Pipeline letter

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau and Premiers Notley and Horgan:

Re: Your meeting on Sunday regarding Kinder-Morgan Pipeline:

This morning we woke up to the news that the herd of BC/Washington Woodland Caribou is now down to three females and close to extinction–possibly due to industrial activity. We hear about so many extinctions now and just shrug our shoulders in spite of concerns about resident orcas, salmon, and on and on.

We also hear about positive things to celebrate: herring are back, people are paying attention to their use of single use plastic, changing their use of fast fashion with education and caring, the fact there are no uranium mines in BC, the Clayoquot Sound clear-cut logging victory that has made such a difference. The positives are results of individuals forming relationships with nature, with other humans and with their leaders to do the right thing—with normalizing their values and acting on them.

However, we are frequently beset with competing experts that amplify this threat and tell us not to worry about that threat. What we desperately need is to collectively accept the complementary role of the generalist: A GENERALIST KEEPS THE WHOLE IN MIND WHILE ATTENDING TO THE INDIVIDUAL PARTS, THE SYSTEM IN MIND WHEN FIXING INDIVIDUAL PROBLEMS AND THE END IN MIND WHEN COMMENCING THE JOURNEY.

We are just everyday, normal citizens trying to get a grip on what is really going on. We continually struggle with the questions: where is the place that our leaders can guide us in order to really make a difference so that we don’t use up the world’s natural resources and sully our environment beyond repair? What can we do without? How can WE guide our leaders who are pulled in so many directions and sometimes try to compromise too much?

The political systems seem to promote the welfare of the wrong people/corporations and make them even more “prosperous” – beyond the point that growth becomes greed. Where is the generalist perspective that looks at the welfare of the whole system, of all of the people and their environment, while trying to address the parts of the problem?

In our journey as grandparents who care, we have turned to the arts to try to see all sides of environmental issues, including the current pipe-line debate–from the movie “Oil Sands Karaoke through thoughtful essays and books from Rachel Carson to Rebecca Solnit. There are wise broad-thinking and engaged locals seeking to guide communications across ideologies. These include “I’m Right and You’re an Idiot” and the recent ” Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale”. We are ready to think through and be guided by something important that was introduced years ago and which we still forget about when making important decisions: what are the rights of our children for now and the future and how can all decision we make (or allow to be made) provide meaningful assessments of their impact on the rights of the world’s children? High salaries and “stuff” will not matter in the least if our children cannot breathe the air, eat the food and drink the earth’s water; if their homes are burnt to the ground or covered in flood water.

An important idea that might help is to consider the concept of “The Normalization of Deviance” which was coined by American Sociologist and professor at Columbia University, Diane Vaughn, in the 1990s. She is known for her work on organizational and management issues, in particular the case of the crash of the space shuttle, Challenger .

“In the understanding of safety and risk, Vaughan is perhaps best known for coining the phrase “normalisation of deviance”, which she has used to explain the sociological causes of the Challenger and Columbia disasters.[ Vaughan defines this as a process where a clearly unsafe practice comes to be considered normal if it does not immediately cause a catastrophe. She describes “…a long incubation period [before a final disaster] with early warning signs that were either misinterpreted, ignored or missed completely.” 

What does this have to do with our decisions today when we look at disasters that happen even when trying to put safely /environmental regulations into place e.g. Mt. Polley mine disaster, our shrinking salmon/fish supplies, plastic in our oceans and now in our food and water, the issues of fish farming, sewage, logging, coal mining and, yes, pipelines and freighters that already threaten our way of life for many years to come?

Do we just continue “because we are already down the road of no return”? Do we, like NASA and its space shuttles, lull ourselves into complacency because the big disaster has not happened yet. Do we, like them, forget that we are dealing with highly risky technology and learn to normalize the warning signs so that we can launch a pipeline under adverse conditions? Do we, like them, watch the curving, unfolding and un-reclaimable trail of disaster unfold before our eyes and say, as the farmer said when his cow died: Gee, she never did that before!? And then do we, like them, launch yet another Columbia disaster because we never understood the fundamental error in our thinking, in our culture, that it is up to concerned citizens to prove the pipeline is unsafe—rather than the proponents to prove that it is safe.

NASA was far better organized than our society’s political structures; they were working with predictable laws of physics and engineering; they could limit their disasters to the loss of human lives; and they still got it wrong through the arrogance and faith in technology that said, “It won’t happen because it hasn’t happened yet”.

We must ask you, our political decision makers, in a much murkier world with far higher consequences to getting it wrong—are you too blinded by this normalisation of deviance? If not, let’s quit mud-slinging and get to work to make decisions that reflect our concerns for the safety and well being of the world’s children. Before the bar of history, let us work to make decisions that we can all be proud of when our great grandchildren ask, what did you do when it mattered most?

Please move to create a more effective venue beyond the streets where we shout at each other and the courts where we sue each other. This is well beyond the competence of the National Energy Board and we cannot panic and claim a false urgency that clings to a deeply flawed examination as providing a green light for this development. One of us is a physician and woe be to any patient with a major, undiagnosed illness if I did a cursory exam, told them they had nothing to worry about and then steadfastly refused to conduct a more thorough exam because my pride and self interest prevented the humility that we must always bear when confronting the unknown. As Brecht said through the mouth of Galileo: “The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error

In this spirit we ask you to work towards developing a system-based long-term vision and the venue to do so in order to really deal with these complex issues and prioritize sustainable development in the true meaning as defined by the United Nations: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Canada accepted this definition put forward by the Brundtland Commission in 1989. Thee decades later, it is time we kept our word.

Yours very sincerely,

Bob and Erlene Woollard




  1. Great letter. It ain’t happened yet so it probably ain’t gonna–not great reasoning! I do wish at the press conference JT had been asked, if we build the pipeline, open up the oil sands, and all that oil gets burned–how can that possibly help the climate? Even if you can impose a carbon tax in Canada, how can the reduction in Canada possibly balance the addition of carbon in the atmosphere from oil sands oil? And do you really think Jason Kenney, who has said the carbon tax is “nothing more than an expensive piece of political theatre” and his fellow Tories will agree to it when they (inevitably) get into office?

  2. As I read and enjoyed your letter and thought about how we can be lulled into complacency, I was reminded of the movie, “How to Boil a Frog”. The video is available on YouTube with a caveat: free on the condition that you go out and save civilization immediately after watching! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

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