In my previous post, I pointed to an excellent interactive documentary called “Coal: A Love Story.” One of the most admirable things about the project is that even though a major theme of the whole piece is the devastating toll that coal mining and coal-fired energy production take on human lives, it still tells its stories the right way. It starts with people, and builds out toward argument and abstraction. It never dehumanizes its subjects. The title isn’t ironic, or at least not exclusively so – it recognizes that there is a whole social order, an authentic culture, created by the coal industry.

If the scenes from a coal-themed beauty pageant in “Coal: A Love Story” strike you as ridiculous, I can report from Canada that it’s harder to scoff when you live in the middle of a resource economy’s heartland. When, for example, you attend an excellent summer music festival whose sponsors include Statoil and Cenovus, when your daughter’s summer camp is brought to you by ConocoPhillips, when many of the buildings and lecture halls at the university campuses where you conduct your sustainability research and give sustainability lectures bear the names of oil and gas companies. When the first thing you see out your bedroom window when you raise the blinds each morning is a Shell logo on an office tower just across the river. When the newcomers on the block – even the ones who work in finance and journalism – have arrived from Berlin and New York because of oil and gas, and when you know the resale value of your home, should you ever need to sell it, will be largely dependent on the price of fossil fuels.  

Which brings me back to Keystone XL and Alberta’s bitumen. Should we, as Tar Sands Action is urging, cancel the pipeline project? There are certainly compelling arguments saying yes, especially until we’ve had a real conversation across North America about what kind of energy future we want to pursue.  

But what of the argument, made by NASA’s James Hansen, that “unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground”? Is the point of the protest that Keystone is wrongheaded, or that oil production in Alberta must cease entirely? And if the latter, then how do we begin to differentiate it from other arms of the industry – especially since most of the major players in Alberta also drill oil in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea and the Niger Delta and the Amazon? Are we to assume that it’s permissable for Shell to carry on with its (horrifically destructive) work in the Niger Delta but not in the boreal forest of northern Alberta? That a company like Calgary-based Cenovus can continue drilling for natural gas as long as it ceases its tar sands operations? As we move from the pipeline to the industry as a whole, we arrive at much more varied and complex terrain.  

It’s more complex, as well, because there are already more than a million barrels of oil being produced in Alberta every day. And thus providing livelihoods for thousands of Canadians – my friends and neighbors very much among them. Thus also creating a bustling industry that has woven itself into the social order, created – or at least augmented – an authentic culture.  

So let’s return to James Hansen’s argument, from which the short quote above was pulled. The full passage is on the Invitation page of the Tar Sands Action website. Here it is: 

As the climatologist Jim Hansen (one of the signatories to this letter) explained, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate “the principal requirement is that coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground.” In other words, he added, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over."
Now, imagine James Hansen has taken his place among the protesters in front of the White House to make that point. To reach the tar sands as the playing field where the game’s to be declared over, you’d have to skip past the coal-fired power plants providing nearly half of Virginia’s energy. You’d have to pass through the Appalachian mountains whose peaks lie in piles of rubble below to produce the coal for those plants. You’d have to skirt the vast area of Pennsylvania and New York where shale rock is being pulverized in order to mine natural gas.

When you finally reached the Keystone pipeline’s proposed path, you’d have to follow it far, far north, skirting the gas-fracking operations of Wyoming and the vast Powder River Basin, America’s single largest source for the fuel that produces the largest share of its electricity: coal.

You would have to travel a very long way, past my hometown and many hundreds of miles north into the Alberta wilderness, before you’d reach the source of the climate’s supposed game over. And I think if you’re being honest, by then you’d recognize that the problem is not just – not even primarily – the tar sands, in the same sense that the problem is not exclusively mountaintop removal coal mining or fracking or deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or brown coal combustion in Germany or the power plant’s worth of coal-fired electricity added to China’s grid every other day.  

The problem is fossil fuels, and our global reliance on them for more daily necessities than I’ve got time to enumerate here on a keyboard molded from petrochemical byproducts, and our need to end that addiction pretty near entirely, inside half a century. The ultimate goal is not to stop any particular form of energy production so much as it is to inspire a total reimagination of the whole project of modern society. “Civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a couple of decades” – this is how Paul Hawken put it to the class of 2009 at the University of Portland.  

And this leads to an open question: Is our most effective next step in this process to divide ourselves into opposing camps based on which components of the current operating system least directly affect us? Or might the next step be to initiate a conversation with those most dependent on the most problematic pieces of the old operating system – the coal miners of Appalachia, the fracking engineers of central Pennsylvania, the oilpatch geologists and tar sands project managers who live up the block from me – about how we can design this new project in such a way that they too see a place in it?  

I agree wholeheartedly that there must be change – enormous, epochal change – in these communities. In my community. I just don’t think it’ll happen, not here anyway, if I begin the conversation by denying anyone their daily bread.

For dispatches from the heart of Canada's oilpatch 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.

To end the age of fossil fuels, try learning to speak its language
Climate activists are about to launch two weeks of protest against a pipeline from Alberta's tar sands to the Gulf Coast. They'd do well to remember there are n