Thursday, December 1, 2011

A swamp to die in

Showdown at Fort McMurray

Edward Burtynsky

It seems increasingly clear that the global warming/environmental debate is going to be settled - even if temporarily - in northern Alberta. Why die on this particular hill?

On the one hand we have the environmental people like James Hansen and Bill McKibben, American scientist and activist respectively, who believe that development of the Athabasca toil sands will lead to irreversible and catastrophic climate change......and on the other we have economists - even Jeff Rubin who is an staunch opponent of globalization and its acolytes - who state bluntly - without any supporting evidence - that Alberta Crude is going to find its way to market at world prices. The environment it seems, in this view, is irrelevant. Somewhere in between we have a voice of pseudo-reason saying nothing has been proven and more research is needed - this from the Royal Society of Canada, although the authors are mainly from Alberta, which makes the objectivity a little suspect. Why the Royal Society of Canada, one wonders, and not some other dispassionate agency that has constituencies outside Alberta?

Really, there is no middle ground. There's no definitive answer either, although the question boils down to whether or not we're going to develop the resources in the short term out of self interest and deal with the complications as they arise, or whether we're going to stop such development cold in its tracks until the consequences are known in a more realistic fashion. As far as I know, there's no solution to the relentless aggregation of toxic tailings ponds at Fort Mac that nobody knows what to do with, just like the spent fuel rods of the nuclear power industry remain toxic festering dumps for decades - or longer - without anybody really knowing what to do with them either.

In this feverish environment, common sense is scarce. Either one is a Luddite irrational tree-hugger who would rather languish depressed around camp-fires while waiting for bison to throw themselves off cliffs, or one uses the resources at hand to continue industrial development that has freed the world from many ills and has the capacity to do wondrous things like explore the planets, even though an unfortunate by-product is the capacity to blow up this particular planet in a frenzy of xenophobic annihilation.

The "jobs creation" argument is obviously bullshit. Any jobs associated with the oil sands and pipelines are temporary, unsustainable, and have the social cost related to itinerant construction camps that create local boom-towns of unknown relation to a real long term economy, but bring with them demand for social services - at least in Canada - that are borne by government. In other words, the costs are handed to civil society. The profits go to corporations that have little loyalty to the jurisdictions that have to deal with the consequences.

A battle is brewing. Neither side is about to back off.