Oil disquiet on the Western front
Posted by mhudema on June 29, 2008
North American media, Andrew Nikiforuk says, take for granted how much oil undermines democracy, powers our food system, feeds our drug-addled medical industry and concentrates our cities like bovine feedlots
Oil has fantastic powers: Like the genie from One Thousand and One Nights, it can grant impossible political wishes both fair and foul. This is why the U.S. oil baron John D. Rockefeller once, in a moment of reflection, called oil “the Devil’s tears,” and why Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, in a moment of exasperation, wished that Saudi Arabia had discovered water, and why the late Venezuelan writer Jose Ignacio Cabrujas, in a moment of subversion, wrote that oil can create “a culture of miracles” that erases memory.
Canadians, the newly minted inhabitants of “an emerging energy superpower,” now stand at the gas pumps cursing the price of oil and the prospect of shortened summer vacations. Yet they forget that many of our ancestors agonized about the price of slaves only 200 years ago. We too complained bitterly about the cost of feeding indentured labour, and dismissed the ugly rhetoric of abolitionists as offensive.
A barrel of oil, as analyst Dave Hughes often reminds me, equals 8.6 years of human labour. Think about that. “A human life span could produce about three barrels of oil-equivalent energy,” he adds. We often miss this Hummer-sized truth because, as the Arabs know, petroleum induces lazy thinking and even lazier economics.
In fact, the North American media take for granted how much oil undermines democracy, powers our food system, feeds our drug-addled medical industry and concentrates our cities like bovine feedlots. It has done so as assuredly as cheap labour built Rome. “Slavery,” a Wall Street Journal scribe recently wrote, “was the oil business of its time – profitable, essential, permitting piracy, demanding collusion in countless ills.”
I don’t think anyone has yet written a good book about how oil has replaced the true meaning of capital, let alone the energy of slaves, but Walter Youngquist has certainly chronicled the miraculous importance of “the Petroleum Interval.” Youngquist, the author of GeoDestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources Over Nations and Individuals (National Book Company, 1997), is no green prophet. For most of his life, the thoughtful, Oregon-based geologist has worked for the world’s major oil companies in 70 countries.
Unlike most environmentalists, Youngquist sensibly appreciates the versatility and portability of oil. But unlike most economists, he recognizes that oil is a finite treasure and that most of the world’s endowment (the so-called cheap stuff) has been consumed in less than one human lifetime. The oil glass, now half empty, sits on a global table where China and India want a long draught of the economic elixir too. “There is no parallel in history for such a rapid development of and use of a resource as in the case of oil. … It will be but a brief bright blip on the screen of human history.”
Although Youngquist’s book is now dated, his wisdom is not. Just a decade ago, he predicted that converting food to gasoline was wasteful nonsense; that industry’s faith-based ideology in “technological fixes” was no answer to unrestrained growth; and that the tar sands could not prolong the Petroleum Interval. However, he did think the sands’ prudent, well-sequenced development would be “important to Canada as a long-term source of energy and income.” He recommended that we conserve the resource, not liquidate it.
Although debates about tar sands and its dirty character now dominate the news, most Canadians still know little about the world’s largest energy project. But Larry Pratt does and did. In 1976, then a University of Alberta political scientist, he recognized that this Earth-destroying economy (and that’s just what it is) would change the nation. His brilliant book The Tar Sands: Syncrude and the Politics of Oil (Hurtig, 1976) makes for disturbingly prescient reading today.
Pratt argued that the rapid development of the tar sands, which seemed imminent in the 1970s, would hollow out the nation’s economy, enrich multinationals, impoverish Alberta and create what even federal bureaucrats then called “a biologically barren wasteland” along the Athabasca River. Pratt also recognized that the tar sands concerned us all: “Every Canadian, and every Canadian’s children and their children, have a stake in the future of development of our energy resources.” From an environmental standpoint, he predicted that Alberta was “walking blindfolded into the industrialization of the tar sands.”
Even an industry consultant told Pratt, more than 30 years ago, “that before commencing development on the scale presently being contemplated, the government should have initiated ecological studies back about 1948 to monitor water flows, climate changes, soil conditions, temperature inversions etc., on a long-term basis. But such concerns were not taken seriously.”
In the past decade, the moral carelessness of the Alberta and federal governments has grown exponentially. As a consequence, even U.S. mayors and British energy consumers are now talking about Canada’s “dirty oil,” because bitumen, no matter how you spin it, is a corrosive, smog-making, water-fouling, bottom-of-the-barrel product. Make no mistake about it: Canada now faces an intractable political emergency. It can either slow down tar sands development to serve a planned national transition to renewable energy sources, or it can rape the world’s last great oil field and put the nation on a road to hell.
But however destructive the energy policies of government may be, the root of the problem “is always to be found in private life.” That is the argument of U.S. man of letters and farmer Wendell Berry in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (Pantheon, 1993), and I share it reluctantly because of its inconvenient and personal implications: The boreal forest and the Mackenzie River basin aren’t being destroyed by bad oilmen, but by popular demand and my driving habits. Berry’s book, as fresh as newly baked bread, stands as one of the most powerful and conservative critiques of North American life ever written. “We face a choice that is starkly simple: we must change or be changed. If we fail to change for the better, then we will be changed for the worse.”
Canadians, a mining people, now face a challenge more daunting than Ypres at the pumps and in the sands.
Andrew Nikiforuk’s next book, The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, will be published this fall.