02/18/2013 12:51 EST | Updated 04/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Is Canada's Head Too Far in the Oil Sands?


I am a capitalist. In recent years I've been called a "green capitalist" and that's an accurate label, but I still absolutely believe that business and profits are core ingredients of our success as a nation and pillars of stability for our society.

I know how to count jobs and tax revenues and I understand exactly how good the oil sands have been for my country -- and specifically for me, as a "shareholder" in Canada. This beautiful windfall helped us weather the deepest global recession in our lifetime better than any other rich nation and helped us pay down a very significant chunk of our national debt over the past 15 years while also allowing us to reduce all sorts of taxes from coast to coast.

Canada has been riding this awesome wave for quite some time now -- and we've actually become really good at it: We learned how to make the most of our new-found prosperity; how to spread it and share it almost evenly across the land; how to retool and adjust our entire economy around our much stronger petro-dollar; and how to move our skilled workers to where all the action is, in order to maximize our productivity and our profits. We showed the world that we're a nation of nimble, sharp, hungry capitalists and we got a lot of respect (and envy) for that!

But while we're so good and efficient at squeezing every available drop of profit out of our opportunities, we seem to have missed the most important lesson they teach in the School of Capitalism: strategic planning. We focused all our energy on feeding and protecting and milking our beautiful cow but forgot to plan for the day when her milk might run out or the day when people may not like that kind of milk anymore. When friends and neighbours asked us questions about the future, we got very defensive and we told them we were confident nothing would ever change -- the world will always need and like our milk.

And suddenly, after so many fat cow years, our customers' tastes started to change -- and, in record fast time, we started look and behave like the world's least sophisticated capitalists.

Suddenly it's panic season in Ottawa and in Edmonton: Will Obama approve the pipeline? Will it take us too long to get the stuff to the Chinese? Will the Europeans label our oil "dirty"? Will the world start taxing carbon?

Our Finance Ministers started revising budgets, we started talking about (god forbid!) sales taxes even in our country's petro-province and, of course, the blame game is now in full swing. If those tree-huggers weren't so emboldened and so well-financed by our nation's enemies, we would have plowed our pipelines right through the Rockies by now and we would have started feeding China's endless thirst for oil, instead of praying for a miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue.

We may have been the envy of the world but we were actually amateurs all through the fat cow years and now we're starting to pay for it. We ignored every hint of a warning and became really good at only believing ourselves.

When the rest of the planet was already contemplating or even calculating carbon taxes, we were still in total denial about the whole climate change thing -- and not only were we wasting time by not planning for a different future, we were also wasting goodwill by not playing nice with all our wealthy partners (aka: customers).

By ignoring or even de-railing all the global conversations on carbon, we were humiliating their scientists, ridiculing their policies and frustrating their leaders -- instead of reminding ourselves, as all good capitalists do, that the customer is always right. We convinced ourselves that we had become an "energy superpower" and that they needed us more than we needed them.

So now what? Do we still have an oil future? How do we navigate through this energy revolution that seems to be blossoming everywhere around us?

Thankfully, for our petro-dollar addicted wallets at least, the world's thirst for oil is still immense -- and it will stay that way for a while. We may not have the best or nicest oil on the planet but we still have something the world needs, so the money will continue to flow our way for quite some time.

I am hopeful, however, that our intense national panic attack of these past few months will finally inspire us to pull our heads out of the oil sands and figure out how we will stay rich after the oil stops flowing.

Hopefully it will inspire us to invest our windfall a bit more wisely and strategically, instead of putting all our chips on that same number all the time. Maybe we will start dreaming and leading the world a little more again, because we used to be so good at it -- and maybe we will also go back to always being respectful and sensitive, the way we used to be known for so many generations, instead of being arrogant one day and then desperately subordinate a day later.

Our cow is still fat and her milk is still good and relatively popular but we've had a real scare and I hope we learned plenty from it. We can still get richer from what we have, but we need to get serious about figuring out our future. And as good capitalists know so well, the best time to retool and invest is when the times are good.

Ethical oil and other rebranding campaigns