Vincent van Gogh said: “We are not here for ourselves alone.” This man was no mere painter of sunflowers or starry nights. He was a true philosopher whose words still ring true more than a century later.
There’s an economic truth to his quote that’s especially poignant for Alberta in 2013. Out west, we’ve had it pretty good. Unemployment is low, incomes are high, and the GDP is set to grow faster than almost anywhere. But what would van Gogh say? We are not here for ourselves alone.
Alberta is experiencing some record-setting immigration. Job seekers from around the country and the world are choosing Alberta because of the excellent opportunities. We talk of “labour shortages” and insufficient “human resources” in phrases that regard immigrants like commodities rather than human beings. “Welcome to Alberta, you human resource. Take your place and get to work!”
Sadly, we focus on what immigrants can do for us (fill jobs) rather than on what we can do for them (provide beautiful communities and the chance to participate in building something amazing). It won’t end well for Alberta if we keep that attitude. Migrant workers will treat Alberta like the national ATM: Get your cash and get out.
Van Gogh’s words also strike a chord when we think of Alberta’s abundant resources. The worrying question used to be: What if we run out of oil? That’s been answered. We will never, ever run out of oil. Now the more daunting question is: What if we can’t transport our oil to the buyers? Or worse, what if they don’t need our oil any more? Those questions should send shivers of terror down the spines of Albertans with children in schools or parents in hospitals.
Sometimes, the attitude in the energy patch has been: “We must build pipelines. The world needs our oil. Nothing can get in the way. This is not negotiable.” Oil and pipeline companies are running headlong into some unanticipated opposition from folks who don’t see it the same way.
What if resource producers changed their approach, aligning more with Van Gogh’s words reminding us that we are not here for ourselves alone? Could we consider our energy resources as a gift rather than something the world simply needs? (And at current low prices for Western Canadian oil, “gift” is not far from reality.)
By considering our energy as something we offer to the rest of the world, we would willingly ensure that these gifts are in acceptable condition. That means being a world leader in environmental stewardship, rather than arrogantly comparing ourselves to Nigeria or Sudan and patting ourselves on the back because our human rights are better than theirs.
You wouldn’t give a cheap, second-hand wedding gift wrapped in a used garbage bag to a loved one and say: “Well, it’s still better than the crappy toaster oven you got from your Uncle Jack.” Some of the most successful corporations in the world view their product or service as something offered to make their customers happy and their lives better, rather than something they’re obligated to purchase. (Does anyone harbour fond feelings for the companies that printed and sold us our required reading textbooks in university? I didn’t think so).
And successful companies honour their customers in the presentation. Apple doesn’t sell its products in miserable packaging, nor does Louis Vuitton simply chuck its wares in an ugly plastic bag. They respect the buyer by ensuring the product is in immaculate condition. That’s part of their success. A critic might respond, “We’re selling barrels of oil, not smartphones or handbags!” Still, that’s no reason to disregard the world’s citizens, who are Alberta’s customers.
Alberta is in a unique situation. It’s been blessed enormously in resources, wealth, natural beauty and smart people. We really can do anything if we set our minds to it, but not if we do it only for short-term financial gain. We can offer the world abundant jobs and great communities. We can honour the world with our environmental best practices. The painter himself offers sage words for Albertans: “We are not here for ourselves alone.”
Todd Hirsch is a Calgary economist and co-author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.