Draft Position Paper on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Alberta Tar Sands, prepared for Occupy Vancouver Environmental Justice Working Group
The global Occupy movement is about system-wide change—about the need to act now to reverse the current course of global civilization, and about our ability, collectively, to seize hold of history and actually make these changes now, together. We are becoming aware of our roles as agents once again. Human beings have always been change-makers. Unfortunately, too often we have done so unconsciously, unwittingly, leaving a path of destruction behind ourselves. Now we must consciously engage change-making with a new purpose in mind: halting the out of control and irresponsible economic growth-at-all-costs mentality that drives our constant consumption and our destruction of this one, ultimately small “resource” we all share—our planet. It is in this light that I offer here a six-point stance on environmental justice.
1. No pipelines / No tankers / No Tar Sands
What is happening now in the growing and consolidating resistance to pipeline expansion in BC and beyond—the growing resistance to the Tar Sands itself, and to the very idea of extracting and producing oil at all—is a last stand in defense of this earth, a cry of no pasaran!—none shall pass—the situation is so dire that we cannot “progress” one more step down the road we have been on. The earth will not survive it. The species of this earth—including the human species—cannot survive it. Everything—the whole system—begins changing now. It’s our last chance to have some say in how change occurs in our world, to design and manage the coming changes, because the change is going to come whether or not we actively work with it.
To say no not just to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline and its terminus, Vancouver’s Kinder Morgan oil port on Burrard Inlet, but to say no to the Tar Sands development itself, and no to our continuing dependence on fossil fuels and the catastrophic war we are now waging on this planet’s biosphere, is of course to court the Canadian Government’s label of radical environmentalism. It’s true—this is a radical declaration against oil. Our problem is a radical one, and the only real solutions will need to be radical indeed: a completely redesigned energy system and infrastructure, for which we need to begin planning now. But, how radical is trying to preserve life on this planet? How radical is trying to do everything we can to leave a livable planet for our children and grandchildren?
First Nations peoples have made their position clear: new pipelines will not pass over their unceded territories, nor will they stand any longer for an unsustainable abuse of this planet. We must now stand with them. We have to stop talking in terms of pragmatics and possibilities: replacing our dependence on oil with renewable and sustainable sources of energy is “the most impossible scenario for our future—except for all other conceivable scenarios” (Jared Diamond, Collapse 524). Now, let’s be realistic and get down to our impossible task.
2. Response to Crisis
Our global environmental crisis in part consists of:
- Devastation of ocean species, coral reefs, and other animal species—from the top to the bottom of the increasingly fragile and stressed food chain.
- Extensive deforestation and soil erosion in all areas of the planet.
- Chemical poisoning of our entire food supply via pesticides, herbicides, and genetic modification, as well as the presence of petroleum-based plastics throughout the environment.
- Global warming driven by increased carbon in the atmosphere, due to human industrial activities (largely, the burning of fossil fuels): scientists consider carbon levels over 350 parts per million (ppm) the trigger for catastrophic climate change—we are currently at 392 ppm.
As Jared Diamond writes in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the “world’s environmental problems will get solved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice” (498).
Diamond continues: “The prosperity that the First World enjoys at present is based on spending down its environmental capital in the bank”—“It makes no sense to be content with our present comfort when it is clear that we are currently on a non-sustainable course” (509).
The problem comes down to our “lifestyle” in the “developed world,” which we will inevitably have to adjust. It is also driven by the notion that constant economic growth, at any cost, is a valid economic model. It is not. Only cancers are characterized by unbridled growth, leading to the ultimate demise of their “host.” As a group of leading scientists have recently reported,
“The perpetual growth myth … promotes the impossible idea that indiscriminate economic growth is the cure for all the world’s problems, while it is actually the disease that is at the root cause of our unsustainable global practices.”
Growth at any cost is not an option for this planet any more. The adjustment is coming, whether we plan for it or not. We need to begin to seriously lower our carbon emissions. We need to begin making serious plans to replace our dependence upon fossil fuels with new cleaner, sustainable, and renewable sources of energy. We need to start thinking seriously about the future, about the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.
A crucial first move—a place to begin all this—is with stopping new pipelines, pipeline expansion, and oil tanker traffic across BC’s precious rivers and coastal waterways. This is to attempt to contain the impact of the Tar Sands development while we work towards a different energy future—one in service of future generations and the entire planet, not in service of profits for the few who can benefit from them today.
Because of the amount of energy required to extract Tar Sands oil, it “releases approximately three times the greenhouse gas emissions per barrel than does the production of conventional crude oil.” Thus “the tar sands are now poised to become Canada’s largest single emitter of greenhouse gas, compounding this country’s contribution to global warming.” Additionally, this very same problem—the energy required to achieve the energy desired—makes the Tar Sands a bad economic investment, as well as a bad ecological investment.
We can change this situation, because we must change this situation. We need to develop the wisdom and foresight that our “leaders”—squarely in the service of capital accumulation and nothing else—sorely lack. We can do this, too, together, if we begin to act now, and if we begin to imagine real alternatives to our current lifestyles and our current dependence upon fossil fuels.
There are consequences to saying no to developments like the Enbridge pipeline and the Tar Sands—as the backers of those projects are quick to make us fear. We must understand these consequences, plan for them, design and manage them. If human beings are capable of such vast, resource-intensive projects, then they are capable of alternate vast, resource-intensive projects.
3. Demand the Separation of Corporation and State
Six of the 10 biggest global corporations (in terms of total revenues)—including 4 of the top 5—are oil companies, and they are all—in fact, all of the top 13 oil companies in the world (controlling three-quarters of the world’s oil supply)—“state-backed,” and a number of them outright state-owned, as The Economist has recently reported. There is perhaps no more potent and outrageous example of the current state of corporate influence in politics—as well as political collaboration with big business—to the extent that The Economist describes this relationship (so clearly exemplified by the oil industry) as “state capitalism.”
All signs in the Tar Sands now point towards China and its massive energy needs. Petro China is the largest stakeholder in the newly approved MacKay River oil sands project in Alberta. In October it was announced that Sinopec—another Chinese Government-owned energy giant—had purchased Canadian oil and gas exploration company Daylight Energy for $2.2 billion dollars. The National Post reports: “Chinese firms are interested in the oil sands and since July 2011 have quietly snapped up around $5.5-billion worth of Canadian assets. On Thursday, PetroChina Co Ltd. announced the latest deal, an agreement to buy a 20% stake in a shale gas project in Canada from Royal Dutch Shell Plc. for an estimated $1-billion.” By Terry Glavin’s estimates, China’s investments in Alberta’s oil sands now totals some $20 billion, a “beachhead” that has been built “almost overnight.”
The point here is not some xenophobic fear of a Chinese invasion—far from it. Netherlands-based Shell and US based Exxon are also very active in Canada’s Tar Sands. What we should be concerned about is collusion between corporations and governments who have global corporate profits—not jobs, not communities, and certainly not the environment—as their main concern. Why on earth would Canada export two thirds of the oil it produces, unrefined, while still importing half of the oil it uses (as reported by CBC News on January 31 2012)? Because the interests of Canadians are not at the heart of this government’s energy strategy. Global, corporate interests are.
As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges writes :
“The decay of Canada illustrates two things. Corporate power is global, and resistance to it cannot be restricted by national boundaries. Corporations have no regard for nation-states. They assert their power to exploit the land and the people everywhere. They play worker off of worker and nation off of nation. They control the political elites in Ottawa as they do in London, Paris and Washington. This, I suspect, is why the tactics to crush the Occupy movement around the globe have an eerie similarity—infiltrations, surveillance, the denial of public assembly, physical attempts to eradicate encampments, the use of propaganda and the press to demonize the movement, new draconian laws stripping citizens of basic rights, and increasingly harsh terms of incarceration.”
It is only too clear that our democratic process—and thus our ability as concerned citizens, and as those who will have to deal with the consequences of our extractive activities—is seriously compromised by the “close working relationship” of the wealthiest corporations and our elected representatives. Serious democratic reform, which removes money from the political system, is a key step in preserving our environment and developing sustainable economic practices in the future. Governments should not be beholden to private, corporate profit making, as they currently, and unquestionably, are. Governments should be good stewards of the commons upon which all life forms depend. There is much that we can do within the existing system to change this system. But we will also need to envision alternatives to this system.
4. Become an Ally of the Earth and Give and Receive Gifts
First Nations groups and leaders throughout BC are making their stand for their traditional lands and rights, and more than this, they are making a stand for the values of good stewardship and environmental balance. We have a great deal we can learn from a “profound recentering on Indigenous worldviews”—worldviews, as Harsha Wallia notes, which “are premised on revolutionary notions of respectful coexistence and stewardship of the land.”
We have to declare ourselves “allies” of this earth. For too long we have been its despoilers and colonizers. We should formulate new protocols for how to be good “allies” of the earth whose destruction has been the path to our privilege and wealth. This could be based upon the First Nations’ “Ally Bill of Responsibilities,” through which we learn to be aware of our privilege, listen, follow, and simply “take up less space.” There are countless other species on this planet whose lives we must find ways to “decolonize.”
Another avenue to such an ecological “decolonization” could be through the sorts of sweeping, trans-species legislation such as that enacted recently in Bolivia. This past spring Bolivia became the first country to pass a “Law of Mother Earth” which “will grant nature the same rights and protections as humans.”
“The piece of legislation, called la Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra, is intended to encourage a radical shift in conservation attitudes and actions, to enforce new control measures on industry, and to reduce environmental destruction. The law redefines natural resources as blessings and confers the same rights to nature as to human beings, including: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. Perhaps the most controversial point is the right ‘to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.’”
Still another possibility is to pursue an economics of the gift (also implicit in the Bolivian “Law of Mother Earth” and its language of “blessings”), as outlined by Charles Eisenstein. In such an economy we acknowledge the gifts we all receive from the commons—“soil, water, air, minerals, the genome…[and] the accumulation of human technology and culture,” all of which “were created by no [single] man and should therefore be the property of none, but held in common stewardship for all beings” (Eisenstein, Sacred Economics 185)—by giving back to, and doing nothing to irreversibly deplete the commons. The principle at work here is defined by Eisenstein as “those who benefit from the larger community of life must also contribute to the larger community of life”—“Those who take from the commonwealth must contribute to the common good in equal measure” (192).
5. Redefine Wealth
There are now more or less effective electric cars—all that is needed is the will to produce them, and stop producing gas-powered vehicles. Our government makes a great deal of noise when it announces a new industrial or energy project (such as the Tar Sands, or the Enbridge pipeline)—the vast majority of the wealth which will be created by the project benefitting a disproportionately small group of already wealthy individuals; imagine a different scenario—imagine our government announcing a massive new initiative to support the building of electric cars and new rapid transit systems for our cities, with the objective of more or less eliminating out dependence upon fossil fuels in 20 years. Now that would be vision, that would be leadership. Is it so hard to believe?
Moves towards new cleaner, “greener” energy sources, production methods, and products sour when they still have “opening new markets” and increasing growth as their ultimate end. In the new economy that could be ahead of us—if it is to be sustainable, and if we are indeed to have a future—we will indeed have to learn to deal with “less.” Less “conveniences.” Less rapid and convenient (and carbon emitting) travel. Less selection of exotic products and foods that have travelled thousands of miles to reach our stores.
But to say we will have to learn to live with “less” is simply to call for a new definition of wealth—whether the wealth of individuals or the wealth of nations. Sustainability will have to be one of the cornerstones of this new definition of wealth: we are wealthy when we do not deprive the future of the same possibilities for wealth—when we do not deprive others of access to the same level of wealth—when we do not deplete the commons, but build and maintain it. The measures of wealth can no longer be the abstract and destructive arithmetic of GDP, markets, and bank accounts. The measures of wealth need to be the measures of justice, community, ecological balance, and careful and measured consumption.
Wealth is the art you make. Wealth is the community you build. Wealth is the learning and cooperation you enable. We find true wealth when we build our lives together, as a community and an ecology. Wealth is achieved when all beings are allowed to flourish to their natural capacities, when ecological checks and balances are allowed to run their course. There is a whole new program of cultural education that we need to get past our addiction to economic growth and numerical expansion. But it is within our collective intellectual grasp.
6. How Big is Your Island?
In a recent on-line comic, Stewart McMillan relates the story of remote St. Matthew Island, where the U.S. Coast Guard abandoned a handful of reindeer in the 1940s. The reindeer reproduced prolifically over the coming years, feeding on the island’s seemingly plentiful lichen, before exhausting the island’s food sources, resulting in the complete collapse of the reindeer population. The comic ends with an image of planet earth, and the question, “how big is our island?”
Jared Diamond, in Collapse, writes: “Today the world no longer faces just the circumscribed risk of an Easter Island society of Maya homeland collapsing in isolation, without affecting the rest of the world. Instead, societies today are so interconnected that the risk we face is of a worldwide decline. …We need to realize…that there is no other island/other planet to which we can turn for help, or to which we can export our problems” (519-521).
And yet Diamond is not without hope. “Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them” (521).
To begin to “start solving” our problems, we can recognize how small our island is. Is Alberta, with its massive oil deposits and ever-expanding Tar Sands development an Island? Is Canada, fresh from pulling out of the Kyoto Accord and led by a government bent on economic policies that place oil at the centre of everything, an island? Surely this entire planet is our island, small indeed in the grand scheme of things, and smaller still when we can have such a direct impact on the entire biosphere through the greenhouse gasses we produce and the ever-accumulating pile of (mostly plastic) garbage we leave behind us and dump into our oceans.
Capitalism, as many critics have noted, is a system built upon the defiance and overcoming of limits. This is how new markets are opened, new products and new methods of production attained. However, now more than ever, we are up against a limit one cannot simply overcome. We are at the limits of the planet. We need to tread carefully now. We need to heal, repair, slow ourselves down, and think carefully about how the ways we make our living affect the place where we make our living. This is to unite economics and ecology—both sharing their etymological root in the Greek word for “home”—into one seamless science of careful living. That is—care-filled living. Surely it’s time we really start to truly care for our homes, and prepare a better home for our future generations.
This is what our governments—completely under the influence of corporations and the desire for short-term profits—want to brand as radical. What we’re really asking for is time to think together about the way we live in this world. Discussion is not terrorism. It’s good house keeping. Which is what we need.