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GM’s Plant Closure Offers Chance to Make Oshawa the Next Silicon Valley

Bold political leadership could seize the opportunity to create a new energy hub.

Crawford Kilian 29 Nov

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The rumours started Sunday afternoon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly got the news only that evening, and it was confirmed the next day. After a century in Oshawa, General Motors is pulling out. Four GM plants in the U.S. are also closing.

Canadian politicians, from Trudeau to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, have been staggered by the move. The auto industry has been Ontario’s economic backbone for generations, and during the 2009 financial collapse, the federal and Ontario governments gave GM Canada and Chrysler a $14.4-billion bailout. The Institute for Research on Public Policy estimates the bailout was worth it: if the industry had shut down, covering pension shortfalls would have cost taxpayers at least $20 billion. The loan portion of the subsidies, about 14 per cent, has since been repaid.

The IRPP also thinks such subsidies are generally a bad thing because taxpayers help sustain autoworkers’ wages at an unnaturally high level. (The autoworkers say their pay reflects their high skill levels.)

Another case might be made against subsidies: they’ve been subsidizing the wrong kinds of jobs.

Paying to kill ourselves

Emissions from cars and trucks are not just aggravating climate breakdown; they also create an on-going public health disaster. In Canada, 21,000 of us die every year from causes related to air pollution, while the World Health Organization says 4.2 million people die yearly from ambient air pollution. Such pollution, WHO says, accounts for three out of 10 lung-cancer deaths, a quarter of deaths from stroke, a quarter of heart-disease deaths, and almost half of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

No doubt many autoworkers and their family members are among those casualties of fossil fuel — right now, not in some future “Hothouse Earth” climate disaster. Like too many of us, they are literally working themselves to death.

The immediate reaction of Trudeau and Ford was to try to figure out how to put those autoworkers back to work killing themselves. But let’s do a little thought experiment that might get us a better result than mere well-paid protracted suicide.

Let’s suppose Ottawa forms a new Crown corporation, GGMC: General Green Motors Canada. And let’s suppose it gives GM’s Oshawa plant and business offices to GGMC with a simple mandate: Use the physical and human resources abandoned by GM, create new forms of transportation and energy storage and delivery, using renewables. And don’t use corporate-bureaucratic management to do it.

In doing so, Trudeau would be following his own example in buying an old pipeline from Kinder Morgan — investing in a moribund technology no sane corporation would touch. But GGMC would repurpose auto technology into something dramatically new.

A ‘Skunk Works’ for clean energy

GGMC would model itself on the legendary Skunk Works, an offshoot of Lockheed created to design and build advanced fighter planes and reconnaissance aircraft during the Second World War and the Cold War. The Skunk Works is still in operation today.

GGMC would also be a spiritual descendant of the Canadian aircraft company that built the Avro Arrow. When John Diefenbaker killed it in 1959, he also killed off Canada’s infant aerospace industry. The engineers he sacked went south and helped put the U.S. on the moon — quite a subsidy in it-self.

GGMC would remember the role of the U.S. military in computer research and development from the 1940s to the 1970s. In the Cold War, money was no object in building a military advantage, and computer science advanced rapidly. Along the way, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency came up with the idea of creating networks over which computers could talk to one another. As computing power and networking grew faster and cheaper, the technology came within range of what the private sector was willing to invest, including ambitious young pre-billionaires like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

So GGMC would pour money into green tech, headhunt smart engineers, train and retrain workers, and develop green transportation technologies that would create the kind of instant must-have response that the iPhone did.

1,000 kilometres between charges

Imagine, for example, a sleek electric car that could cruise 1,000 kilometres between charges, with either the air conditioning or the heater going full blast. Imagine motorcycles, scooters, streetcars and buses with comparable capacities. Imagine charging stations, run by wind or sun or both, that can recharge an electric truck as fast as it now takes to gas one up.

GM itself is already thinking along these lines, which is why it’s shutting down the plant in and four more in the U.S. It doesn’t want to incur the costs of repurposing those plants, and it certainly doesn’t care about the jobs to be lost when electric, self-driving vehicles make drivers and auto-maintenance workers redundant.

But GGMC would think outside the corporate-bureaucratic box and reject business plans based on screwing what few workers do have to be hired. It would include union reps as voting members of its board of directors. Exploring new opportunities for workers to contribute would also open up still more technologies (and service industries) for both older and younger workers.

Done wrong, General Green Motors Canada would be a money sink and soon killed, just as Dief killed the Avro Arrow. Done right, it would generate money as it attracted brains and investors eager to improve a technology that could save our lives and our planet.

Oshawa would become a shorthand term like Silicon Valley, defining where the action is and will be for the foreseeable future. (GGMC will also need ferocious defences against cyber pirates hoping to steal its good ideas. Ferocious lawyers will also find work.)

This thought experiment may seem bizarre, but it’s far more bizarre to imagine the government of Canada paying billions for a pipeline, just so an obsolete energy source can be used to hasten climate breakdown and kill still more millions through air and water pollution — including the people building the pipeline and the politicians using our money to pay for it.

Right now, many countries are ahead of us. German villages have quaint little homes with roofs gleaming with solar panels, and driverless buses have been on the streets of Stockholm for a year.

But if Justin Trudeau were willing to spend on Oshawa what he spent on his decrepit pipeline, Canada could lap the field.  [Tyee]

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