Stop Greenwashing Yourself with Tar Sands Opposition

To make clear, I'm attacking tar sands opposition from the environmental left, as it were; it's not enough.

This is not your standard attack on tar-sands protests that disputes my betters in the sciences. This is not a "belief", save that I believe that the scientific method works, and has with very rare exceptions been applied honestly and competently to that problem by thousands of climate scientists around the world for decades. Thus, I am a "believer" that it is important to switch our industrial energy sources to non-carbon-emitting alternatives with the greatest speed compatible with not causing dire poverty (a thing that would get people killed in much of the world).

However, I think that the singular focus applied to the tar sands as an environmental threat is misguided, even counterproductive. It functions as "greenwashing" for groups and individuals: oppose the Bond-Villain grade "worst offender", and you are washed clean of all your own environmental sins, the ones you commit with nearly every product and service you buy. By relieving many of the urgency to address that, the use of carbon is actually prolonged.

I write "tar sands" just for fun, by the way, their name when I was a kid. I know they are neither tar nor oil; "bitumen" is a third thing, different from tar and oil. Readers are referred to any dictionary for the three definitions.

The tar sands gained the monicker of "dirtiest oil in the world" following a sustained effort by Greenpeace. Google the phrase now, and you don't find articles about where that phrase originated: you find the phrase just suddenly showing up in all coverage of the topic, as if every journalist had suddenly decided that was their correct description. Even if you support Greenpeace (I contributed a few times), it's important to remember they aren't a bunch of pals around a card table any more: their budget is $300 million per year. This particular bit of Orwellian "language-control" has been remarkably successful. Even the Deepwater Horizon spill - kilotonnes of crude oil and carcinogenic volatiles, like benzene, into the fecund commercial fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico couldn't shake the term "dirtiest oil in the world" away from the sub-Arctic to the sub-tropical environment.

We love to follow the superlative. Whomever experts bless as the "best" violin player in the world, that worthy will receive ten times the audience of the fourth-best, even if nobody but music professors can tell the difference. When The Daily Show covered an early Keystone XL protest, Jon Stewart noted that there were already 20 pipelines carrying Canadian oil to the USA, but that extra 14% carbon emitted by tar-sands oil somehow makes it worth about 14 TIMES as much attention from environmentalists and media.

The "dirtiest" claim rests on two foundations, to my understanding:

  1. They require a hotly-disputed extra amount of industrial carbon emissions just to extract. (I'll accept the figure repeated in Scientific American, of fourteen percent more carbon than conventional oil usage.)
  2. They come from strip mines three degrees south of the Arctic Circle, which subtract 300 sq. miles of boreal forest, and foul some nearby rivers with tailings. (Industry disputes that, but they lie reflexively, and I neglect it.)
Both objections are perfectly correct, but the magnitude of the sins, relative to the rest of our (very) industrial civilization is not well understood by most.

To address the last first, open-pit mines are where most of the metal in the world comes from. They are where all the rare earths, that make the electronics revolution possible, come from. Many of them are in countries that have the most laughable environmental standards. Protesting the tar sands before far-worse mines are addressed or even discussed, is not defensible; it's taking up time and resources to fight littering while knifings are going on. "Whataboutism" - diverting attention to another problem - is reasonable when resources to fight are limited; the fight should go to the worst problems first, and the tar sands mines pale in comparison to (naming just one) mountaintop-removal coal mining in Virginia.

Coal is basically 100% carbon. The world's cleanest coal is far more carbon-emitting than its dirtiest oil. (Really, in a world that still has any coal, "world's dirtiest oil" is not much of an insult, like "fattest fashon model".) So any coal mine automatically wins the "dirtier" ribbon for carbon. In terms of local environmental degradation, however, it's so much worse there's no comparison.

The strip mines in Alberta have mowed down around 200 sq. miles) of boreal forest, the kind of forest that grows near the Arctic Circle. It is sparse and hardier than the lush "temperate" forests of Virginia. The mountaintop-removal operations in Virginia alone have destroyed five times as much area of Appalachia's verdant "criks" and "hollers" - over 1500 square miles. The tar sands mines are eventually filled back up with the soil overburden again and replanted; the mountaintops in Virginia will never be put back on the mountains, nor the creeks below restored.

In short, I'll lie down beside a tar-sands pipeline protestor in the path of the pipe - for exactly one-fifth as long as he has lain in the path of multi-ton coal trucks on Virginia roads, bound for the railhead. It's just five times as important a fight, there are not many of those mountaintops left. By contrast, Canada has so far sacrificed only 0.02% of our boreal forest landscape, some two million square miles of it remain. Quite a lot has hardly been seen by human eyes, since it's free of snow only 3 months of the year. (Never been, myself.)

When you stop to think of it, every operation of industrial civilization involves sacrifice of "natural" landscape, since it's no longer natural or available to the original plants and animals if we have a building sitting on it. I used to live on the edge of a valley, and looked across it one day to see the other side filling in with a housing development. Briefly, I raged at the developers and mourned for the birds and squirrels before sheepishly looking behind me at my own house and its neighbours, which were identical and had displaced the same trees and birds when they were constructed.

Even a farm displaces all the previous plants, of course, and a herd of cows displaces the buffalo that used to graze there: but nothing erases all trace of nature, and dumps a stew of toxic chemicals into the water table, like a human city. So let's consider two sacrifices of 300 square miles of nature, and what human benefits we purchased by bumping off all those poor owls and pine trees:

Needless to say, until we develop replacements for oil, it's fair to say "no oil, no New York". No bananas from the tropics, or winter vegetables from Mexico and California; no cotton from Texas shipped to Manila to become T-shirts. No concrete. About 40% of those tar sands (or alternate oil source) are as-needed for New York to exist and work as the three famous tunnels that bring it water.

I turn to the topic of what we must do without, had we no cheap, compact energy source, because that is the hard moral question for the environmental campaigner, the one we avoid with greenwashing.

Switching the world energy solutions to those recommended by Monbiot in Heat is mostly the job for large industries, their investors, government regulators, and inventors: the only way for most people to participate is with their votes, and by eagerly buying cleaner products when available, even at premium prices.

I myself proudly biked and took public transit to work for the last 16 years of my career, and our car turns 18 this year, with under 90,000 km on it, making us (only relatively, alas) carbon-virtuous; our good behaviour is compounded by living in a dense city centre in a 4-storey building. But all of that isn't much; every garment we wear, every bite we eat from southern sources, not to mention the computer I type at this moment, are suffused with energy footprints that absolutely require most of that thousand barrels a second being consumed around the world to keep the civilization going. Our carbon-virtue is a paltry little effort, sufficient to put off environmental catastrophe by a few years at most,and only that if everybody did it.

Personal conservation is of some help, of course, and more importantly, it gives the consumer strong reasons to champion cleaner energy solutions that will allow them to resume consumption full-speed.

Staking out your environmental activism around opposition to production of carbon, instead, allows you emotional space to go ahead and consume since you have "earned" it by hating on the companies you are buying from, rather like an ongoing drug-buyer who also votes for the death penalty for drug dealers.

Monbiot picked out perhaps the worst example for Heat: Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin - parent, with Gwynneth Paltrow, of their daughter Apple. Monbiot recounts Martin talking in an interview about how the new album offers some thoughts for people on the choices they could be making about their lifestyle and their relationship with a fragile planet. Minutes later, he enthuses about his latest purchase: a private jet! It allows Apple and Gwynneth to join him on weekends, wherever he is touring! It's hard to avoid thinking that he assumed his great environmental virtue - from inspiring others through song - had paid for all his personal high consumption. My depressing thought is that his listeners imagined they were also highly virtuous just from listening to it and agreeing - and maybe donating to a Keystone XL opposition group before hopping in the SUV for a ski weekend.

Environmental virtue from opposing production of oil while continuing with unchecked consumption is common. Some of the celebrity tar sands opponents have flown up there in their own private jets to see the horror for themselves, when photographs and statistics would convey the same information at no carbon-cost.

Focusing all our ire on the tar sands and a few other designated environmental supervillains makes your activism not just less-effective but actually counterproductive - if it gives you psychological license to burn a little more yourself. There are better ways to work for a cleaner world. Those, sorry, are TWO posts away. My next one is on how useless ALL oil-related protests are.

Text is COPYRIGHT, Roy Brander, 2018. All graphics are available Internet grabs that link to their source, and will be taken down upon request, to "roy.brander" at Google's mail system.