“TAKING THE PULSE” ON COMPASSION AND SUSTAINABILITY, Part 2

Does the “Taking the Pulse” survey of attitudes in Saskatchewan confirm the rural-urban split that we may think is reflected in provincial politics? Leader Post writer Murray Mandryk seems to think so, stressing in his weekly column that “Urban and Rural Differ, Poll Shows”. While there are several areas of difference, there are actually very few cases where this involves a majority versus minority opinion.

One of these concerns the reintroduction of capital punishment: a majority (65%) of rural people support this, with less than half (49%) of urban people doing so. Another is about trusting agriculture to protect the environment: a small, rural majority (54%) have this trust while less than half (49%) of urban people do so.

In other areas of difference rural and urban people are still on the “same page”. For example, a large majority of rural people (70%) think First Nations do not pay enough taxes and 59% of urban people think similarly. A larger majority of urban residents (73%) support same-sex marriage and 57% of rural people, still a majority, think the same way.

We must be careful not to force survey results into preconceptions. Closer analysis can lead to unexpected findings; e.g. it’s possible that the views of women which are sometimes more progressive, level out some differences between rural and urban areas. Some attitude differences may be the greatest between particular sub-groups, e.g. rural men and urban women.

“SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT”

It’s more instructive to look at trends that may underlie attitudes in both groupings. It’s certainly worth looking at the big questions of environment and development, and thankfully the “Taking the Pulse” survey included some questions about “sustainable development”. Unfortunately these were more about sustaining the existing resource economy than sustaining the ecology that both the economy and society depend upon. Nevertheless there were some hints about this in the findings.

Not surprisingly, 94% of Saskatchewan people think that resource development is critical to today’s economy. After all this is the kind of economy that governments of all stripes have been promoting for decades. It would have been more interesting to ask what people thought about our economy becoming even more dependent on exporting non-renewable resources that maintain the fossil fuel and nuclear energy systems. Or, what Saskatchewan people think about China already being our second largest trading partner after the U.S.!
But the sponsors of the survey, the Leader Post, Star Phoenix and CBC, probably weren’t interested in critically probing the attitudes of Saskatchewan people; while interesting, this survey only touches the surface.

It is, however, interesting that 71% think that business has undo influence over the resource economy. This may suggest that no matter how they voted, Saskatchewan people overall, won’t like the continuing deregulation of environmental or labour regulations as sought by both Harper’s federal and Wall’s provincial governments.

Some results from the survey suggest that environmental awareness is quite widespread in Saskatchewan. There is a 50/50 split overall whether we can trust agri-business to protect the environment. This is a significant finding in view of how important agriculture remains to the economy and rural communities. We can likely expect support for sustainable/organic agriculture to continue to gain ground.

THE NUCLEAR QUESTION

It’s also not surprising that this survey found the public pretty much split over nuclear power. But this “finding” doesn’t come from seriously probing of this complicated issue. Questions on energy conservation and on renewables and even on fracking would have been instructive in showing any underlying trends in public opinion.

We have to put the apparent split over nuclear power into context. Every time a Saskatchewan government has come close to proposing a nuclear power plant (in 1989, 1991, 2009) there has been a huge outpouring of opposition, which deepened after Chernobyl and last years’ Fukushima disaster. But as one of the largest uranium-exporting regions on the planet, there’s still perceived self-interest among mine workers and business groups especially in Saskatoon, where uranium corporations are headquartered, in continuing to support nuclear power and the demand for uranium exports.

As Germany and now Japan continue their nuclear phase-out, bottom-line uranium companies like Cameco and Areva have turned to India and China as new markets for their radioactive, toxic wares. Premier Wall and Prime Minister Harper cheerlead the deals. I am beginning to see why an old, dear, now gone friend kept telling me that a nuclear phase-out is a little like the phasing out of slavery; some slave traders kept trading as long as there was a market for slaves, despite the harmful consequences, even as the Abolitionist movement gained strength worldwide. We are going to see a lot of this market opportunism as we make our way towards sustainability.

ANOTHER RECENT POLL

We need more detailed information due to Saskatchewan’s major front-end role in the global nuclear system and all the pressure on us to become a nuclear dump. Another poll, done in September 2012 with 800 Saskatchewan people over 18 years old by Oracalepoll Research, provides some of the information missing in the “Taking the Pulse” survey. Commissioned by the HUES3 campaign and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), it addresses matters of uranium tailings and a nuclear dump in the north.

Seventy-five percent (75%) opposed bringing nuclear wastes into Saskatchewan to be deposited in underground storage. Only 15% expressed support. Yet this is what the nuclear-industry group, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is presently trying to sell in the north. Bringing nuclear wastes here is also part of the business plan of the government’s industry-dominated Uranium Development Partnership (UDP). There’s probably no better recent example of business having undo influence over the resource economy.

Also, this physician poll found that 68% agreed that there should be no further uranium mining until all radioactive tailings have been satisfactorily and permanently contained. Even with the ongoing barrage of pro-nuclear public relations and the government steadily promoting the nuclear industry, only 23% opposed such a moratorium, while a mere 9% were undecided. Do we have a growing disconnect between Saskatchewan public opinion and the dominance of the uranium industry in both federal and provincial decision-making?

THE GREAT DIVIDE

Clearly a great divide continues here over whether we should be pushing ahead with the non-renewable resource economy regardless of the risks to future environmental and human health. This not only involves uranium mining but fracking and plans for tar-sand projects in the north.

While a majority of us (71%) think business has an undo influence on resource development, half the population also thinks Aboriginal and environmental groups do too. This is clearly not about economic or governmental influence so it must be about “moral influence.” Does this finding suggest that many Saskatchewan people, who see their personal and family wellbeing attached to existing resource extraction, don’t want to hear about ecological effects? Does it mean that they aren’t yet asking questions about how we are going to make it to a sustainable society? Maybe it also means that some people here support the federal and provincial government trying to steamroll resource extraction, without regards for Aboriginal rights, environmental impact or due process, such as with the UDP or Northern Gateway pipeline? We have to look squarely at this possibility.

Were questions asked about protecting water, land, and air we might have found out something fundamental about the views of Saskatchewan people regarding sustainability. In not having these “ecological” questions the “Taking the Pulse” survey could, ironically, be said to even have an “urban bias”. But it’s only a start and no surprise that commentators have put a mainstream spin on the findings. However, as the changing weather continues to tell us, sustainability is too vital to be swept under the rug.

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