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To Mine or Not to Mine: an HMC Blogger Debates Peter Foster of the National Post

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Iron Hydroxide Precipitate in Stream (Source: wikipedia.org)
Iron Hydroxide Precipitate in Stream (Source: wikipedia.org)

On June 26, 2009, Peter Foster published a column in the National Post entitled Trojan CSR. In it he attacked bill C-300, a bill designed to hold Canadian corporations to the same human rights and environmental standards abroad that they would face at home. He also railed against NGOs such as Mining Watch Canada and Development and Peace, who monitor abuses of Canadian mining companies abroad. (Unfortunately, Canadian mining companies currently have a poor reputation in many parts of the world – see Mining Watch's website for some examples.)

I wrote a letter to the Post in response to the column, in which I criticized, among other things, the following sentence:

“The main group pulling Mr. McKay’s strings is the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, whose revealing motto is ‘life before profit.’ ”
I also noted that his criticism of an NGO’s grant of $7-million from CIDA was misplaced, when General Motors had just received a $13-billion government bailout.

The Post never printed my letter, but to my surprise (and to his credit) Peter Foster replied to me personally, defending his position. We then exchanged a series of e-mails on this and related topics, which I’ve copied below.

In Peter’s alternate universe, NGOs critical of mining are a huge, well-funded empire that needs to be stopped before they kill the mining industry; opposition to mines in developing countries is due to agitation from these foreign NGOs; and those in developing countries who take the lead in opposing mining projects do so due to a thirst for power or political ambition. Oh, and there’s no such thing as climate change, or any other global environmental crisis for that matter. 

I’ve given myself the last word here, but if Peter chooses to reply to my latest e-mail I’ll gladly post it here. Or, he can choose to reply himself in the comments section below.

-Ben Sichel

--- On Thu, 7/2/09, PETER FOSTER wrote:

                From: PETER FOSTER
                Subject: Re your letter to the Post
Received: Thursday, July 2, 2009, 3:15 PM

                Dear Ben,
                I just saw your letter to the Post. I don't know if they plan to print it, but I thought I'd clear up a few points for you.
                The problem with the "life before profit" logo is that it suggests a moralistic zero-sum mindset that cannot grasp that profits are the route to a better life, not a subtraction from it.
                I can't remember recommending funding for GM CEOs, but I have certainly catalogued the sins of anti-development NGOs. I've copied a couple of relevant articles below.
                

(These were too long to include in the blog post, but I'll gladly forward them to anyone interested.)

                Cheers,
                Peter Foster

        

        --- On Thu, 7/2/09, Benjamin Sichel wrote:

            From: Benjamin Sichel
            Subject: Re: Re your letter to the Post
            To: "PETER FOSTER"
            Received: Thursday, July 2, 2009, 10:22 PM

            Dear Peter,

            I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my letter. With respect to the motto, I believe the key question to ask is: profits for whom? You know as well as I that the purpose of any private corporation is to create profit for its shareholders. What the CCODP motto suggests to me is not that all private enterprise is a bad thing, but that "life" - in the form of human health, clean and functioning ecosystems, healthy community life, etc - in countries where, say, Canadian mining companies operate, should take precedence over those profits when necessary.

            Your development-is-always-good philosophy assumes that the interests of foreign shareholders will always coincide with that of local communities. Everybody wins! You know perfectly well that a company dealing in a developing country will do all it can to maximize profit - that is what it's supposed to do. Job creation and environmental protection are afterthoughts, and if necessary they will be scuttled.

            My reference to GM was referring to the fact that you rail against the $7-million given to CCODP; meanwhile the government recently gave $14-billion plus to GM and Chrysler (2,000 times as much by my calculation). I'm not sure what your stance is on this, but perhaps it strikes you as just a little bothersome to bail out such a failing, antiquated industry, considering your concern for taxpayer dollars.

            I'll stop here since I suspect we will never agree. I don't expect a detailed response, but I am curious to know: do you have any experience living or working in developing countries? I ask because I have spent time working in Central America and Mexico with organizations led by locals, and I suspect they would be somewhat offended at the suggestion that "well-funded" foreign NGOs are the ones putting so-called anti-development ideas in their heads.

            (P.S. This is definitely not to say that the work of Northern NGOs abroad is always good: here's an article I once published on the subject.)

            Thanks again for writing.

            Yours,
            Ben Sichel
 

 

--- On Tue, 7/7/09, PETER FOSTER wrote:

        From: PETER FOSTER
        Subject: Re: Re your letter to the Post
        To: "Benjamin Sichel"
        Received: Tuesday, July 7, 2009, 6:46 PM

        Dear Ben,
        Sorry for the delay in response. On what do you base the notion that I hold a development-is-always good (presumably regardless of the costs) philosophy? My point was to challenge those who hold the development-is-always-bad philosophy. I still believe that the Life before profits motto indicates a basic ignorance of the role of enterprise in giving people a better life. Nothing you write suggests any other view on your part. If I am mistaken, then perhaps you can give me the names of half a dozen Canadian mining companies that you think are doing a good job overseas.
        The GM bailout is a mistake. Again, I'm fascinated by your apparent assumption that I might support such a ridiculous move. Like your all-development-is-good accusation, where would you derive such a view?
        I do not believe in corporate welfare of any sort. Neither do I believe in NGO welfare, especially for radical religious organizations, or indeed any religious organizations come to think about it.
        I have never lived or worked in a developing country, although I have done a fair bit of travelling and lots of reading on economic development. If living in a particular place, or working at a particular enterprise, were a prerequisite for having opinions then obviously neither of us could say anything one way or the other about GM, or indeed just about anything.
        I am fascinated by development, and lack of it, and have read a good deal by people such as William Easterly and Peter Bauer. I am also a long-time student of the philosophical and psychological roots of anti-capitalism, which is usually based on a failure to understand how markets work, boosted by moralistic rejection of "self-interest," which is usually parodied as greed and exploitation, or which the measure is usually profits. These tendencies are easily exploited for political purposes, as I'm sure you will have seen throughout South America.
        Anyway, thanks for your response. As you say, it's very unlikely that we would ever agree. Meanwhile I eagerly anticipate the names of those "good" mining companies.
        Cheers,
        Peter Foster
        
        

Hi Peter,

Apologies on my end this time for the delay in replying. Once again, I appreciate that you've taken the time to write to me personally.

I'm not quite sure what your point is in asking me to name mining companies I think are doing a 'good' job. (Although I would throw the question back at you and ask: can you name a few NGOs that work to promote poverty alleviation in developing countries that you think are doing a good job? Or maybe you think the world would be better off without NGOs altogether.)

I believe you're trying to get me to prove that I don't think all multinational corporations, especially ones that work in the mining industry, are bad. In fact, I do think that most mining certainly has the potential to be very destructive, and given the complex environmental crises that threaten all species, including ours (I'm trying hard not to use clichés here), that focus should shift as much as possible towards conservation and re-using of minerals, for instance.

Nevertheless when mining must happen some practices are more responsible than others; I like what your good friends at Mining Watch have to say on 'good' mining companies:

http://www.miningwatch.ca/index.php?/About/FAQS#good

I probably agree with you on one point at least: that large-scale foreign aid has not been effective for lifting people out of poverty. (This is what I'm getting from some cursory research on Easterly and Bauer, though I admit I haven't read them in detail.)

I'm sure you'd also agree that there's no panacea for lifting people out of poverty around the world. In any case I believe the most important factor in development in any region is self-determination; i.e. the people of a given area having the right to decide for themselves what kind of development they want, and having the ability to make informed decisions about this development.

As it can be extremely difficult to 'help' poor people abroad effectively, I've figured that as a first step we can at least not hurt them, and much research has led me to believe that opposing certain Canadian mining projects is important in this regard.

I'm curious as to why you spend so much column space attacking NGOs like Mining Watch. You accuse them of agitating, of blatant self-interest, and of willfully keeping people in poor countries in poverty. In your articles on bill C-300, you write as though the mining companies were somehow unwitting victims of unfair processes, as if they had no self-serving motives of their own. You're ignoring the basic fact that mining companies by nature are for-profit ventures and can afford their own lobby groups, PR staff, etc. It's ridiculous to suggest that NGOs are some sort of huge, well-funded industry, while mining companies are 'the little guy' struggling to survive.

NGOs are by nature not-for-profit, which is why they often receive some level of government funding in order to operate. This makes sense if you think of civil society as one of the checks and balances of a democracy (which maybe you don't). This is not the same as corporate welfare, which is when corporations receive handouts in order to fulfil their mandate, which is to make private profit.

(My point about the GM bailout, and other big bailouts in the U.S., which I'll assume you oppose as well: if you're so up in arms about taxpayers' money being spent on NGO's you oppose, then I challenge you to write a column about the GM bailout, which dwarfs the amount of money spent on CIDA. Or any case of corporate welfare.)

I have a hard time telling if you genuinely care about the welfare of poor people in developing countries. Assuming you do, do you think that promoting large-scale foreign investment in mining is the best approach to bettering their lot? It's a serious question, not a rhetorical one.

Miningwatch, as well as every other responsible international-focused NGO I know, does its work in conjunction with, and taking leadership from, partners in affected countries. I'm particularly familiar with Rights Action, based in Guatemala and Honduras, which is staffed almost entirely with locals, works in partnership with community organizations around their respective countries, and sends updates to Canadian and American supporters and partners based on the needs of those on the ground. I repeat that to suggest that organizations like these are agitators who are planting the ideas in the heads of local people - who genuinely want mines! - is insulting to their intelligence.

Your reply that 'no one could have opinions about anything' and so forth if we haven't lived in a country etc. is a cop-out. It's one thing to have opinions about something; it's another to publish them in a national newspaper implying that you've done some fair research. Many of the things in your columns you sent me were ably repudiated with a bit of research; for example the things about Ecuadorian 'indigenous leaders' opposing Miningwatch Canada. (Check their website - it's well researched and referenced.) Interestingly, you have no experience living in a developing country, though this is the very phenomenon you deride about so-called anti-development NGOs, that they are going against the 'actual' will of the people.

I recently spoke with Carlos Amador, a Honduran who opposes Goldcorp's mine in the Siria Valley of Honduras. I wonder if you would say to him what you said to me - that your opinions are just as valid as his? Has your water been poisoned recently? If you do have anything you would say to him, perhaps arguing as to why the mine is a good thing? I would volunteer to translate it into Spanish and send it to him.

Sigh. Apologies for going on so long. I hope you're enjoying the summer.

Sincerely,
Ben Sichel
PS You say you've done some travelling...I'm curious as to where, if you don't mind me asking.
 

 

 

Ben,
I've interpolated my comments in your note. Sorry for the delay in replying.

--- On Tue, 7/21/09, Benjamin Sichel wrote:

  •     I'm not quite sure what your point is in asking me to name mining companies I think are doing a 'good' job. (Although I would throw the question back at you and ask: can you name a few NGOs that work to promote poverty alleviation in developing countries that you think are doing a good job? Or maybe you think the world would be better off without NGOs altogether.)

    The reason for asking about mining companies doing a good job is because if you can't name any then that suggests that you see no good in mining companies or such resource development. I assume that NGOs do some good but their role is not analogous to that of corporations, since they seem to have an obsession with "exploitation," which I believe is rooted in a fundamentally erroneous and demonic view of the nature of capitalism. The world could function quite well without NGOs. It could not without mining companies.
    
 

  •     I believe you're trying to get me to prove that I don't think all multinational corporations, especially ones that work in the mining industry, are bad. In fact, I do think that most mining certainly has the potential to be very destructive, and given the complex environmental crises that threaten all species, including ours (I'm trying hard not to use clichés here), that focus should shift as much as possible towards conservation and re-using of minerals, for instance.

    What crises that threaten all species? The notion of some biotic holocaust is the biggest con job in history (next to climate change). Conservation and re-use are economic matters, not moral imperatives. To see them as such leads to enormous waste of effort and resources.
 

  •     Nevertheless when mining must happen some practices are more responsible than others; I like what your good friends at Mining Watch have to say on 'good' mining companies:

    Mining Watch is to me a typically morally-inflated anti-development organization that bends fact to suit its ideological predilections.

  •     I probably agree with you on one point at least: that large-scale foreign aid has not been effective for lifting people out of poverty. (This is what I'm getting from some cursory research on Easterly and Bauer, though I admit I haven't read them in detail.)
  •     I'm sure you'd also agree that there's no panacea for lifting people out of poverty around the world.

    
    People lift themselves out of poverty. The poorest people in the world are held back not by lack of drive or entrepreneurial inclination but by appalling governments. However, I certainly admit that resource extraction can support these lousy governments. One thing of which I am firmly convinced is that redistribution (the latest cover for which is "Clean Development") is not a panacea. It is a corrupt curse.
    
    

  •      In any case I believe the most important factor in development in any region is self-determination; i.e. the people of a given area having the right to decide for themselves what kind of development they want, and having the ability to make informed decisions about this development.

    This is a loaded suggestion, since you believe that you should be "informing" them on the right kind of decisions to make. I doubt that the information that you and I provide would have much in common. Unfortunately, emphasis on "self-determination" has led to support for despots such as Mr. Mugabe.
 

  •     As it can be extremely difficult to 'help' poor people abroad effectively, I've figured that as a first step we can at least not hurt them, and much research has led me to believe that opposing certain Canadian mining projects is important in this regard.


    That's not my conclusion. Many poor indigenous people are just dying to be "exploited." Again, I think our fundamental difference lies in attitudes towards capitalism in general.
    Have you ever spoken to a mining executive?

 

  •     I'm curious as to why you spend so much column space attacking NGOs like Mining Watch. You accuse them of agitating, of blatant self-interest, and of willfully keeping people in poor countries in poverty. In your articles on bill C-300, you write as though the mining companies were somehow unwitting victims of unfair processes, as if they had no self-serving motives of their own. You're ignoring the basic fact that mining companies by nature are for-profit ventures and can afford their own lobby groups, PR staff, etc. It's ridiculous to suggest that NGOs are some sort of huge, well-funded industry, while mining companies are 'the little guy' struggling to survive.

   
I never suggested that, but you have betrayed exactly the attitude I noted above. I believe you proceed from suspicion and condemnation of mining companies' "self interest" as fundamentally tainted. All individuals are self-interested. I believe that organizations such as Mining Watch are driven by economic ignorance and the pleasures of moral inflation, plus the undoubted satisfactions of holding up "mighty" corporations.
    
    NGOs ARE in fact a huge well-funded industry that has grown astonishingly in the past couple of decades, promoted by brilliant strategists such as
Maurice Strong (who founded CIDA, which is one of hundreds of organizations that doles out millions to NGOs). Also, it’s infinitely less costly to stop development by spreading misinformation and exploiting misconceptions than it is to engage in productive investment. In that way the battle is indeed lopsided. I have no mandate for individual mining companies or mining representative organizations, which you will note that I frequently castigate for their spinelessness and inability or unwillingness to defend what they do.
    

  •     NGOs are by nature not-for-profit, which is why they often receive some level of government funding in order to operate. This makes sense if you think of civil society as one of the checks and balances of a democracy (which maybe you don't). This is not the same as corporate welfare, which is when corporations receive handouts in order to fulfil their mandate, which is to make private profit.

    I don't make too much profit. Should I be funded by government? It is nonsensical to suggest that the government should fund every organization with a bee in its bonnet. "Civil society" is a bogus phrase which has been used as a cover under which a relatively small group of alarmists and moralists pretend to speak for society more generally. They don't. The WWF, Greenpeace, Environmental Defence etc. etc earn big bucks by promoting alarm and shaking down corporations as 'consultants."
    If you had been a regular reader of my columns, you would know that I am one of the world's greatest opponents of corporate bailouts or corporate welfare. The error made by many anti-capitalists is to imagine that capitalism equates to the bullshit spouted by CEOs.

    

  •     (My point about the GM bailout, and other big bailouts in the U.S., which I'll assume you oppose as well: if you're so up in arms about taxpayers' money being spent on NGO's you oppose, then I challenge you to write a column about the GM bailout, which dwarfs the amount of money spent on CIDA. Or any case of corporate welfare.)

    I have written exactly the columns you mention. You should read me more!
    

  •     I have a hard time telling if you genuinely care about the welfare of poor people in developing countries. Assuming you do, do you think that promoting large-scale foreign investment in mining is the best approach to bettering their lot? It's a serious question, not a rhetorical one.

    "Genuinely caring" about poor people in developing countries is mere moral posturing unless you understand something about the process of development and what holds it back. I do not believe in "promoting" any form of investment activity. The big problem, as I noted above, is investment in countries with kleptocratic governments.
    As long as countries have reasonably functioning democracies, then foreign investment is usually a boon, although of course due regard has to be made to potential environmental problems and those of human disruption.

    

  •     Miningwatch, as well as every other responsible international-focused NGO I know, does its work in conjunction with, and taking leadership from, partners in affected countries. I'm particularly familiar with Rights Action, based in Guatemala and Honduras, which is staffed almost entirely with locals, works in partnership with community organizations around their respective countries, and sends updates to Canadian and American supporters and partners based on the needs of those on the ground. I repeat that to suggest that organizations like these are agitators who are planting the ideas in the heads of local people - who genuinely want mines! - is insulting to their intelligence.

    I would be interested in how local agitators derive their funds. If NGOs pay up, then I'm sure you'll find plenty of local partners in anti-development, many of whom may have political ambitions. I'm concerned by the chiefs/Indians problem as found on Canadian aboriginal reserves, which are a disgrace. If you haven't read "Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry" I would recommend it.
    

  •     Your reply that 'no one could have opinions about anything' and so forth if we haven't lived in a country etc. is a cop-out. It's one thing to have opinions about something; it's another to publish them in a national newspaper implying that you've done some fair research. Many of the things in your columns you sent me were ably repudiated with a bit of research; for example the things about Ecuadorian 'indigenous leaders' opposing Miningwatch Canada. (Check their website - it's well researched and referenced.) Interestingly, you have no experience living in a developing country, though this is the very phenomenon you deride about so-called anti-development NGOs, that they are going against the 'actual' will of the people.

   
Screw the "will of the people." It’s a cover for tyranny. I believe people need to be free of the oppressions of others, and to enjoy the right to property, which as Hernando de Soto has pointed out, is one of the main problems of underdevelopment.
    I am utterly cynical about MiningWatch and other NGOs, and utterly refute their "well-researched" website. You're just looking for corroboration of your views, not anything that will rattle them. Of course mining companies are going to try to marshal people in the affected countries to support their activities.
    My columns are based on beliefs acquired and developed over more than thirty years as a journalist and author. The root of my analysis is an understanding of human nature and three critical aspects of it necessary to understand the course of the recent history. The first is that the working of markets and the nature of economics is counterintuitive to human minds (which still carry many off the assumptions of our hunter gather ancestors). The second is that capitalism -- which is a very recent development in human history -- is not merely economically misunderstood but morally rejected because it offends ancient taboos against "selfishness" and "exploitation." The final element is the personal attractions of moralizing and speaking "on behalf of others," which is the root of all politics.
    

  •     I recently spoke with Carlos Amador, a Honduran who opposes Goldcorp's mine in the Siria Valley of Honduras. I wonder if you would say to him what you said to me - that your opinions are just as valid as his? Has your water been poisoned recently? If you do have anything you would say to him, perhaps arguing as to why the mine is a good thing? I would volunteer to translate it into Spanish and send it to him.

   
For the reasons above, none of this carries any weight with me. You might as well ask me if I would dare to tell Karl Marx that he was full of shit were I to come face to face with him. I really don't think that mining companies deliberately poison peoples' water, although I'm sure accidents happen. Tell me what Carlos Amador's education is, what he does for a living, who provides his income, and what his political ambitions are. Also tell me what he has to say. Then I'll tell you everything about him.

  • Sincerely,    Ben Sichel
  •     PS You say you've done some travelling...I'm curious as to where, if you don't mind me asking.

  
 I was born and raised in England, and naturally I've travelled extensively in Canada (including three visits to Tuktoyuktuk) and the U.S. But here's a little list of the places that I've found interesting in helping me form opinions about human nature and how the world works: Russia, Cuba, India, Nepal, South Africa, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, The Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Bermuda, France, Italy, Germany, Holland, and Finland. I'm sure I've forgotten some, but I hope this is enough to disabuse of the notion that I pontificate from some ivory tower of academic ignorance.
    
    Sorry if I don't appear more tolerant of the well-intended, but my studies of history suggest that they are the most dangerous of people.
    
    Please don't respond!
    All the best,
    Peter

 

 

 

 

Dear Peter,

I’ve interpolated some comments of my own below in bold.

 

  •     The reason for asking about mining companies doing a good job is because if you can't name any then that suggests that you see no good in mining companies or such resource development. I assume that NGOs do some good but their role is not analogous to that of corporations, since they seem to have an obsession with "exploitation," which I believe is rooted in a fundamentally erroneous and demonic view of the nature of capitalism. The world could function quite well without NGOs. It could not without mining companies.

    
Individuals who run mining companies are not inherently evil, and mining techniques have improved from an environmental perspective over the years. However, when a mining project is clearly opposed by a local community then it is perfectly appropriate for foreign NGOs to help the community lobby at an international level. Mining is a specific issue with serious environmental implications that you’re trying to avoid by framing the debate in broad Cold War terms, branding all those opposed as anti-capitalists.

 

  •     What crises that threaten all species? The notion of some biotic holocaust is the biggest con job in history (next to climate change). Conservation and re-use are economic matters, not moral imperatives. To see them as such leads to enormous waste of effort and resources.

And you accuse me of cherry-picking information to suit my ideological predilections? I won’t bother going into how you disregard the conclusions of the great majority of peer-reviewed scientists, but I will note that you wrote a whole column in June praising Steven Milloy of Fox News and junkscience.com for standing up to the ‘powerful environmental industry’ or some such nonsense. You neglected to mention that Milloy also denies any connection between cigarettes and cancer, and that he’s received millions from both the tobacco and oil industries.  I’d expect that your thirty years’ experience as a journalist would lead you to believe that this might be significant.

  •     Mining Watch is to me a typically morally inflated anti-development organization that bends fact to suit its ideological predilections.

The difference between Mining Watch and someone like you is that MW actually works in regular consultation with communities affected by mining. How much moral satisfaction do you think a person could actually get from opposing a mining project if it were clearly supported by a community? There are thousands of mines around the world; MW opposes those that entail serious human rights or environmental problems, as determined by the affected communities themselves.
  
    

  •     People lift themselves out of poverty. The poorest people in the world are held back not by lack of drive or entrepreneurial inclination but by appalling governments. However, I certainly admit that resource extraction can support these lousy governments. One thing of which I am firmly convinced is that redistribution (the latest cover for which is "Clean Development") is not a panacea. It is a corrupt curse.

Then why are you so obsessed with attacking organizations that oppose these ‘appalling governments’ when they encourage resource extraction that’s clearly opposed by local communities? It’s one thing to speak in generalities about capitalism being generally positive; it’s another to willfully spread disinformation about organizations by branding them as ‘anti-development,’ claiming that they’re misinformed, or are deliberately keeping people in poverty. It seems unfathomable to you that org’s such as Mining Watch would take their lead from people in affected communities, and not the other way around; and that ‘local agitators’ as you put it would have any motive besides personal profit and power.
    Just as you’re fascinated by the psychological roots of anti-capitalism, I’m quite interested by the McCarthy-esque reaction of certain members of the business class of anything they perceive as ‘redistribution.’ You can call it Reductio Ad Socialism, the tactic whereby words like ‘socialist’ or mentioning Karl Marx are used to discredit an idea and effectively equate it with Stalinism. ‘Sustainable Development,’ which I imagine is what you mean by ‘clean development’ is certainly a cover for corruption in some cases; however the basic idea that development of any kind should be sustainable in economic, environmental and social terms is sound.

 

  •     This is a loaded suggestion, since you believe that you should be "informing" them on the right kind of decisions to make. I doubt that the information that you and I provide would have much in common. Unfortunately, emphasis on "self-determination" has led to support for despots such as Mr. Mugabe.

Not at all; simply that all available information should be on the table in terms of both long-term and short-term benefits and drawbacks of a proposed mine. Mining companies should be one, but not the only, source of information in this case, as they have a clear vested interest. If local communities want access to other sources of information, from either you or me, then they should have it. You imply that NGOs should not be providing this information; the only source that remains would be from mining companies and the government.
    Self-determination, i.e. the right of peoples to rule their own affairs, isn’t important? Arguing that allowing people in developing countries to rule their own affairs will lead to tyranny is worse than condescending. Colonialism is the worst form of dictatorship, which is why it (officially) had to end throughout the 20th century. Tyrants have been more often propped up by foreign powers than the result of ‘support for self-determination.’ The Shah in Iran, a whole crew of Latin American and African dictators and the former Eastern Bloc thugs are a few examples.

  •     That's not my conclusion. Many poor indigenous people are just dying to be "exploited." Again, I think our fundamental difference lies in attitudes towards capitalism in general.
  •     Have you ever spoken to a mining executive?

I’m not sure what you’re concluding here. That you support every mining project by a Canadian company? Of course people want jobs and a decent livelihood; the question is what are they asked to sacrifice in exchange for those jobs. This information should be available from a number of different sources up front.
   

  • I never suggested that, but you have betrayed exactly the attitude I noted above. I believe you proceed from suspicion and condemnation of mining companies' "self interest" as fundamentally tainted. All individuals are self-interested. I believe that organizations such as Mining Watch are driven by economic ignorance and the pleasures of moral inflation, plus the undoubted satisfactions of holding up "mighty" corporations.

Of course all individuals are self-interested. The fact that seems to escape apologists for the worst excesses of capitalism is that most people are not purely self-interested, and all are self-interested to different degrees. Neoliberal/neoconservative economists treat ‘self-interest’ as an unquestionable axiom in order to justify things that may make ‘economic sense’ but are destructive in other ways, whether ecologically, socially or otherwise.
    The axiom of self-interest also implies that individuals have all the information they need to make the best possible economic decisions, which often isn’t the case.
    

  •     NGOs ARE in fact a huge well-funded industry that has grown astonishingly in the past couple of decades, promoted by brilliant strategists such as Maurice Strong (who founded CIDA, which is one of hundreds of organizations that doles out millions to NGOs). Also, it’s infinitely less costly to stop development by spreading misinformation and exploiting misconceptions than it is to engage in productive investment. In that way the battle is indeed lopsided. I have no mandate for individual mining companies or mining representative organizations, which you will note that I frequently castigate for their spinelessness and inability or unwillingness to defend what they do.

    
And I have none for individual NGO’s, which need to be kept on their toes and criticized when necessary. However it’s ludicrous to suggest that corporations with huge pockets are at a disadvantage when it comes to arguing their merits with non-profit organizations who rely on donations and grants for their funds. If a mining company is unable or unwilling to defend its position on a given project, there’s a pretty good chance it’s morally indefensible.

 

  •     I don't make too much profit. Should I be funded by government? It is nonsensical to suggest that the government should fund every organization with a bee in its bonnet. "Civil society" is a bogus phrase which has been used as a cover under which a relatively small group of alarmists and moralists pretend to speak for society more generally. They don't. The WWF, Greenpeace, Environmental Defence etc. etc earn big bucks by promoting alarm and shaking down corporations as 'consultants."

They certainly speak for a larger sector of society than National Post business columnists. Canadian public opinion is consistently much more in line with the values of progressive NGO’s on everything from health care to foreign aid. Canada’s most conservative political party governs with only 38% of the vote, and has to tone down its rhetoric to do so. NGO’s are at least directly accountable to government and the public, as they rely on them for their funding. Large corporations, who wield a disproportionate amount of power in society, are accountable to no one but their shareholders.
If you want government money, try applying for a grant sometime. It’s quite a rigorous (and politicized) process that doesn’t jive with your fictional every-organization-with-a-bee-in-its-bonnet leftist paradise scenario.

  •     If you had been a regular reader of my columns, you would know that I am one of the world's greatest opponents of corporate bailouts or corporate welfare. The error made by many anti-capitalists is to imagine that capitalism equates to the bullshit spouted by CEOs.

    
 

  •     I have written exactly the columns you mention. You should read me more!

    
Kudos!

  •     "Genuinely caring" about poor people in developing countries is mere moral posturing unless you understand something about the process of development and what holds it back. I do not believe in "promoting" any form of investment activity. The big problem, as I noted above, is investment in countries with kleptocratic governments.
  •     As long as countries have reasonably functioning democracies, then foreign investment is usually a boon, although of course due regard has to be made to potential environmental problems and those of human disruption.

    
This is exactly the area of your NGO nemeses: holding to account corporations that knowingly invest in areas where governments do not exercise this due regard. I think our difference of opinion lies in what we would consider ‘reasonably functioning democracies.’ To you a country like Guatemala, where there is currently much controversy surrounding mines, would seem to fit this definition as it holds regular multi-party elections etc. It ignores the fact that several local democratic consultations in Sipakapa, for example, have clearly rejected mining projects, yet they continue to move forward. ‘Reasonable’ democracy is hollow in a case like this, and foreign mining companies should be held to account for it through measures like Bill C-300.
 

  •     I would be interested in how local agitators derive their funds. If NGOs pay up, then I'm sure you'll find plenty of local partners in anti-development, many of whom may have political ambitions. I'm concerned by the chiefs/Indians problem as found on Canadian aboriginal reserves, which are a disgrace. If you haven't read "Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry" I would recommend it.

    
Of course it’s unfathomable to you that anyone could oppose a mining development for any other reason than political ambition, or that they could do so without their alleged puppet masters in Northern NGOs. I guess we’ll agree here that these individuals are indeed self-interested, although in this case the self-interest concerns things like having unpoisoned water and not being exposed to carcinogens.
    In fact I have Widdowson’s book on hold at the library, though I don’t expect too much from a book that’s been panned by Aboriginal critics across the country. Even your ideological house-mate Margaret Wente has expressed regret for her initial support for it.

   

  • Screw the "will of the people." It’s a cover for tyranny. I believe people need to be free of the oppressions of others, and to enjoy the right to property, which as Hernando de Soto has pointed out, is one of the main problems of underdevelopment.

Unless those others happen to be foreign corporations, in which case they should shut up and thank the benevolent foreigners for the fair-weather jobs. How exactly is an org. like Mining Watch denying the right to property?
 

  •     I am utterly cynical about MiningWatch and other NGOs, and utterly refute their "well-researched" website. You're just looking for corroboration of your views, not anything that will rattle them. Of course mining companies are going to try to marshal people in the affected countries to support their activities.

And of course you won’t allow anything like good research to get in the way of your pre-made conclusions. That’s very ideologically consistent of you.
 

  •     My columns are based on beliefs acquired and developed over more than thirty years as a journalist and author. The root of my analysis is an understanding of human nature and three critical aspects of it necessary to understand the course of the recent history. The first is that the working of markets and the nature of economics is counterintuitive to human minds (which still carry many off the assumptions of our hunter gather ancestors). The second is that capitalism -- which is a very recent development in human history -- is not merely economically misunderstood but morally rejected because it offends ancient taboos against "selfishness" and "exploitation." The final element is the personal attractions of moralizing and speaking "on behalf of others," which is the root of all politics.

    
Interesting analysis, especially in that it leads you to conclude that capitalism is generally positive. I find your final element particularly interesting, and not only because it justifies your views on universal self-interest.
    Personally I find that a driving force in philosophy and political/economic analysis has been the tendency of relatively wealthy, mostly white males to subconsciously universalize their own experiences and use them to develop theories of ‘human nature’. Treating something as human nature is used to justify it as inevitable; like saying that war is simply part of human nature, for example. (I’d argue it’s more male human nature than human nature generally).
    One important insight I’ve gained through my own experiences is that people everywhere are utterly ignorant about the way other people live and what is important to them. This is one reason it can be so hard to fathom opposition to ‘productive investment.’

  
   

  • For the reasons above, none of this carries any weight with me. You might as well ask me if I would dare to tell Karl Marx that he was full of shit were I to come face to face with him. I really don't think that mining companies deliberately poison peoples' water, although I'm sure accidents happen. Tell me what Carlos Amador's education is, what he does for a living, who provides his income, and what his political ambitions are. Also tell me what he has to say. Then I'll tell you everything about him.

    
I can tell you that he’s a public school teacher who’s long been opposed to the mine in the Siria Valley for human health and environmental reasons. I really don’t see what he has to do with Karl Marx, though if you want perhaps you can do a search on him and then tell me why he’s on the take, a commie, or both. Once again, I volunteer to translate anything you might have to say to an actual person affected by this particular mine which you appear to favour. I know it’s a bit more difficult than swearing at a 19th-century social theorist, but I trust you are up to the task.
    

  •     Sorry if I don't appear more tolerant of the well-intended, but my studies of history suggest that they are the most dangerous of people.

    
Personally I’ve found slave-traders and war profiteers to be more dangerous, but I won’t quibble.

 

  •     Please don't respond!
  •     All the best,
  •     Peter

Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
Ben

 


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Comments

Excellent post!

Glad to finally read your exchange.  It made me neglect my quilting for an hour what with all the hyperlinks! :)

Really well written responses and informative.  I've forwarded this along to some people who I think would enjoy it!

Bill C-300 and other domestic initiatives are important for serving their immediate purpose, but also to increase the world's interest/acceptance in developing international mining standards and international dispute resolution schemes where the peoples affected are participating stakeholders.  

Well written, Ben. One

Well written, Ben. One particular comment that I found interesting was the following:

 "What crises that threaten all species? The notion of some biotic holocaust is the biggest con job in history (next to climate change). Conservation and re-use are economic matters, not moral imperatives. To see them as such leads to enormous waste of effort and resources." (Foster)

Embedded in arguments about functioning of the mineral exploitation industry, Peter Foster identified what I see as the root of the problem underlying your exchange. Conservation and re-use *are* economic matters, just as preventative health care in the form of limiting the mining related pollution of drinking source waters is also an economic matter. For that matter, the value placed on the peace of mind stemming from the knowledge that you will not be forcibly displaced from your land because of mineral resources also has an economic value. 

I believe that you and Mr. Foster will be much closer to being on the same page if he is able to expand his definition of capitalism to include *all* things that actually have value, not just those that are currently included in the text book definitions. Environmental health, human well-being, strong community relationships, etc. etc. etc., all have incredible value that is not defined by a dollar sign and is therefore excluded from our calculations of market operations.

Best of luck in your efforts to spread common sense!

MC Brisbois

Complimentary copy?

Perhaps we should send Peter a free issue of State of Mine, the Dominion's special issue on Canada's extractive industry.

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