Canada’s Oil Economy Through the “Staples” Lens

In 1963, economist Mel Watkins achieved international recognition with the publication of “A Staple Theory of Economic Growth” in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science. To mark the 50th anniversary, the Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis published a collection of essays written by members of Canada’s Progressive Economics Forum, placing Watkins’ ideas in historical and global context. The section “Staple Theory and the Bitumen Boom” is essential reading, as authors Thomas Gunton, Gordon Laxer, Daniel Drache and Jim Stanford use staples theory to discuss the fossil fuel addiction of our economy, its dangerous impact on the broader economy, on cultures, especially Aboriginal culture, and on the environment.

Part 4: “Modern Applications”, includes “The Staple Theory and the Carbon Trap”, by Brendan Haley; “LNG: BC’s Quest for a New Staple Industry” by Marc Lee, and “Staples Theory: Its Gendered Nature” by Marjorie Griffin Cohen, among others. In the final essay in the collection, Mel Watkins writes: “My 1963 article has perhaps encouraged some readers to think too much about linkages and how to enhance them, to focus on incremental change when it is transformative change that is necessary…Fifty years on I have grandchildren, and know that the world must move ASAP from dependence on fossil fuels to reliance on green technologies. This will involve a wrenching change for Canada because bitumen is now the superstaple driving our economy and our polity…These may not be the best of times, and they may well get worse, but there is room for hope if we will but face up to our situation. In Canada, that means escaping both the staple trap and the carbon trap by weaning our­selves from the export of bitumen”.


The Staple Theory @ 50: Reflections on the Lasting Significance of Mel Watkins’ “A Staple Theory of Economic Growth” is available at:

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