the old proverb that guides people to make connections where they seemingly don’t exist in order to understand that all actions have consequences, often unintended.
It all starts with the seemingly inconsequential loss of a single nail that affixed an iron shoe to a horse’s hoof — and the linking narrative builds from there.
Most often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, the proverb offers homespun simplicity in its argumentative logic, building through seven simple lines to a powerful conclusion.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the message was lost
For want of a message the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail
The proverb, like all such rhetorical devices, has morphed and changed over the years to adapt to changing contexts and circumstances, but the essence of its underlying guidance remains unchanged: little things can have big consequences and sometimes you have to work hard to connect the dots.
Just ask the thousands of Canadians and their families who are those human “dots” — dots that have been profoundly disconnected from their normal lives as Canada’s oil and gas sector crashes and burns and the number of unemployed continues to rise.
What’s most frustrating for them is that Canadian politicians, while generally sympathetic, seem only vaguely aware of the consequences that fall out when drill bits don’t turn, both figuratively and literally. In other words, they don’t connect the human dots to the real consequences of an energy sector on its needs and the implications for the Canadian economy — and therefore, ordinary Canadians.
The tough reality is that the men and women who run for public office, regardless of party affiliation, are generally well-intentioned but in matters of energy, frequently poorly informed. Indeed, more often than not, they know little more than the electorate that voted them into office. And if Canada has a problem bigger than politicians without the credentials or experience to shape meaningful policy, it’s a body politic that itself is woefully, and shamefully, ignorant of the complex energy dynamics that shape and define their world.
The reaction of most Canadians to the catastrophic state of Canada’s petroleum sector barely registers on the sensitivity scale. They have no sense of the longer-term impacts it will have on their lives. It’s too bad that a basic requirement for citizenships isn’t a basic course in “energy civics.”
In short, our energy future is being shaped by individuals who came to office with good intentions but bad energy backgrounds. For the most part, their source of energy intelligence and insights comes from bureaucracies which too often suffer from their own versions of energy myopia.
It opens up the very real possibility that political actions and resulting policy creations will produce consequences diametrically opposite of the intended objectives. (Current debates over carbon pricing and carbon taxes are perhaps the most useful example at the moment.)
In the spirit of the proverb’s flexibility over time, here’s a contemporary variant that remains true to the original theme. It will certainly resonate for the thousands of Canadians who today bear the consequences of the profound collapse of Canada’s oil and gas sector — those who know well what doesn’t happen when the drill bit doesn’t turn.
They would be happy to know if at least one politician knew this updated version.
For the want of a bit the well was lost
For the want of a well the job was lost
For the want of a job the career was lost
For the want of a career the family was lost
For the want of a family a sector was lost
For the want of a sector an economy was lost
And all for the want of a drill bit