CALGARY, Alta. Jan. 22, 2017 /Troy Media/ – Very few of us remember Prohibition. But the lessons of those anti-alcohol times are worth revisiting, given similar social pressure now being applied over energy use.
During and after the First World War, the United States and Canada were gripped by temperance fervour. The widespread ban of alcohol sale and consumption lasted in the U.S. from 1920 until its repeal in 1933. In Canada, it primarily started in 1918 and lasted into the 1920s in various forms and jurisdictions.
The same kind of prohibitive mindset is now being applied to the energy industry. Call it the petroleum temperance movement.
Activist forces similar to those that produced Prohibition – one of the most socially divisiveness times in recent history – are part of contemporary social currents. Yet no one seems to have picked up on source of the building momentum for a fundamental policy shift.
There are forces among us that would have society prohibit hydrocarbons outright – the modern version of the voices that convinced two countries to shift from wet to dry in a variety of ways.
The Prohibition push in the early 20th century came from religious groups and others who argued that only through outright bans on alcohol could society ensure its moral fabric was strong.
Alcohol was perceived to be an evil eroding social morals and norms – much in the same way some activists now characterize the way we extract and use oil and gas products.
Social tempers predictably flared in the 1920s. Prohibition historians have done a good job of untangling what happens when impetuous social engineering through government policy runs amok. It can crack society along polarizing fault lines, as we are experiencing on the subject of hydrocarbons.
It’s instructive to look at life in the rear view mirror and contemplate the law of unintended consequences: Prohibition never produced the results its proponents sought. In some cases – including a rise in alcohol consumption for some – the results were just the opposite.
What these forces nearly 100 years apart share is a self-righteous sanctimoniousness that’s frightening in its ability to paralyze politicians and bend them to the will of a small but noisy collective.
It all happens without anyone really noticing … until it’s too late.
What’s important when we reflect on Prohibition is what happens when a society divided attempts to reconcile what’s best for the greater good.
There are various views of what constitutes social progress, of course, and in civil society, those ought to be civilly discussed. But the current tone of discussion on the future of petroleum is distinctly uncivil.
We can draw some parallels between the zealousness of those who myopically push away from petroleum.
Prohibitionists were virulent and zealous. They brooked no position other than their own – if you weren’t for them, you were against them.
Prohibition ended when governments realized the consequences were worse than the presence of alcohol: the loss of tax revenue and the creation of a criminal underground economy.
But by then a lot of damage had been done and it took substantial time to heal.
The lesson here: we must objectively scrutinize the tone of policy discussions and discern who’s influencing what in terms of how the petroleum sector will continue to serve Canadian society.
It would be a shame to one day tell our grandchildren that in 2020 we had to fill our gas tanks at a speakeasy.
Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.
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