This was not your standard tale of woe about galloping inflation, messed up supply chains and grim predictions of the end of the world as we know it.
Keynote speaker Brock Dickinson gave what is probably the most upbeat and optimistic “end-of-the-world” talk anyone at the Clean Energy Frontier Summit 2023 on Jan. 13 had ever heard.
“Everything is changing,” he said. “And that’s OK. It’s the end of the world as I know it … and I feel fine.”
He spoke of the forces at work in the world today which have led to predictions of, if not disaster, then years of hardship for Canadians, and offered a different view of what’s happening.
We do indeed live in a time of uncertainty – “demographic challenges, the end of globalization and the return of nature,” he said. But the outcome for Canada has a good many promising elements.
Take, for example, demographics. He spoke of a healthy population pyramid that has a wide base and rises to a narrow point. That’s what Canada’s population looked like until recently, with a high birth rate and a comparatively small number of elderly people. That’s changed. Now the pyramid looks more like an evergreen tree, with a base and peak closer in width.
It’s not only happening in Canada. The speaker explained the Russian invasion of Ukraine as something that had to happen now – because in five years, there’ll be half the number of Russian men of age to serve in the military, and a total collapse of logistics and engineering knowledge (the engineering education system in Russia collapsed in 1989).
As for the rise of the new Chinese empire as the main world power, while the United States declines, Dickinson spoke of something different – a Chinese population that is ready to collapse, while the United States – and Canada – are part of a North American population pyramid that looks quite healthy, thanks to Mexico.
Meanwhile, China has become the world’s manufacturing centre, due to its ample supply of cheap labour. As the Chinese population declines, labour will become more expensive and uncompetitive, and there’ll be no markets at home.
When COVID hit, Canada saw a rapid decline in employment. Dickinson explained that, contrary to popular belief, young people aren’t sitting back collecting government handouts.
“Everyone under the age of 54 is participating (in the job market) in greater numbers than ever before,” while people over age 54 are retiring in large numbers.
“When labour is scarce,” he said, “people shop around.”
Traditionally low-paying accommodations and food services employment is decreasing. However, high-paid employment in finance and real estate is increasing.
To avoid getting caught in the same population trap as China, Canada is trying to fill the gap through immigration. The anticipated 1.5 million new Canadians in the next five years will need housing.
Globalization has been declining since 2008, he said. The United States has shifted from the era that saw the formation of the United Nations and World Bank, backed by American money and military.
“The U.S. is not interested in that role anymore,” he said.
That means increasing world conflict, and such things as the re-emergence of 17th century-style piracy in places like the South China Sea, which challenge the supply chain.
Dickinson joked about Canada’s two seasons – snow removal and road construction. And where does the steel come from for road construction? A plant in Ukraine that was destroyed by Russia.
He further noted that our cars have “30,000 components from all around the world.”
In addition, the energy sector – oil and gas – is becoming a “rollercoaster,” Dickinson said, “leading to inflation.” And that’s where the nuclear industry, with “immense new opportunities” enters the picture.
Regarding the “return to nature,” Dickinson spoke of COVID and other diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans, as we push into sparsely settled spaces around the world. To date, most of the diseases have originated in the Far East. He sees West Africa – monkeypox and AIDS – as a greater source of such diseases in the future.
Dickinson noted that throughout world history, plagues have traditionally been followed by inflation.
At the same time, global climate change is making food prices rise – and that causes inflation. Fertilizers are made mostly from petroleum products.
Dickinson predicted that the cotton industry in China and Australia will likely disappear, because the areas cotton plants grow will become too hot, and many food-producing areas will not be able to grow enough food for their population, one example being China.
“China is not looking good,” Dickinson said. “Canada may be in a relatively good place, with its regional market of North America.”
Dickinson spoke of lessons that can be learned from what’s happening. He sees the agrifood industry here growing dramatically, along with the domestic energy sector. Over the next 20 years, he predicts a greater investment in domestic manufacturing. Because of the workforce numbers, this will be combined with more automation, including in farming, he said.
As the international supply chain becomes riskier, Dickinson predicts an end to the concept of “just in time” and a greater stress on inventory management and local rather than global supply chains.
There’ll still be inflation. Rising interest rates will mean less credit and more cash, the possibility of bartering and a re-emergence of co-ops.
Elected officials – and there were quite a number attending Summit 2023 including Bruce County Warden Chris Peabody – need to focus on workforce development and retention, affordable housing and infrastructure development.
The nuclear industry has some risks, in the form of worker shortage and the availability of supplies, but has tremendous opportunities with the increased demand for green energy. Those opportunities include spinoffs such as small modular reactors.
“We’re entering a really difficult time,” Dickinson said. And it’s not going to end soon. He anticipates 10 to 12 years of uncertainty.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it,” he said. “But there are amazing opportunities… and I feel fine!”
In later discussion, it was obvious the nuclear industry in Bruce, Grey and Huron is also “feeling fine.” There were no supply chain issues during COVID, in a large part due to development of a thriving local hub of suppliers and partners, including in education.
That’s what the Clean Energy Frontier is all about.
Summit 2023 was held at the Best Western Plus in Walkerton. Speakers included Mike Rencheck, president and CEO of Bruce Power; Lise Morton, vice-president of site selection at the Nuclear Waste Management Organization; John Peevers, director of community and media relations and economic development for Bruce Power; Marsha Roote, Indigenous employment and training specialist for Bruce Power; Cathryn Love, executive director of Catapult Grey Bruce; Mike Comello, Catapult Tech Network; and Jessica Linthorne, director of the Clean Energy Frontier program.
Dickinson has worked extensively in economic development and is currently the entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Waterloo.
By Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Jan 20, 2023