Neil Young and Diana Krall’s Honour the Treaties tour will be over by the time you read this. But the political fall-out will carry on. I am mostly interested in the impacts of the tar-sands on air, water, land and treaty rights. But it’s also interesting to consider what the backlash to the tour tells us about the “politics of oil”.
Young’s tour touched a big nerve here. Regina’s Leader Post pandered to Saskatchewan’s power-brokers, particularly the resource industry and the fossil-fuel friendly Sask Party government. On Friday January 17th, the day Young performed at Regina’s Conexus Centre, the Leader Post’s whole Commentary page questioned Young’s credibility. The cartoon presented him as full of “bluster, exaggeration, ignorance and ego”. Murry Mandryk’s half page column “Neil Young Can’t Out-Politick Wall”, credits Wall with simply allowing “ the rock star to bury himself in his own rhetoric, which was far more suffocating than anything that ever came out of the tar-sands.”
This clever, personalizing journalism bypassed the issue at the heart of the tour. Mandryk does acknowledge “the legitimate issues of Alberta’s Chipewyans” but then ignores them. Young’s metaphor comparing Fort McMurray to Hiroshima is “more than off-putting”, wrote Mardryk. He highlights Young’s inaccurate statement about tar-sand oil going to China and then takes a jab at Young’s electric car being fueled by a coal or nuclear plant. Without any in-depth exploration of the tarsands or treaties he smugly says “Neil Young likely did his cause more harm than good.”
THE GORMLEY SHOW
The other half-page was filled with John Gormley’s personal attack on Young, entitled “Oil Powers Singer’s Life and Music”. Gormley dismisses the tour as “attention-seeking”, while pretentiously saying Young is “entitled to his opinions, even if some of them are silly and misinformed”. Gormley wasn’t interested in looking at the impact of the tar-sands, but rather in demeaning Young’s rock star lifestyle as hypocritical. He especially doesn’t like him having a ranch and three houses.
Gormley also took exception to the Hiroshima metaphor which, as Young stated, wasn’t intended to be taken literal. But it certainly got a huge reaction. Let’s use our imagination as an artist might and consider how the extreme storms resulting from the saturation of the biosphere with carbon coming from places like the tar-sands are already leveling parts of the planet. Think Philippine typhoon Haiyan. Gormley also seems a bit disingenuous. While he takes exception to Young comparing the devastation around Fort Mac with “the blast in 1945 that killed 100,000 people and vapourized buildings”, he’s been one of the biggest champions of the nuclear industry. Would he feel better if we compared the devastation from the melt down of Saskatchewan-fueled Fukushima reactors to that of Hiroshima?
Gormley is not interested in analyzing the impact of the tar-sands or, for that matter, metaphors of catastrophe; he’s interested in discrediting Neil Young. Because Young is living in an oil-dependent economy it’s apparently hypocritical for him to criticize the tar-sands: “Without oil, Young would be a lonely, cold and permanently unpluggled rock star. He might be a less hypocritical one as well”, Gormley concludes.
Opinionated, parochial columnists should be cautious when accusing others of ignorance. Hardly any oil from the tar-sands or anywhere else is ever used to produce electricity; the fossil fuels that do this are coal and gas. In his rant Gormley has made a big factual error. And the electrical energy source which is now in second place globally, after these fossil fuels, is renewables! Young could indeed charge his electric car and play his electric guitar without the carbon footprint that comes from fossil fuels.
JUDGE NOT LEST…
It is risky to concoct superficial, righteous arguments that demean others. And, if we are to pass judgment on Neil Young for his carbon footprint, then what about us? Saskatchewan has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world. We are above Alberta which at least has the Pincher Creek wind farm, equivalent to a large coal or nuclear plant. We have ten times the per capita footprint of China, even with its super-industrialization.
Does this mean we can’t criticize the fossil-fuel dependent economy or what it is doing to the natural world? Does this mean we can’t advocate for the caribou herds that continue to lose their habitats to the expanding tar-sands? Or that we can’t ally with indigenous communities in defense of treaty rights that might be able to protect air, water and land from further contamination? Is this just some kind of word game for these opinionated journalists?
Mandryk admits that “the closer one gets to the oil sands (unless you are a little too close, like the Chipewyan Nation) the more sympathy you are likely to have for the oil sand development.” And he’s right that Young “was already facing an uphill battle” coming here. The coverage in The Globe and Mail wasn’t nearly as stridently pro-industry. The Friday, January 17th column “Complicated, like Neil Young Itself”, by Gary Mason was like a breath of fresh air, something Young apparently couldn’t get when he visited Fort McMurray. (I can use metaphors too).
Mason notes that Young was loose with some facts and he too disliked the Hiroshima metaphor. But he adds that “Mr. Young was not wrong about everything…his contention that treaties in Canada have not been honoured, in many cases, is indisputable.” Mason actually explores this, noting that the environmental risks of Shell’s new tar-sands project were highlighted by the joint panel, which saw its’ task as asking “whether the significant adverse environment effects…are justified in the circumstances.”
The “duty to consult” under our constitution however, was never fulfilled and though Harper recently approved the Shell project, the Chipewyan people who face the most devastating effects, have not. They plan to fight the Jackpine as well as Pierre River and Frontier projects and this tour helped raise some of the money. After the reaction-formations, fact-checking and identity politics have subsided, this remains the bottom line.
LITTLE AND BIG FACTS
In an era of Google brain, texting and endless opinion, it’s good to fact-check. But the motive and context matter. It’s true that tar-sands oil is consumed in North America and not China. But the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline is being proposed because of Harper’s desire to quickly expand the tar-sand market into Asia. Is the new Shell tar-sands project perhaps counting on this? Also Young wasn’t correct saying that the daily emissions from the tar-sands are equal to those from all cars and trucks in Canada. It actually takes two days of tar-sands emissions to equal this. But isn’t the accurate figure still astonishing?
There are much bigger facts at stake. The biggest is that the fossil-fuel economy is not sustainable. In one year we use fossil fuels that took one million years to be created. The emissions are pumped out at such a rate that they are disrupting the earth’s carbon cycle. The increased carbon accentuates the greenhouse effect, the global warming triggers climate change and this increases extreme weather events. Fossil fuel driven economic growth is messing up nature and us as part of it.
It’s a mistake to try to understand global energy trends from within Saskatchewan’s toxic resource bubble. Renewable energy alternatives are far more developed than the Leader Post writers realize. Silicon-solar technology already transfers sunlight directly into electricity. The challenge of storage may soon be by-passed by nanotechnology which can use carbon-solar to create hydrogen fuel for producing electricity when the sun is not shining. Toxic power plants and grids may become unnecessary.
Hopefully this tour encourages more people to consider both the threat and the alternatives. Personalizing the issue is as counter-productive as outright climate change denial. Perhaps it amounts to the same thing.