The Deceptive Charade of Social License

Article in the Star today has a discussion about the extent to which “social license” should be obtained from government and industry before going ahead with major projects that affect the environment. The chair of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Michael Binnion recently remarked that the Harper government has done a terrible job at getting social license.(1) I personally was not familiar with the term social license, although the gist seems straightforward – companies need popular support to go ahead with projects that may impact a broader group. The first result of a Google search turned up an internet site dedicated to social license defines it similarly “Social License has been defined as existing when a project has the ongoing approval within the local community and other stakeholders, ongoing approval or broad social acceptance and, most frequently, as ongoing acceptance.”(2) Upon looking a little further, this site is run by a Oil Industry consultancy in Vancouver that offers “socially enhancement” strategies for the energy industry.(3) They specialize in putting a socially responsible face on inherently violent and exploitative activities. What they do is a charade – doing in order to pretend something is true when it is not really true.(4)

Social license seems like a way to put greater onus on industry and government (frequent bedfellows) to seek out and take into consideration public opinion, but it starts from the premise that everything is on the table so long as enough people endorse it. Who is consulted? Why should people be forced to do violence to other people, to the land, to themselves? Also, the disproportionate amount of funding from the oil and mining industry for propaganda and bribery make claims of having obtained social license extremely dubious at best. Social license and other similar concepts rely on the language of informed consent and community consultation, using these terms they seek to validate the underlying processes of mass resource extraction, militarism and disregard for indigenous rights. Where does social license get it’s legitimacy? The people? The concept is a public relations tactic of groups such as the Harperite-Oil Industry alliance and is being used to carve out some kind of positive social narrative in which to cloak despicable deeds.

This strategy is on display in the Star article linked to here, in which Joe Oliver – former Minister of Natural Resources, and current Finance minister (obviously Canadian resource and finances go hand in hand) – announces to a bunch of people at the (Preston) Manning Institute that Canada should be less concerned with obtaining social license. Of course, Oliver sounds like the cold hearted industrialist that he is, and an immediate response (at least my immediate reaction) is to reject his callous greedy position. So then, do I endorse the position of the need for more social license? That would seem to be the alternative to Oliver’s position the article presents. Making this social license seem like the progressive alternative to crass extractionism is the dangerous move that is made by the social license discourse. It stays with in the bounds of the logic of colonial capitalism, in which the tar sands and the pipelines must and inevitably will go ahead. I reject this position and social license is a sham way of trying to get people to play by these rigged rules.