The forests around Fort McMurray and the tar sands, the epicentre of Canada’s contribution to fossil fuel extraction and global greenhouse gas production, have been ablaze for many weeks, with a heat and ferocity not seen in living memory.
A giant swath of over 522,892 hectares of landscape has been incinerated in this natural holocaust, and homes and small businesses and, in a strange burst of cosmic irony, even the extractive infrastructure of the oil industry, have been set ablaze, despite the unceasing toil of firefighters drawn from Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, Parks Canada, Nova Scotia and Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre to try and contain this furious conflagration (one part of this fire is locally known, in fact, as “The Beast”).
The air around Fort McMurray and the tar sands is heavy with smoke and particulate matter, the kind that causes lung disease in the short and long term. Air quality indices, the measure of how dangerous this air contamination is to the health of humans and other animals, are off the charts, according to a personal communication I received from Dr. John O’Connor, a family physician who usually works in the area.
And yet the one group of people who have made sure they’re personally untouched by the devastation of this man-made blaze are the leaders of the colossal business enterprises that form the core of the fossil fuel industry responsible for it – the Koch brothers, largest lease owners in the tar sands, as well as the CEOs and senior management of oil and gas companies like Shell, Husky, BP, Suncor, Enbridge, Cenovus, Nexen, ConocoPhillips, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Sinopec. Safe from physical harm, too, are the vast majority of shareholders in these massive business enterprises, who are absolved, in strictly legal (but not moral) terms, from any responsibility for such disasters. Their only interest in these matters lies in gaining a profit on their investment.
“This is not a time for blame”— So reads a collective comment on the Fort McMurray fires from the executive directors of some of Canada’s leading environmental non-governmental groups – organizations like Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, LeadNow, and the Sierra Club.
And in the New Yorker magazine, Elizabeth Kolbert comments thus on the Fort McMurray fires: "We are all consumers of oil, not to mention coal and natural gas”, adding that therefore “we’ve all contributed to the latest inferno."
But it’s not quite so simple.
As a family physician for four decades, this would be like me telling a victim of violent sexual abuse: “We won’t bother about the person who did this to you; just get some counseling, and get on with your life”.
To do that would be to negate my duty to my patient both to help her heal, and support her in seeking redress that, more than any act, would likely result in safety for her and other victims of abuse.
Persons who have suffered abuse often state that despite their own suffering, they would be happy if they were to know that what was done to them would never to happen to others. And yet here we are, setting the stage for this wildfire disaster to strike again and again.
Yes, we all bear some responsibility
At one level Kolbert is right. We are in a sense all responsible.
Anyone who has used plastic, owned and operated an internal combustion engine, travelled on blacktop in a fossil-fuel-fed vehicle, sprayed a pesticide or synthetic fertilizer, used a modern synthesized medication or a host of other petroleum-based chemicals, applied Vaseline to a sore, used electricity from a coal- or gas-fired electrical plant, or owned or used any device or tool or implement made in a factory driven by a petroleum-based fuel, has contributed to global warming.
(And in a brief and only partly related aside, anyone who has consumed meat from domestic farm animals grown in CAFOs – “concentrated animal feed operations” – has also contributed, too.)
In other words, that’s just about every single person in – wait for it – any industrial or industrializing society on Planet Earth.
We – who hold ourselves up to be the industrialites, i.e. a sophisticated and "advanced" society – we’re the ones who’ve done all these things. We’re the ones who unwittingly ignored the limits of planetary tolerance – in our thinking – and who began, way back in the Industrial Revolution, to believe that our human economy was separate from the planet’s ecosystem and its economy.
Blinded by our own hubris, we have cut what we believed to be the redundant umbilical cord to Mother Earth, only to discover, at last, that it is actually a crucial life-line, linking us to our one and only source of true security.
But there is also a difference between people who recognize this problem and desire change, and those who don't. Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes told The Nation in April how the argument for keeping our dependence on Big Oil is much like the one used to keep slavery intact in the U.S. “People in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves," she said. "But that did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement. It just meant that they were also part of the slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change the system, not just their clothes.”
Along the way, we ignored or marginalized anyone who advocated caution.
First Peoples, the embodiment of our collective ancestral wisdom
Some people never really bought into our favoured paradigm of exploitation to the max – unless, of course, we radically brainwashed them into our ways.
Central among these are the First Peoples – distributed in pockets around the world, who have valiantly struggled to maintain their eco-friendly ways, and who still struggle to do so for the most part. They have been marginalized, closeted, restricted and aggressed upon, and not infrequently outright exterminated.
We’ve all heard the saying, attributed to various First Nations sources: “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”
First Peoples have looked upon our ways, and privately shaken their heads in disbelief, and at times despair, knowing full well where we were heading but being powerless to stop us.
And to repay them for their dissident perspective, we have deliberately, relentlessly, and often brutally stripped away their powers – even the power to speak in their own tongues. By the way, there’s no point in being Pollyannish about this. Let’s allow that Indigenous cultures around the world were not perfect. And neither is ours.
Today, First Peoples everywhere are rising up, shaking off the legalistic chains and social burdens that we placed on them, and starting to speak out against our ways, compelling us – using our own social mechanisms and laws – to open our eyes to a deeper and more integrated reality. From the IdleNoMore movement to the extensive push back against the tar sands process itself, First Nations are among those explicitly saying “Stop now. Change.”
Honouring those ahead of the curve
Even within industrial ranks, generalizations fall short. Universalizing the notion of blame or responsibility generates a vision of a homogenized industrial society, and risks characterizing us as unthinking robotic creatures.
This demeans the efforts of all those who have argued strenuously and publicly for mitigation of climate change – for example the scientists who aggregated into the IPCC and spoke the plain truth (against fierce partisan resistance), but also the individuals of all ages and from all walks of life who formed or joined advocacy groups like the aforementioned LeadNow, Greenpeace and Sierra Club (and at far greater risk, those who joined groups in less democratic settings around the world) to speak and march and write, and even go to court, in order to bring about action to address climate change.
It demeans all those individuals who have downsized their lives, who have sold their cars and taken up public transport and bikes, embraced recycling and composting and across-the-board re-use of their possessions, who have sought to have tools and clothes and appliances repaired instead of discarding them, who deliberately eat lower on the food chain or who grow their own food or buy local produce. It neglects those who have retrofitted their homes to reduce energy losses and to insert renewable energy sources wherever possible, and who have cancelled their long-distance travel plans and chosen to holiday close to home.
It demeans all those who, one way or another, have formally carried out an ongoing inventory of their habits and patterns of behaviour in order to maximally reduce their ecological footprint, and exercise their social responsibility to the best of their ability.
Another side to this global story
What about the billions who have never contributed very much to global warming, and global degradation in general – because they could not?
Consider people who live in more impoverished parts of the world, who have been doing the right thing and “living lightly” out of sheer hard necessity – because they were neglected and abused by corrupt governments, or because their leaders embraced (often involuntarily) the outdated model of “development” proposed by industrial societies which eventually morphed into the horrendous and now increasingly discredited “structural adjustment” process.
Citizens beleaguered by such difficulties have often remedied what they lack materially through local, practical and communitarian solutions. Yet rather than being held up as models for us to consider (what about the brilliant Cuban organic movement, which sprang out of the sudden 1989 withdrawal of oil supplies from the collapsing Soviet Union?), they have been outright ignored or dismissed as marginal and backward.
Even worse, these energetic and pragmatic solution-finders have been relentlessly and misleadingly encouraged to drop their inclusive, collaborative and often remarkably successful ways and seek out and aspire to the lifestyle of self-indulgence and consumerism that characterizes the shamelessly hyper-affluent. You might want to read – and weep over – The New Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland – written before she became a Liberal cabinet minister and began to imbibe the Ottawa Koolaid.
We cannot, in all conscience, say that these people – First Peoples, individual “early adopters” of climate change mitigation and ecological sanity, and the many people whose social and geographical realities mandated that they never embraced flat-out consumerism – are to blame for global climate change, or in fact for many of the burdens under which Planet Earth is labouring.
Let’s name the people who have contributed to the inferno around Fort Mac
But there are some who bear direct and unmistakable responsibility for setting Alberta alight.
There are certain individuals who have espoused the process of fossil fuel extraction – sometimes openly, sometimes behind closed doors – and who continue to do so today.
Some are faceless, like the CEOs and senior management of the extractive industries – the men and women whose names we never hear – but should. How many people know the name Marvin Odum – Christy Clark’s business friend and former head of Shell’s North American Unconventional Oil [i.e. tar sands] Unit?
They should know that we know who they are, and that we resolutely insist on change.
Others are visible, audible, often defiantly in favour of continued and even expanded fossil fuel extraction, and opposed to the new (but also ancient) interconnected and holistic world view. People like Ezra Levant, Canada’s former prime minister Stephen Harper (who for nine long years suppressed science and scientists who identified climate change), CBC personality Rex Murphy, the Kochs, Danish dissident Bjorn Lomborg, and deceased author Michael Crichton (the Jurassic Park author).
Then there are the organizations that relentlessly support fossil fuel extraction and the tar sands, sometimes overtly but often covertly. There are many U.S.-based groups like the Cato Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, but there are also Canadian bodies like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Fraser Institute, which work hard to support their vested interests in fossil fuel expansion. One egregious covert example has been a quietly pursued alliance between CAPP and Canadian Geographic, the flagship magazine of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, as well as the longstanding environmental group Pollution Probe.
Let’s combat the irrational and destructive rhetoric too.
We must begin today expunging the vapid and insubstantial rhetoric of the fossil fuel industry and its spokespeople, and the underlying simplistic notion of industrial "progress". We must look in the face of every person who denies global warming, who advocates in favour of consumerism and more “development”, who consciously or unconsciously espouses a throw-away culture, who says things are find just as they are today.
We must challenge the language of business leaders in the fossil fuel industry and their pliant politician friends who dismiss the risks, or talk tangentially about climate change, but do nothing substantive. We must tell them to stop subsidizing fossil fuel extraction, now estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be over $5 trillion per year. We must tell them they have to act, and act differently.
We must especially identify and contradict – legally if necessary – those who have expounded climate change denial while knowing it was real, and deliberately fabricated tales to keep the status quo.
Even better, let’s pay more attention to the people who get it
All around the world ordinary citizens have stepped forward, often leaving their comfort zone or even risking personal safety, to advocate for a better relationship between humans and the blue-green planet we call home.
Then there are the organizations that have been working tirelessly to bring global climate change and the need for broad attitudinal change to the fore, like the renowned Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a vast array of national and international scientific organizations, as well as a plethora of citizen-based groups in Canada and around the world
There are online media in this country that have directly and strenuously affirmed the reality of climate change and the solutions to mitigate or adapt to it, as well as related issues of environmental and social degradation: they include DesmogBlog (and its Canadian counterpart Desmog Canada), The Tyee (with many articles by acclaimed Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk), the National Observer (and its progenitor the Vancouver Observer), Alternatives journal, and a host of others.
There are no bystanders
Although responsibility for the conflagration around Fort Mac is unevenly distributed, and there are many who have worked hard, for a long time, to try and steer away from such disasters, the responsibility for the future of our planet rests upon everyone’s shoulders.
We must all work to reduce our ecological footprint.
We must all divest from fossil fuel companies. If Bill and Melinda Gates can do it, so can we.
We must all try and inform ourselves about the science and the economics of climate change, and why change is good for pocket books, and for creating jobs. We must oppose pipeline expansion and the flawed processes that permit it and support our First Nations friends and neighbours in their fight for their rights and the values and practices that will keep us all safe.
Our ultimate vision must be one of collaboration, neighbourliness, inclusiveness, and global priorities acted upon locally, where we live. We can and will change, and when we do, there will be such an unleashing of positive energy and joy that none will be immune to its galvanizing influence.
Until then, and until all the fires of global warming are put out, we must each become, from this day forward, ambassadors for global transformation.